I'll say it - Japan is our favorite country that we visited on our whole trip. Everything about it was amazing!
When we first outlined our trip, we had planned on only spending about seven days in Japan. There was tons to see and we knew we could be happy spending a whole month in the country, but we'd read that it's also very expensive, so we were happy with the week we had set aside to explore. But when we got three weeks back from our cancelled visit to Nepal, we checked the budget and realized we had plenty of room to slow down in Japan and add another week (three cheers for being smart about our budget while on the road!). We couldn't wait for our 15 days on the island! We landed in Osaka late, around 11pm, and then waited for our bus 12:30am bus into the city. Thankfully we were still on Hong Kong time, and even though it's only an hour difference, we were grateful that we weren't exhausted when we arrived. Our bus ride into town was great - there's just something about a city at night that we both love. The raised expressway looked like floating highways above Gotham, the street lights twinkled and glowed and looked like a scene from some sci-fi blockbuster. While most of the passengers slept, Jake and I peered out the window, taking in the futuristic night scene, and talked about all of the amazing food we were about to eat.
We got off the bus and started to orient ourselves - it was about 1:30 am and we needed to go meet our Airbnb host who was kind enough to wait up for us so we could check in at the late hour. We were ready to walk the 10 minutes to the apartment to meet him when we were approached by a trendy looking young guy. "You must be Jake and Noelle!" we heard him say, "I am Kohei, your host." What a nice guy! I can't believe he tracked our bus and met us at the station to walk us over to the apartment himself! If the rest of our stay would be this generous, this polite, this accommodating, we were in for a great visit.
It was. We LOVE Japan. It is securely in the #1 spot for Favorite Country on our trip!
I'd say our trip turned out to be split into four focuses (foci?): Osaka - Food; Kyoto & Nara - Ancient Culture; Tokyo - Modern Culture; Sapporo - Nature. Up first, Osaka!
OSAKA - Food Focus
Our research told us that that weren't many important cultural sights to see in Osaka, and some friends mentioned that we may want to consider skipping it if we were short on time. Our research also told us that Osaka is the food capital of Japan, so of COURSE we were going to spend some time there! Actually, we came through Osaka twice! When researching our places to stay, we couldn't figure out why everything (hotels, apartments, hostels…booking.com said most major cities in Japan were 98% booked!) was booked on the weekend of 9/20. Turns out there was a national holiday that was to be celebrated that weekend, and everyone was planning on traveling somewhere for it. Originally, we were going to start in Osaka, then Nara, then Kyoto, and then Tokyo, but thanks to the holiday and lodging availability, we had to change it up a bit. By going to Osaka, then Kyoto for a few days, and then back to Osaka, we would save hundreds of dollars, so that's what we did.
Anyways. We're really glad that we did get a few days in Osaka for the exact reason we were told to skip it - there's not much for tourists to do there. To us, that means not many tourists go to Osaka, and the city would offer a much more local experience, and much more genuine vibe. In other words, exactly what we're looking for. We stayed in Amerikamura both times, and loved all of the activity that went on on the busy streets below our units. Teenagers gathered on the corner skate park, young couples dressed in all kinds of crazy outfits perused the streets, families chased children all over the place. Osaka was alive, electric! And speaking of electric - the lights of Dotonbori were crazy! Walking down the famous food street felt like we were in Japanese Vegas, or a Japanese Universal City Walk - people were EVERYWHERE, and while this place should have been the most touristy part of town, most of the people there were Japanese! Sure, maybe they were tourists in their own country, maybe they weren't all from the area, but it was so interesting to us to truly be some of the only foreigners there. As such, we got lots of stares from people. But everyone we spoke to during our visit was so, so nice and friendly!
