Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Week in Japan

So Tess and I returned to Osaka to visit our friend Akiko. We were there together (with our friend Judith as well) in 2009. That was five years ago! Too long. Tess and I had to get to the airport before the very crack of dawn on Sunday 27 April (hours before Matthew was passing through same airport *weep*). I was quite sick with a headcold, and not a fun travel companion. I bet there were moments when Tess was thinking "what have I got myself into!" The aeroplane was so empty everyone had a long middle-row to themselves, so we napped lying down like we were in first class. Yep.

We arrived in Osaka (Kansai airport) at about 6pm. Akiko was waiting at the International Arrivals for us. It was a great feeling to see her lovely and friendly face after all this time. The sun was just setting, but we got a bus and another bus until we finally got to her house. It was just about dinner time when we arrived. One of the best things about staying with Akiko is that she and her mother are MARVELOUS chefs. We ate the best and most luxurious Japanese home cooking every night we were there.

So last time we were in Japan, I had done next to no research, and apart from a very slim pocket phrasebook, I didn't speak a word of Japanese, much less understand a word when it was spoken to me. So I was quite culture shocked when I got there back in 2009. It was tough. We slept on the floor, the washrooms were strange, my chopstick skills were below acceptable, and I couldn't read anything, not even a box of tea. In 2014? Equally as unresearched and speechless, but had SO MUCH MORE FUN! Everything that was troubling last time was fun, quirky, and interesting this time. Toilet sounds like a waterfall? Quaint. Raw every-kind-of-fish-imaginable? Why not. Train coming? I can stand in a line, I'm not a heathen!

Akiko sadly had to work for most of the time we were there (I have strong opinions on the Japanese government's lack of vacation and public holidays), however Tess and I are pretty intrepid, so on Akiko's work days we made ourselves scarce during the days, and spent time with her in the evenings.

Day One: Tennoji Zoo
So the zoo in Osaka is in the middle of a large park which has an art/history museum and a million feral cats, and it is adjacent to an awesome gambling/dining district full of neon signs and deep fried things-on-a-stick. The zoo itself, we were a bit pained to discover, is very old-fashioned, "for your viewing pleasure". The animals in small cages with little hiding space, so they are are cramped at best and insane at worst. The monkeys were pretty heart-wrenching. However the flamingos were as cool as cucumbers. I took a zillion photos, but to be honest I'm not sure the blog is the best spot for them. Here is the highlight:

The flamingos are different colours because some are South American and some are African.

In the afternoon Tess and I trained to Osaka central station, but it was pouring rain and so we poked around a department store and then called it a day. That evening, we hung out with Akiko at her home, and ate delicious food.

Day Two: Shiga prefecture and Kyoto Prefecture
The next day was a public holiday!! Amazing and so rare! Akiko took us on two trains, a funicular, a cable car, a bus, and a misty walk, up Mount Hiei to a very famous monastery: Enryaku-ji. It was the richest time of the blossom season, and everything was enshrouded in cloud. It felt very holy, and part of the holy feeling was a sensation of the very austere, by which I mean cold.
Akiko and Tess at the base of Mount Hiei

Tess and Akiko about to hop in the funicular

In the cable car (at the top of the funicular)

The entrance to the temple grounds. You can see how misty it is, and also how strongly the cherry blossoms were blooming!

True beauty.

A small shrine at the box office entrance to the temple.

Pagoda in the mist.

Enryaku-ji itself. It looked so old.

Small shrine

Some soggy blossoms and Akiko, looking radiant.
After we walked around the monastery, we were in dire need of a cup of tea and a warm-up. Tess won a free tea and cake in front of the kiosk. Lucky thing! Akiko and I just bought ours. We drank bitter matcha out of earthenware bowls, and ate delicate little pink sticky rice dumplings (with red bean paste inside) covered in a sweet pickled cherry leaf. It was sweet and just the right antidote to the chilly weather and the bitter tea.

We got a bit stuck on the mountain, because the buses were not regular. However by great grace we caught a cab (the only one for miles) which took us to downtown Kyoto. We instantly repaired to a sushi train restaurant and ate until we were almost bursting. There were screens in front of each place setting which would send you a personal message when your special order was approaching. It was all very high-tech.

