Tag Archives: Sake

Exploring Kyoto – the city of temples and shrines

June 2, 2017

We wake up bright and early to explore the city of temples and shrines. While Akshita is getting ready, I finish some deliverables for work, delaying us by few minutes from our planned departure. We quickly grab free breakfast at the hotel and head towards the Kyoto train station across the street. Stop 1: Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – the head of shrine of the god Inari. The shrine sits at the base of mount Inari and includes trails of thousands of scarlet-colored shrine gates (torii) that lead 2.5 miles up the mountain to the main Inari shrine. Inari is the god of rice, but since merchants have traditionally worshiped Inari as the patron of business, each Torii has been donated by a Japanese business. By the time we reach the shrine, it is super crowded and impossible to take pictures without people in the background. Akshita isn’t too happy about it and obviously I am blamed for the late departure in the morning. So typical haha…After enjoying the shrine for a little bit, we both agree that it would be best to visit the shrine again early tomorrow morning to enjoy it in its prime without the crowds. We take the train back to the hotel to quickly change as Akshita needs to change her shoes (diva :)).

 

Next, we head across the street to the bus terminal to take a Raku bus to Nanzenji Temple. The Raku bus is aimed towards tourists visiting Kyoto and has three loops that cover various sightseeing spots throughout the city. Note: this is NOT the hop on hop off bus. The Nanzenji Temple is one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan. The temple comprises of many sub-temples and spans across a large area. The history of the temple dates back to the 13th century when Emperor Kameyama built his retirement villa at the temple’s current location and later converted it into a Zen temple. The temple has a lot to offer from impressive gates to gardens and expansive halls to walkways. The San-mon Gate in particular offers a great view of the temple complex and parts of the city from an elevated viewing area. After spending some time at the temple, we walk around the neighborhood and explore local shops and vendors. We stumble upon a little shop and buy a traditional sake set.

Nanzenji Temple_2
Nanzenji Temple Entrance

 

Next, we travel to the Ginkakuji-Mae Temple (Silver Pavilion), the brother temple to the famous Kinkaji-Temple (Golden Pavilion). The temple, situated in the Higashiyama’s mountain range was originally constructed as a mountain villa for military commanders. Despite the name, the temple is not actually decorated with silver. It is believed that the name arose as a nickname to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion. When visiting the temple, you are greeted by elegant gardens and come across many ponds, trees, sand sculptures, and ponds that truly display the essence of a Japanese garden. You can also enjoy views of the city from the elevated sections of the temple. The temple is truly majestic and serene to say the least.

 

By the time we have explored the temple, we are ready for some lunch and decide to try out one of the restaurants close to the temple. Akshita chooses the wild vegetable sansei ramen whereas I get the fried tofu ramen. The ramen was average for our liking but the lunch did make up for an interesting experience. Mid-way through the lunch, Akshita complains about a tingly sensation in her mouth and lips, something she has never experienced before. It was almost uneasy and she couldn’t eat her meal any more. I try her dish as well and experience the same sensation. After some research we find out that the sensation is a result of the sansho pepper that Akshita added to introduce flavor to her rather bland ramen. I guess that didn’t quite work out as expected but we did get to try a new type of pepper. To make up for the average lunch, we try some green tea and vanilla ice-cream right after.

 

After having enjoyed some ice cream, we take another Raku bus to the Heian Shrine, a shrine that was built to mark the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto. A giant Torii gate marks the approach to the shrine and we make sure to take a lot of pictures with the giant structure. Having walked a lot today, we decide to head back to the hotel for a quick siesta.

 

Now recharged, we head back to the bus station and hop on to a bus heading towards Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district and home to a high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Geishas are traditionally entertainers who are trained in art, music, and dancing. The young maiko follows her mentor and “older sister” geiko to appointments, shadowing her movements and observing the skill of repartee and reserve with the clients. As a professional entertainer, the geiko’s role is not only to play music and dance, but also to make the customers feel at ease with witty conversation and even join in drinking games as the night progresses. As an amateur, the maiko is not expected to be as charming and amusing, and instead relies on ornate jewelry, rich kimono and young looks to speak for her (source: insidejapantours). We walk around the streets for more than 45 minutes in hopes of catching a glimpse of a geisha but in vain. To be honest, we weren’t expecting to see any based on what we had heard from our friends who had visited recently. Just as we decide to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant around 8:45 PM, we notice a geisha in a cab. At first, we are unsure but are soon convinced once the geisha steps out of the cab with her guest. Though we think of a geisha as an elegant figure with white make-up, red lips, an elaborate hairstyle and even more elaborate kimono, this popular image is actually more typical of a maiko, or trainee geisha. Fully qualified geisha are more likely to dress in subdued colors and wear natural make-up, relying on skill rather than appearance to entertain their clients. Suddenly, we see geishas all around the streets. Though hard to spot, we are lucky to see 8-10 geishas during our visit. Not sure what our fascination with geishas is but we were super excited to see them. Perhaps it was the feeling of acting like paparazzi and running around streets to catch a glimpse of them?