Over our visit we oohed, awed, and OMG'd over the culinary delights, especially the local specialties: Okonomiyaki - asort of pancake made of flour, cabbage, egg, and water, and filled with pork and seafood, and topped with sauces. It also weighed about two pounds; Takoyaki - little balls of dough, corn, and octopus slathered in mayo and sweet sauce; Kushikatsu - anything on a skewer, covered in batter, and deep fried - our favorites were lotus root, fish with cheese, chicken meatball, cheese, asparagus, and shitake mushroom. And we had fantastic ramen, and the very first real ramen that we've ever had, the tonkatsu ramen at Ichiran. This really blew us away - I've never had anything quite like it - we got to pick the firmness of the noodle, the spiciness of the broth, and the additions like green onion, garlic, and roasted pork. All of a sudden a perfect bowl of goodness arrived in front of me, and it now rivals my love of Chiang Mai khao soi! The restaurant itself, Ichiran, was fascinating too! We were led into a room with seats at a counter, each individual space on the counter could be divided by a movable wooden door, so solo eaters can eat in private. We never saw the faces of our servers, we merely put our order form at the edge of the counter through the window, they brought our food, and closed the curtain after dropping it off. If we needed something else, all we had to do was ring a bell. It was awesome! And how could we resist conveyor belt sushi? It may not be the best in Japan, but holy moly it was SO good, and SO CHEAP compared to any other sushi we've ever had! The fish was fresh and the pieces were big, and we had a blast pulling tiny plates off the moving counter!
We've noticed that pancakes, like American style pancakes, are incredibly popular in Japan - they're advertised everywhere, you can get premade ones in packages at the grocery store, you can get them with mochi in the middle or with a side of syrup. Restaurants all over the place have signs out front showing their delectable pancakes, and we couldn't resist one such restaurant. Gram Café had the fluffiest pancakes I ever eaten in my life. They were about an inch and a half thick and covered in butter and maple syrup. We knew from our research that they tend to sell out, so we went to the café a few minutes before they opened and got in line (yes, a line had already formed outside). When we ordered, they told us we'd have to wait an hour until the next batch of premium pancakes would be ready! I think it's because they only make them in small batches and the dough has to rise. Well, that's what we came for, so as long as they didn't mind us waiting, we didn’t mind! We shared a serving of regular pancakes topped with baked apples and whipped cream as we waited (oh darn), and I happily sipped my latte. And then, they appeared - the amazingly thick, impossibly light and fluffy pancakes. And they were GOOD. Totally worth the wait!
One night we decided to try a little spot tucked away on a quiet side street in between Amerikamura and Dotonbori called Chanpon Grill. It had been a long time since we'd had anything remotely resembling grilled food, so we were pretty excited for the chicken we ordered. And this friendly neighborhood joint did not disappoint - the chicken was perfectly grilled, as were the three veggies we had on the side. The only bummer was the portions for the price - this was one of the more expensive meals we'd had, and we probably got half the amount of food we'd been getting for the same cost. I think we split a chicken breast, one mushroom cut into four pieces, four okra, and four pieces of bamboo shoot, and we each had a small beer, for 3880 yen (about $32). Needless to say, we were still hungry but we didn’t want to order more there. So off we went in search of dessert. We didn’t have to go far, though - just a few doors down a shop was having its grand opening. The pictures of the desserts outside looked like ice cream, so obviously we walked right in. We ordered the sundae-looking thing that was topped with strawberries and sat down. What was brought out to us, to our surprise, was not ice cream, it was…well we're still not sure what it was. It was like shave ice, but not ice. It was like snow made out of coconut milk (maybe?). Little tiny shavings of some white, creamy, sweet frozen liquid. Whatever it was, it tasted pretty good!
Running around the streets of Amerikamura on a snowy sugar high, we decided to do one of my favorite things - go bowling! The Sunbowl Alley was just blocks away from our apartment, and we couldn't pass up the chance to see what a shiny bowling alley in Tokyo looks like! And it was shiny - everything was so clean, so bright! No ragged red carpets, no dingy arcade in the back corner, battered shelves where bowling balls are stored. The lanes were bright, the walls were decorated with neon colors, the balls (in various weights) were already waiting on the rails at the lane, and the shoes! The shoes were like sneakers! Clean, comfy, and not rigid like those 50s style leather ones we have to wear at home. Jake and I spent about 45 minutes bowling two games, laughing at each other, taunting each other, and enjoying some friendly competition all the while. And I'm happy to say that we each won a game!!
