Category Archives: Travel

Exploring Kyoto: Nishiki Markets, Gion and Kaiseki

It’s been a while between Japan posts but I’m trying to get through everything before I head to Japan again in less than 30 days! (not that I’m counting). After travelling through Hokkaido and catching a quick flight to Osaka, we used Osaka as a base to explore other areas in the region. After travelling through Hokkaido and catching a quick flight to Osaka, we used Osaka as a base to explore other areas in the region.

Entrance to Remm Shin-Osaka

We stayed at the remm hotel in Shin-Osaka station which was a clean and ultra modern hotel within the station building. Being at a major train station that had several train lines going through it meant that it was a great location to travel easily to other cities via the shinkansen, which also made good use of our JR passes.

We had to be quite ruthless in whittling down our itinerary seeing as we only had a few days in Osaka. Since neither Sir D nor I were particularly interested in sightseeing temples and stuff, we decided to do a couple of touristy sightseeing things before spending time on the more important things – food!

1000 torii gates

On our way to Kyoto, we stopped at Inari station to see the Fushimi Inari shrine. As we walked up the mountain, the torii gates became smaller but more numerous, until we got to senbon torii (thousands of torii gates), where the trail split into two pathways. It was quite a breathtaking sight to walk through a tunnel of bright orange, with the rays of sunlight filtering through the small spaces between the dense torii gates and reflecting off the wood to give an orange glow.

Inscriptions on each torii

The shrine is dedicated to the god Inari, the god of kitsune (foxes), fertility, rice, sake, agriculture and industry. It’s no surprise then that there are fox souvenirs and statues scattered around the shrine.

Kitsune fortunes
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Kuidaore in Osaka: Eat til you drop!

After our adventures up north in Hokkaido, we took a flight from Sapporo down to Osaka. Although we visited Japan in springtime, Sapporo was still very cold with snow still lining the streets and intermittent snow flurries! So we were quite glad to experience warmer weather once we disembarked our flight.

Spring is also sakura season, so while it was still too cold for sakura in Hokkaido, we were fortunate enough to catch the tail end of the blooming cherry blossoms in Osaka. I’d done a bit of research on where we might be able to find sakura in Osaka, so on our first full day there we headed to the aptly named Kema Sakuranomiya Park to go sakura spotting.

Market stalls in Sakuranomiya Park

Our little trip to the park showed us that Osaka really is a city of food! We were there to see sakura but Osaka put on a show for us that weekend by having endless food stalls throughout the whole park. We literally walked through the entire length of the park and there was no way that you could have gone hungry with all the food on sticks available. Here is some of what we saw:

Cheese balls on a stick
Sausage on a stick
Sakura in bloom
A ring of fish (on a stick) cooking around charcoals

Freshly made taiyaki
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Food Glorious Food: Japanese food halls and konbini

Food is king in Japan. You’d be hard pressed to walk down a city street without seeing a restaurant, shop or vending machine offering all sorts of weird and wonderful food. It’s tasty, convenient and absolute paradise for food lovers.

Sushi rolls at a Japanese department store

Walking into a Japanese department store basement is like walking into a David Jones Foodhall on steroids. There are literally food stalls as far as the eye can see, selling cakes, fresh fruit and vegetables, ready-to-eat food, snack food on sticks, carefully packaged gift boxes of food – it seriously just goes on and on. The first time I saw one of these was in the tunnels of Sapporo station and I was gobsmacked by the amount of food on offer (which turned out to be nothing compared to the huge department stores of Tokyo!)

Fresh fruit at the department store

I was keen to see the super expensive fresh fruit that I’d heard about in Japan, and yes, you can definitely buy 15 strawberries for 6680 yen (about $63AUD, or $4 a strawberry!)

Money is no object when it comes to fresh fruit in gift boxes

We also saw beautifully presented boxes of cherries at a cool 6480 yen per box (~$60AUD)… right next to the almost-tennis-ball-sized strawberries which were 1620 yen for two (~$15AUD).

Fresh fish and seafood section in a Japanese department store

Aside from the exquisitely packaged but expensive fruit, there was also other fresh food to be purchased. The meat section had prepackaged cuts of beef, pork and chicken, including the most incredibly marbled cuts of wagyu! The fish section offered lots of fresh fish and seafood to be taken home for cooking, including many types that I hadn’t seen before.

