Walking Japan- Akihabara. For the otaku deep inside you.

Akihabara is an area in Tokyo that is famous for its anime and fandom-centric shops along Chuo street (Chuo dori). This big and long street is filled with shops and arcades that carry anime goods and figures, manga books, DVDs, costumes, anime body pillows, posters, and adult games and books. It’s an important physical embodiment of Japanese hobby culture.

There are a bunch of popular buildings on the Chuo street that are 9 stories tall, either owned by one retailer or operated in sections by small specialty shops. There are also floors that are dedicated spaces for shows or fan meet-up events.

On a Sunday, the entire Chuo dori was blocked off so that pedestrians could roam freely, jumping from shop to shop. You can see people of all ages enjoying their day, shopping for their objects of desire.20170305_135004 chuo dori is blocked off, sunday.jpg

Since I had so much time on my hands, I went to most of the buildings and went through all their floors.

Here are some PG13 stuff I saw while I was browsing.

Cards. “Buy this and make your family happy!!!”. 20170302_112227.jpg

I’ve only ever known Pokemon cards, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering cards, so I was floored by the vast variety of cards out there. They certainly carry the franchises I’ve mentioned, but so many, many more.

I thought it was lovely that a married couple with a child were out shopping for cards, like they were back to their teenage years. The husband was carrying the baby in the front, with a heavy backpack on his back, so that his wife could browse freely. They chatted animatedly about which packs looked good. That’s love.20170302_112308.jpg

Stuff gets sold out, so get yours quick.20170302_112543.jpg

I often saw an empty space with long tables and chairs at the back of these card shops, blocked off from the rest of the sales floor. I wondered what they were for. Then, I got to witness the use of such a space in one shop. They are for tournaments! It’s a space where you can bring your cards and battle other people!!! Holy shit, Yu-Gi-Oh is real life! The space was full of high school students in black and white school uniforms, slapping down cards with gusto and and having a lot of innocent fun.

Wait, were they skipping school? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t lunch time when I saw them…

In some card shops, you can go to the back of the sales area (they are always at the back) and find naughty cards of naked girls and famous AV ladies for your personal collection. None of them had battle stats on them, so I guess you can’t play tournaments with those lol they’re just to look at.

As numerous as the cards shops are the figure shops.

Small Evangelion figures that you can put together at home.20170302_112824.jpg

Some of the pricier figures were really high quality. You could see each nail, muscle and vein strand shaped and painted appropriately. I’m not into this kind of stuff, but even I could appreciate the craftsmanship. 20170302_113114.jpg

There was a shop dedicated to selling doll parts, wigs, eyelashes, etc. so that you could build your own doll.20170302_120235.jpg

Lots of book stores. If you go to upper levels, you can also buy games, goods, life-sized posters, DVDs, etc. 20170302_122755.jpg

Some buildings have a floor dedicated to adult books and adult games. I entered those floors out of curiosity, and left with images etched in my brain that I can never erase. No matter how much I want to. Whatever fetish you might have, you could probably find an outlet for it in Akihabara.

I also passed by a costume shop where you could buy animal, schoolgirl, samurai, etc. costumes. They were mostly for bedroom enjoyment, as they were all quite sexy-looking. In fact, they were selling some rather scandalous lingerie at the back of the shop (always at the back, man).

You also pass by a lot of gachapon machines (capsule toy vending machines). Some machines carry capsules with rolled up parchment pictures, or pin-badges of anime characters.

There are two SEGA buildings on this street.20170302_124422.jpg

SEGA buildings have these UFO machines, where you can win figures and other goods like anime cushions, key chains, blankets, etc. The more valuable a good is, the more expensive it is to play.20170302_105520 sega.jpg

How to play on the UFO machines20170302_105852.jpg

On the upper floors of SEGA buildings are the arcade games. I saw a lot of young Japanese boys, girls, men, women (a wide range of age) playing on these machines on a godly level. Hands move so fast, you can’t see them.20170302_110336.jpg

Not too busy on a weekday. I saw some students here playing hooky and games.20170302_105338 sega.jpg

Akihabara is a wonderful place where anyone can come and spend a whole day looking at absolutely anything, even the weirder stuff, and no one will bother you. I saw responsible-looking adults in suits enjoy their time browsing cards, figures, posters, books, etc. and no one batted an eyelash. In North America, and even in other Asian countries, adults who spend money on anime stuff get ridiculed, but I didn’t sense anything like that here. What a non-judgmental atmosphere. I guess this is some sort of paradise.

A short walk from Chuo dori will get you to Akihabara metro station. There is a lot of food and shopping near the station, including an AKB48 cafe and a Gundam cafe.

I did not go into the AKB48 theater building on Chuo dori, because I have no musical interest in this group of 48 girls. Had I understood the Japanese language, I would have attended one of their live shows, for the sake of entertainment. I first heard about AKB48 after one of their girls shaved her head on YouTube, to apologize for being caught spending a night with a man, which is a violation of her contract.

Had I been with a friend, I would have loved to visit one of these cafes.20170305_134211 akb48 cafe, gundam cafe akihabra.jpg

I am not knowledgeable of popular animes and mangas, and I have never been into games or cards. But I nevertheless enjoyed walking around and seeing an interesting part of Japan’s hobby culture.

Eating Japan: Donburi at Yoshinoya, Sukiya and Katsuya

If you’re looking for a quick one-bowl meal, get a donburi.

On the days I felt all the symptoms of a lonely solo traveler, I would opt for a small, humble meal. It felt all the more lonelier to sit at a big table with a party spread, just by myself. For times like that, I would buy some riceballs from a konbini or eat donburi.

