In beautiful Kyoto: Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari

If you could live in any foreign city for a year, which one would it be? For me, it would have to be Kyoto.

The first time I got to set foot in this Japanese city, I was smitten. Centuries-old heritage sites, picturesque tree-lined paths, charming alleys lined by traditional wooden houses, idyllic-looking neighborhoods–every turn seemed to reveal something old and beautiful. The former imperial capital also sits close to nature, surrounded by many mountains, but like other Japanese cities, it maintains the usual modern trappings (all you need to do is arrive in Kyoto Station to see it). And while it can get crowded during spring and autumn, Kyoto still possesses a relaxed atmosphere, a calm murmur compared to a frenetic throb of a metropolis like Tokyo.

On our fourth day in Japan, in our trip last month, we took the train out of Osaka to spend the entire Saturday in Kyoto. The two places we didn’t get to see the first time we went there were the Fushimi Inari shrine and the Arashiyama area, both places that do nothing to diminish Kyoto’s reputation as one of the most culturally-rich cities in the country.

Dreamy Arashiyama

Dreamy bamboo grove in Arashiyama

Arashiyama area (or Sagano) is a charming district that lies at the base of Kyoto’s western mountains. The charm sets in the minute you get off the Hankyu Kyoto Line and go out of the Hankyu Arashiyama Station. It’s a small town train station and when you get out, the streets are pretty quiet and empty except for the throngs of tourists such as yourself spilling out of the station. There’s a tree-lined avenue to the side, which you take on foot or with a bike to lead you to a small bridge.  After you cross the bridge, you face a riverside park covered in pebbles. (So wear comfy walking shoes and not heels as I saw some tourists were wearing. Eeep!)

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Staying in Osaka’s Kita (Umeda) ward

Whenever I travel, one of the things I’m eager to see is the neighborhood where I will be staying. In Saigon, it was at the heart of the backpacker’s district where noisy, touristy bars and hole-in-the-wall cafes and eateries lined the street. In Hong Kong, it was along Nathan Road where all you needed was to roll off the bed and you’d find yourself shopping.

In this recent trip to Japan, we decided to stay in the Kita district. Also known as Umeda, this northern part of Osaka seemed relatively not as popular as the Minami area. With flashy Dotonbori in Minami luring droves of travelers especially in the evening, Umeda, the guides write, is more of a daytime destination with a few good department stores, countless restaurants, and the Umeda Sky Building one of its few attractions.

View of Osaka from the Umeda Sky Building in Umeda, Kita-ku

View of Osaka from the Umeda Sky Building in Umeda district in Kita-ku

Imagining Kita to be not as flashy or crowded as the area of Dotonbori or Namba, but still with a respectable number of places to see, I booked a hotel in its Doyama district. (It also helped that the major rail terminal Osaka Station is located in the area, which conveniently serves the JR Kyoto and Kobe lines and the Osaka Loop Line for those planning to make Osaka their base and see the other nearby cities.)

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How to keep the kuidaore spirit alive in Dotonbori

Eat. And eat some more. And it’s easy to do in Dotonbori.

Dotonbori in Minami is probably one of the most recognized places of the city aside from Osaka Castle. Sure it’s crowded, touristy and there’s enough blinking neon signs (hello, Mr. Glico running man billboard) to likely light up an entire town. But it’s also one of the many places in Osaka where you can embrace kuidaore in all its gluttonous glory.

A Japanese word meaning to ruin oneself by extravagance in food and drink, kuidaore has long been associated with Osaka, a city that prides itself for its obsessive love for food.

The Glico Man and the rest of them neon lights welcome you

The Glico Man and the rest of them neon lights welcome you

We get there in the late afternoon after an hour spent in the cat cafe earlier. While there were no crazy neon lights yet, there was already a crowd spilling over from Shin Saibashi-suji and Ebisu Bashi-suji shopping streets. We ducked inside a couple of shops, but there seemed to be more people with the goal to ruin themselves with extravagance in shopping.

Dotonbori has been around since the 17th century when it served as an entertainment district housing several theaters. According to guide books, even back then there were many restaurants to cater to the  mass of tourists and theater-goers taking over Dotonbori every evening.

Walking around

Walking around Dotonbori in the late afternoon as the signboards that line the street start to light up

Minus the many theaters, it seems not much has changed. There’s still a mass of tourists… only this time we’re making the culinary pilgrimage to the birthplace of okonomiyaki (pancakes filled with veggies, seafood or pork), takoyaki (octopus balls) and kushi-katsu or kushiage (deep-fried battered skewers of meat or veggies). Below are where many people stop by to pay their respects…to eat and eat and eat.

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Getting shaken up in Osaka: an earthquake, one large aquarium, and a cat cafe

In the early morning of March 14, our third day in Osaka, my husband woke me up. “I think there’s an earthquake.” Still half-asleep I wanted to ignore him, but our bed was shaking and I realized it was one of those moments when I shouldn’t respond with, “Five more minutes.”

