Osaka to Kobe and back again: 3 – 4.10.2013

This morning – our third day in Japan – we were up too early and madly shoving our belongings into our bags and heading out the door before 8am. We were exhausted after late nights, jet lag and little sleep.
We said goodbye to Keiichi – our first couch surfing host – and headed back to Umeda station where we once again dumped our heavy packs in a coin locker.

We took the train to Shinsabashi where we thought we’d try and find some clothing that…
a) didn’t look like we’d just rolled around in 2 months of Indian dust and dirt
b) didn’t spell “tourist”
c) wasn’t some form of travel/adventure/trekking gear brand!
Of course, before we could go shopping we had to get breakfast at none other than Yoshinoya. We’ve got this “cheap eating in Japan” thing down-pat already, although… maybe we should start being a little more adventurous with where and what we eat…? Then again, copious cups of free green tea and all that delicious pickled ginger is quite difficult to resist.

Shinsabashi is well known for its big shopping area; we looked through the streets and bought a couple of items of clothing that didn’t scream “filthy backpacker.” We went to UNIQLO – a chain shop that has some cool fashion at really cheap prices.

In the early afternoon we headed back to Umeda, collected our backpacks and took the train to Noda station where we met Saki, our second couch surfing host.
Saki greeted us at the station and walked us back to her lovely home where we felt instantly welcomed. We soon learned she is moving to Melbourne – our home city – at the end of this month and it was a lot of fun and a pleasure for us to spend our afternoon making lists of “must do/see/visit/watch/eat in Melbourne town” and drawing out maps with hidden lane ways and cool cafes. It was interesting to try and think of our home as a place to visit rather than live; a different perspective which filled us with pride and love for our beautiful Melbourne.

Seeing as we are in Osaka, and Osakan people love takoyaki, it was fitting that we cooked takoyaki for dinner. Together Saki, Jacob and I prepared the takoyaki mix and cut up the ingredients (including one mean looking octopus tentacle!) before Tomoki, Saki’s husband, arrived home from work.

Together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket and bought a few different Japanese beers to have with dinner, and then the rest of our evening was spent cooking and eating takoyaki, sharing good food and conversation. The boys had a wonderful time drinking sake and sharing their love of Manga – even though Tomoki’s English was very limited Jacob and him got along so well. We’re learning language is absolutely not a barrier – just an obstacle that can absolutely be overcome…

The next morning Saki greeted us with instructions for taking the train to Kobe, and a hand-drawn map of Kobe complete with the best coffee shops, cafes and restaurants to visit, places to see and landmarks to look out for. Amazing. Seeing as we don’t have a guide book, I love that she was so generous to help us like this. This sort of map can never be bought…

It took around 35 minutes to get to Kobe from Osaka, and cost us just 290Y each! See, see! We’re doing Japan on a budget! Yay!
We arrived into Sunnomiya Station and were instantly drawn into Loft Department store – the shiny lime green bento box in the window display lured me in like a moth to a flame. We spent the next hour wanting to buy everything in sight – from the exquisite range of beautifully coloured and decorated bento boxes to the enormous range of high-quality coffee equipment to the cute kitchen sponges, it was so hard to resist. In fact, it was impossible, and I walked out with my shiny green bento box and matching choppu stikkus. “Japan on a tight budget” failed to win this round; instead I told myself that “this is my belated birthday present to myself.”
From Loft we passed through SOGO Department Store where we spent way too long oooohing and ahhhhing over the exquisite foods being prepared and sold: we were drooling at everything that looked too good to eat. In the end, everything just looked too good and we couldn’t actually decide what we wanted… I ended up getting a sushi roll and Jake’s stomach stayed empty for the time being… that was until he saw a Yoshinoya. Japan on a budget wins this round.

We spent some time wandering around exploring before walking half-an-hour or so down the road to the Disaster Prevention and Human Renovation Museum to learn about the 1995 earth quake that devastated Kobe and still, to this day, is effecting people. In my opinion this is a must-visit museum if in Kobe; it offers a wealth of information, facts and insight into this natural disaster and its devastating effects, as well as illustrates how strong people are and how they can re-build and learn to adapt to the conditions.
We learned about the earth quake through several high-tech. sources including movies, a type of earth quake simulator, computers and touch screens with so much information, videos, survivor stories, dioramas, items uncovered from the quake and tour guides who spoke English and walked us through the exhibits. There was also an entire level dedicated to educating children through various interactive games and videos.

From the museum we took a train to Motomatchi St. where we walked through the lengthy shopping strip and found more beautiful Japanese things that we did not buy. We ended up in Kobe’s tiny “China town” (a small street) where we discovered supposedly “Kobe beef” buns (doubtful) and tacky souvenirs. Kobe China Town was not so memorable.