 

After taking several pictures of the geishas from a distance (to respect their privacy), we grab some amazing Indian food at the Maharaja restaurant in Gion, take the bus back to the hotel and call it a night.

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A day filled with Macha, Ramen, Sake, and Sushi

May 30, 2017

We start out the day at Momi and Toni’s for some breakfast crepes. After enjoying a light breakfast we head over to the Imperial Palace. The Imperial palace houses the emperor of Japan and has several large gardens surrounding it. Although only part of the actual castle remains, the Edo Castle, the palace gardens are quite expansive. While strolling the palace’s gardens, we stumbled across a summer concert series featuring a full Japanese Orchestra/band. We sit under the shade of a nearby tree and enjoy the music.

After strolling through the gardens and taking pictures of the castle, we make our way over to Hamarikyu gardens. Here we enjoy a nice stroll through the gardens. We come across a preserved 300 year old pine. We stop for a cherry blossom ice cream puff and sit on a nearby bench. We witness a Japanese couples’ wedding photoshoot. As we stroll down the garden we arrive at the Nakajima no Ochaya tea house and enjoy a cup of piping hot Macha with Wagashi (translates to Japanese sweets – in this case sweet yam dumpling). The tea house is overlooking a pond and we peacefully drink our Macha and enjoy the nice breeze.

After all the walking, we have worked up an appetite. We choose T’s Tan Tan in the Tokyo Station which we hear about from our friend Chirag (thanks Chiru!!) and has also been suggested online to offer tasty vegan ramen. The entire menu features several varieties of all vegan ramen. Going from struggling to find vegetarian food to having an abundance of choices made our decision tough. The ramen was amazing, and we both choose sobu noodles this time which we both realize we prefer over the thicker udon noodles. We both add a lot of hot sauce to our ramen which led me to say “if its not red its not fun” which Sanchit thought was quite amusing.

After thoroughly enjoying our lunch, we attempt to book our next days travel for Hakone since we are at the Shibuya station. We decide to buy our ticket the following day leaving us with more flexible travel plans. We head over to our hotel to freshen up. After resting for a bit, we find a nearby Sake market in Shinjuku called Kurand Sake Market.

The Kurand Sake market is actually a chain with several locations, but they offer all you can drink sake tasting for 3000 yen. I had seen this on Trip advisor and both of us wanted to try sake. The Atmosphere in the market quickly picks up and most tables are filled with young college aged people. The market allows you to bring food thus we notice many people bring their dinner while enjoying all you can drink Sake. As tempting as it was to continue drinking, after trying several types of Sake, we make our way around the Shinjuku area looking for Sushi.

Kurand Sake Market

We pick sushi as we have mainly been eating Ramen for most of our meals and are looking for a change. We pick a restaurant called Zanmai as they offered veggie sushi as well. Sanchit was able to try octopus, tuna, and salmon while I opted for some pickled veggie sushi. The sushi was good but we weren’t too impressed. We realize that this is likely due to the Caliber of the restaurant as later on the trip we do see some better looking sushi places. Also we realize that sushi isn’t actually that big in Tokyo and many people eat Ramen or sashimi, or probably the freshest catch from the fish market.

We walk back to the hotel, pack and get ready for bed as we have plans to see the Tsukiji fish market in the morning and hop on a train to Hakone after that.

Exploring Tokyo

May 29, 2017

We wake up early in the morning (7 AM) to kickoff our first full day in Tokyo. Before venturing out, we stop by the front desk at the hotel to get a map of the metro. Turns out there are multiple companies that operate railways within the city of Tokyo. There is the JR Line, the more popular train service among tourists since it offers 7, 14, or 21 day passes for unlimited travel within Japan. The JR railway network is great for travel between cities in Japan but the train stations for local travel within Tokyo are quite spread out. Then there is the Tokyo Metro subway which is operated by a different company that offers great connectivity within Tokyo. The Metro network has a lot more lines and stops within the city of Tokyo. There are also other companies that operate other railway lines such as Toei line and Obakyu line. Having finally learned at a high level about the train system in Tokyo, we decide to go with the Tokyo Metro day pass, especially since we did not buy the JR Rail pass and were not bound by it.