We did take in one historically significant sight while in Osaka - the Osaka Castle. The castle was originally built to unify a divided Japan, and the intent had been to keep the capital in Osaka. Since then, though, the capital moved to Kyoto, and then finally Tokyo. The eight story tower of the castle was reconstructed in 1931, and again in 1997, and now houses a museum detailing the history of the castle and the leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The structure is quite pretty, elaborately decorated with giant gold fish and tigers, and beautifully painted in white and green. Somehow, the castle was not damaged during the war, and to this day still shows the original moat, turrets, gates, and citadels. It's so unlike any of the castles we saw in Europe and it was fun to see the distinct differences in architecture.
KYOTO AND NARA - Ancient Culture Focus
The beautiful town of Kyoto, the once capital of Japan, was a quick 45 minute train ride away from Osaka. We could have even stayed in Osaka and taken day trips, but we wanted to devote more time and less structure to the area, so we packed up our bags and headed for the train station. We grabbed some delicious baked goods from a bakery stand in the train station before boarding, and devoured our sweet breakfast as we read our books on the way to Kyoto. And I have to tell you about it so I never forget - our favorite treat from the bakery that morning was something called "milk bread". It was a slice of bread about two inches thick with a very thick layer of soft butter spread on top, sprinkled with sugar, and there were ribbons of butter all throughout the slice of bread. You're probably thinking to yourself, "That's way too much butter." No, no it wasn’t. It was divine and I am so sad that we were not able to find it again!
We arrived in Kyoto around 11am and dropped our bags off at our new Airbnb apartment. Our host was very specific that we only drop off our bags, "Check in is at 4pm", he reminded us. But considering he doesn't live there, the place was clean, no other guests were using it, and we had the key, it didn't make any sense for us to not be able to actually use the apartment during the day. Oh well. It was no bother anyway since we wanted to get out and explore. It just boggles my mind because letting us use the apartment before 4pm affects him in no way, and only increases our happiness with the place, with him as a host, and with the hospitality he provided. He could have earned a stellar review on Airbnb, but because he was a bit less hospitable, he earned a mediocre one for his dumb, inexplicable rule. Anyway, we were off to explore!
Over the next three days we saw a lot! Kyoto has over a thousand temples; we chose 8 to explore, and one incredible shrine. Our first day of exploration took us along the Philosopher's Path in the hills of Kyoto to Ginkakuji, Honen-in, Eikan-do, and Nanzenji.
Ginkakuji is nicknamed "The Silver Temple" even though there is no silver on the building. The original owner of the building, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, had originally planned to cover the entire building in silver foil, but he died before the construction project was finished. After his death, his once future retirement villa was turned into a Zen temple. The gardens around the property are beautiful - bright green and soft-looking moss covers every surface, the trickle of water can be heard at every turn, and the paved path up the hillside offers beautiful views of the area. We also really enjoyed the sad garden, complete with a very meticulously sculpted pile of sand meant to symbolize Mount Fuji.
We continued our drizzly walk down the stones of the Philospher's Path to Honen-In, where we toured a giant cemetery as well as the secluded temple. The cemetery was really interesting - wooden memorial boards stuck out of elaborate headstones and grave markers. At the risk of sounding culturally insensitive, they looked like water skies! The cemetery was particularly quiet on this rainy day, and we enjoyed our leisurely walk around.
The star of the day was the Eikan-Do Temple. This is probably our favorite temple that we saw in all of Japan. Eikan-do is so stunningly beautiful and peaceful, we could have stayed there all day. The grounds are perfectly kept - gorgeous Japanese maple trees line the walkways and sprinkle their tiny leaves on the ground, beautiful dark wooden structures blend in together and fit perfectly against the green hills, the essence of control and patience is visible in the interior gardens. The structures were quite large, and we had to explore them all without shoes. As I stared at the interior gardens in my socks, sipping a cup of complementary hot green tee, I felt incredibly relaxed. Eikan-do is amazing.