From Chinatown it was a small walk to Merikan Park – the Kobe Port area that is famous. Saki told us we should stay there until dark to see the lights and everything looking beautiful, reflected on the ocean. I’m so glad we got to experience this. We walked through the port area and saw the amazing buildings surrounding the ports, the boats on the water and a lot of outdoor art and sculpture. By one section of the port there is the Kobe Earthquake Memorial which is pretty moving; close by is an area of port destroyed by the quake that still remains as it was when destroyed in 1995. It was quite shocking to see this and hard to imagine what this entire city must’ve looked like after such a massive quake.

Our evening was spent walking through the park and port area watching near by boats move about, cyclists and skaters doing their thing, couples sitting with legs dangling out towards the ocean below, the bright lights of the ferris wheel reflect onto the water and the massive port tower standing tall. Near by a large art biennale was being set up; large outdoor sculptures and installations were dotted around us and it was a lot of fun to enjoy the more interactive ones. It all felt a bit magical and it was so quiet with perfect weather; it was a really wonderful way and the perfect time of day to explore the area. We took lots of photographs and simply enjoyed being there.

Oh, and of course, we had dinner at Yoshinoya before heading back ‘home’ to Saki and Tomoki’s house. What else would you expect?

We did a load of washing this evening in an actual washing machine – an absolute luxury – and then spent our evening talking and chatting with Saki, teaching her about Australian culture, some Australian slang and a few choice words. She had so generously spent her afternoon making us a series of detailed hand-written maps for Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya, complete with all her recommendations of where to go, what to eat, what is famous in certain areas, transportation information and more… She was so generous and so helpful; she was amazing to do this for us and it will no doubt be a big help for us.

Couch surfing at Saki and Tomoki’s has been so lovely and we so look forward to meeting her and Tomoki in Melbourne next year. We are thoroughly enjoying staying with locals through couch surfing; it offers us a completely different traveling experience and gives us an opportunity to learn so much more about the culture, the people and the lifestyle in this country – as well as form wonderful new friendships! We’re only into our fourth night in this incredible country but we’ve spent each one of them making new friends, sharing stories and cultures, laughter and learning. We’re sleeping on futons on tatami mats and falling asleep so happy and comfortable where we are. There is no where else I’d rather be right now, than where I am.

Tomorrow we are Kyoto bound and I can’t wait – a new place with new adventures to be found.

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.

Sayonara Nepal, Konnichiwa Japan: 30.09 – 1.10.2013

Our final morning in Nepal was a blur of goodbyes, packing (suddenly my pack felt incredibly heavy… does my Nepali sari really weigh that much!?), and finding a taxi driver who would agree to drive us to the airport at a reasonable price.
As we weaved and darted through the noisy, dusty and built-up traffic and I covered my mouth and nose with my scarf, I felt grateful that my lungs would have some respite in Japan from the chaos and pollution we’ve been breathing in ever since we arrived in Asia.

The airport was a breeze, we filled out the departure form – which was actually just the arrival form (I think they had run out of departure forms so anything was sort of going…) – queued up with a thousand other people and eventually had a departure stamp signed and put into our passports; we were no longer officially in Nepal.

Japan bound, via Malaysia on a 3 hour stop over (where we spent the entire time using free wifi and drinking delicious teh tarik in Old Town White Coffee – we’ve got this whole backpacker thing down-pat!), it took a total of 16 or so hours before we touched down early-morning in Osaka, Japan. I felt suddenly, overwhelmingly at home.  

Customs was easy and soon enough we had another stamp in our passport and officially entered Japan. It may have been my second time here, but walking through the gates felt like I was both coming home and arriving here for the first time ever; I was so excited. So very, very excited.

With bags under our eyes, we were feeling tired but elated as we skipped through the airport to immediately get some Royal Milk Tea from one of the many vending machines. Royal Milk Tea…mmmmm.
We spent some time at the airport using the ATM machine, obtaining some maps and information at the tourist information counter, and – dare I say it – enjoying the luxury that is... a Japanese toilet. Anyone else who has had the joy of experiencing a Japanese toilet knows what I’m talking about, and after almost four months of scary squat toilets that often left me dry retching, these electronic wonders were a welcome change. The toilets even had a little TV in each of them. Winning.

Heading to the train station outside the airport, we were instantly greeted by some friendly people offering us free drinks; so accustomed to declining anything and everything from strangers, I said no thanks… Then almost immediately changed my mind. Starbucks has just introduced here something called “Origami Filters” for their coffee, and staff were giving out cups of free coffee as a promotion. Oh Japan, how I love you so SO much – you came to our rescue when we were both so exhausted and gave us wonderful customer service, friendly smiling people and delicious, delicious strong coffee.