You’ll see Yoshinoya everywhere. 20170303_194312.jpg

Ordered a small butadon (pork don). I only know the choices on the left, which are small and big size. No clue what the options on the right are. Maybe one of them is with an egg? And the other is a combo meal with soup and salad? Not sure. If I had the stomach space, I would have ordered one of the mystery options on the right. 20170303_194525.jpg

Thin slivers of fatty pork simmered with onion. Shit, now that I look at it, I ordered a large. I think I ordered a large out of the habit that a regular-sized anything in Japan always leaves me famished an hour and a half later. But here, a large is a large. That bowl is deep.20170303_194605.jpg

Sprinkled some spices and ate with pink-orange pickled ginger. You don’t get any side dishes unless you order them.20170303_194719.jpg

Another time, in Kyoto, I went to Sukiya.

Depending on the city, you’ll see more locations of a certain brand. Probably because the brand first started in the city, or a city nearby.

Sukiya menu20170317_150937 at sukiya.jpg

I only wanted a bowl, but the server thought I wanted a combo. Large bowl is 470 yen, and add 150 yen for a combo. This whole thing was 620 yen. Cheap, but very filling. Too filling for me. 20170317_151312 모르게 세트 시킴. 대자 470엔에다 세트 150엔. 총620.jpg

I’m never the one to leave crumbs or rice grains. The bowl tells me that Sukiya originated from Yokohama. Somewhere in Japan.20170317_153657.jpg

Ah, yes, I remember another donburi time. On a windy day in early March in Tokyo, I went to Katsuya. I saw this chain so many times in the Akihabara area. I had woken up at 4am as usual (the damn jet lag). I had nothing to do so I walked to Ueno Park and back and had early lunch…at 9:50am in the morning.

I don’t think I’ll ever go to Japan again (30 days is enough for my lifetime), unless there was an amazing job opportunity. Or I fell in love and he had to go to Japan for work or something, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. Well, that was a random thought about whether I would go back to Japan or not.

When I walked into Katsuya, I didn’t know what it was. I had seen people lining up to get in here the night before, so I thought, it must be good. Only when I walked in, I knew that it was a katsu place. Most people were eating the tonkatsu meal set that comes with soup and shredded cabbage. People here eat breaded, deep-fried meat for breakfast. How do they not fall asleep while working?

I didn’t want such a heavy thing for breakfast, and I didn’t feel like walking out and finding another place. So I tried to order something not deep-fried. Good luck doing that at a Katsuya. I thought the one on the left looked interesting, so I ordered it. 20170302_094906.jpg

Ummm….this looks heavy. And very deep-fried.20170302_095554.jpg

So much for ordering light. I had ordered a donburi with katsu slices (which were juicy, crunchy and heavenly, btw), shredded cabbage, mayo, topped with deep fried garnishes of spicy, crunchy batter. It was the most artery-clogging thing they had, and I had ordered that as my light, breakfast option. Gotta love not being able to read a language.20170302_095914.jpg

They had slices of oshinko that went really well with the rice and katsu.20170302_101459.jpg

I left with a very full stomach and wandered around the Akihabara area. 

Arcades in Akihabara. Pew pew pew pew. Ding ding ding ding ding. Zoing zoing zoing. *hollers of unidentified phrases in the Japanese language*20170302_105338 sega.jpg

Walking Japan: Ebisubashi and Dontonbori canal in Namba, Osaka

Namba is the major entertainment and tourist district in Osaka. It is abundant in pathways and side streets of shopping, restaurants, bars, and pachinko stations. It is home to Dotonbori canal and Ebisubashi bridge. There are many bridges that cross over the canal, but Ebisubashi is the most popular for tourists. It’s the one below the running Glico man, who is a must-include in your selfies.

Covered pathways that are always full of people. Most of the tourists were Asians, including Japanese tourists. It’s a great place to go shopping. 20170306_174356 shitload of ppl.jpg

These pathways have a PA system overhead. Guidelines for proper tourist etiquette is repeated in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. You are advised to walk on the left side of the path, don’t congregate in groups and block the middle of the path, don’t litter, etc.

There are gigantic posters hanging from the ceiling when you are about to approach Ebisubashi. It will tell you that you are 250 metres away, etc. If Ebisubashi is what you seek, just keep walking straight when you see these signs.

On my first outing in Osaka, I walked to Ebisubashi as if under a spell. I mean, that’s where everyone was headed. When I got out of the covered path and turned my head to the right, this is what I saw. More shops, restaurants and bars. It’s easy to find translated menus and signs here. Tourists are their business.20170306_160524.jpg

These humongous 3D signs tell you exactly what the shop is selling. In this case, pan fried dumplings.20170310_111831.jpg

This restaurant specializes in blowfish. You can tell… from the huge blowfish. I heard that this kind of signage culture was started to entice tourists who didn’t know how to read Japanese.20170310_111842.jpg

Got side tracked by the huge signs of food. OK, back to Ebisubashi.20170306_160527 entering ebisubashi.jpg

Dotonbori canal, as seen from Ebisubashi bridge.20170306_160611.jpg

You can head down to the water by using the stairs on either sides of any of the bridges. Pictured here is Ebisubashi, as seen from the canal walkway. 20170306_173326.jpg

The famous Glico man. Not sure why it’s so popular.20170310_121105.jpg

I saw a homeless man with a cardboard sign asking for money, sitting on Ebisubashi. Here were all these tourists, taking pictures after pictures of themselves, with their friends and families, doing the Glico-man pose. Selfie sticks and smiles everywhere, except for that corner of the bridge with the blank-faced homeless man. It looked like he was part of a different dimension.

I remember being really confused, because there was a young guy who was clearly not homeless, idly holding up the cardboard sign, while the homeless man sat beside him, looking very, very homeless. They looked unrelated in every way. The next few times I saw the homeless man, the young guy wasn’t there. Was he just a nice guy that was temporarily helping out, by holding the sign? I will never know.