First, we head out to the Tokyo Metropolitan building to catch a view of the Tokyo sky line. The Tokyo metropolitan building allows visitors to view the Tokyo from above for free which explains why we see many tourists and also locals. We see a view that apparently on a very clear day you are able to see the infamous mount Fuji. We however are not lucky enough to catch a glimpse but we do see an example which outlines where we would see it.

Tokyo Metropolitan
View from Tokyo Metropolitan Building

After the Tokyo Metropolitan building we head over to the Meiji Shrine. However a few wrong turns and a long walk around Yoyogi park, we arrive at Takeshita Dori which is the heart of Harajuku and a destination we were planning to see at a later time. We decide to explore this street before seeing the Meiji shrine. The street is crowded and we see several groups of girls. There are many lines formed outside of various shops of unique/specialty food items. We see fancy crepe shops and the line for rainbow cotton candy shop contains atleast 20+ people. We aren’t able to see any Harajuku girls but we do see several shops selling costumes they would typically wear. Side note: Harajuku girls are backup dancer that were first featured in stage shows and music videos for Gwen Stefani. These girls can often be seen in the Harajuku district wearing costumes. In addition to many confectionary shops we also note that most streets are equipped with vending machines selling snacks, coffee, beer and even liquor. In general, we notice that you can find vending machines on every street of Japan (and that is not an exaggeration!!).

We finally make our way over to the Yoyogi park along a shaded path leading to the Meiji Shrine. Unfortunately the shrine is under construction so we are not able to see it in its full glory.

We next head over to the Shibuya crossing which is one of the busiest crossings in the world. Here, over 6 different pedestrian crossings merge which gives us an idea of just how populated Tokyo really is. It is estimated that over 2500 pedestrians cross the crossing every time the signal changes. I do want to stop for a second to comment on how efficient the city is despite its population. Even on the escalators, people line up on the left side to allow other passengers to walk up on the right side. The streets are impeccably clean despite no visible trash cans in site. After marveling at the Shibuya crossing and even getting a distant view from the Shibuya station, we make our way over to  Nagi Shokudo, a vegan restaurant (after a great deal of searching). We take our shoes off and enjoy a vegan meal Japanese style. We try this delicious plum sake that tasted like sweet plum juice. After resting our feet and having refueled, we head over to the Akihabara electronic district. This is where locals and visitors come to buy “cheap” Japanese electronics. I say cheap in quotations because prices seemed similar if not pricier than what we find in the states. Regardless, it was still an experience to see all the variety offered here. The Yodobashi Akiba Store contained 9 floors of electronics. We only made it to the first three floors but I start to see that people likely come to these stores for the variety they offer. For example, there were 10+ lanes of iPhone 7 cases, several lanes of cannon cameras and lens, etc.

Next, we hop on the metro and head over to the Kaminarimon gate which houses a 220 pound Japanese lantern which also is the gateway to the Nakamise street.

Here we try iced green tea which is incredibly refreshing after having walked over 5 miles. We also try this spicy rice cracker which went along great with our cold beverage.

We walk along browsing shops of souvenirs and make our way over to the Hozomon gate which leads to the Sensoji temple and the Sensoji temple pagoda. We snap several photos and even attempt several jumping pictures.

Finally we head over to the last attraction for the day, the Tokyo Skytree. After making our way up 350 meters via elevator, we arrive at a 360 degree view of Tokyo city. The views are amazing but night views are truly majestic as the whole city comes to life and lights up. Here you can truly take in how expansive Tokyo city is. Sadly, we still aren’t able to catch a view of Mount Fuji.

After leaving the Skytree, we have worked up quite an appetite. We quickly find Shinjuku Gyoen ramen ouka which offers veggie ramen and Halal Ramen. The ramen is flavorful, spicy and very satisfying. Mine comes with a creamy tofu paste and a fire roasted rice cake. Sanchit gets ramen that is slightly closer to the traditional ramen; his ramen comprises of fish broth, chicken, and soba noodles. One type of ramen that we find readily available is the Tonkotsu Ramen, which is apparently made out of pig marrow bones.

We walk back to the hotel and call it a night after having walked 10 miles!