Osaka – good for gluttons

Osaka is very much like Singapore and most big, commercial cities – its people are always in a mad rush, traffic is heavy and commuting is a very stressful exercise.

While we did not quite like that aspect of Osaka, we do love, love, love its food culture and abundant options of restaurants in Minami (accessible by Namba Station) and Kita (accessible by Osaka Station).

Minami, where Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi shopping street are, is a hive of activity in the day and night. It is fascinating to see the array of lightboxes and oversized food replicas adorning the front of shops and buildings, eagerly beckoning consumers to come their way and spend some money. As if the lightboxes and oversized food replicas aren’t enough to entice consumers, most shops hire staff to stand at the entrance to shout their wares.

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Oh yes. A trip to Osaka isn’t complete without taking a photo of Glico Man!

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We took a step further by getting TWO photos of Glico Man – one in the day, one in the night.

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Since it was tough deciding what to eat in Minami, we ended up having three lunches in a day – one at a kaiten-zushi shop, one at Kani Doraku (our second go on this trip, with the first mega crab feast in Kyoto) and one at a western-style bistro where we had excellent sundaes (which the locals prefer to call ‘parfait’).

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Boy, I’m glad we have big Singaporean stomachs and appetites!

There’s also plenty to eat in Kita. Immediately around where we stayed, at Monterey Osaka, close to Osaka Station, is a long strip mall that houses a computer and gaming shop and a mind-boggling selection of restaurants. There, we patronised an okonomiyaki specialty shop, an izakaya that serves cheap set lunches in the day and Eki Bacon – out favourite! – a place for imported beers, sausages and crispy, roasted pork.

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There’s something wonderful about Japanese pork. I’m not usually a fan of pork, as it tends to stink. But pigs reared in Japan produce a particularly sweet and tender meat that tastes delightful however it is cooked.

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If there’s one thing I miss about Osaka, it has to be the crispy, roasted pork from Eki Bacon. :(

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Hunting down an abandoned railway track

When I left vacation planning to the good husband this year, I should have prepared myself for quite a bit of action. We’ve hiked up three mountains so far on this trip to Japan, and my back and knees are threatening to give up on me.

Still, the husband had one more surprise for me which he revealed yesterday.

And the surprise was a hunt for the abandoned JR Fukuchiyama railway track.

ImageThe adventure began at Namaze Station. Following the directions of the excited husband, we walked along a busy stretch of road that was frequented by large buses, lorries, container trucks and heavy vehicles. My heart leapt to my throat whenever a monster rumbled past me at high speed.

After 15 minutes or so, we crossed that crazy, busy road and came upon a expansive field with little houses and lush greenery in the distance.

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Closing in on that field, we took a little path on the left of that field and that soon brought us to an old signboard that warned of danger ahead. Yep. We were on the right track.

Ignoring the sign, we went forth and crossed an old but sturdy bridge.The vista that greeted us from there on was one of the most brilliant I’ve seen on this trip. Running along the Mukogawa river valley, the abandoned track is now loved by locals who appreciate the serene and scenic environment.

If you are a worry wart like I am, rest assured that this abandoned track is truly safe to explore. Along the way we met small groups of elderly folks and the occasional dog walker. Just remember to put on proper hiking shoes, as the ground is littered with rocks, stones and tree branches, and bring along a strong flashlight to help you conquer the six unlit train tunnels on that route.

We covered the full length of the abandoned track in three hours, with several stops for photos.

I shall let the photos do the talking from here on. :)

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A cup noodle playground

It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived in Osaka today, so we rushed to one attraction that we were bent on visiting: Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.

It is the one place any instant noodle fan must visit, as it tells the history and evolution of instant noodles in Japan – specifically that of Nissin’s.

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Plus, visitors can make their own cup noodles at the museum’s My Cup Noodle Factory. One gets to choose from four soup bases and from a list of toppings. One can even draw his/her own cup.

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One can also buy an assortment of souvenirs and past and current editions of instant noodles at a souvenir shop in the museum too. Perfect for tourists!

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Oh, did you know that ingesting too much MSG, an ingredient always present in instant noodles, can cause hair loss?

The funny incident at Takeda

The good husband had been waxing lyrical about Takeda Castle Ruins months before the holiday.

“The view is really lovely from up there and the trail leading up is becoming very popular with young couples. We must go!” he said endlessly, while reassuring me that the hike would be an easy one since young boys were bringing their dainty dates on it.

So that was what we did.

From Himeji we took a train on the Bantan Line to Takeda Station, and found ourselves in a quiet little town. A hand-painted map in front of the train station shows two routes to Takeda Castle Ruins – one runs 800m through a cemetery at the foothills, the other is winding path of 1-plus kilometres.

Of course we chose the shorter route!

