Osaka has a central wholesale fish market much like Tsukiji in Tokyo, with its own 4:15am Tuna auction. Had we known that Tsukiji would be so restricted (we should have known and watched for this after the earthquake), we would have made more of an effort to make it to Osaka's version, which seems more welcoming to tourists.
But the real reason we journeyed to the Central Fish Market was in order to visit a tiny sushi-ya that's been around for over a hundred years (est. in 1907) we had read about from Chubby Hubby, and really, how could one go wrong having sushi for breakfast right on the grounds of a fish market?
This hundred-year-old restaurant is smack dab in the middle of Arashimaya in Western Kyoto. Although we stayed at a Zen Temple, meals were not included as part of our lodgings. We were, however, able to sample a delicious vegetarian yudofu - boiled tofu - meal at Takemura.
We didn't go into this blind; we found Takemura via one of my favourite Japan bloggers (Blue Lotus) and decided that we were definitely stopping by when we went to look at the beautiful bamboo groves.
We arrived in Kyoto in the evening, as dusk was just starting to fall. We’d been travelling all day, from Kanazawa in the North, by the Sea of Japan. It was too short a visit, but we wouldn’t be making the same mistake while were in Kyoto – planning a good 5 days in Japan’s ancient erstwhile capital. We didn't have any definitive dining plans, so once settled at Shunkoin Temple, we decided that ramen made for a fast and easy meal option. For many of our food recommendations, we relied on Kyoto Foodie’s blog and headed out to the other side of town in search of Takaraya Ramen on Pontocho, near Gion.
When planning our Japan trip we booked our Kyoto accommodations first, sensing while doing a cursory initial search, that we would have the most difficulty here for finding something within our requirements and budget. We didn’t want to stay at a standard Western-style hotel, and we also didn’t want to splurge on a $300/person/night Ryokan. (Heck, even a $100/person/night would have been a little steep for us.) That left a few mid-range Ryokan or Minshuku, and we didn’t necessarily want to stay at backpacker's hostels, either.
And that’s where Shunkoin Temple fit the bill, though I did send out more emails inquiring as to where other places had availability. In truth, my first choice had been the Guest House Waraku-an, found through Flickr friend San ku-kai’s beautiful photostream of his Japan trips. Waraku-an bills itself as a hostel, but has private accommodations available for couples and groups.
Hideki had pointed out Ichiran from where we met on the Ebisubashi bridge, telling us that it was a pretty good ramen place, possibly the best, in his opinion. So on our last night in Osaka, after drinks in the Umeda Sky Tower at Sky Lounge Stardust, we headed back to the Dotonbori to check it out. It’s along the Dotonbori canal, near the Nihonbashi bridge, which flanks Ebisubashi. Like Ippudo, Ichiran serves a Tonkotsu Hakata-style ramen made with pork broth.
In Europe, we knew better than to ask for take-home boxes or doggie bags if we somehow were not able to finish the food on our plates. And in Japan, we rarely encountered a meal wherein we might have been compelled to take food home. We were really surprised then, that at the end of our first fancy-schmancy meal at Kichisen, the chef presented us with a “take away” (their term, not mine) bag for asa-gohan (breakfast) the next day.
"For whatever reason, modern Japanese have maintained their deep emotional linkage with the annual shifts in climate, ingrained from ancient times whether cultivating crops or fishing on the coast. So much is this connection the heart and soul of a cuisine, that when I am asked, "What is kaiseki?" I often have a very simple answer.
"It is eating the seasons."
-- Yoshihiro Murata, Kikunoi
Roan Kikunoi, according to the 2011 Michelin Guide for Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, was created by Chef Murata as a somewhat more affordable option for the younger set as compared to Kikunoi Honten, his flagship fine-dining restaurant that's garnered 3 Michelin stars. His other outpost in Akasaka, Tokyo, won 2 stars and admittedly Roan Kikunoi has 2 stars for itself. Though quite a high bar, lunch here is also possibly one of the best deals for sampling kaiseki in Kyoto. Chef Yoshimi Murata has been something of an international celebrity, recently receiving accolades from Noma's Rene Redzepi (best meal), providing consulting advice to Singapore Airlines for in-flight meals and releasing a gorgeous English cookbook that garnered him a James Beard nomination. He also appears to somewhat controversial in Kyoto, as evidenced by this discussion string on Chowhound.
Staying in this quiet mountain town and at the wonderful little Ryokan was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The fact that we decided to visit Takayama at all was of course, all due to Paul and his indispensable travel blog. Ryori Ryokan Hanaoka was just the icing on the cake. Takayama is in Central Japan, in the Gifu Prefecture. It boasts a well-preserved old district, with beautiful machiya (merchant townhomes) as well as numerous centuries-old temples and shrines, many of which are accessible via a 3.5km loop north of the main town. The Ryokan is truly a short little trot from the JR Takayama Station - all told, some 5-6 blocks away by foot. Note that the proprietors adhere to checkin time, which is at 3pm sharp, though they will gladly hold your luggage for you prior to checkin.
A bedazzling, maddening, whirlwind. An overstimulating experience. New York Times Square on steroids. Bright lights, big city magnified to the Nth degree. Seas of humanity pouring through the arcades, the endless covered shopping walks, the subway tunnels. Hawkers along the Dotonbori soliciting business, the collective staff in shops and establishments shouting “Irrashaimase!” as you walk in, cacophonous choruses of welcomes… Girls in uber short skirts and skorts (no matter how frigidly the wind blows) and uber seductive over-the-knee socks or tights…. Big eyes fringed by lashes that go on and on; pouty lips – almost anime-like, life following art/ artifice. Food is not a problem here, nor drink, as long as one has yen in their pocket. There is food and drink everywhere, any time of night or day. This despite the fact that establishments are not always outwardly welcoming, at least to these western eyes. The shoji are closed, windows papered – it’s sometimes difficult to see how full or how empty an establishment is… but the bright plastic food beckons, the exaggerated character mascot beguiles with its kawaii.
We got to Osaka at around 11:30pm. We had been traveling for nearly 24 hours straight, having left Los Angeles on the morning of the 25th of March, arriving Tokyo Narita after an 11-hour flight on the 26th at 3pm, after which we hopped on a shinkansen and various subways that would get us to Osaka and into our hotel a few minutes shy of midnight. Not that it was all that terrible... it was fun navigating the various transportation systems, and everywhere we turned there was always someone who kindly assisted when we had questions. We had slept a little on the flight, and snoozed/ dozed on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. By the time we emerged from the Namba subway, and saw the huge Namba Hips amusement center looming in the dark, the sense of excitement kept growing. We walked around the corner to our street, directly the Dotobori itself, looking for the hotel's trademark 4 statues, named "Asian, African, Arabian, Western" and which, according to the hotel website, "...created with a desire to welcome guests from all over the world..."