Castle Japan: 11 – 12.10.2013

The 11th of October marks the half-way point of our Japan trip, and its making me anxious to think that in 10 more days, we have to leave this country that I’ve fallen in love with over and over, more every day.
As well as being the half-way point of our time in Japan, it’s also the half-way point of entire travels: it’s going far too quickly for my liking, but at the same time looking back on our travels in Sri Lanka feels like it happened years ago…

From Nara we traveled onwards by local train to Nagoya, our next destination just a few hours away. Hungry when we arrived into Nagoya station, we knew a Yoshinoya couldn’t be too far away. I stopped to ask the train station ticket master if he knew where.
This little elderly man with a very serious face looked at me for a few seconds, repeated “Yoshinoya,” thought about it for a moment and then suddenly his face turned into a beam of sheer delight. “Yoshinoya?! Gyu-don? Aaaah! Hai, hai,  hai! Go… straight-u. Stair up!… Go…straight-u. Stair down. Yoshinoya!”
Lots of arigato gozaimasus and bows later, we left the cute ticket man smiling and waving at us and headed for our old faithful Yoshinoya for 280 yen gyu-don beef bowls.

Our  first evening in Nagoya was wonderful, spent with our new couch surfing hosts Yuko and Keiji (and their very pretty persian cat Lulu).  Yuko is a really lovely woman with a bright smile and a generous nature. We talked about our plans in Nagoya, and when Yuko mentioned that Nagoya is not so much a tourist destination, I explained we decided to come here because Jacob wants to see a real Japanese castle. With that, Yuko looked puzzled and then explained that, like Osaka castle, Nagoya’s castle is made of concrete and is a reconstruction. Oh…

She then mentioned that there is a very old and very real Japanese castle just an hour or so drive away in a place called Inumaya, and that her and Keiji would take us the following day by car if we wanted. We hadn’t been expecting to have the day with our hosts (it’s been very rare for our hosts to have the whole day off to spend with us to-date), nor did we expect such an incredibly generous offer, but this was really exciting for us. I really enjoy having time to actually spend with the people who are so generously hosting us, so that was a really amazing offer for more than just the fact that we’d get to see a real castle. Yuko and Keiji hadn’t been to this castle either, so it would be new for them too.

Talking more about food and our love for coffee and Japanese food, and about what is ‘famous’ in Nagoya. Apparently it is  Nagoya culture to eat breakfast in cafes and, when you order a coffee, breakfast is usually free!? Yes, I know, it’s a concept our Melbourne-set minds can’t comprehend: you mean, we get given food free with our coffee? Free? As in, we don’t pay for it? How…? Why…?
Yuko declared that the following morning, she and Keiji would take us to their favourite café for breakfast and coffee. Excellent – we desperately need a coffee and are already salivating at the thought.

Our only full day in Nagoya the following day was sounding pretty fantastic already.

We woke the following morning feeling refreshed and absolutely ready for coffee; we were all a bit excited for breakfast (possibly Jake and I were a little more excited for coffee and free food than is normal, but we’ve been traveling for a while and until Japan, coffee has been pretty hit-and-miss and free food has been non-existent.) Who doesn’t love coffee and free food!?
The breakfast and the coffee was pretty awesome and it was really lovely to be surrounded by people enjoying the cafe culture that we love and miss. I guess it was a simple experience but one we’ll remember.

After breakfast, Yuko and Keiji took us to Seto – a neighbourhood close by that is famous for its beautiful ceramics. We first visited the community centre where a fair/community market event was taking place. It was marvelous – we wandered around all the little stalls selling handmade craft items, gifts, foods and home-grown produce. It was a real community; women and children were performing dances, children were painting at a big painting table, there was a little stall where women were teaching people to sew little trinkets with recycled kimono cloth, and everyone was socializing with their friends and community members. Yuko introduced us to one of her friends who was there, and we walked around the stores where people greeted us so warmly. One stall all offered me a beautiful little gift: a set of tiny hand-made Japanese-style shoes made from kimono material. It was so wonderful – a really ‘local’ experience; people were so generous and kind and I wished I could show my appreciation in return.

Yuko, Keiji, Jacob and I spent some time wandering around some beautiful ceramic shops, browsing at the perfectly sculpted cups and tea pots, sake sets and crockery, gorgeous decorative pieces and colourful glazes, insence holders and choppu sticku holders, cooking pots and various cooking items. I wished we had endless amounts of luggage space, money and bubble wrap!… it was tempting until I reminded myself of the logistical issues.

From Seto we traveled by car for over an hour to Inuyama. Keiji enjoys driving – like Jacob – and it was a really lovely drive out there; the scenery along the way was beautiful.

We walked through one of the main streets of Inuyama; a quaint street that headed towards the famous Inuyama Castle, lined with little food shops and gorgeous Japanese souvenirs, ice cream stalls and beautiful houses and buildings in tradition Japanese style. The castle peered down on us from above as we walked up towards it, and it was a spectacular sight.

At the castle entrance we took off our shoes and began to climb stair case after stair case, up and up and up; the stairs were so steep and so slippery, it felt as though everyone there was moving through the tiny space at once to get to the top where we could walk around the balcony area and enjoy the impressive views over Inuyama. Spectacular.
The castle was so stunning and it was really surreal to try and imagine how this must’ve been hundreds of years ago when it was in use. I can’t imagine, but it was still so fascinating. Inuyama castle was a real highlight for us, especially Jacob who had been so excited to visit a real Japanese castle. We had no idea about Inuyama before we met Yuko and Keiji, and to be taken here and experience this with them is something we will always be grateful for.