After eating a variety of raw fish (and some totally slimy "natto", which is basically really brown, off, soybeans), and warming our cockles, we spent the rest of the afternoon shopping in Kyoto.

On of many lovely fabric shops. Cotton is printed, cut and sewn in squares of various sizes, and then you can tie it into a bag or wear it as a scarf or hang it on a wall. I saw an asparagus printed scarf that I was in love with, but it was not to be. 

The arcades in Kyoto

Hilariously-named chain fashion store (for young people...)

A funerary monument, in between store-fronts in an arcade.

When we arrived back at Akiko's house after a long day of shopping, her mum directed us in making tempura. We chopped up and deep-fried every vegetable in the house. It was a surprisingly simple concept; the batter was just egg and flour. But what made the whole experience special was the portable deep-frier, which was positioned (as you can see in the photos below) in the middle of the kitchen table. There were two particularly challenging aspects to the deep-frying: 1. keeping clear of hot oil spatter, and 2. fishing the vegetables out of the hot oil with chopsticks. Despite eating sushi about once a week for the past three years, I am still not as dextrous with chopsticks as Akiko and Tess. Highlights of the meal included tempura asparagus, tempura eggplant, and tempura mushroom. Also, lotus root.

Day three: Nara
Tess and I were on our own again the next day. We saw Akiko off to work in the morning, and then set out by train from Osaka to Nara. We had been to Nara in 2009, so we knew what to expect, and also basically how to get there. But it did take longer than we anticipated. At one point we were cooling our heels in a little country train station surrounded by fields of grass and flowers. When we got our next train, it turned out that we were quite close to Nara, but we felt a million miles away. (We also got stuck at that same station for half an hour on the way back home...).

We popped out of the Nara train station and headed for the main street. I think we went in every second shop. It took us a long time to reach the deer park. We got diverted several times into cute arcades off the main street. We even found a cute little gift shop which unexpectedly sold local plum cider. We thought this was a great idea, but we didn't realise until we were drinking it that it was alcoholic. Luckily we only bought one to share...

At the foot of the main street of Nara

Strange and hilariously-named confectionery.

Tess modelling deer-related merchandise in one of the many souvenir stores.
After wandering the street, arcades, and shops for a couple of hours, we got a picnic of onigiri and dried vegetable chips, and sat by the turtle pond. It was a little overcast, but otherwise quite hot.

View across the pond.

Famous turtles sunning themselves on a log in the middle of the pond.
After lunch we walked around the temple district and surrounding deer park.

Shinto shrine. It is very common to see people stop and through a ladle of water from a small ewer over these stone carvings, and saw a few words with a bowed head. Each shrine appears has a different collection of Small Gods, so people pray for particular things depending on the shrine.

Tess and the deer.
We each bought a packed of deer wafers (these deer are incredibly well fed. I'm surprised they're not all fat). The deer absolutely knew the drill, and they were very pushy once they knew there were wafers to be had. It baffled us how they left the wafer-selling-stand alone! But then, I guess there were always people ready to feed them by hand, so they don't have to trouble the sellers.

Kofuku-ji, the five-story temple pagoda.

Perfectly lined-up and yellow-hatted school children marching in front of Tokondo (the Eat Golden Hall) beside the pagoda.

Lady deer

Me feeding the lady-deer. She was far less pushy than the male deer that Tess was feeding before.

Me getting mobbed.

The warning sign. Worth enlarging...

Tess actually copped a feel of the deer antlers; we were very surprised to learn that they are very warm to the touch! Fuzzy and warm!
We then went in search of a fabric store which Akiko recommended. We had a map, but unfortunately we didn't find it. We did, however, go on a magical mystery tour of all the alleys and arcades of Nara, including the most awesome vintage shopping! Who knew that there was so much vintage shopping in Nara? It's like a whole vintage district!!

Shrine off the alleys of Nara.
This is actually, if you look closely, a fake food store. You know when you go to a Japanese restaurant and out front they have a visual menu with plastic models of what each dish looks like? Well, these are the parts. Weird.

