Kampai! Tasting whisky and a guided tour of Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

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If you still think that traveling around the Japan will cost you an arm, a leg and a kidney, then you’re not looking hard enough. There are free tours available in the country, most of which will give you a taste of Japanese culture–which can be in a glass of whisky. Continue reading

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Ninjas, anime, and film shoots at Toei Kyoto Studio Park

Ninjas on rooftops, samurais and sword fights, super robots. These were just some of the things my husband and I were looking forward to when we made the trip to Japan last March. Him especially. And we found them all at Toie Kyoto Studio Park.

Entrance...

By the entrance and ticket booth of Kyoto Studio Park. Oh look, ninjas.

If Kyoto is referred to by guide books as the the Japan of your imagination (what with its dizzying number of historic temples and shrines, teahouses and tradition), then Toei Kyoto Studio Park is place you want to go to if your imagination is keen to include anime, manga, ninjas and samurais.

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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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The cherry blossoms are blooming

I just remembered that it was exactly a year ago today when my husband and I finally got to go to Japan. The trip was amazing and it sealed our fascination for everything Japanese. Japan was more beautiful than I imagined especially with those fluffy, pink clouds of cherry blossoms in parks, gardens, temples, street corners, riversides, and bridges.

A cherry blossom tree just outside a house along the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto

Many people stroll (and shoot) along the Philosopher's Path, a beautiful walkway lined with blooming cherry blossom trees during spring

Cherry blossom trees getting all lit up in the evening in a street in Gion

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park

Cherry trees line both sides of the Sumida River in Tokyo

Yoyogi Park in Tokyo

Japanese and foreign tourists descend upon Ueno Park in Tokyo from late March to early April

Appreciating the blossoms’ delicate beauty and short life span, the Japanese take the time to celebrate its arrival with viewing parties (hanami). The flower also figures in Japanese poetry and literature, seen as a metaphor for life–it’s beautiful, it’s fleeting, it has to be celebrated, and it ends. Sometimes all too soon.

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When you want some company (our last supper in Kyoto)

For our last dinner in Kyoto, P wanted to go back to this restaurant, which we saw the night before when we walked around Gion with Yashi and the other IchiEnSou guests. It was a restaurant serving a variation of okonomiyaki that had a humorous statue of a boy running with a bag of the restaurant’s specialty, while a dog chases him and tugs down his pants (see photo below).

An okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake that roughly translates to “what you like” (okonomi) and “grilled” or “cooked”(yaki ). As such, it can contain a variety of seafood, meat, and different vegetables and cooked in a teppan or hot plate. In the Gion restaurant, the okonomiyaki it serves is called Issen Yoshoku (which is also the name of the restaurant)—yoshoku for ‘Western food’ (Western because the batter used is made of wheat flour) and sen because it used to cost about 1 US cent.

The eye-catching facade of Issen Yoshoku

The cooks hard at work. (See the mannequin on the left, it's a clue on what awaited us inside)

The cooks preparing the mounds of Issen Yoshoku face the street, which attracts many onlookers, most if not all of whom were tourists who had whipped out their cameras (just like us). The dish is more crepe than pancake and thinly sliced pork, tiny shrimps, a lot of chopped scallions, and egg are among the ingredients that get tossed in before it’s folded in half and served.

Intrigued, we went inside and were taken to a table where a female mannequin in a kimono was seated. Oh-kay. Looking around, most tables had kimono-clad female mannequins accompanying the diners. I had seen this type of restaurant (or it could have been this very restaurant) in a news segment on Japan years back. Seated mannequins on every table to keep diners company. (I researched about it later on in Kyotofoodie.com and found out it’s the humorous ploy of the owner to lure drunken men to the restaurant when they see the seeming abundance of attractive single women seated inside from the street.) Oh, Japan. How do you think of these things (and go about actually doing them)? 🙂

Issen Yoshoku's funny menu: Ta-daah! It only serves one dish! (Catch a glimpse of our lady companion at the top-left corner of the photo)

The crepe-like creation is served with lots of sweet okonomiyaki sauce and strips of nori

We ordered two beers and two Issen Yoshoku, one for me and P. (Our lady companion was not having anything. Cheap date.) I wasn’t too crazy about this okonomiyaki (just too many scallions for my taste), but my husband liked it and even finished my share. Still, it was a fun dining experience and if you’re in the Gion area, do go inside and buy your lady friend a drink.