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The starting point of the route was a pretty one, rounding the back of a trio of shrines. But after passing the cemetery, as the hand-painted map had shown, we were lost. There were no signs to point us in the right direction, and the only way forward was through an area covered with bushes.

There seemed to be a worn path, which meant people had used that way before.

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Close by was an old man who was gathering twigs, and we approached him for help. “Takeda Castle Ruins,” we said, while pointing to the top.

The old man seemed to understand and replied with a very long sentence. Of course, we understood not a single word.

So I pointed to the bushy area and asked again, “Takeda Castle Ruins?”

The old man sighed and after a thoughtful pause, nodded and waved us in the direction of the bushes. So off we went.

But as we climbed, the worn path disappeared and many times we had to stop and think where we ought to proceed. We had to find firm footing on loose rocks and exposed tree roots.

It was bewildering for me and many times I asked the husband how was this trail suitable for dating couples?

Despite the cool weather, I perspired heavily and had to strip down to my T-shirt. And even that was soaked through in the end. I imagine young Japanese girls who take this route would perspire just as much too, and have their heavily made-up faces melt away.

My endless complaints aside, we pressed on and eventually came face to face with a proper path. Hurrah!

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But even that disappeared moments later.

Eventually large stone slabs appeared, signalling the castle ruins were close. Indeed, the stone foundations of Takeda Castle Ruins soon came into view.

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What joy! The trek is over! And we took a photo to commemorate the moment.

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We sat on the grass to catch our breath and to enjoy the view for a while, before climbing to the top of the stone foundations, which is truly our final destination. But minutes later I heard kids’ laughter.

Kids up at the Takeda Castle Ruins?

Kids who managed to conquer that horrible trail to arrive at Takeda Castle Ruins?

How is that possible?

So I picked myself up and climb up the stone steps, impatient to see if there were indeed children up at the ruins.

And I saw a carnival of people up there, some dressed in lacy stockings and heeled booties. What the heck?!

Then I noticed that a barricade was placed at the top of the step where I had just set foot on:

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Then the truth dawned upon me. We must have taken the wrong way up, a route that was closed to the public, a route that was not meant for visitors.

No wonder the twig-gathering old man said so many things when we asked for directions to Takeda Castle Ruins. He must have been trying to tell us how to get to the correct trail.

No wonder he sighed and waved us up the overgrown path. He must have thought, stupid tourists, that’s the wrong way up but go if you insist!

We later discovered that the correct path to Takeda Castle Ruins offered a far easier stroll. The path is well paved and regular sized steps are provided. Furthermore, a large part of that 1-plus kilometre route is accessible by car, so visitors can drive more than half-way up and then walk the rest of the journey.

WTF.

The deed was done, so we could only laugh at ourselves and then explore the expanse of the castle ruins. It was beautiful up there, and sprawling. And we took a million photos.

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We found a quiet spot to have a little picnic of hot tea and Manneken waffles.

Having spent so much energy hiking up to Takeda Castle Ruins, we stayed up there as long as possible and only descended 90 minutes later.

It was at the actual entrance of Takeda Castle Ruins that we had another funny moment. By accessing the historical destination the wrong way, we had actually skipped paying an entrance fee of 300 yen each!

Back in Takeda town, we walked through the quiet streets and found that there were hardly any tourists – it seemed that they would come in their tour buses and leave the town as soon as they were done at the Castle Ruins.

Just as well. No screaming, excited tourists to ruins the serenity of the area.

Occasionally an elderly folk would pass us by and greet us “konnichiwa”. That’s what we love about the rural areas in Japan. Everyone still greets each other and isn’t in too much of a rush to stop and smile.

Walking on we discovered a tiny shop selling okonomiyaki, one of the husband’s favourite Japanese dish. So in we went, and was greeted by a boisterous group of old men.

They all started to say different things in Japanese to us while waving us in. The female boss of the establishment emerged from the kitchen, and bade us to sit.

Soon the old men realised we were tourists and through some words the husband recognised, we understood that they wanted to know where we were from. And when they heard that we are from Singapore, one revealed that he had his honeymoon in Singapore 50 years ago while another said he had helped built one of our expressways.

WOW!

With a mix of sign language and a smattering of Japanese and English, we managed to chat and tease each other and became friends.

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Travels bring such joy!

A surprise at Himeji Castle

On November 30 we arrived in Himeji City, home of the fine Himeji Castle.

We love Himeji City! There is plenty of wide, open space in Himeji and the city isn’t too crowded. The area where our hotel Dormy Inn Himeji is, right opposite JR Himeji, has countless izakayas that open till early morning.

From our hotel, Himeji Castle is just 20 minutes away on foot. It was a pleasurable stroll down streets lined with golden ginko trees.

Although the main castle keep is under refurbishment now, the rest of the castle grounds and the surrounding park remain open to the public.