Snacking on a cro-taiyaki. It’s taiyaki with croissant dough and there are several flavors of filling available. I had heard about this craze that started in Korea, but I prefer the classic taiyaki. 20170306_173825.jpg

I explored some smaller streets in the area until it got dark. There are lots of businesses in these streets as well, but they are smaller and not as many English translations.20170306_184748 just a regular side street.jpg

Dotonbori in the night. Taken on a less popular bridge.20170306_185406.jpg

Beer goggle shot from Ebisubashi20170306_185427.jpg

When you’re sober.20170306_185429.jpg

You come across some shrines when you explore the area. But I doubt anyone comes to Namba for shrines.20170306_202122.jpg

More streets near the canal area.20170306_202220.jpg

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Circling back to Ebisubashi20170306_202944.jpg

The boat ride is quite popular. You can purchase tickets at a booth on the canal.20170306_205604.jpg

The running Glico man. He stays immobile, but the background changes with different scenery and the road moves ahead, to give the illusion of the man running on the road.20170306_203046.jpg

Holy crap, there were turf wars because people wanted to take selfies with this guy. You really had to wait, and squeeze in between cracks of people on the bridge to get a nice shot with him.

I didn’t see the big deal with this, but I am guilty of taking a few casual selfies with him. Herd mentality.

You don’t need street lights when you have commercial signs that illuminate the streets.20170306_204109.jpg

This is what happens when you disable your browser’s ad blocker.20170306_204123.jpg

Another shot of Dotonbori, because it’s so pretty at night.20170306_204509.jpg

Where there is beauty, there is…erm…non-beauty. It’s not rare to see puke puddles at night. I also saw some drunk people fighting. In the case I saw, they weren’t fighting seriously, just playfully wrestling each other, but they were clearly drunk.

Taken while I was on the stairs to get down to the canal walkway.20170306_221054.jpg

Larger-than-life store signs. This one replicated an amusement park ride.20170306_204747.jpg

As seen through the window of a fish-catching place by the canal.20170306_204813.jpg

The canal was my favorite part. 20170306_205411.jpg

Line-up for Ichiran ramen, a chain of ramen shops. Customisable ramen. Famous for having one-person, library-style cubby hole booths where you don’t get to see the employees that serve you. There is always a wait. People will line up in the rain and wait an hour and a half!20170306_205608.jpg

I came back to Dotonbori again and again. I remember fantasizing about Japan while looking at colorful pictures of Dotonbori posted by other tourists, along with some other pictures that used to fuel my desire to go to Japan. And now, I was here.20170310_110154.jpg

Dotonbori and Ebisubashi in the morning can be a depressing sight. There is garbage strewn everywhere because some people don’t bother to clean up after themselves.

So much food nearby. Waiting in line for takoyaki.20170310_113556.jpg

Freshly cooked takoyakiiiiiiiii (octopus balls).20170310_114158.jpg

5 for 350 yen, 10 for 650 yen. There are lots of places that sell takoyaki. Price, size and quality differ quite a bit, but many claim to be the “best takoyaki in Osaka” or “No. 1!”. Some of them must be lying.20170310_114524.jpg

Back on the canal. Sitting on a bench with a beer and takoyaki. Public drinking is legal in Japan.20170310_114928 물옆에서....5개350엔.jpg

I wish these signs had translations. What is up on that 9th floor?20170310_120701.jpg

Funny snacks featuring popular comedians. I’m sure the snacks are legitimately delicious; it’s the packaging that gets you the laughs. I don’t even know these guys and I was entertained.20170310_121453.jpg

Sure looks different at daytime.20170310_122355.jpg

It was really common to see students out and about on school trips.20170310_122713 너네드루소풍 점심 어디로 가니.jpg

They ate at Chibo lol 20170310_122735 치보호 가는거였구나.jpg

Manga book store! So old school. Most people read manga on their phones now. I guess if you’re a fan, you’d want physical copies. I loved Ebisubashi and Dotonbori and all, but I also liked the quieter streets that had a more everyday-life vibe.20170310_123026 여기에 만화 구멍가게가...jpg

 

Eating Japan: Okonomiyaki in Osaka and Kyoto

One of my many to-do’s in Japan was to eat DIY table-top okonomiyaki. Why? Because it’s delicious!!! Although, none of them ended up being DIY; I don’t think that’s even an option anywhere in Japan. Still good.

Okonomiyaki is a widely known savory, layered pancake, towered with the ingredients of the diner’s desire. Okono means “the way you like it”, and yaki means “grilled”. I salivate as I write this.

I had it for my first night in Osaka, a famed city for okonomiyaki. I had walked around the Dotonbori area quite a bit, looking at the menus of all the okonomiyaki places I came across.

After much deliberation, I settled on Chibo. It looked inviting and it had a translated menu. This is a chain that can be found in Tokyo and Kyoto.20170306_163701.jpg

I was immediately shown a seat at the bar since I was alone, and provided a warm wet towel and a glass of cold water, as is the standard package. There are also the usual tables with built-in steel hot plates, so the okonomiyaki stays hot as you eat it.

The stage. Infront of me is a rail of steel hot plate, where the chef places the already-cooked food so it stays hot.20170306_164129.jpg

International menu that tells you the top 5 most popular okonomiyaki variations at Chibo. Almost all the tourists in Osaka were Asians, so the English translation only tells you the name of the dish, and doesn’t explain the ingredients, as it does in Chinese and Korean. I ordered the No. 1, Okonomiyaki Dotonbori. Although, I should have just gone with my gut feeling and ordered the No. 5, Okonomiyaki Chibo…Oh, well.20170306_164153.jpg

It was all young guys working there. Felt like I was at a McDonald’s for okonomiyaki or something.20170306_164131.jpg

I have lots of videos, but WordPress makes me pay to post those, so never mind.

Yakisoba in the making. Two Korean dudes sitting beside me kept expressing delight, as they ate it. I wanted to order it, but I knew I didn’t have the stomach space for it. When you travel alone, you can’t order as many dishes as you would like because you have no one to share with, sigh.20170306_164231.jpg

Gots to have my nama biru (draft beer), just gots to. I get a mini flipper/cutter.

