Day 4 – Bullet train time!! En route to Osaka
The next day we are packed and ready to get on our first ever Shinkansen train. We had not activated our JR passes upon entering Japan, as we knew our first couple of days would be in Tokyo. We headed to the JR counter in Tokyo Station and activated our 7-day passes, which would expire on our return to Tokyo for our last evening. You can order all your tickets at once (the timetable is available online) as well, which sets you a firmer itinerary and ensures you’re not sitting around the train stations wasting valuable sightseeing time. Seats are not always available and international tourists can’t catch all of the different shinkanesen types.
I had been scouring Instagram the months leading up to my visit and frantically screenshotting any photos I saw of bloggers in Japan; and I discovered that a big thing was pre-packaged meals to eat on the shinkansen. Now it’s prohibited to eat on the regular suburban trains, but obviously because shinkanesens are long distance you can eat and drink. There’s a trolley lady that comes around if it’s a couple of hours, but otherwise you fend for yourself.
Oh, the difficulty of fending for yourself. In every station there is a plethora of ready-made meal stores, from udon lunchboxes to stacked sushi triangles bursting out of the fridge at 7/11. They sell boxes of gyoza – pan-fried pork dumplings, cold soba dipping noodles, ramen… and not the kind in the styrofoam box that you add hot water to, but cooked yellow noodles in a bowl with a liquid broth packet and individual plastic sachets for the slices of pork, sliced spring onions, and nori. The sales staff will ask if you want it heated up (free of charge), and these full meals all usually cost less than $5 Australian. Unless you go to one of those super-fancy gourmet bento box places where there’s a salad of perfectly manicured vegetables. Fresh vegetables and fruit in Japan are ludicrously expensive!
I went for a katsu-sando, or katsu sandwich. It’s a popular snack in Japan – a tender deef-fried crumbed pork fillet sandwich with a layer of similar-to-Worcestershire sauce. And look at the packaging! It even came with a little plastic sleeve in which your wet towelette was contained.
And – of course, you can also consume alcoholic beverages on the train too… I only took this for photo purposes though; I saved the beer for later 😉
The shinkansen trip is three hours. Three hours to get to Tokyo to Osaka, the length of which is about 1/3 of the island of Japan. So yes: the train is very fast. Not so fast that you’re pushed back into your seats, but if you were sitting at a station platform at which the shinkansen was not stopping, with the time that you first saw the train approaching to when all the carriages has passed by you – you will not have had the time to get your phone out for a photograph or video. Hopefully that puts things into perspective for you!
We were staying in an AirBnB near Dotonbori that was very authentic “Japanese-style” complete with tatami mats, a cute divided bathroom (shower and bath in one room, toilet in one room, sink and vanity in another) and a futon. It was smaller than an Australian studio apartment, but then the thing to get used to in Japan is that everything is small – so watch your head if you’re tall! The futon also took a little getting used to – okay, we tried but couldn’t get used to it. I’m used to a thick, pillow-topped orthopedic mattress, and so lying on a piece of material like a thin doona on a hard polished floorboard meant I woke up stiff and sore during our stay. #firstworldproblems.
Once we had set our luggage down and had a quick freshen up, we headed out to Dotonbori to check out our surrounds. Osaka is known as the “foodie city” of Japan, and when you see the amount of restaurants clustered in Dotonbori, you will understand! But we start with some classic takoyaki (octopus balls) – just choose the vendor with the longest line 😉
With a further walk around I spot Pablo – the infamous cheesecake sensation! Every time I went by one of their stores in Tokyo the line went around the corner…and then that was only the line for the line. There was a five person queue so I grabbed Night Owl’s hand and hauled her into the line despite her protests that I was making her fat, and bought us each a small individual cheesecake. How perfect do they look?
The Pablo cheesecake is unlike any I’ve ever had. The shortcrust was as fine as any French patisserie, but the filling was unique – a semi-firm top, but then once pierced, oozed a luxuriously silken and gooey cream cheese mixture. The texture reminded me a triple cream Brie cheese. We devoured them standing on the corner of the street – as it’s considered rude to walk and eat – before further exploring the bright lights of Dotonbori.