Welcome to Japan.

We took the train from the airport to Namba station and dumped our backpacks into one of the coin lockers for the day before heading to Dotonbori Street – one of the famous streets in Osaka – to meet up with Hide; a Japanese man we met on the train in Agra. We’d arranged to meet him at 11:30am to go for lunch, but we got a little lost trying to find our way to Dotonbori and were a little late. Along the way we continually stopped people to ask for directions; it always amazes me how friendly people are – even those who speak little or no English are willing to assist. I love it.

Meeting Hide, together we walked through a side of Dotonbori we would’ve otherwise completely missed, amongst all the sounds and smells of busy Oskaka, surrounded by pachinko slot machine shops, cafes, takoyaki stands, dogs in fashionable outfits and people dressed up in mascot costumes, trying to get you to eat at their restaurant.

Hide took us to an okonomiyaki place that he said his friends and him used to visit during their years at university; a place we would’ve never known about or found otherwise. It was amazing; we were given our own room and sat on cushions on the floor. Hide ordered for us using a phone on the wall in our room and soon enough all the ingredients we could possibly think of were bought out to us on a big tray and the grill plate in front of us was lit and heated; we were going to cook these ourselves. Oh yeah!

Looks like delicious fun!

Looks like delicious fun!

Cooking the okonomiyaki was so much fun! We loved it, and Hide was such a good host to show us how it was done; he flipped those okonomiyakis like a true professional. We ate a mix of beef strips, vegetables, egg and stewed beef okonomiyaki, and a seafood one with calamari, prawns and vegetables on a bed of hokkien-like noodles; all doused in delicious okonomiyaki sauce and kewpie mayonnaise, nori flakes and smoked salmon flakes. So oishi (delicious)! We had such a great time cooking, such a wonderful welcome to Japan, and Hide was a lovely host.

We spent some more time walking and chatting with Hide; he took us to a big book shop with one very large manga selection, and along a strip of shops filled with cooking materials and goods, knives and anything else kitchen related, which we both really enjoyed (especially Jacob, who loved the manga and Japanese knives). Eventually, we said goodbye to Hide and spent the rest of our time wandering through the Dontonbori area and surrounds, taking in more of the shops and sights, the people and our surroundings.

We had some food at Yoshinoya, a chain restaurant that is famous in Japan for very cheap, quick and good Japanese food. It is very cheap – I paid a whopping 130Y – a whole $1.40AU – for a bowl of delicious Udon noodle soup and Jake had the specialty: 280Y gyu don (beef on rice.) Yep; this place is a winner, and the first of many to come lessons on “How to travel Japan on a super tight budget.” Yoshinoya, I can already tell, is going to be a staple during our three weeks here.

We walked through the malls and through Dotonbori, watching the people and the mechanical shop fronts with moving images and sculptures; the famous mechanical crab in full swing. We saw Osaka turn from day light to dusk, where the neon signs and thousands of lights began to turn on and flash and move and dart and make this whole area look even more magical and more exciting than in the day. Finishing off our day, we bought a “daifuku ice-cream” from a convenience store, and enjoyed the deliciousness that is Japan.

Taking a train from Namba Station, we collected our luggage that weighed so heavily on our backs, and headed for Umeda Osaka station, changing to the JR line once there. The railway map above the JR ticketing system had no English, and we couldn’t see anyone to ask. Standing there, pretending to understand what we were actually reading, a kind gentleman came and assited us with getting a ticket to the right place, on the right line. He was so helpful, and another example already – on just our first day in Japan – of how kind and polite the people here seem to be.

We met Keiichi – our host for the next two nights – at the “vending machines by the exit,” as I explained to him, and together we walked to his house, quite close by. Our first couch surfing experience in Japan – I’m excited!

Keiichi’s house is how I imagined Japanese houses to look inside; small but incredibly efficient. Keiichi offered us a Japanese beer and prepared for us a delicious, very simple dinner: cold noodles in a soy based sauce. It was really delicious, and I want to make it again! [Quite easy to make: boil Japanese-style thin noodles or soba noodles until cooked, then place in a bowl of cold water and ice. In a separate bowl, add some very light soy sauce, spring onion and a pinch of sugar, along with more ice cubes. Eat by adding a few noodles at a time to the sauce, immersing them in it then eating with choppu-stikku.]
It’s so nice to be welcomed into someone’s home and treated so well, and Keiichi seems like a lovely guy!

I can’t express how excited and happy I am to be here, and look forward to every moment I have here in Japan. I love this country, and it feels so incredible to be back.