The last stop of the day was Nanzenji Temple, and its incredibly large gate. We walked along the property as the rain started coming down harder and harder, and decided we'd seen enough. We caught the bus back to our side of town.
On Day two, we visited Kikakuji Temple, Ryaonji Temple, Ninnaji Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple. Our destination was a bit far away, so we boarded the bus for a 40 minute ride out to the hills, out of the hustle and bustle of the city center. Being the middle of the day, the bus was fairly empty, as expected. We grabbed two seats up near the front of the bus and took out our Kindles to read for awhile. Two stops later, though, we heard lots of excited chatter on the sidewalk. When the doors opened, 30 kids in school uniforms flooded on to the bus. They ran around inside, scrambling for seats, chasing their best friends so they could sit or stand next to each other. All of a sudden, the very quiet and practically empty bus was so crowded, you couldn't lift your arm to scratch your head without bumping someone! Jake and I put our Kindles down and watched all of the kids chat and giggle for a little while. Then we were brought into their conversation, "Hello! May I talk with you?" a boy quietly asked us. "Of course you may!" we told him. He consulted a paper he was holding, and slowly he said, "May I ask you some questions?" "Yes, you may!" we told him. On his paper, he had a list of simple questions, first written in Japanese and then in English, with space to write answers beneath each one. It was part of his homework. "Where are you from?", he asked. We first said, "America" to which all of the students around us said "Ooooh!" and looked around excitedly at one another. Then we said "California", and they repeated, "California! Oooh!" with bigger smiles. Then we said "San Francisco", and they just about started jumping up and down with excitement, their smiles getting bigger each time. "What is your favorite Japanese food?" he asked next. Even though our favorite would probably be sushi, we wanted to impress the kids with our knowledge of Japanese street food, "We like okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and ramen!" We told them. "Do you like sushi?" he followed up. I guess he was not impressed with our knowledge! "Yes, we love sushi!" we told him. He started to read out another question, but seemed to get a bit shy. I think he was struggling with the English translation. Instead of teasing him, his classmates encouraged him to keep going. With a nudge from one of his friends, quietly asked "How long are you staying in Japan?" "We will be in Japan for almost three weeks," we told him. He then said thank you and put away his notes. It was our turn to ask some questions - "What's going on here? Are you on a school trip?" An energetic and extroverted young girl, Airi, spoke up, and responded in near perfect English, "Yes, this is a school trip. We are in Osaka for three days." "Where is your teacher?" Jake asked, noticing that they were unaccompanied by adults. "Our teacher is in the hotel," she said. What?? 30 kids, all around 12 years old, take themselves on a bus in a city they don't know, to visit a few temples 40 minutes away, and there are no chaperones? Never in the US would this be permitted. The teacher would be thrown in jail for child endangerment. We proceeded to ask the kids what they like to do when they aren't in school, many play tennis or soccer, or swim, others play violin, cello, or flute. They were adorable, and very fun to talk with! Since our first destination was the same, we all got off the bus at the same stop and headed into Kinkakuji Temple together, where we took several selfies with our awesome new buddies. Airi is now a fun new penpal of ours, and we hope to stay in touch with her for years to come!
Kinkakuji, The Golden Temple, was quite beautiful - a bright, shining gold structure standing in the middle of a pond, surrounded by bright green trees and moss, seeming perfectly tranquil beneath the rainy sky. We chatted a bit more with our friends from the bus before moving on to the famous rock garden at Ryoanji. For years, people have tried to understand the meaning in the placement of the 15 rocks that lay in the sand at Ryoanji, to decipher why the stones are arranged in the manner they are, but the prevailing thought is that there is no hidden message. The rocks are placed so that only 14 can ever be seen at a time, one rock always remains hidden, no matter where you sit. Whatever the meaning, or lack of meaning, one thing is certain - it's quite pretty!