20170306_164302.jpg

Finally presented infront of me on the steel hot plate. The razor-thin fish flakes dance (sway back and forth) because of the heat. 20170306_165843.jpg

The cutting ceremony.20170306_165854.jpg

Itadakimasu…Holding a piece of squid with chopsticks.20170306_170016.jpg

Holding a small shrimp20170306_171003.jpg

It was a fun dining experience overall, but the okonomiyaki itself was so disappointing…I had thought the ingredients would be added in layers, but they were chopped into small pieces and were all spread throughout the batter, even the cabbage. There’s supposed to a whole layer of cabbage, man! Why so little cabbage?! Also, seasoning was bland. More importantly, the chef cooked it for too long, and it was way too dry when it was presented to me. To make it worse, it keeps cooking on the hot rail steel plate as you eat, so it got drier and drier.

When I got to Kyoto, I had to rewrite my okonomiyaki history. It was once again my dinner on the night of arrival to a new city.

I was at The Dining at Yodobashi building across from Kyoto station during my wandering-around on the first night. There was an okonomiyaki place that wafted smells of grilled heaven, so I just had to eat there. There are so many places to eat at The Dining; I took a whole hour to look at all the menus and decide!

Ermahgerd, looks so good. The prices for okonomiyaki in Kyoto are a bit cheaper than Osaka; maybe because it’s not a touristy food item for Kyoto? It’s probably all marketing, since okonomiyaki is a celebrated dish in the Kansai region (which includes Osaka).20170310_181505 오사카보가 훨 쌈.jpg

“Do not you work hard with us?”. Gotta love Jenglish. Minimum wage in Kyoto is 773 yen (approx. $10 CAD, $8 USD), so their rate is 127 yen above the minimum. And you get 25% more after 10pm…Hey, that’s not too bad, right? But then again, CAD is shit right now, so it seems a lot better when converted to Canadian.20170310_181556.jpg

The place is called Fugetsu, and it’s also a chain. I liked it a lot better than Chibo! There was a bit of a line-up at 6:30pm, so I wrote down my name and waited for 10 minutes to get in.

Yeeees. Got a whole table to myself. 20170310_183302 프겟쯔 (fugetsu) yodobashi 6층.jpg

I ordered a shrimp and pork modanyaki, which is a type of okonomiyaki that has a layer of cooked noodles in the middle.

Unlike Chibo, Fugetsu has their employees come around and cook your okonomiyaki from scratch in front of you. Some of the other dishes, like the yakisoba, comes pre-cooked from the kitchen.20170310_184132 기본 모단야끼 (면 포함).jpg

You need to be careful of that built-in plate. It is super hot, and I came across a lot of menus that had melted plastic edges, because people had placed it on the hot plate. Must have been tough to clean the plastic off the hot plate. I wouldn’t take young children here. Yeah, just don’t.

Every time the employees came around to cook my okonomiyaki, they kept smiling and saying, “Please, no touch” or “Please waitto (adorable Japanese pronunciation of “wait”)”. It’s stated everywhere that you shouldn’t touch the okonomiyaki; yes, it’s a safety precaution, but also, okonomiyaki can fall apart easily if you are inexperienced and playing around with it. I didn’t touch it even once, but they kept repeating it! I guess they often get uber-curious tourists that touch it and fuck it up.

Yeeessssss….Dance, fish flakes, dance!20170310_185056.jpg

Yo, why did you burn my pancake?! But then I took a look at another table’s, with Japanese locals sitting at it, and theirs was burnt even more than mine. I guess it adds flavor lol 20170310_185141 이 정도면 탄거 아닌가..근데 그 탄 맛이 또 있지.jpg

Lots of additional seasonings…I didn’t end up using any of them. Oh yea, I did sprinkle on some extra seaweed powder later. That wooden thing with a white nipple is the service button that will call over an employee.20170310_185545.jpg

Bring on the sauce! Japanese mayo and okonomiyaki brown sauce20170310_190035 플리스 웨이또 몇번 듣다가 이제 먹네.jpg

Seaweed powder to top off20170310_190105.jpg

This made me forget Chibo. The seasoning was just right. There was a whole layer of cabbage at the bottom and so it was a lot more moist and sweet.20170310_190153 치보보다 훨 간도 맞고 달고, 촉촉....양배추가 많아서 식감.jpg

While I was eating, I saw people open the booth chairs. I was like, whaaa? There’s a place for bags inside the chair, like they do with piano chairs! Such an efficient use of space.20170310_190708.jpg

You can’t smoke here until 2pm. 20170310_192631.jpg

After my satisfying modanyaki and mug of cold draft beer, I was was full and happy. On my way back to the hostel, I saw the lit Kyoto tower. This tower is the tallest structure in Kyoto, because there is a law that says you cannot build any building higher than the Tower.

Kyoto tower. Shit’s lit.20170310_194225 교토 타워...멋있다..jpg

Reflected on the glass building20170310_194049 반대쪽 거울 빌딩에 reflect돼보이는 교토 타워.jpg

And that is my complete okonomiyaki experience in Japan.

Fully Explained: How to ride the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train)

I remember being scared about riding the Shinkansen! Not that I’m frightened of vehicles that travel at the speed of light (Disclaimer: hyperbole used), but I hadn’t had much experience in traveling by train, let alone the famed Shinkansen!

I believe Shinkansen is operated by JR (there are many different companies involved in the metro scene, as discussed here).

Let me tell you about my super comfortable and enjoyable bullet train experience in Japan. Even as I write this, I can remember the palpable excitement I felt during my first ride.

I rode the shinkansen twice. Once from Tokyo to Osaka. From Osaka, I took the regular metro to get to Kyoto, and stayed in Kyoto for 8 nights. I took shinkansen from Kyoto back to Tokyo.

Flashing my tickets; about to enter Platform 18. English and Japanese on display.20170306_101754.jpg 20170306_101751.jpg

Buying the ticket

Do NOT go to the machines – they are for people who actually know the system. Unless you’re a Japanese local, or a shinkansen connoisseur who knows what he’s doing, be humble, and go to the service desks. All the employees at the desk speak adequate English to be able to help you with purchase, and any questions. I had done some research beforehand about getting on the shinkansen, and I still had surprises!