It was probably about 8.00pm and both of us were slightly peckish but not hungry enough to try our luck in the plethora of eateries. On our way back home, we ducked into the local subway station and found an enormous supermarket: a bakery with freshly baked sweet and savoury buns, rolls and pastries, huge fridges with ready-to-eat meals of salads, sushi, noodles, and sashimi, and a hot bar stuffed with tempura. Presented with so much choice, both of us took a little while but settled on some green tea soba dipping noodles, tuna sushi rolls, and a wakame seaweed salad. All of this came to less than $10 each! And we ate it sitting in the living room of our AirBnB on the tatami mat, sharing a chilled Asahi beer. Kampai!
Day 5 – Free Asahi Beer and Hungry Deer
After a long night attempting to get used to sleeping on the futon, we are late risers and brunch is yoghurt drinks and some sweet rolls from the convenience store (Lawson) downstairs from our AirBnB before we head to the station to jump on the train to the Asahi factory in Suita. You need to book ahead of time for the English tours, and while the tour you attend is still the regular tour in Japanese, you’re provided with audio guides for the duration of the tour. The best thing? The tours are free, go for less than an hour, and you get as much FREE beer as you can drink at the end of the tour. Mind you, it’s only free for a strictly limited fifteen minutes, and it’s highly amusing to watch the middle-aged Japanese ladies on the tour down their first beers in record speed before jumping up for more. The beer is served at a temperature of -2 degrees Celcius; immensely crisp and refreshing. Night Owl fell in love with the Asahi Dry Premium (unavailable for sale in Australia), while I was a strong advocate of my favourite Asahi Black with its subtle caramel notes. I’ve only had it in bottled form in Sydney so having it on tap was amazing! Now that I’ve moved to Neutral Bay I’ve discovered a Japanese restaurant that has it on tap so I’m very excited 🙂
After the Asahi factory we jumped back on the train on the way to Nara Park. We fell asleep on the way and somehow got lost and had to jump off and wait for a train to back-track. Luckily we had unlimited trips with our JR passes! Finally we made it and the area is one of the most tourist-y places you can imagine. We didn’t make it to Nakatanido in time to see the pounding of the mochi (youtube link here), but bought two pieces of yomogi mochi. Yomogi is a Japanese wild plant also known as mugwort, and gives the mochi its natural green colour and refreshing taste.
A huge mound of glutinous rice is tossed into a wooden mortar where it’s then pounded rapidly with large, mallet-like pestles – so fast that it’s a blur of motion. Nakatanidou consecutively won the national high-speed mochitsuki championship in 2005 and 2006; since then they have become quite famous! It’s not just for show though; the result of the powerful pounding is a soft, chewy yomogi mochi, which is dusted by hand with kinako (roasted soybean flour) before being served to customers. Inside each mochi is a generous filling of red bean paste. The sweetness and gooeyness of the red bean complements the yomogi flavour well. Its a pleasant taste that is unique to traditional Japanese confectionery.
Continue up the hill past the lake and you will soon start to see the deer dotted around the park…
Due to our train mixup we had arrived later in the afternoon where most of the crowds had dispersed, save for a few enthusiastic tourists attempting to pat the quite tame deer. They graze serenely, but tourists can also buy a stack of deer “wafers” from a vendor. The deer usually linger around the vendors and will latch onto you as soon as your body language indicates you’re buying some wafers.
Watch out for the horns! They will try and headbutt you in the behind to get your attention. Best to stow away any paper or guides you may have on you as they will nom on anything – they even ate the paper wrapper of the crackers and chewed unsuccessfully on the corner of my shoulder bag.
The sun was setting quickly and we were getting cold and hungry, so skipped a visit to Todai-ji Temple. We catch the train back into Osaka and stop briefly for Bearded Pappa’s, the giant cream puffs that once briefly came to Sydney! I had a chocolate profiterole filled with matcha custard while Night Owl had a vanilla custard profiterole.
A hearty dinner is had at Tenkaippin slightly off Dotonbori – another recommendation by the fellow food blogger Ramen Raff. I go for the Houzenji Special Noodle and a plate of gyoza, while Night Owl chooses the Tender Pork Noodle and a huge frosted glass of Asahi – obviously she thought we hadn’t had enough today!