I convinced Tess to get an icecream, because there were neat flavours like tofu and salt. They weren't very tasty, but it was worth it. We ate them in a Hawaiian-themed bar. Natch.
When we got home, we learned that Akiko's dad had just won his table-tennis championships! He is a very keen table-tennis player and coach as well. Although he is technically retired, he still goes to the club every day to play and teach. Tess consulted her huge kilos-heavy dictionary to convey our congratulations on his victory.

Day four: Osaka Proper
The next day, Tess and I set out to Osaka city centre to track down the ferris wheel on top of a building. I love ferris wheels, and I'm still a bit sad that we didn't go on the one at Brighton Pier in February. This more than made up for it. The wheel is called "HEP 5", which sounds futuristic and creepy like a disease. Actually it stands for Hanku Entertainment Park (not sure about the 5). It's on the seventh floor of the building, and it was dirt cheap, only 500 yen for a ride ($5. unlike the 30 pound you're expected to cough up for the London Eye... good grief)! I was curious to see what Osaka looks like from above; my suspicions were confirmed -- it's not a very pretty view. However there's something awe-inspiring about the grey, flat, industrial magnitude of Osaka. It goes on forever, with an unapologetic ugliness which means business. I liked it. It was a highlight of the trip.

The rest of the afternoon we spent winding through underground shopping malls. We spent at least an hour walking the outside perimeter of a shopping mall at street level. Osaka is not pedestrian friendly. It is wildly shopper-friendly, though. So we gave up trying to find our way around outside, and spent the rest of the afternoon shopping our hearts out. Tess picked up the bargain of the holiday, some haute chic tapestry shorts with gold chain detail. I got a red polka dot shirt; cute but not exactly fashion-forward.

Still have not tasted this.
We got some refreshments for the train ride home. For some reason I decided to buy a Shiseido-branded mini-bottle of pink liquid... turned out, as Akiko explained to us when we got home, it was collagen-enhanced beauty drink. Yep. I drank collagen. It tasted like grape lip-balm. Can't recommend it.

Day five: Kinosaki!!!
Akiko had a day off work on Friday (YAY!) and so she had planned a magnificent adventure for us. We hardly knew, when we headed out, what glorious holidaying she had in store for us. We said a wistful good-bye to Akiko's mum outside their house, and then we set off.

Akiko and her mum
Me, Tess, and Akiko
Kinosaki is a spa town about three and a half hours away from Osaka by fast train, in Hyogo Prefecture. It is on the North coast of Honshu island, in a region which is famous for crab fishing. Osaka, by the way, is famous for deep fried stuff on a stick. Gosh we ate a lot of deep fried stuff while we were there. Just like I ate a lot of crab, cooked and raw, while in Kinosaki.

Our typical view out of the train window. Lots of rice farms and rumply hills. The hilly landscape looks quite young, like when Matthew and I were in Hawaii. This makes me think very volcanic.

Once in Kinosaki, we dragged our suitcases a mere kilometre from the trainstation to the Ryokan (spa hotel), along a very quaint main street.

Tess and Akiko in the city square.

Okay, so this is a larger-than-life-size racoon dog (Tanuki) statue. Tess and I began to notice these statues in the front gardens of Akiko's neighbours houses. And then we saw them for sale in shops. We asked about them, and Akiko somehow conveyed to us with much delicacy that they are something of a phallic symbol. I found this awesome website which states that "Tanuki’s large scrotum symbolizes 'expanding wealth' and 'luck with money'."
Kinosaki has a stone-paved stream running through the middle of it, lined with weeping willos and crossed by many picturesque bridges.

The first thing we did when we arrived at the ryokan was to eat, but soon after, we shed our clothes, put on a yukata (printed bathrobe) and some geta (Japanese wooden-soled thongs), and headed out for a hard-earned spa.

Each ryokan has a spa in the lobby (sex-segregated, because the bathing is nude). Tess and I knew the drill because Akiko took us to a ryokan in 2009, in Kyoto. But in addition to each ryokan having an in-house spa, there are about twelve public onsen (hot springs) in the township. So even if you are not staying in one of the dozens of ryokan in the town, you can still get your bath on. With the ryokan stay, the public onsen pass (to all the bath houses in the town!) is included. But even without accommodation at a ryokan, the all-onsen-in-town pass price is only 1200 yen!! That's like $12! (For reference, when Tess and I went for a ladies' spa day in Daylesford, Victoria, it would set us back $35... and that was only for one spa!).

