Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Japan 2012 - Hanami-Koji in Kyoto Gion

The biggest attraction in Kyoto is without a doubt the Gion district, where tourist throng hoping to catch a glimpse of the enigmatic geishas and maikos. Hanami-Koji is probably one of your first stops when you visit Gion. This is a long street lined on both sides with old wooden merchant houses - called "machiya", which are mostly restaurants and teahouses. These are some of the most exclusive establishments in Kyoto and you will need deep pockets to dine here, even deeper pockets if you wish to be entertained by maikos or geishas.

Theres more to it then the maikos and geishas of course. I was fascinated by the architecture of the houses there. They are quite low - often just high enough for a person to stand up without touching the ceiling. This makes the upper floor very close to the ground, and overall creating a very intimate streetscape. There are very little open windows - most of these are covered with wooden shutters or blinds, presumably so that the geishas or maikos who live on top can spy on the street without being seen.

Like everybody else who was there, I was waiting for the maikos to appear. Your best chance of spotting one would be in the evening. I was luckly to see several. They always seem to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, so you need to work really fast with your camera.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Japan 2012 - Kyoto city

Once you get into Kyoto City, you can immediately feel the difference compared to Osaka. Osaka has a big city feel. People are more hurried, and seem to be always going somewhere. Kyoto is not as crowded, and time seems to slow down a little bit here. 

For centuries the capital of Japan, Kyoto was the administrative and cultural centre of Japan until 1868, when the Meiji government shifted the capital to Tokyo. You can still see the remnants of many old buildings interspersed with new developments. Behind the main streets are a maze of old streets waiting to be explored. Coupled with its compact size - the city seems designed for time-starved tourists.

Kamogawa is the main river that runs through the eastern side of Kyoto city. On the side of the river are lots of restaurants and tea houses with balconies overlooking the beautiful river.

 It would be pretty hard to spot a girl in kimono in Osaka, but in my first hour in Kyoto I spotted several. Like any city that knows its worth - people here take great pride in their tradition.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Japan 2012 - Osaka to Kyoto by Train

After 2 days in Osaka, I was ready to head to Kyoto - my next destination. The easiest to get from Osaka to Kyoto would be to take the train. The distance between the 2 cities is only around 42 km, and the train journey will take around 45 min.

To take inter-city trains you head over to the Umeda Train Station in the northern part of Osaka. You can't take the Bullet Trains (Shinkansen) from here. For that you need to head to Shin-Osaka Station which is just a bit further north. But due to the short distance there is really no point taking the much more expensive Shinkansen between Osaka and Kyoto.

The countryside between Osaka and Kyoto is not exactly pretty - very unlike the idyllic scenes in Hayao Miyazaki's cartoons. But it was interesting to see where the normal Japanese people live. Not all of them live in super-highrise condos. 

Like most Japanese services, the trains here run like clockwork. Better get to the station early or you may be disappointed.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Japan 2012 - Japanese Food Halls

Eating in restaurants in Japan can be an expensive affair. A simple meal can easily cost over RM 50 per person, and more elaborate meals well over RM 100. One of the ways to have great food without bursting the budget is to head to a food hall. There is usually one at the basement of a departmental store. The popular ones are Mitsukoshi, Daimaru, Seibu, Hankyu, Isetan, etc.

This being Japan, most of what's on offer is Japanese cuisine.

Though some foreign intruders are making some inroads here. Fancy a lunch by the famous Paul Bocuse ?

Don't look down on the supermarket location, as the preparation is usually top notch. If you choose carefully, a meal here can taste as good as that in a high end restaurant - at a fraction of the cost. The only problem is at most of these places, there is a dearth of seating. Most of the patrons would buy the food and eat outside, which is great in good weather but a bit of a drag if not.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Japan 2012 - Umeda Sky Building in Osaka

Another reason for my visit to Osaka was to see the Umeda Sky Building. This is one of those quirky buildings that could only have been built in Japan - due to the unusual design and high cost. Though the crown for the city with the most number of quriky buildings probably go to Dubai nowadays.

Conceived as part of the "City of Air" project, there were originally supposed to be 4 towers linked at the top. Due to practical reasons the final versions had only 2 40-storey towers capped at the top with a sky terrace.

The sky terrace is supposed to look like a floating city in the air. If you look carefully you can see cute little details like small houses and structures at the side of the sky terrace. From some angles the illusion of the floating city is quite palpable - the office towers clad entirely in glass curtain walls disappear due to the reflections of the sky.

Umeda Sky Building is near Umeda Station - one of the main stations in Osaka. This is also one of the most commercial developed areas in Osaka.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Japan 2012 - Osaka Castle

If you have watched Samurai films, you probably have seen Osaka Castle. It is one of Japan's most famous castles, and played a major role in the unification of Japan in the 16th Century.It is located at the North East side of Osaka City - easily reachable by the subway.

The Castle itself is surrounded by a moat. If you went by the subway there is a bit of a walk to the castle ground, but the beautiful park along the way more then made up for it. 

The Castle is quite magnificent with white walls and gold gilded ornaments. 

Don't forget to go inside, where there are displays on the history of the Castle and the various warlords and Shoguns who have built or captured the Castle.

The castle also offers great views of Osaka City from the top.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Happy CNY 2013 !

To all my friends and blog readers

May the Year of the Snake 
bring you happiness, prosperity and most importantly - good health !

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Japan 2012 - Lunch at Saijiki Japanese Buffet Restaurant

I was looking for a nice place for lunch at Namba Parks and came across this great looking restaurant. Upon further investigation, I found out that it was a Japanese buffet restaurant emphasizing on organic food. The price was also very reasonable by Japanese standards - around JPY 1,900 or RM 65. Hotels in KL charge much more then that ! My mind was made up.

It was close to lunch time and the crowd was already building up. I had to wait a short while to be seated. They have helpfully placed chairs at the entrance for waiting customers - so this must be a common occurence.

Once inside you will see a large buffet area with a generous buffet spread. The dining area is a bit further in. The interior reminds me of a 5 star hotel coffee house - not unlike those in KL and Singapore. 

All the dishes are very unusual and you can really see the freshness of the ingredients. They are expertly prepared, and constantly replenished so you are not eating stale leftovers.

My first platter - just to try a little bit of everything. There was nothing I didn't like !

I later discovered these special plates where you could assemble your own gourmet platter. Beautiful !

Desserts were limited but all good.

Saijiki was easily the best food value I came across on my Japan trip. Good food, great ambiance and reasonable pricing - don't miss it while in Osaka.