Two fare tickets that will get me from Tokyo station to Shin-Osaka station (You would think it would take you to Osaka station, but nope, it goes to Shin-Osaka station; “Shin” means “new”). 20170306_102022 nozomi super express to Hakata edite.jpg

What’s written on the ticket?: I got the “Super-Exp”(ress) that only stops at major stations. You’ll also notice “(Reserved)” on the ticket; I let loose and bought a premium seat, which I heard has more leg room. Paid a total of 14,310 yen. Approx $200 CAD! Yup, it’s expensive as fuck (but it was worth it). The price difference between reserved vs. non-reserved was 830 yen (approx. $10 CAD). If I’m already spending around $200 bucks for a 2.5 hour ride, I wasn’t going to sweat about an extra $10. Fare price changes very frequently, depending on the time.  You can choose between window and aisle seat when you buy the ticket, and your seat is written on the ticket. The window seat gets sold out quickly.

The first thing the shinkansen desk employee asked me for was my used metro ticket stub, that I had used to get to Tokyo station in the first place. I gave it to him, and it seems that he deducted the 140 yen service charge, which he crossed out at the bottom of the second ticket. Thanks, man.

Why are there two tickets?: Beats me why they had to split into two tickets. I got stuck at the platform entry machine, because I didn’t know which ticket to put into the feed of the machine. Turns out you feed both, overlapping each other, at the same time, and the machine somehow knows to accept both tickets and let you enter. Don’t forget to grab the tickets when the machine feeds it back to you after you pass through the machine!!!

How fast is it? Car vs. Shinkansen vs. Bus: By car, it would have taken 6 hours, but the shinkansen only takes 2.5 hours to get to Osaka. The trains come pretty frequently. I bought the tickets at service desk on the day of travel, but I heard you should buy tickets in advance for long weekends and such, as the locals are also on the move during those golden times. There also express buses, and most people take the night buses that take about 6 hours one-way. Buses are a LOT cheaper, I think they were half the price of the shinkansen! However, I am not a fan of bus rides, and I was set on riding the shinkansen and eating ekiben inside the train.

Getting on the train

My train at Platform 18! 20170306_101915.jpg

But before getting on, of course, I had to purchase an ekiben. Ekiben is the standard term for a bento box eaten on the train. There are many shops in the station, and booths at the platform right by the trains, that sell a variety of ekibens. The contents of each box is on display, so you can just look and choose.

Finding my seat and admiring the Japanese bullet train culture

My ticket said Car 13, Seat 10-D, so I found my seat in Car 13 of the train. Super clean!20170306_103041 reserved seating shinkansen.jpg

And very roomy.20170306_103057 super roomy.jpg

Brah. REversiBle seatS!!! If you’re traveling in a group, you can make seats face each other!!!! See how the chairs in the middle of this picture is facing towards me, when all the others are facing the front? It was a group of 6 school boys (looked to be in high school) that blew my mind when they reversed the seats. I’m guessing they were on an exciting all-boys trip to Osaka. They played cards and spoke quietly during the whole ride so as to not disturb others.20170306_103759 brah, REVERSIBLE SEATS.jpg

It was a quiet 2.5 hours. What really floored me was how, before Japanese locals inclined their seat back, they would turn around and notify the person sitting behind them. “Is it OK if I put my seat back?”. Of course, it’s not really a question; it’s a polite notification. The answer is always “yes”, or a nod. I thought it was a simple, but courteous gesture that oozed with etiquette. I’ve never seen that before! So I did the same when I was about to put my seat back a bit. Hehe.

So much leg room.20170306_104423.jpg

Maps in the train to tell you where everything is. There are smoking sections, garbage disposals, washrooms, etc. They are spread along the 16 cars of this train. You might have to go to another car to go to the washroom. The washroom was spotless and odorless. Similar to airplane washrooms, but everything was motion-activated, so that you don’t have to touch any buttons.20170306_110002.jpg

Eating in the train

Train personnel come around to sell snacks, drinks and sandwiches. I’m pretty sure I saw beer as a choice, just like in airplanes. Not too surprising since it’s legal in Japan to consume alcohol on streets. 20170306_112133 selling snacks.jpg

After much deliberation, I had settled on very fishy ekiben called “Fukagawa-meshi”…20170306_113903.jpg 20170306_113910.jpg

Tasted great. It was pretty smelly and I wondered if it was bothering other passengers, but I consoled myself because it was sold at the ekiben store right by the train. I mean, it’s not just some gross, alien thing I had brought from home!20170306_114038 this was 980yen at the platform.jpg

Lots of people had brought bottled drinks, ate snacks and simple meals, like rice balls (onigiri), and katsu sandwiches. The ride is only 2.5 hours long, so you don’t necessarily need to eat a full meal on the train, unless you are famished. I’m always famished for ekiben. There’s just a nostalgic, peaceful feeling about eating a carefully packaged bento box in the quiet shinkansen train.

So that is the fully explained shinkansen experience.

Kyoto-to-Tokyo ride was a similar experience.

Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station. Only one ticket this time. 13,901 yen. It’s slightly cheaper than Tokyo to Osaka, since Kyoto is a bit closer to Tokyo. I got reserved seat on Nozomi again. The price difference is less than 1000 yen between reserved vs. non-reserved seat.20170318_113852 티켓두장이 한장에. 나즁에 jr chuo line도 공짜로 탐

Gotta catch the 12:05 at Platform 11. I gave myself 20 minutes to find an ekiben, hehe. 20170318_114337.jpg

The Hikari (in red) is the non-express; it stops at more stations than the Nozomi.20170318_115517.jpg

On Car 13 again20170318_120256.jpg

Ekiben again!!!!20170318_121139.jpg

The sensation I felt on these rides are indescribable. I felt flooded with possibilities and exhilaration when I got on the train. Traveling can be a real bitch sometimes, but there are these rare moments of rainbows and unicorns and butterflies that keep me coming back for more.

Walking Japan: Bicycles and anime everywhere

  • Bicycles

Bikes parked everywhere20170318_145217.jpg

I saw so many bicycles during my 30 days in Japan. The cyclists I had usually seen in Toronto were people trying to get somewhere nearby, or kids who can’t drive cars or people in speedos and shorts, trying to get a workout.