ImageImageImageIt was a Saturday when we visited Himeji Castle, so there were many families and youths – many of these youths were dressed in colourful yutakas. There were also performers dressed in exquisite costumes, mimicking the royalty who once lived in Himeji Castle.

ImageNow here’s a compulsory touristy shot!

ImageIt is worth exploring the castle’s interior, where one would learn about Senhime, or Princess Sen, the eldest daughter of shogun Tokugawa Hidetada. She led a bittersweet life during those warring times, and her life gave birth to many legends.

Visitors are shown where she lived in the sprawling castle, where she prayed for her family and where she dressed herself. In the room where she supposedly loved playing cards with her closest attendee, I caught this spectacular sunset.

ImageThe castle’s interior was about to close by the time we exited Kesho Yagura, the tower where the princess is said to dress herself, so we made our way out. Along the way, in a quiet courtyard, we saw a bald tree with tiny, white buds on its spindly branches.

Curious, we went closer and were surprised by what we saw.

ImageCherry blossoms in bloom!

What luck to find cherry blossoms in autumn! This unexpected sighting inspired the husband and I to plan a trip to Japan again next March/April when we can truly appreciate the beauty of cherry blossom season.

 

Off to Kurama and Kibune

The husband and I love escaping the big city, and a trip to the rural town of Kurama to the north of Kyoto City seemed like a mighty good plan, especially since all the tourist hotspots in the city were packed.

Kurama can be accessed by train from Kyoto Station, but a few line transfers are needed. From Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara line to Tofukuji Station (about two minutes), then transfer to the Keihan Main Line to get to Demachi-Yanagi Station (about 10 minutes). Go to the platform for the Eizan Railway from here, and take the train bound for Kurama Station (about 30 minutes).

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Now, this service comes once every 30 minutes and uses a short train, so be prepared for large crowds and to stand in a very tight space throughout the journey.

The train ride is popular after sunset, as the tracks cut through a maple tree groove that gets lit up come evening, creating a wonderful vision for passengers.
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It was mighty cold – by my standards – in Kurama when we were there on November 29. Despite having two layers of thermal pants on, my knees were chilled to the bone. So before we started our hike up Mount Kurama, we slipped into one of the few noodle huts close to the train stations for a hot meal.

We realised that meat wasn’t featured on the menu at many eateries at Kurama – perhaps because Kuramadera, a revered temple on the mountain, and Yuki-jinja, a smaller Shinto shrine, are frequented by pilgrims.

The closest option I got for meat was ebi tempura, served in a heated metal pot with udon and soup. It was wonderful.The husband ordered the restaurant’s most popular dish, a soupy soba with sticky rice balls.

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With our tummies filled, we started off for Kuramadera. Its entrance sits at the foot of Mount Kurama, but the main temple complex is higher up, accessible by the temple’s own cable car service.

Alighting from the cable car, one still needs to walk some 10-15 minutes to get the the main temple complex. Despite the cold, my body warmed up with the exercise and I eventually peeled off my outer layers.

Stone steps lined with vermillion floor lamps loomed into sight when we got closer to main temple complex. Pressing forth in spite of our burning thighs (perhaps more me than him!), we were eventually rewarded with a lovely view from the top of the stairs.

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The main temple complex is huge, with plenty of open spaces and benches for visitors to sit and enjoy the surrounding greenery and contemplate how tiny we are in this enormous universe. There is a solemn prayer hall in the centre where the pious went to pray quietly to a large, imposing statue of the resident god. Standing in this prayer hall calmed my mind.

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The good husband and I climbed on further where we found a museum that showcased the history of this sacred mountain and its indigenous wildlife. We settled onto a bench to rest and had some tea we brought with us, because our next journey would take us higher up Mount Kurama before we descend into the scenic village of Kibune at the other side.

Although there are steps cut into the ground for the convenience of hikers, many of these steps were broken by tree roots that had grown out of the earth, so one must walk with caution.

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It wasn’t an easy hike for me, as my back is weak and plagued with a chronic pain and I had done quite a bit of walking the past few days. Thankfully, the husband knows this and was extremely patient. We made several stops along the way up to rest.

After what seemed like a long time, we found ourselves at the peak of Mount Kurama. Signs advised us that Kibune is 1,026m away. Well, at least it would be a downward trek from then on!

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Along the way we came across several places of worship and from within came prayer chants. I’m impressed that the locals continue to make their journeys deep into the mountain just to pray.

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The species of trees changed as we got closer to Kibune, and I imagine how nature lovers would love trekking through this mountain.

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It was 4pm when we reached the foot of Mount Kurama, on the side of Kibune village. The sun was starting its descend over the horizon. If we were half-an-hour slower, we would be hiking through darkness. With the sort of legends of powerful tengu and mountain spirits surrounding Mount Kurama, I really did not want to be in the forest after dark!

Kibune is a quaint village of traditional houses – these are ryokans and restaurants – along the crisp Kibune River.