We walked through quiet neighborhoods to our last temple of the morning, Ninnaji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the head temple of Omuro school of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. Our favorite structure on the grounds was the beautiful five storied pagoda, unique in that each roof was just barely smaller than the one beneath it when they are usually much smaller. Since it was raining, we got to see much of the grounds in total silence, save for the monotone chanting of praying monks. From far away, I thought I could hear a large group of bees humming. As we neared the room where the monks were deep in prayer, I realized I had been hearing their uniform chanting! As we ended our tour of the property, the rain really started coming down - good timing! We hopped on the bus, much less crowded than on the way out, and headed back to our apartment to prepare for our lunch date!
Jake and I had very special plans for lunch - we were meeting up with an old family friend, Megumi, who lives in Nagoya (about 40 minutes from Kyoto). Megumi lived with my family before I was born, and was a nanny to four year old Richard and baby Russell. She moved back to Japan in 1980 at her mother's request, and has lived in her hometown of Nagoya ever since. In 1995, when I was 11, I got to meet Megumi as she visited our family at Christmas time. And now, 20 years later, I connected with her via email and Facebook to let her know we would be in Japan and would love to see her if possible. I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know if I would recognize her since I had only met her the one time. What I did know is that she made a profound impact on my family in her short time with us, and we speak of her fondly quite often, especially around Christmas time (according to my mom, she loved Christmas). I was really, really excited to spend the afternoon with her and introduce her to my husband!
Megumi took us out to lunch to an incredible restaurant, Roan-Kikunoi, a two Michelin Star restaurant! I'd never been to a Michelin Star restaurant before, and could not be more excited to see what it was all about! With the excitement of seeing Megumi for the first time in 20 years, and the thrill of getting to experience such an elite restaurant, I was full of nervous/excited energy! Megumi had made sure to tell us to go to the Roan branch of the Kikunoi restaurants - there were two, you see, a main restaurant and the Kikunoi branch. We were to meet her for a 1:30 reservation. I carefully looked up the address so as to be sure that we ended up in the right place, but forgot to tell Jake. Jake typed the restaurant name into his map app, and off we went on our 25 minute walk to the restaurant in the rain. The location on his map was a bit farther than we had anticipated, and we were walking rather briskly so we weren't late. I hate being late for things, I get a lot of anxiety when I late to things, and I particularly did not want to be late to meet Megumi! We finally arrived at the restaurant at 1:30 on the dot. As we approached and said hello to the attendants at the door, I explained we have a 1:30 reservation and are meeting a friend here. The woman looked at me with polite confusion, "I'm sorry, we stop serving at 1pm." Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no. "Is this Roan Kikunoi?" I asked. "No, this is main restaurant." Oh no!! We were at the wrong location! The map app didn't send us to the right one, and since I had forgotten to let Jake know that I looked up the correct location, he didn’t know to look for it. And now we were late for our reservation. I started to fall apart - all of the nervous/excited energy in me started to make me have a minor melt down. I was on the verge of tears when I told the woman we were meeting a friend who I haven't seen in 20 years and that I'm very worried that the restaurant will not wait for us to arrive. She calmly stated that she will call the other location and let them know what happened, and then summon a cab for us. As we waited for the cab, I grew more and more upset - how rude we were to make Megumi wait, what if the restaurant refuses to serve us if we are late (I don’t know how these places work!), what if Megumi has to go back to work and we don't have time to visit the temple she wanted to take us to, what kind of impression were we making? Was I overreacting? Of course I was. Whenever I get like this, Jake asks me, "Would you be mad if you were in her shoes, waiting for us?" "Well no, of course not, stuff like this happens," I would say. "Then don't worry about it. It's going to be fine," he would tell me. But today that tactic was not calming me. I wouldn't be relaxed until we were there.