The weather was perfect today – another blessing – and after our castle visit we were able to enjoy the area surrounding it. We stopped in at a museum that houses several floats used for an annual festival here. The floats were massive and beautiful; how amazing it must be to watch these festivities in all their glory.

Finishing off our adventure in Inuyama, we stopped off at Komeda Coffee – a chain of coffee houses that are famous all over Nagoya area – to enjoy a massive coffee with ice cream. Indulgence at its best, but a “must-do,” we are told. Another Nagoya experience ticked off the list, gladly!

The drive home was lovely; we really enjoyed it. Stopping off at a near-by supermarket, we wandered about the isles enjoying everything in our sight; we love the Japanese supermarkets and looking at all the different products, and were excited to stock up on ingredients for tonight’s “Takoyaki Party” – Sense Keiji was teaching us how to make takoyaki and we were both very eager students.

Our evening was spent preparing and making takoyaki – an evening we thoroughly enjoyed. We grilled so much takoyaki and Sense Keiji taught us well – we hope we did him proud.

We went to bed this evening full of takoyaki and happy after the most amazing day with two wonderful hosts.

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Cup Noodle Japan: 2.10.2013

Today was a fantastic day!

We left Keiichi’s home early, and took the train to Umeda (Osaka) station where we discovered the local Yoshinoya: breakfast was sorted. Yoshinoya is a travelers dream: great for people watching as well as cheap, quick and tasty food. I like how everyone seems to be eating there, from the young and hip, the fashionable, the punks, Goths and various sub-cultures, the businessmen, the elderly, male, female… Customers are greeted by a chorus of staff welcoming them, then orders are taken and almost instantly the food is served; people eat quickly and then leave. We take our time. It’s cheap, delicious and we can drink as much green tea and eat as much pickled ginger as we like. Winning.

After breakfast, we took the train from Umeda to Ikeda Station, not too far away, with the intention of visiting just the Momofuku Ando Cup Noodle Museum. Yep – a museum dedicated to instant cup noodles. It was an awesome place, and it was a lot of fun. We hired audio guides in English to explore the museum which gave us an insight into the background and invention of instant cup noodles, the inventor – Momofuku Ando – as well as their evolution up until today. Cup noodles in Japan are wildly different to the toxic crap on our supermarket shelves back home; they are “really good” as Keiichi explained to us, and often filled with a very wide selection of different dehydrated food items, noodles and stocks… Like children in a candy store, we were so excited and thrilled by this awesome museum – particularly the section of wall that showed every cup noodle flavour produced since invention.

After we’d seen enough of the museum, we bought a cup (300Y) and proceeded to make our own cup noodles, which was amazing fun! We got to decorate our cup before adding the noodles, choose flavors and toppings, sealing the lid, shrink wrapping the noodles and then putting the cup into a weird blow up necklace bag. This whole cup noodle making process took about an hour, mostly due to the fact that I was LOVING decorating our cup and couldn’t decide what colours to use…

After our super fantastic visit to the museum, we were wondering what we should do for the rest of the day… heading back towards the station, we came across a tourist information shop where we found a little “self-guided walking tour” map. It looked as though there were quite a few interesting sights to see in Ikeda, so we headed off down the main road following the suggested walking route – stopping by a 100Y shop on the way – of course.

The walking tour took us to visit little hidden shrines, gardens, cemeteries and temples. We visited famous Japanese sweet shops (where the sweets look more like an art work) but our tight budget meant we just looked, and didn’t buy. If the Indian touters taught us anything, it’s that “looking is free.”

Our little walking tour took us towards Ikeda Castle Gardens, where we spent a while just enjoying the beauty and serenity of the place. The castle had been re-constructed but was still pretty impressive; climbing the stairs and looking out over the balcony gave us a view of the entire gardens below us as well as a view over Osaka. Stunning.

Walking back along the road, I stopped to take a photograph of a beautiful building on the opposite side of the road. As I did so, a car came around the corner and the driver, seeing me taking a photograph, stopped so I could finish without her car getting in my way…
Oh Japan, so polite…

The little walking map kept us entertained for hours; after the castle, our next stop was an area famous for its historic buildings and homes, as well as beautiful sake brewries and more hidden temples and shrines. We spent a while just walking through the silent streets admiring the beautiful buildings and little gardens.

We spent some time strolling through a shopping street filled with little local shops selling various house hold goods and Japanese slippers and wooden shoes. Every second or third shop was a food stall or little eatery selling pickles, sushi and other various delights, or hidden away restaurants behind cloth curtains that always intrigued me… We found a shop front selling fresh, hand-made noodles, and the woman behind the counter smiled so politely and welcomed us through a small door. We’d made it into one of those hidden restaurants, and enjoyed amazing “Kitsune Udon” noodles for lunch, along with more beautiful green tea.

Our afternoon in Ikeda was spent strolling through the streets and looking at the cute shops. We found a little old lady selling beautiful cucumber maki, and chatted with a young Japanese guy for a bit who gave us more green tea.

In the late evening we took train back to Umeda station where we had dinner again at Yoshinoya. Yep – this place is definitely going to be part of our staple diet: 2 days in and we’ve already eaten it 3 times. Umeda station is massive and it wasn’t hard to spend a few hours just exploring the train station before we headed outside to discover a wealth of diverse street performers. We ended up spending more than an hour watching a Japanese boy band pump out some awesome music whilst a group of school girls went wild – squealing and swooning and putting on their most flirtatious giggles.

Oh Japan, you’re so awesome.