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In warm summer, the restaurant would build platforms over the river and diners could enjoy a leisurely meal in the open. In autumn and winter, kawadoko – the art of dining outdoors on a platform over a river – is impossible due to the cold.

Walking down the narrow streets of Kibune, we came upon Kifune Shrine, another landmark in the rural north of Kyoto. The shrine is dedicated to the god of rain and water, the protector of seafaring people.

Kifune Shrine is beautiful, and again requires worshipers and visitors to climb up many steps to reach the complex.

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We hung around Kifune Shrine for quite a while, watching visitors getting their fortune told by strips of paper, called omikuji, that reveal messages when dipped in water.

When the cold started to get to us – it was 2°C) by then – we got back on our feet and went in search of food.

Now, most of the restaurants in Kibune serve pricey kaiseki meals. We found it funny that the hosts of such restaurants would politely explain that their meals are special and urged us to move along to other eateries further down that sold “cheap waffles”.

I wouldn’t have minded a kaiseki meal, as it was an experience worth the price. But the husband was not quite willing to fork out 10,000 yen for dinner for one.

We walked on and was greeted by an enthusiastic lady in front of a traditional house. She urged us to take a look at her menu and kept saying “yudofu”. Her fingers directed our attention to pictures of tofu cubes simmering in soup in a claypot.

Hurrah! I’ve always want to try Kyoto’s tofu cuisine. That was my chance!

Kibunechaya serves several set dinners, and the one we chose was priced at 3,500 yen per person. It comprised of a pot of silken tofu cubes boiled in a plain broth, which we ate with fresh spring onions and ginger paste, as well as small, pretty dishes of cold shellfish, yasai tempura, boiled vegetables and a small fillet of grilled fish.

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I love tofu, so dinner was most satisfying. However, the carnivorous husband suggested that we go for supper once we got back to Kyoto City. Haha, poor chap!

Kibune was completely dark when we emerged from Kibunechaya, and much more colder. It could well be under zero now that the sun has set. So imagine our delight when we passed this fireplace outside of Kifune Shrine. :)

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To return to the city, we took a train from Kibune Station, which was by then surrounded by illuminated red maple trees.

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The return journey brought us through the illuminated maple tree tunnel, and the train captain turned off all lights to enhance the vision. It brought out many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. :)

Anyway, we did have another meal back in the city to satiate the husband’s lust for meat. We found a restaurant close to Shijo Station, just one train stop from Karasumaoike Station where we usually alight to get to our hotel.

I don’t know what this restaurant is called in English, but it serves a type of pork from pigs that were raised on the leaves of green tea. We had it as a shabu shabu, and the meat was amazingly tender and fragrant. Good luck identifying this restaurant through the photo below. It opens till 2am every day.

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Kitty wonderland in Kyoto

Enough of autumn foliage for now.

Let’s talk about kitty cats.

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There is a cat cafe a 15-minute’s stroll from our hotel in Kyoto – we stayed at Hearton Hotel Kyoto, accessible by Kasasuma Oike train station – and it is a place where cat lovers go and hang out with some of the city’s most adorable felines.

Cat Cafe Nekokaigi is home to 10 kitties that get to prance, parade, play and snooze in a spacious room littered with fun cat towers, toys and cushions.

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Us humans get to sit on comfy cushions along the wall and be one with the cats. Fruit juices, coffee and tea are on the menu, but visitors are not obliged to buy one. One instead pays an entrance fee of 800 yen for an hour with the lovely cats, and every subsequent 30-minute blocks costs 400 yen.

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If you love cats, you will find that is money well spent. Being among cats is such a serene, uplifting experience, and watching the little ones go about their things makes me think of how Squibby was when she came to us as a mere month-old kitten in 2005, abandoned at our doorstep and left to die.

These cats general go about their business on their own, with nary a hoot about us humans. But that’s just the way they are! As the saying goes, one never owns a cat; it’s the cats that own us. :) 

However, while we were there, some got curious enough to sniff our fingers and feet, while others stepped over us to get to that cosy spot on our cushion.

I guess if one visits Cat Cafe Nekokaigi frequent enough to form a bond with the kitties, one would get more affection out of these aloof felines.

Visitors to Cat Cafe Nekokaigi can purchase kitty treats at 200 yen a pack – limited to one pack per group of visitors per visit to prevent over-feeding.

These cats are smart. They know a treat is coming when a cafe staff heads for a cage in the corner of the cafe, and they drop whatever they are doing and follow her.

Once the packet of treat is placed in the visitor’s hand, that visitor immediately gets elevated to BFF status among every cat.

So when the husband and I got a pack of treats, we got swamped by kitties who commanded our complete attention, which we were too happy to give.

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We enjoyed Cat Cafe Nekokaigi so much that we visited it twice during our four-day stay in Kyoto.