The cab arrived and drove us down to the restaurant - we had walked right past it on our way to the wrong location! When we arrived, when I recognized Megumi immediately and saw the big smile on her face, all of my worries washed away. The restaurant didn't seem to mind, and Megumi said she felt bad that we went to the wrong restaurant. "I did tell you to come to this location, right?" she asked me. "Yes, yes you did. I messed it up!" We took off our shoes and sat down on cushion at the table and I took a deep relaxing breath. Of course, everything was fine - the restaurant did not mind that we were 15 minutes late, and neither did Megumi. In fact, she had taken the day off work so she could come see us, so she didn’t need to rush back right away. Phew!
She looks exactly the same as I remember from 20 years ago! Over the course of the meal I caught her up on what my family has been up to, how Mom, Dad, Richard and Russell are all doing. "Russell, how is he? He was very quiet," she said. Jake and I both started laughing, "Not anymore!" She then pulled out two envelopes from her purse - pictures of her with my family at Christmas (she cooked them sukiyaki for Christmas dinner, jealous!), her with baby Russell and Eileen (my cousin), and Richard, and Da and Gubba (my grandparents). In the other envelope, a Junior League of Pasadena envelope, yellowed from age, she produced drawings and stickers that a very young Richard gave her when he was four. I couldn't believe she had kept these things all these years! Megumi never had children of her own, but it was clear that she loved my brothers as if they were hers.
The meal, as expected, was gorgeous. We got to experience the famous kaiseki cuisine of Kyoto, small plates of beautifully presented and delicately prepared food; this is the top of gourmet in the area. Each dish was a work of art, something to be admired for a moment before savoring the delicate flavors. And the menu was exquisite. Here it is in it's entirety:
My favorites were the Koshibi sashimi, Matsukaze, and the tempura. But it was all so tastey, it was hard to rank them all!
After our fantastic lunch, Megumi took us to see one more temple, Kiyomizudera, another UNESCO World Heritage site (I should really keep track of how many we've seen!). The temple is built into the eastern hills of Kyoto, and looks like a giant stage looking out over the city. It's one of the most popular temples, so it was PACKED! I imagine that it was even busier than normal because of the holiday weekend. The rain certainly didn't keep anyone away! We walked around the property and down the shaded, tree lined path back to the adorable streets of Higashiyama. At lunch we had told Megumi of our young friends that we made on the bus that morning, the school children with no chaperone (Megumi thought it was strange, too, that they were unaccompanied!), and she got to see it first hand as we strolled through the small streets. Groups of school kids were everywhere, eagerly approaching foreigners and practicing their English. Within about a block, we were approached by three different small groups, all asking if they may ask us some questions. And, all the questions were about the same, "Where are you from?", "How long are you in Japan?", "What is your favorite food?". We were a bit stumped with two new ones though, "Do you know Fukuyama?" one student asked us. "No, we don't. What's that?" we replied. And she handed us a brochure on the town of Fukuyama and told us that it is her home. "Please visit our town on your trip. It is very beautiful." I love it! The kids are practicing English in a big city and advertising their adorable town to drive tourism. Smart! The other question that we had to think hard about was, "Can you name any famous Japanese people?" Jake was pretty quick to mention Ken Watanabe, but I'm not sure the kids knew who he was. Megumi watched and laughed as the kids asked us more and more questions, and snapped a few pictures for us too. When we reached the bottom of the terraced walkway it was time for her to head to the train station to catch the bullet train back to Nagoya. After several hugs, we promised to stay in touch. I'm so, so glad that we got to spend this time with such a lovely woman who meant so much to my family. What a special day!
Still full from the incredible lunch, we set out to find an easy dinner. I had found a place called Marugame that boasted fresh made udon and a tempura bar - perfect! Little did we know that it would be one of our favorite meals. Jake even said it might be is all time most enjoyable meat ever! Everything was delicious - the noodles, the broth, the tempura. Did you know they do tempura soft boiled eggs over here?? My mouth is watering just thinking about this place. We liked it so much that we ended up going again before leaving Kyoto.