We sat up and waited it out; I’m sure it only lasted a few seconds but it felt longer. I wasn’t unfamiliar with earthquakes as the Philippines has its fair share every now and then, but since it was just a few days after Japan remembered the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, I called the front desk after the tremors to let us know if there was anything we needed to do. The good people of our hotel, in all their politeness and calm told us, “Yes it seemed to be an earthquake. We will let you know if there’s any more information.” Somehow the tone of the front desk person reassured me and in half an hour I was back to sleep, looking forward to another day exploring Osaka.

After the rainy Osaka Castle outing the day before, one other Osaka attraction we wanted to check off our list was the Osaka Aquarium or Kaiyukan. I’ve always been curious of what these Ocean Park-types of places were like, but have just never gotten around to it here in Manila or in Hong Kong in last year’s trip. Kaiyukan with its popular whale shark attraction convinced me to fork the pricey entrance fee (2,300 yen..which can already buy you a nice meal).

Osaka Aquarium

Osaka Aquarium

You start the tour on the eight floor and work your way down with the view of the  different large tanks that represent different parts of the Pacific Rim around you.

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Current somewhere: Osaka, Japan

We’re in Japan! Almost four years have passed since I made my first trip here with P and we’re  as  happy and grateful as we were the last time that we managed to get here. Same idiotic grins plastered on our faces as we sat on the train out of Kansai International Airport and to Osaka, our base for the trip. (While the two high school boys–who I was already casting in a J-drama in my head–in front of us probably thought, “Bunch of weirdos.” But then we’re in Japan, weird is likely very relative.)

We got to our hotel at almost 10:30 pm (will write about how to go to Osaka from KIX in another post) and by then we just wanted to have dinner, walk a bit in the shopping street where our hotel was located, and get some sleep.

Yesterday, was our first chance to really explore and we went to Osaka Castle, in spite of the pouring rain. All those hours I’ve spent glued to my chair the past few days have now been replaced with hours of walking. I love it…my feet and legs, not so much.

Osaka Castle, which seemed most picturesque with the cherry blossoms in bloom in the foreground (as how Osaka postcards show it), looked drab and gray like the skies at the time. The castle is the city’s most iconic landmark but as I found out from a travel guide, it’s just a replica of the one built in 1853–but not a faithful replica. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times through centuries, you can’t really fault Japan’s third biggest city from building a more enduring version.

Walking to Osaka-jo

Walking to Osaka-jo from the bridge nearest (and when I say nearest, I mean a 15-minute walk from) the Osakajokoen Station on the JR Loop Line.

osakajo2

It just kept pouring even after the hour-long exploration within the walls of the castle

The nearby Plum Grove in the castle grounds provided the day’s bright spot! Who cares about a downpour and muddy grounds when you’ve got some pathways lined with pretty pink blooms? We’re not going to reach the blooming of the cherry trees this time around, but the plum blooms, which are some of the first blossoms to open to signify the start of spring, were just as lovely.

I’ll post more about our trip around Kansai when we get back, but here are a few photos of the blooming plum trees to start off the weekend with something nice and pretty.

Cold and wet but we were g;ad to look...

slouchingsomewhere_osakajogarden

plumgrove

Up close and personal to some beautiful plum blossoms

Up close to some beautiful plum blossoms

How to get to Osaka Castle: From the JR Loop Line, get down Osakajokoen Station.

Because it was a long Monday

I think I was glued to my chair for most of the 10 hours I spent in the office today. It wasn’t pretty. It was one of those days when you’re just so exhausted you don’t even have time to taste your food or say anything to your concerned husband on the drive home. Thank God for an evening in bed with a funny, easy read (Mindy Kaling, I want to hang out with you!), great music, and music videos shot on location in Japan. Just a few more days to go.

Pinoy bread favorites from the humble panaderia

A couple of boulangeries have recently opened in Manila (hello, Paul and Eric Kayser) and there’s even an honest-to-goodness New York-type of bagel place (you must try L.E.S. Bagels!). They’re typically located in the more upscale parts of the metropolis or posh shopping malls, but for homegrown types of bread, you only need to go to a panaderia or local bakery.

A panaderia in Kapitolyo, Pasig

This panaderia in Kapitolyo, Pasig sells delicious putok, which they take out of the oven at around noon (And like many other panaderia, they still put your bread purchases in a brown paper bag)

As someone who dearly loves bread, I grew up looking forward to merienda or after-school snack when my dad would buy something sweet or carb-y or both from the bakery three blocks away from the corner of our street in our old neighborhood in Manila. I loved it when we could go with him and I could inhale the wonderful aroma brought on by the mixture of flour, water, eggs, yeast, and shortening.

Behind the glass case of that corner street bakery would be trays of warm pan de coco, monay, putok, Spanish bread, those local sugared-dusted doughnuts, and ensaymada. The pan de sal would typically be at the back, freshly baked and waiting to be picked up and encased in a brown paper bag for you to bring home. There are many other types of bread in the baking scene now, probably considered more sublime, complex or even more mind-blowing (yes, I don’t doubt bread can be any of those things), but these ones from the humble neighborhood panaderia are likely the ones that have shaped many Pinoys love for bread and nourished many other kids during breakfast or merienda. It did that for me. And all I need now is a glass of Tang and my dad calling us to the table to have some bread. Continue reading