But in Japan, it was different. I saw the most unlikeliest people riding; People in full suits, mothers with their children, people who went grocery shopping, just riding it out. It was their primary vehicle of choice. Many bikes had a small basket attached at the front or at the back, that served as the trunk. It was easy to observe cyclists, since they roamed the pedestrian streets. In Toronto, cyclists must stay on the road along with the other vehicles, so this was new for me.

Befitting the quiet atmosphere of Japanese day culture, cyclists don’t make any noise. I think I heard someone ring their bell, once in all those 30 days. People innately know how to avoid collisions, almost like a 6th sense. In a busy city as Tokyo, everyone sticks to the left side of the road (on the right side for Kyoto), and so do the cyclists, so it’s orderly.

In especially narrow paths, I would remove myself by sticking close to the wall to let bicycles whiz through. They would nod at me as they passed by, as an expression of thanks.

I developed a habit of looking behind me before taking any stride to the left or the right. What if there was a bicycle right behind me?

I particularly remember a young man in a suit and I trying to avoid each other, but we kept moving in the same direction at the same time. In the end, he had to stop his bike because he was going to hit me if we continued our waltz.

A lot of tourists rent bicycles for a day or two to take advantage of this culture. Some hotels/inns provide rental, otherwise you can easily find a place to rent from.

  • Anime

As expected, I saw anime everywhere. I had considered myself a knowledgeable person on this topic, but clearly not. All the anime I had known were all outdated, and I failed to recognize the hotter animes that were found in the streets and book stores. I was behind the times, and it made me feel old and irrelevant.

This place even has anime characters on their store front sign. This store is related to the place I had my first breakfast, called Nomiu, as part of a chain. I am pretty sure they will replace the sign to a normal one after the promotion with the anime characters is over. Or maybe these characters were created specifically for this store? I wouldn’t put it past them.20170305_160815.jpg

I also saw pachinko places everywhere, and they would advertise the arrivals of “New Machine!” featuring the latest anime characters.

Japanese people are so reserved in their general interactions, so it would trip me out whenever I saw larger-than-life anime characters blending in with real people and everyday society like that.

 

 

 

 

Walking Japan: The Wonderous Ginkakuji (aka. Silver Pavillion, aka. Jishoji)

After an hour of strolling the Philosopher’s Path, I took the the small street leading to Ginkakuji, the famous Silver Pavillion.

I wasn’t expecting much; I assumed it would be just another tall structure with some gardening around it. I would spend 2 minutes staring, and then I’d stray off to all the shopping and eating nearby.

I’m glad to say, it was a pleasant surprise when I got there. It’s a small but elaborate and immaculate Temple garden. It’s got that zen charm that I personally associate with Japanese culture. I later found out that it is officially categorized as a Zen temple; no wonder it was so different from my past temple experiences, like Kiyomizudera.

The map at the front of the garden. I thought it’d be a 1-hour walk, but the map totally exaggerates on actual size. In truth, it’s a 20-minute stroll, at best, if you walk slowly and take pictures.20170316_141311.jpg

The entrance gate. Doki doki (sound of my heart beating).20170316_141340 main gate (entrance).jpg

Looked like the start of a maze, like in those European gardens in the Victorian era. Nope, just an intimate path to the ticket stand. Pay up.20170316_141433 입장료 내기 전 길.jpg

500 yen per adult. I think it’s great value for what you get to see! The one on top is the ticket. 20170316_141627 500yen (aka 은각사 jishoji),. 싸다.jpg

The beginning of the garden!20170316_141738 키요미쥬랑 너무 비교된다.jpg

I believe this was the Main Hall. This picture doesn’t do justice!20170316_141912.jpg

Wow…just…wow…20170316_141937.jpg

Make a wish, and throw a coin. If it lands on the rock, it just may come true! I saw some middle school students doing it. They were having fun.20170316_142251

This garden helped me realize that my camera was actually a really good camera. It’s so beautiful here, that you could take a picture with a potato and still get amazing shots.20170316_142305.jpg

Postcard right here.20170316_142445.jpg

Already the end of the trail. You must walk on the designated trail. 20 minutes total.20170316_143501 short walk. 20 minutes total.jpg

I was so sad to leave that I did one more round.

What kind of annoyed me was how obnoxious a couple was being. They were being loud and blocking the trails by taking a countless number of pictures. I know it’s a special occasion to be in this garden and they have every right to take pictures and have a conversation, but DAMN, SON, you taking away all the fucking zen. lol. Pipe down a bit.

Found a rabbit hole! Looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. 20170316_145102.jpg

Stopped by the gift shop and purchased a set of geiko paper bookmarks. I laminated these when I got back to Toronto. What a wonderful keepsake.20170316_150057.jpg

I will never be able to forget this experience.

Walking Japan: The Romantic “Philosopher’s Path” in Kyoto (+stray cat sightings!)

After a memorable lunch at 58 Diner burger bar, I continued my path onto the famous Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugakuno Michi, in Japanese). The Path is a canal-side walkway with occasional benches, and trees, including cherry blossom.

It is very close to the Silver Pavillion (aka. Ginkakuji, aka. Jishoji), so most people do both the Pavillion and the Path on the same day, like I did. I will make another posting about the Silver Pavillion.

There is a nice explanation about the Philosopher’s Path on the walkway, but it’s all in Japanese so I was none the wiser.20170316_131758 철학의 길 안내문.jpg

This colorful house had the only sakura tree that was blooming in mid-March. I took a selfie with this tree, making sure that I stayed on the bridge to keep out of the house’s private property. As I was done taking my selfie, the resident happened to be be coming back to the house with some eggs that he had bought. He gave me a very kind smile, which surprised me. I’m sure he has tourists loitering about his house all the time.20170316_131347.jpg

Mid-March is an off-season time to go. The sakura have not bloomed and lots of trees are still missing their leaves. Still, I saw a good number of tourists like myself. I can imagine this Path can get super crowded during the peak season. I wonder how the residents feel about all that…

I would also love to have this canal-path in my neighborhood, but not all of us can be so lucky.20170316_131041 동네 한 복판 canal 철학의 거리.jpg

It is peaceful and romantic. I don’t necessarily mean romantic as in, “you must bring your boy/girlfriend here!”. It was more like, you could walk alone, and enjoy some romance with all the nature and the beauty around you. However, this may not be the greatest place to have deep thoughts and mull over life, as the name “Philosopher’s Path” suggests; it was definitely a tourist spot.