Fresh octopus, pre-packaged and ready to take home

I was particularly surprised to see thinly sliced fugu sashimi available for purchase at department stores. Fugu isn’t something I would eat anywhere except for a specialised fugu restaurant where I knew the chef was qualified and had knowledge on how to prepare it properly without poisoning me! I wasn’t game enough to try it in a department store, but if you want to try fugu without going to a restaurant, just head to your local department store fish section.

Fugu for sale at a Japanese department store
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A Day in Otaru, Hokkaido

There are a number of different ways to get around Japan, but we found that one of the most convenient ways to travel from city to city is using Japan Rail. Japan Rail (JR) passes are special passes that are only available for overseas tourists, allowing you to travel on any of the JR train and local bus lines within the region specified on your pass. The passes can be bought as 7, 14, or 21 day passes to be used consecutively from the date of exchange. We bought a 14-day Japan Rail Pass from JTB Travel (about 46,000 JPY or 485 AUD) which covered almost of our days in Japan.

Sapporo JR Station

The pass itself isn’t cheap, so we had to do some research and planning to ensure that it was the best option for us in terms of how much we were going to be travelling using the JR pass. To make the most of it, we took day trips out to different towns and cities from where we were staying using the JR pass. Our first day trip was to Otaru, a port city northwest of Sapporo that is affectionately known as “The Town of Hills”.

The train ride from Sapporo takes a little over 30 minutes on a semi-rapid train on the JR Hakodate line (~640 JPY one way). The train ride is quite pleasant, especially as we can reserve seats for free with our JR Pass. The view is quite scenic as the Hakodate line follows the Hokkaido shoreline, so you get beautiful views of Ishikari Bay as you approach Otaru Station.

View of Ishikari Bay on the train ride to Otaru
View of Ishikari Bay on the train ride to Otaru

Being a port town and in such close proximity to the sea, it’s no surprise that seafood is everywhere in Otaru. A hop, skip and a jump away from Otaru JR Station is the Sankaku Fish Markets (三角市場). It’s not nearly as big as Nijo Markets in Sapporo, but it still has several stores in the triangular-shaped building (sankaku means triangle) including ones where you can sit down and eat your freshly prepared seafood.

Sankaku Fish Markets
Live crab and oysters

Dried fish, uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe)
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Warming up in Sapporo – Ramen, Soup Curry and Potatoes

Our time in Hokkaido wasn’t all about seafood and dairy. When we visited Sapporo in April, the weather ranged from about 9ºC to a chilly -2ºC, with snow still lining the footpaths. Even though we rugged up with thermals, scarves and coats, the cold weather made us search for warming, comforting foods and luckily these are in abundance here in Sapporo!

Sapporo city with the Sapporo TV Tower to the right

Hot food (and sleep) were the first things on our mind after arriving in Sapporo after an overnight flight. After checking into our hotel, we went in search of lunch. At first, we found navigating Sapporo’s underground passageways to be rather confusing as the shopping centres seem to merge into one another so before you know it, you’re in a completely different mall! Once you familiarise yourself with the shops and the direction you’re travelling, it’s much easier to figure out where you are and where you need to go.

Outside of Ramen Kyowakoku

We meandered through the shops until we came across ESTA Sapporo which I recognised as being the home of Ramen Kyowakoku or Ramen Republic (札幌ら~めん共和国). Ramen Republic is a ramen theme park that brings together ramen shops from various regions around Hokkaido, including Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hakodate, and Kushiro. The 8 shops change every depending on popular vote, so it’s a good bet that the ramen there will be pretty good.

Picture menus outside each ramen restaurant

Language barriers are no problem here as there are plenty of picture menus outside each shop. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you know what’s in the ramen though, so I left it to Sir D to pick a random one for us to try.

Shio ramen at Ajisai – 780JPY (approx $8 AUD)

We ended up at Ajisai, a ramen shop from Hakodate, which is known for its shio ramen. This a simple ramen dish with a salt-based broth of pork, chicken, konbu and vegetables and is clear and light. The ramen noodles are relatively straight, and come topped with slices of chashu, negi and menma (bamboo shoots).

Seabura ramen at Ajisai – 850JPY (approx $9 AUD)
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