WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FOLLOW YOUR TASTE BUDS IN JAPAN!
It was in the 90’s when I started to frequent Japan. Filipino celebrities were often invited to entertain our kababayans who worked abroad. In a way you can say our job was to relieve the homesickness of our hardworking overseas workers in the land of the rising sun. And those were really good times, and especially novel back in the time when the world was a little less global.
While we went to many provinces then, I never really got to enjoy so much of the nation because of our odd working hours. We were asked to perform at three in the morning and often ended at around nine. We barely had energy left to do anything else in the day and often, we chose to sleep in.
Nevertheless I got to try the onsen (public baths), shopped for little trinkets at Don Quixote, and spent half the time trying to figure out what was written on the menu. (There were absolutely no English signs back in the 90’s, I kid you not.) My shopping included Akihabara for anything electronic, and boot bargains were almost everywhere.
Ten years after the turn of the millennium, I entered a new course of life. I married a man tasked to travel the world in 2010 and we went to fly to Japan together three years into it. I was surprised to see a very different Japan then. First of all, our church was in Yokohama, which is about an hour away from Tokyo, and quite obscure from Filipino tourists. It is beautifully situated by the bay, and I honestly prefer its quietness over the bustling Tokyo. (Click this to see my old Yokohama post!)
There was nothing beyond Yokohama for us in the last few years and it’s because most of our friends live there. But I always thought it would be good to visit the other provinces, as our friends say each region will also display quite a different side fo Japan. So this was the impetus that made me click that booking fast enough when a seat sale flashed on my feed.
Apparently, this city in Kansai is a food destination, and for the first time in my life, I actually had an itinerary that was pretty much spent mostly on eating! Even our friends from Yokohama say that food tripping the thing to do Osaka, as well as its neighboring cities, and we did not have a problem obeying. All five days were about tiring ourselves enough to eat a horse for every meal, every day. And today I share some of the best stops that filled our hearts, minds and tummies, as we explored the streets and eats of what is actually called to be the “nation’s kitchen.”
Because we came from a red eye flight and took us a half a day to settle that we ended up ready for lunch at three. Apparently, all restaurants around our airbnb in Shin-Osaka were closed and thus we ended in Family Mart. Nevertheless my friends swear by their Karaage. It turned out to be a delicious way to tide through your next meal.
There was also quite a lot at the Shin-Osaka station for eating and shopping. I believe all stations must have a variety of local food, as well as small shops for light shopping and souvenirs. We stopped by for quick ramen before heading to Dotonbori.
Now Dotonbori is a different story all together. Here, you will find Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki, and ramen that will not be as good anywhere else in the world. And while there were restaurants, we felt like it was part of the experience to eat al fresco, out in the cold, yes. We happily ordered from the stalls and willingly shared our discoveries. All were superb! I find that in Osaka, it is quite hard to go wrong with any food order.
The itinerary was Osaka Castle, which we did not bother to enter so we paid for nothing but transportation. (We used trains all the way, FYI. No cabs for us, all subway and JR. This is great exercise that affords you all the calorie intake. Take my word for it.) It was more than enough to talk along the yards and enjoy the beautiful fall scenery, anyway.
And if you get hungry, almost every shrine and landmark would have food stalls that sell the usual Japanese delights: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, sugar-laced sweet potato in cups, grilled corn, hot pot, soft serve ice cream, and more.
At night we headed to Umeda. We were supposed to see the Sky Building but temperatures kept dropping by the hour. It was also very rainy and windy the whole day that it slowed down our pace, walking to and from stations and destinations. But the delight of our day came when we chanced upon the Umeda Shopping Arcade and a stall called Tart Stand which sold the best cheese tarts I have ever tasted in my entire life! Goodness, from crust to the quality of cheese and how it melts away in your mouth is simply world class. This is worth a trip. Don’t dare leave Osaka without getting even just a piece of this.
After this cheese dessert, we all wanted to have some coffee and stopped by a branch of Hoshino Coffee in the area. (They have lots all over Kansai. Arcades mostly have it.) It is when we tasted perhaps the best pancake soufflé in the world, that was best paired with their coffee. (Japanese coffee by the way, has a very strong flavor and kick.) This warm pancake was also so comforting to eat in the winter weather.
Note: Osaka is also a favorable destination as it is so near the other interesting cities of Kyoto, Nara, Kobe.
It was Sunday and there goes our biggest mistake. This was the day we reserved to explore picturesque Kyoto and it was nothing short of crowded! Nevertheless, follow lists you find online. It hides many pathways that are conducive for thinking and reflecting. We went to see Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari, ate at a standing-only udon/soba soup bowls stop at the train station, which turned out to be the best meal of my trip!
For dinner, we decided to find a restaurant which served sushi on a conveyor belt. We happened to find at the train station. Here is a tip: if and when in doubt, you can always find something gastronomic inside or surrounding the train stations.
For Memoirs of a Geisha fans, do visit the Gion District where some geishas are said to appear before sunset as they walk to work. I saw some people in kimonos, however I couldn’t be sure they were the real deal. Nevertheless it was a very cinematic walk to take and very fulfilling for trigger-happy photo hobbyists like me!
Some of our friends from Yokohama arrived and they suggested to meet at this really famous pancake place in Osaka called Elk. It is actually all over Japan and it is only a matter of finding the nearest branch to you. And just like the Tart Stand, this too, is a MUST. Think super fluffy pancakes. Like cloud. But my advice is to get the simplest, most basic pancake item on the menu and if you want to try anything outside of it, the pistachio Christmas special was also good. (They probably won’t have it until next Christmas season, though.)
Now the rest of the day was about walking around and also a little shopping. As I have recommended once before, my most favorite shops in Japan are Daiso, Flying Tiger (which is a Copenhagen brand that somehow found a place in the quirkiness of Japan), and GU. Uniqlo also, but since we already have this in the Philippines, I didn’t feel like hoarding this time.
They would have this almost everywhere, so do find a Kushikatsu place. This is a Japanese dish of deep fried skewered meats and vegetables with special dipping sauce. We had this for late lunch on Day 4 and found our way back to Dotonbori for dinner. I told you, we were only tiring ourselves enough all the time, just so we could burn and be hungry again for another meal.
On our last day, we went through the ultimate Japanese experience of getting lost in their intricate subway system as we were making our way to Nara Park. It is the park where people get to feed droves of deer that inhabit the place. My son had so much fun feeding them from his hand and observing their behavior. On our way back to the station we chose to eat at a decent restaurant and I think that I won the award for having ordered the best set on the menu!
Aside from my shop recos above, do try Bic Camera also for all your technology needs. They have mostly everything you can think of when it comes to photography paraphernalia, and all other gadgets.
And because this was our last night that we couldn’t resist going back to Dotonbori for dinner. Once again we braved the cold and the crowd that trudged through the streets with us, and ate perhaps the best ramen I have ever tasted in my life. It was in a place called Todai Ramen, where your meal comes unlimited free raw eggs you can crack to mix with your soup or use as dipping sauce for your beef. It is really as good as it sounds and there was no other way we could have ended our five-day exploration in Osaka than with the realisation that: When in Japan, it is best to follow your stomach and not your heart!
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