I loved the springiness of the noodles and the melt-in-the-mouth texture of the flavoursome, charred pork. It was a massive slab of pork though, and combined with the intensely thick gravy-like texture of the broth I found it a bit too heavy for me; mind you, I’m normally not a fan of overly-thick broths (i.e. Gumshara). Plus I had gyoza with it, so that probably didn’t help in my struggle to finish it all!
But the epic food coma meant resting on a full belly before we packed our things together to get ready for our next stop – Hiroshima.
Day 6 – A dreary day to suit our visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial
We had one night down south in Hiroshima and unfortunately when we arrived at the JR station the clouds had let loose and it was pouring down with torrential rain. Our moods were not made much better where after walking for about twenty minutes in the pouring rain following Google Maps, I realised that there were actually two branches of the same hotel name in the city. Giving up, we bundled ourselves into a taxi where the driver looked considerably displeased about us dripping all over his leather backseat, but he couldn’t help but smile at us when we apologised profusely in broken Japanese and thanked him when he got us to our right hotel. We had originally been hoping to go out to Miyajima Island but with the weather as it was, we decided to change our plans and visit the Peace Museum instead. The weather seemed appropriate for it.
Both of us are considerably subdued when we come out of the Museum and while walking around the paper crane tributes laid out by numerous schools. We decide to perk ourselves up with dinner, and on yet another food blog recommendation – this time by Grab Your Fork. Okonomimura was a little hard to find as Google Maps lead us into a deserted alleyway (the back of the venue) but once we found the front of it and ascended the stairs it was okonomiyaki heaven. It’s the most touristy place you could eat in Hiroshima city really, as it’s twenty five stalls spread over three floors of the building – each serving Hiroshimayaki – Hiroshima’s take on the traditional Japanese okonomiyaki pancake, or “pizza”. Traditionally it’s made by mixing all of the ingredients together in a batter before spooning onto a hot plate, but Hiroshimayaki is made by separately layering each of the ingredients out.
As we had arrived for an early dinner, most of the stalls were deserted and the owners heralded us enthusiastically – because even though they all apparently sold the same iconic dish, once you had customers sitting it was always easier to draw in more. Night Owl looked at me to make the choice, and I turned back to the stall run by an elderly Japanese lady who greeted us with the sweetest smile and demeanor. We found her even more endearing when at our request for beer, she pulled out two enormous pint glasses from the fridge and proceeded to expertly pour us two huge beers…now who wouldn’t want her as your grandmother!
We both finish our groaning portions of Japanese pancake before thanking our hosts and making our way downstairs back out into the rain. Luckily our hotel is within the main CBD area, but our shoes are saturated at this point so we stop off at a convenience store and pick up a newspaper to stuff our shoes with. I think the clerk was very confused as to why we were buying a Japanese paper when we couldn’t speak any Japanese!
Day 7: The World’s Biggest Rice Paddle and onto Kyoto
The weather is more inclined in our favour when we wake the next morning and onto the ferry we jump to get to Miyajima Island. There are actually two ferry companies that run to and from the island, but one is free with the JR pass so of course there’s always a long line for that one. I’d recommend going early, as when we returned to the mainland around 10am the line was four times the length it was in the morning!
The deer on the island here are not fed by visitors like at Nara, so they are not as tame nor as cheeky. Most of them were dozing in the mild morning sun when we arrived.
The main attraction here is the Tori gate, but as it was high tide we couldn’t walk out to it. We spent the morning browsing the touristy shops on the island and were very amused when one shopkeeper attempted to speak Japanese to Night Owl. When we said she wasn’t Japanese, she seemed extremely surprised and kept asking if she was sure.
The world’s biggest rice paddle is worth a photo too – here it is.
Anyway, it was time to get off the island and back onto the shinkanesen – over to Kyoto, where we would meet our AirBnB hosts for our accomodation for the next two nights 🙂 Until Part 3!
2-3-15 Shinsaibashisuji, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0085, Osaka Prefecture
Asahi Brewery – Suita
1-45 Nishinosho-cho, Suita, Osaka
Tenkaippin Ramen, Osaka
Nanbanaka, Naniwaku, Osaka 556-0011, Osaka Prefecture
5-13 Shintenchi, Naka Ward, Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture 730-0034, Japan