Kansai in a Glance

 Following my solo traveling in Kansai in summer 2013, I returned to Osaka this winter. 

2014-12-16 10.31.19 HDROsaka welcomed me with early morning drizzle. Most of the restaurants and shops were not opened as I strolled in Hozenji Yokocho (法善寺橫町), where Hozenji (法善寺), the temple housing Mizukake Fudo, a Buddhist figure covered by moss due to believers splashing water onto it, is situated. Different from the busy touristic district Dontobori nearby, the tranquil Hozenji Yokocho adds a stark contrast to the canvas of Osaka.

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As an avid ramen lover, I decided to start the trip with a bowl of good ramen. The ramen shops advertised in travel guides did not bring much surprise as per my experience from last summer. Therefore, I looked for other recommendations and found King Emon (金久右衛門), which has ranked first for soy sauce ramen for three consecutive years in Osaka. The broth was dark and devilish. The satisfying experience was complemented by simple conversational exchange with the chef – where I was from, that I love his ramen very much, and his shy smile of appreciation.

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Meoto Zenzai (夫婦善哉), serving red bean soup, was opened during the Meiji period in the 19th century. “Zenzai” has the same pronunciation as that of “red bean soup” in Japanese. The dessert includes a piece of salty kombu to avoid the soup being too sweet. This dessert place became famous because of the well-known Japanese writer Sakunosuke Oda’s novel titled with the same name Meoto Zenzai, and the movie adapted from the book. Posters and photos of the movie can be found inside the dessert place. Of course, its fame is well-supported by the high quality of the red bean soup.

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This is the magical curry rice with sunny-side-up from Jiyuken (自由軒), another traditional restaurant opened during the Meiji period in Osaka. Jiyuken opened as a coffee and snack shop in 1910, and was then known for its delicious curry rice. An autographed picture of Sakunosuke Oda seated in Jiyuken was clearly visible in the restaurant. In fact, Oda’s writings also mentioned Jiyuken. The current owner is an elegant old lady with good manners and polite disposition to all her customers. Having been craving for the curry nice the second I finished it last summer, I returned to this small but decent restaurant on the first night of my trip.

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Back in Hong Kong one of my favourite snack shops is Sweet ChaCha from City’super selling obanyaki (with red bean, custard, and matcha paste) at HK$15 each. When I was starving at Shin Osaka station before heading to Kyoto, I found Gozasoro (御座候), a small store near the entrance gates of the station selling obanyaki with red bean paste at only 87 yen each (less than HK$7)! The red bean paste is perfect with an appropriate degree of sweetness. This piece of obanyaki alone made me happily full for my sightseeing in Kyoto. 

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This day of Kyoto trip was mainly to visit Tenryu-ji (天龍寺) on Arashiyama (嵐山), my favourite place of Kyoto. I went there too late last summer and the temple was already closed for visits, leaving regrets. This time, the visit not only helped overcome my regrets, but also brought new experiences and feelings.

Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is highly significant in Japan, due to its association with the shogun Ashikaga family and Emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇). Emperor Go-Daigo (14th century) yearned for imperial dictatorship like that of the emperors of China. Emperor Go-Daigo battled with Ashikaga Takauchi (足利 尊氏) and lost. Ashikaga Takauchi then became the first shogun of Ashikaga shogunate. His rule also marked the beginning of Muromachi period (室町時代). Historians argued in his final years Emperor Go-Daigo was merely a pretender emperor. The Muromachi period ended when the last shogun was driven out of the capital Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長), who initiated unification of Japan towards the end of Warring States period (戦国時代).

(By the way, a good and interesting way of introduction to Japanese history would be through watching Taiga drama – although not entirely accurate.)

Upon stepping into the yard of Tenryu-ji a pond of withered lotus flowers entered into my sight. Such is the power of nature. While men attempt to govern the nature, the latter is filled with mysteries beyond human understanding. All men can do is only to alter the current state of being under the framework of the rules of nature, no matter how sophisticated the level of technology has reached.

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One of rooms of the Teaching Hall allows tourists to step into it without slippers. Being the only person in the well-preserved room, I walked around and took my seat while appreciating the fascinating scenery of Sogen Pond.

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One of the calligraphy works in the room – reminding us not to fantasise on the totally unrealistic issues (莫妄想).

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Behind me is the Sogen Pond, which is designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty by the Japanese Government. One of my biggest regrets last summer was not being able to go there a take a walk! Although I haven’t seen many ponds, I am certain that few can surpass its beauty. The garden and the Sogen Pond in winter, showing struggles and battles against the freezing weather, offers another kind of experience.

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Togetsukyo (渡月橋) outside the temple and near to a dam. All I heard were raging waters and exclamations of sugoi (meaning “awesome”) by the Japanese.

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Tofu feast at Kyo-ine (稻 嵐山) with high ratings. They also offer Tofu hotpot but I would not be able to finish it on my own. Looks yummy though!

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Every December after 5pm, tourists can enjoy hanatouro (花灯路) at Chikurin no Komichi (竹林の道). In addition to usual bamboo woods (which are awesome enough on their own), tourists can walk in the woods with lights on. I arrived at 6pm and the sky was already dark. The mantis and zaffre lights added tranquility and romance to the woods.