To my surprise, it wasn’t a hike path of its own, but a quiet path in the middle of a residential housing area, with many of the houses along the Path converted into souvenir or dessert shops. There was even a pottery place where you can take an instructed class, and they will ship your finished pottery to your home. I also came across two street artists that enhanced the Path with tranquil cello music or beautiful watercolor paintings. It was a highly enjoyable experience, but it was just a bit different from what I was expecting.

A cellist busking at a bench, and an old artist selling his paintings. Travelers weaving in and out. Can you imagine it in your head? What would it be like if I lived in this mint-green house, and it was all part of my daily life?20170316_131913.jpg

Fresh air20170316_132129.jpg

At one point in the path, there were 7 or so stray cats enjoying the day. They were hanging out by the staircase that leads down to a bigger residential area. 20170316_132316.jpg

This cat wouldn’t leave the garbage can!20170316_132332.jpg

Public announcement for tourists. There was nothing to say you shouldn’t touch the cats. I saw many tourists petting them and taking pictures with them.20170316_132411.jpg

Yo, this is the back garden of someone’s house!!!!! It was so zen and well-decorated. The house was a bit below the hill, so I got to spy a bit of it from above. Screw the Philosopher’s Path, can I sit and think here?!20170316_132434 whose garden is this! Goddamn.jpg

Ah, but I should be grateful for what I can get, and not envy someone else’s property. I tore my eyes off the immaculate, private garden, and continued on the Path. 20170316_132742.jpg

I had believed that there wouldn’t be any cafes or shops on the Philosopher’s Path, so I had bought dessert earlier from a Lawson konbini. How foolish I was.

Sitting on a bench on the and enjoying my matcha dessert cup.

20170316_135108 밑에는 쌉싸릉한 마차 젤라틴으로 굳른 크림.jpg 20170316_135251.jpg

You can request a rickshaw man to cover some of the Path, as I saw in this instance.  Near the top of the photo, the rickshaw man in blue is carrying two customers over a bridge.20170316_135705

Thankfully,  I found a translated map as I was walking. There are also some signs along the Path that tells you which direction some main attractions are, like the Silver Pavillion.20170316_134135.jpg

After spending an hour walking back and forth the Path, I headed towards the most calming place I had ever visited in my life, the Ginkakuji (aka. Jishoji aka. Silver Pavillion).

More shops and food on the street to Ginkakuji. 20170316_140606.jpg

Eating Japan: 58 Diner in Kyoto

I set off from the Kyoto hostel for my walk to Philosopher’s Path and Ginkakuji (aka. Jishoji, aka, Silver Pavillion, aka. the prettiest garden you’ll ever see). As usual, I was walking according to Google Map’s directions, and felt a pang of hunger around noon. I chanced upon 58 Diner, a restaurant with an outdoor sign that had English on it!!!

Some English at the bottom.20170316_115000.jpg

I saw two young ladies eating by the window seat, and suddenly, I had complete trust in this place, so I went in.

At the beginning of my trip, I used to love walking into restaurants that had no English anywhere, for that “extra authentic” Japanese experience, but I stopped doing that halfway through my journey. I avoided places with no English or pictures on their menu. The reason will be explained, in another blog post that highlights the few negative experiences I had in Japan as a foreigner. Overall, I had a wonderful time in Japan and the people are generally nice, but every country is bound to have its assholes, right?

Anyway, back to this blog post! I got a nice seat by the wall, and was soon provided a handwritten English menu.

They have illustrated instructions on how to eat their juicy burgers! So cute! There is cutlery in that wooden box with the red “58 Diner” branded tablecloth.20170316_115454.jpg

A lot of restaurants have baskets for your bags and jackets.20170316_115602.jpg

A well-decorated space with vintage odds and ends, an old jukebox, old Coca-Cola posters, etc. They went for that American, greasy spoon, old diner feel. Gotta love the camping water cooler. A blanket is provided in case your legs get cold.20170316_120332.jpg

I ordered the BOTD (burger of the day) meal, “kidney beans and orive” burger, as it said on the menu. I wondered what an “orive” was, but quickly inferred that they had meant “olive”! What an adorable little mistake!

Kidney bean and orive burger with fries and salad with pink dressing! Check out the cute pirate flag.20170316_120625.jpg

When it came out, my eyes widened in delight. It was so colorful and not like any other burger I’d ever seen. I told the waitress (she looked like she was part-owner or something like that), “It’s so pretty!!!”.

However, she didn’t understand, and instead, thought I was asking for extra cutlery. So she kindly got me a knife and an extra fork from the wooden box on my table. I really wanted her to understand my compliment, so even though I knew literally 6 words in Japanese, I tried to think of a way to express myself. Thankfully, I had learned the word “kirei” (beautiful, pretty) just the day before. So I said, “No, no, um….kirei!”. At that point, she smiled widely and said, “Oh, thank you!”.

Heavy breathing. 20170316_120740 botd kidney beans and orive..jpg

I followed their illustrated instruction and got a wax paper pocket, for mess-free eating. I am always blown away by the attention to detail. They even stamped these paper pockets with their logo.20170316_120811 clever. Mess free eating.jpg

Put the burger in the pocket like so, and all the juices will be caught by the pocket. 20170316_120829 grilled onion at bottom.jpg

The burger was exquisite! Even better than the burgers in Toronto. The patty was very fresh and coarsely ground, so you could actually chew some meat. The buns were extra delicious, and I read later that they bake the buns in house. They came toasted, so they were crispy and warm. I really like the rings of grilled onion at the bottom. It added sweetness and texture, and didn’t leave me with onion breath.