During our stay we also headed out of town a ways, to Arashiyama, to see the famous bamboo forest and Ten Ryuji Temple. The forest was pretty interesting, but not quite as dense or big as we expected it to be. Still, it was a nice morning spent walking around the giant swaying bamboo trees. We even had the place to ourselves for about 30 minutes before minivans full of tourists drove through the center road through the forest and unloaded at the end of the path. We figured that was a good time to go check out the nearby temple, Ten Ryuji. Like the other beautiful temples we'd seen, this one had a meticulously cared for moss garden and beautiful flowering trees. What we thought was particularly special about this place, though, was that the leaves on many of the trees had started to change into their fall costumes. We were able to see the faintest hints of yellow, red, and orange on the leaves around the pond. Someday Jake and I will come back to Japan in October to catch the full splendor of the fall colors. The pictures we've seen look magical.
We had one final cultural stop to make before heading off to Nara, the Fushimi Inari Shrine. And what a grand finale to Kyoto it was! The shrine sits at the base of Inari Mountain, and a path that leads to several smaller shrines snakes up the mountainside. The path is lined with thousands of torii, the wooden structures painted orange. We wanted to see the place at night to avoid the crowds and capture the great shadows between the torii, so we'd waited until just after sunset to arrive at the brightly colored shrine. The main shrine was quite impressive - the structures are so bright and beautifully lit. We set out on the path leading up the mountain and immediately oohed and awed at the neat patterns the shadows were making on the cement. It was a photographer's dream. I looked at my very excited husband and knew we were going to be there for awhile. "Are we climbing all the way to the top?" I asked him, already sensing the answer. "Oh I don't know. I don't think we'll need to go all the way up there. We'll see." he told me. Oh sure. I've never seen this man stand at the base of a mountain and not climb to the top! We climbed the first set of stairs, and then the second, and the third. Before we knew it we had reached a fantastic viewpoint of the sparkling town below - Kyoto was glittering in the darkness, it was really lovely! And wouldn't you know, at that point it was only another 10 minutes to the top! "We're going to the top!" he said! When we got there, we expected an even better view of the city, or at least some recognition that we had reached the top of the mountain. All we found among the shrine structures that blocked the view was a small piece of paper taped to the wall, "Top of Mountain". Well, that was anti-climactic!
Even though the actual top wasn't very exciting, we certainly enjoyed our walk up there. There was a surprising number of people wandering around the place at night - we expected to see barely anyone and it was quite busy! The bright orange against the dark night sky was pretty awesome. It's no wonder that this is the number one attraction in Kyoto on Trip Advisor. I looked at my watch and saw it was time to go - we were really hoping to get back to Marugame for one bowl delicious bowl of udon and tempura and they were closing in 45 minutes! We packed up the camera and ran for the train, and discussed the beauty of the shrine over one of our favorite meals.
While Kyoto wasn't really our Food Focus location, we sure had some incredible meals there! In addition to our fancy lunch with Megumi and the fantastic udon at Marugame, we also tried katsu at Kastukura and burnt ramen at Gogyo. Katsukura was described as a gourmet restaurant with budget prices, so we were really excited to try it! The description was pretty spot on, too - the place looked nice and had wonderful service. And of course, the breaded and fried pork (katsu) with never ending cabbage salad, miso soup, and rice was very, very tasty! The burnt ramen at Gogyo was interesting - I'd always wondered what it meant to have burnt ramen, and now I know it's part of how the broth is prepared. Before being served, the broth is set on fire in the wok so that it gets a nice char on the top. The char adds a really interesting flavor to the dish! We enjoyed it, but agreed that the ramen we had at Ichiran in Osaka was better.