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The Osaka City Central Public Hall (大阪市中央公会堂) is a Neo-Renaissance architecture with brick red hall built with donations from a Osaka broker Einosuke Iwamoto (岩本栄之助), who was impressed by how the American businessmen made huge contributions to build public halls like the Carnegie Hall.

Again in December, the Public Hall will be lit by colourful lights and a surprising cute light show will be played by projecting it onto the wall of the Public Hall.

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Late “tea” with apple pie and Darjeeling milk tea at Kitahama Retro-Tea House. I originally planned to go to Patesserie Gokan (GOKAN 五感北浜本館). However, as told by the doorman, the dine-in place was closing and I could only pick cakes from their bakery for takeaway. Nothing was of interest to me. I left the stop and kind doorman came to me and recommended me to Retro-Tea House as “they should be selling cakes and close at a later hour”. Gratitude overflowed for his kindness to a stranger.

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Late night fatty noodles with extra meat portion at Menya Gaten (麺屋 ガテン). Funny moment when the chef asked me if I was sure about ordering extra meat and including garlic in the noodles.

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Nara is a lovely town full of lovely deers! You start seeing deers everywhere right outside the JR station! They go after tourists for food and they also know how to pick the best spot to nap – right at the entrance of Todai-ji, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

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A sumo competition for teenagers was held in Nara Park. It was a rather unfair game with the huge difference in weight. The relatively thin competitor had tried his best regardless.

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After hours I finally arrived at Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), where I was supposed to go in the afternoon. However, because I took the wrong trains, I ended up at a small remote station with few trains that would actually stop by. That was my birthday. I was shivering, starving and feeling hopeless on the platform. Occasional snow reinforced my hopelessness. I was glad I could make it in the end although it was all dark. Still, I made it.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha is known for its Tori path and fox statutes. Each orange pillar, or torii, is donated by a business and has its name engraved, as Inari is regarded as the patron of business (Inari is the god of rice). Foxes are regarded as messengers with keys for rice granaries in their mouths. A walk through the path in darkness was indeed a test of courage…

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I had okonomiyaki for dinner back in Osaka at 福太郎, a resturant much favoured by the locals. Unlike other dining places I went to, people were loud and drinking beer. Great atmosphere.

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Pork okonomiyaki – doesn’t look that good, but tastes perfect.

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With utmost faith in my stomach, I ordered a bowl of Ichiran ramen. I chose the usual flavours I would have in Hong Kong – the broth tasted the same, but much less oily. #mystomachisablackhole

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Early next morning, I was back at my favourite cafe – Murufuku Coffee Shop (丸福咖啡店千日前本店). It had long history and was opened in 1934. I love how in Osaka restaurants opened long ago could still survive and continue to be part of the city’s history. It was the same smiling waitress and grandpa-looking chefs serving customers. It felt like home.

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This was what I used to have every day last summer – hot cakes and coffee. They make the best start of a day.

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Another day of sightseeing – this day at Nijo Castle (二条城), the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), the first shogun of Tokugawa bakufu (徳川幕府) and Edo bakufu (江戸幕府). The Castle was famous as the venue where the 15th and the last shogun of Edo bakufu, Tokugawa Yoshibonu, returned the governing power to the Emperor. Japan then entered into Meiji period. This is the garden of Ninomaru Palace (二の丸御殿).

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View from the original site of Tenshu (天守閣), the main keep of a Japanese castle.

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Phoenix trees exposed to atomic bombs in Hiroshima have been planted across the country. Some find homes in Nijo Castle.

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View of the Kamo River (鴨川) from the Sijo Bridge (四条大橋). A perfect place to just sit and daydream and feel the emotions running inside.

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Hanamikoji, south of Gion district. I have to visit Kyoto again for the Geisha show at Gion Corner. The moves of Geisha are extremely elegant as shown from the video. If not for the long-awaited ramen I have to try on the last day of my trip, I would have watched it already. Another regret of the trip.

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Menya Saisai (麵屋 彩々) is the best ramen place with the highest ratings in Osaka. I got lost and actually ran to the ramen place before it closed. It was all Japanese on the vending machine. When I asked the staff what was the most famous flavour and I couldn’t understand his Japanese, he would imitate pig and chicken and told me both to be the top choices of the shop. I tried their ramen in chicken broth and it was the best ramen I have ever had in my life. I finished all the soup. It was a touching moment, when you really like something and you have found your favourite so far. Another reason to visit Kansai again.

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I treat solo traveling as a means to recharge after a year of busy schoolwork, job applications and unfortunate events. It is a time for me to finally think less for others and their needs, and can focus totally on myself, what I want, and how I want to live. Much has changed since my last time here, and my attitude has been very different. Nevertheless, the fact that I do not feel lonely remains the same.

I enjoy solitude. Sometimes I warn myself not to enjoy it too much. It has always been a struggle. Most of the time I would just want to be left alone with no attention whatsoever from other people. I am still learning not to indulge in solitude.