I wish I could have their burger everyday…. 20170316_122630.jpg

It was one of the best burgers of my life.

Eating Japan: The most famous tonkotsu ramen shop in the country- Ippudo (+ short rant on traveling alone)

I got that title “The most famous tonkotsu…” straight from the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page for Ippudo ramen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ippudo), because I’m such a legitimate source of information like that, you know?

But seriously, this was THE best bowl of ramen I had in Japan. I was near tears as I ate it. Hell, I had to hold them back because I was in a public place.

I am no ramen expert, but I am a genuine lover of tonkotsu ramen, and I could have had two bowls of this in one seating, if my stomach would have allowed it.

It was a rainy day, and I was looking for a warm bowl of anything, to replenish my mana. It had been an extra tiring day, as I had not taken an umbrella when I left the hostel. I had to fit my schedule and travel routes for the day around the sporadic drops of rain that came whenever it pleased, and now, it was pouring heavy. Putting a shopping bag over my head that contained a scarf I had bought earlier, I was able to save myself from looking like a drenched raccoon. And I was hungry.

I had heard about the Ippudo ramen chain from a YouTube video the day before, and had plans to visit a location before I left Japan. Incidentally, I found it appearing on Google Maps on my way back to my hostel. I thought this was fate, and I sat on the waiting chairs outside the restaurant. Even on a rainy Wednesday night, there was a line-up.

I recognized the Ippudo logo from a YouTube video I had watched earlier. Otherwise, I would have passed right by. The Internet really is an amazing tool for travel.20170315_183424 ippudo!!! 비오는 날에도 줄이.jpg

As usual, a menu is provided while you wait, to make efficient use of time.20170315_184025.jpg

When in doubt at a ramen place, I pick the most expensive bowl available. I am usually unable to go back to the same ramen place twice because there is just too much stuff to eat in Japan. So I pick the bowl with the most stuff in it, and hope the bowl is a culmination of everything that the ramen-ya is proud of.

After a short 15 minute wait, I was already facing my beautiful bowl of Akamaru Modern Special (1,080 yen). 1,080 yen is pretty expensive, but I had no doubt that it would be worth it.20170315_185057.jpg

The men was pretty thin, so I could guess that the broth would be somewhat drinkable.20170315_185232.jpg

The broth was just amazing. While the kyoto-style ramen I had at Sen no Kaze left something to be desired, this broth struck the right balance for me between saltiness, fattiness, and richness. I purposely sipped slowly on the broth to stretch it for as long as I could.

Lots of toppings you can put in yourself, like benishoga, pickled veg, spicy bean sprouts, pepper, sesame seeds, soy sauce, etc. They also had a vegetable side dish that was available upon request; I regret not asking for it!20170315_191659.jpg

Their egg left me in a mindf**k. Seriously. The egg being perfectly cooked for a creamy and runny yolk and soft whites was just the beginning. There had to be some witchcraft behind this savory egg. 20170315_185727.jpg

The egg had come whole, not sliced in half like most other places. Also, the egg had retained its natural color, and there was no tint of soy sauce or other colored seasoning anywhere on, or in the egg. Yet, the yolk was seasoned perfectly. It was just the right level of salty, and it seemed like a Caramilk mystery- How did they get the salty in the egg?! Was there a breed of hen that laid eggs with perfectly seasoned yolks? The whites of the egg wasn’t salty, so I was struck by the mystery of how they got the salt to penetrate to the yolk. I am starting to sound obsessed, but that’s because I am.

I had heard of ramen masters steaming eggs in salt casings, and the saltiness from the casing naturally seeps into the egg, so could this be the case? But the whites wasn’t even salty. HOW DID THEY DO IT?

I was overwhelmed by the amount of beauty in this single bowl of ramen. My stomach was full, but I didn’t want this to end.

So I ordered kaedama – an extra serving of just the noodles. I saw many customers ordering extra men. Ippudo highly encouraged customers to do so on their menu, with an English comic illustration on the concept of kaedama.

My plate of kaedama. I made the mistake of asking for asking the noodles be cooked firmer (they have three or four levels of cooked-ness that you can request) because I wanted to try a different mouthfeel. They came verrrry al-dente, and I regretted it. I think they literally put it in boiling water for 20 seconds and gave it to me. Should have just let the ramen master give me the usual noodles. Why did I pretend like I knew what I was ordering?!20170315_190313.jpg

After I soaked up the remaining broth with my extra serving of hard-cooked noodles, I was stuffed. I solemnly washed out the remaining trace of the broth in my mouth with a gulp of the iced tea they provide, and headed out the restaurant. A much longer line-up of customers had formed, despite the still-heavy rain.

Feeling full, satisfied and full of wonder about that magical egg yolk, I walked back to my hostel in the peace of a rainy Kyoto night.

Walking along the huge Kamo River bridge of Kyoto alone…You can see the beacon of light that is Kyoto Tower in the distance. They have a law in Kyoto that no building is allowed to be built higher than the Tower.20170315_201635.jpg

A closer shot of Kyoto Tower and the houses on the other side of Kamo River. How beautiful.20170315_202351.jpg

When you travel alone, there are times when a wave of emotions hits you full-on, and you just have to ride it out. Walking along the Kamo River bridge on a rainy evening was one of those times. I was struck by a snowball of emotions as I strolled quickly alongside all the cars. Happiness, sadness, fear, calm, loneliness, pride and envy all hit me at the same time, and no emotion was the principal. In a matter of seconds, I toggled between feeling like a giant and like a tiny insect; between feeling like I was exactly where I should be, and like I was in the most wrong place at the most wrong time.

Traveling alone can be wonderful at times, but it can also be crippling at times. It really depends on the person whether it’s the right way to be. I still haven’t come to a conclusion yet on which kind of traveler I am; solo or group. Maybe I am a mix of both. Maybe we all are.