As I mentioned, we went back to Osaka for two nights after visiting Kyoto. From there, we took off to explore Nara for a day before boarding our overnight bus to Tokyo. Nara is just about a 45 minute train from Osaka, and totally different! The small town gets quite a bit of tourism thanks to the deer. Yes, deer! The big park is beautiful, the important gardens and temples in the area are very pretty, but the deer are one of the biggest draws. And they are EVERYWHERE! When Jake told me we were going to see some deer, I expected a handful in the park. Not even close. There are thousands of them! People buy rice cakes labeled as "deer cookies" and feed them nonstop, so they tend to come right up to you, or even chase you if they think you have some food! They're cute and fun to look at, but they seem like kind of a nuisance, really. I couldn't believe how many there were, or the fact that parents set their infants down next to them, touching them, to snap a picture, or that they let their four year old chase after them and smack them on the butt. I expected a kid to get kicked, bitten, or rammed at least once while we were there, but I suppose the deer are more well behaved than I gave them credit for. One kid was taunting a rather large male and he wasn't having it; he did bow his head and take a step as if to charge, but the kid ran away just in time. Nuts.
Besides there deer, the other big draw is the impressive Todaiji Temple, aka The Great Buddha Hall. The building that houses a giant bronze Buddha statue is really quite stunning, and it's massive! The pamphlet even said that the structure has been rebuilt a few times (the others were destroyed by fires), and the current building is 1/3 smaller than the original. Wowie! We took our time walking through the temple and around the huge Buddha inside. Being a holiday weekend, the place was absolutely packed, as was everywhere in Nara. We enjoyed watching people toss coins onto Buddha's giant hands, light incense, and bang the gongs in the front.
As we wandered the streets of the old city in search of dinner, we happened upon a corner shop with a bunch of people crowded around outside, so obviously we had to stop and see what was going on. People leaving the shop were clutching soft green balls in some sort of brown powder - mochi balls! Jake and I LOVE mochi balls, so we jumped right in line to get some of this deliciousness. Just as I was handed the sill warm, fresh mochi filled with red bean paste and rolled in soy bean flour, the window of the shop opened up. A large man grabbed a giant mallet while another man prepared a big ball of dough in a wooden mortar. In an instant they were working in a rhythm, one mad pounded the dough with the mallet on one beat, the other slapped it or revolved it or threw water onto it on the next beat. And so it went like this for a minute or so, until another man took the mallet for his turn, only this time it was much faster! The crowd watched in amazement as everyone nibbled on their mochi balls. I realized after watching the mochitsuki process (pounding the mochi dough in this fashion), that the mochi balls were so fresh that they were still warm from the pounding! Awesome! I looked it up later and found that the shop, Nakatanidou, is famous for their fun show and yummy mochi balls. We grabbed a few extra to take with us on our night bus.
We had to be careful not to spoil our dinner, though, because Jake had a surprise for me - we were headed to Edogawa Naramachi, one of the best places to get one of my favorite dishes, unagi! Our whole meal was awesome - first off, we had to take off our shoes before walking to our table. They were placed in lockers and we were given slippers to wear. Then we were led to our table with cushions on the floor - for some reason I love sitting on the floor in Japanese restaurants. I was surprised to find that the floor we sat on was more like a bench - there was a hidden space for our legs to dangle beneath the table - tricky! We had no idea what to order so we asked our server for recommendations. Once he understood what we were asking him, "What is popular? Or what to you recommend?", he excitedly showed us two similar dishes - unagi served over rice with miso soup and pickles, and unagi served over rice with miso soup, pickles, and tea. "What is the tea for? To drink?" I asked. He explained that, after I eat my unagi, I put the rice in a bowl and pour the tea (more like broth, really) over it and make a soup. Fun! I ordered that, and Jake ordered his first recommendation. Neither meal disappointed! They were presented beautifully in black lacquer boxes, and the eel was cooked perfectly. I asked one more time how to properly eat my meal. The adorable girl who brought our food mimed what to do - 1, eat unagi, 2, eat some rice but not all of it, 3, push the button on the table and they will bring me the teapot of broth to pour over the rest of my rice. I did exactly as she instructed and thoroughly enjoyed my dinner. I also enjoyed that they checked on me every so often to see if I had any questions or needed anything. Have I mentioned how incredibly nice everyone in Japan seems to be? This country really seems to understand hospitality and I love it!
With full tummies and a package of fresh mochi balls in my bag, we headed to the bus station to find our first overnight bus. We're planning on taking a lot of these in South America, so we might as well get used to them now!