We got a brochure from the ryokan lobby which had a spot to stamp for each onsen you visit. If you stamp five onsen then you get a prize! We hustled awkwardly in our long and wooden garb to the first of many baths. Each onsen that we went to had a distinctly different theme to its outdoor spa area. The first one was a garden, with the spa under a gazebo, surrounded by ferns and flowers. The next one was a waterfall, which was custom built, about 30 feet tall (you couldn't even see the origin, that's how far up the hill it was),  and cascaded right down the hill and into the hot pool in front of you. The third one was a sort of blonde wooden deck area overlooking a creek, and the fourth was a deep and high-ceilinged cave.

A note: I narrowly avoided total mortification by sheer luck. I knew from last time that the ryokan switch the male and female bathing quarters daily. However when I was down for my morning shower the next day at our ryokan, I unthinkingly wandered into the door that we had been in the night before. There was no one in there, and so I just went about my business. But after I came out I noticed the colour of the onsen flags (red for female, blue for male)... sure enough, they were switched. What is annoying, is that the evening before, a women had made this very mistake, and one of the ryokan staff had bolted in the door after her and fished her out before the could accidentally see a bunch of dudes in the nude... no so for me.

When we returned from our hard-core spa-ing, we were famished. The ryokan comes with set menu, so all we had to do was sit and a woman came and delivered course after course of amazing food, cooked at the table in front of us. There were about five courses in total. I ate more fish in one meal than I had eaten in about the last six months. It was a bit overwhelming. The highlight of the meal was Akiko's abalone: this was live, and saw quietly under a cover until it was time to cook. Luckily it did not shriek (as the internet suggested it might, when we were researching this option before our stay). It looked a bit like a mushroom when it was cooked. I opted for crab (dead before cooking) but in fact this was the second crab of the meal, as I ate one raw and one cooked. I venture to say it was actually too much crab. I don't need any more crab for quite a while. In fact I think I've had enough for a lifetime.

The woman came and rearranged our room, shifting the table to the side and layout out three plump futons. It was quiet and dark, and we slept like logs. We got up super early in the morning (about 7am) and hit the spas again. The sun was up, the weather was fine, and the town looked very picturesque.

We returned from spa-ing for another several-course meal (again including mountains of fish... did I mention how I was trying to become a vegetarian? I put this massively on hold for this week in Japan). As we were packing up, Tess read her travel itinerary and realised that she was leaving that very evening (and not the next evening, as we had thought)!!! So we hurried a bit with our packing, checked out, did a lap of the town and took some photos and shopped, and then got an earlier train.

We found this amazing little temple on top of a hill! There was a large bell, which of course we had to ring. Akiko explained to us that this temple was specifically for wealth.

One last glimpse at beautiful Kinosaki!
We took many trains, and arrived at Kansai airport about 5 hours later. We had a quick cocktail in an Italian-themed bar and then checked Tess in. It was a bit whirlwind, but we were so proud and relieved that we had got Tess to her flight on time!

When we had seen Tess off, it was time for dinner, so Akiko and I headed for... yep, a Japanese restaurant, and ate all the tempura on their menu. It was a delicious last meal in Osaka.
We checked into our quite fancy airport hotel (which was actually part of the airport! Wisely, Akiko knew that trying to catch a train/bus/taxi combo at 6am was not going to be ideal, so she chose both the closest and the best hotel for our purposes), and got a solid eight hours. Because she is a great friend, Akiko accompanied me to the check-in desk at 6am the next morning. We got a huge cup of tea and coffee each, and waited for boarding time...

Thank you with all my heart, to Akiko's mum and dad, for generously hosting Tess and me. To Akiko, for sharing with us some exquisite sights and experiences. And to Tess, for being my best travel buddy. When I set out, this trip was a total indulgence for me; a reward for landing a full-time job last year. But when I was there, it was a way for me to reconnect with my friends and come to feel comfortable in a place that had previously felt foreign.

1 comment:

  1. This looks like so much fun! And is Akiko getting younger?

    Neil was rapt to see the picture of the fake food. Fake dishes in restaurant windows are one of his favourite kitch-things.