Eating out in Kyoto

At the underground malls beneath Kyoto JR Station,  we went pass one restaurant after another looking for something to eat for dinner. We kept looking at all the food displays and they all look so good and they made us even hungrier. And we couldn't decide! Finally, we narrowed down the choice to noodles because I wanted to have ramen.

Fake plastic food display. They look so edible!

Mouth watering desserts. And they're not even real!

I noticed that the plastic food displays are usually seen on busy streets and shopping malls. I've been to several restaurants on smaller streets and they don't have these food display. I'm not sure if it's because they are already well known for what they sell or there aren't many other restaurants nearby so they don't need to grab the  passerby's attention.

In front of Okakita. No plastic food display and the 'signboard' is the lamp at the entrance.

We were planning to have udon at Yamamoto Menzo because they serve cheap and tasty udon. By the time we got there, it was almost 2pm and there was already a line. We were very hungry and we don't know how to ask how long the waiting time is, so we went next door to Okakita instead. Okakita serves good udon too but they have a much nicer decor. Luckily we could read Okakita in Japanese to confirm that this is indeed the place. Hehe. As I went in, I had the impression that the price would be quite high. So I was pleasantly surprised that they have noodles for less than 1000 yen.

In the evening, the Pontocho district comes to live when all the restaurants, bars, tea houses, cafes, pubs, and karaoke centers open.  It consists of two narrow streets between Sanjo-dori (3rd St) and Shijo-dori (4th St). One of the streets is next to the Kamo river and the restaurants on one side of this street have outdoor seating, overlooking the river. Most of the establishments on this street seem to be more refined. The other street is divided by a canal and is packed with people hanging around outside the shops. It was very crowded on a Saturday night and it felt like walking through a Christmas market in Germany on weekends. We only managed to walk halfway down the street as the rain made it very difficult to maneuver while holding an umbrella.

Back of the restaurants with outdoor seating along the Kamo river

The front of the restaurants at the narrow street in Pontocho

In restaurants that we went to, we were almost always given a pair of wooden chopsticks. They are of the same disposable kind that you get when you buy take-out. I just find it odd that they don't use proper chopsticks when they bothered to serve the food using nice tableware. Surprisingly, there's nice chopstick holder on the table too! So why? Perhaps for hygiene reasons?

We were fine with just the chopsticks so I'm not sure if the restaurants have forks. Most of the restaurants we went to have English menu though. Sometimes we were automatically given English menu and sometimes we had to ask for it. However, most of the staff do not speak much English! They did not attempt to speak to me in English at all. I was always spoken to in Japanese and somehow, I managed to understand them. I guess after living in non-English speaking countries for a few years, I became rather good at making sense of whole sentences from combining the current context with the few words that I understood. Hahaha.

Eating soba in Kyoto

For me, a nice vacation always include eating the delicious local food. I was very excited to try the food in Japan because I love Japanese food. I wondered if the Japanese food I had eaten all these years is really similar to the real Japanese food. During my short stay in Japan, Kyoto specifically, I managed to try a few different type of food. One of our lunch meals is for soba. After doing much pre-trip research on the internet, Honke Owariya seems to be the famous place. This restaurant has been around since 1466! One of the restaurant's specialties is called Hourai Soba. The soba is served in a 5-stacked 'plates' with various toppings on the side. The toppings include mushroom, egg, seaweed,  and mini shrimp tempura. This special set even comes with an instruction sheet in English on how to eat it! Hahaha.

Reading how to eat the soba!

So, basically you remove one plate from the stack, pour some sauce from the little jar onto the soba, and eat the soba accompanied with the some of the toppings. Then you repeat the same steps for each plate on the stack. I think it's quite brilliant to serve the soba on different plates instead of one huge plate. The stacked plates concept not only looks better, it also keeps the soba from getting cold and soggy. After you finish the meal, you drink the tea which is boiled from the water that was used to cook your soba. This tea is believed to have health benefits. 

In general, I think the soba did taste like the sobas I've had before. This one though feels 'lighter' and fresher. The taste of the sauce is quite subtle too. That's probably why one can eat five plates of soba without feeling stuffed. :)

The Hourai soba

Temples and shrines in Japan

By the third day of our vacation, we realized that almost all the places we visited are either temples or shrines. Then, we started to wonder about the differences between a temple and a shrine. At first thought, they seemed quite similar to us. At both places, we saw people praying and buying various types of charms (lucky charms, protective charms, etc). Then I realized that there are torii gates at shrines but not at temples.

Torri gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

At these shrines, they are often mini shrines where you can pray for something more specific, like good health, love, wealth, etc. The gates at Fushimi Inari go all the way uphill and at the top, you can pray for success in studies. I guess you if managed to get all the way up there, it shows that you have the determination and you probably have what it takes to succeed.

Temples on the otherhand, usually have a big compound with a nice garden. They also house a statue of Buddha and have an incense burner in front. These gardens are very beautiful with carefully "manicured" trees and flowers, and intricately lined rocks and pebbles.

The garden at Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion)

Sometimes you find a shrine right next to a temple. For example, the Love Shrine (it's proper name is Jishu Shrine) is right next to the Kiyomizudera Temple. This shrine is popular with women, especially school girls. There is pair of stones about 60ft apart called the "Love Stones". It is said that if a person manages to walk from one stone to another with their eyes clsoed, that person will find their true love.

A school girl in front of one of the stones.

Some charms sold at the shrine.

Part of the praying ritual includes tugging at the hanging rope.

The temples are Buddhist temples while the religion practiced in shrines are called Shinto. It's quite interesting to see how these two religion blend seamlessly into the life of the Japanese people.

Mid-year financial checkup

After six paychecks, I thought it would be wise to check whether I'm on track with my savings target. And if I'm spending more than what I make, I certainly don't want to wait until the end of the year to find out. I made that mistake once and I remember that life wasn't as pretty the following year.

I also got a bit nervous after returning from a nice vacation; wondering if I spent the money which is supposed to go into savings. Anyway, after doing some calculations, I'm happy to see that I've already amassed about 50% of my target amount. :D

I thought I wouldn't be able to afford to go on vacation this year! So it's a very nice surprise to find out that I can afford a nice vacation and still achieve my savings target.

Looks like Less social life = More savings is working quite well for me at the moment as I'm at the stage where my happiness is derived mostly from the amount of money I have. Hahahha.

I guess I just need to continue with the current lifestyle and I'll achieve my goal.

Wish I'm still in Japan

Exactly one week ago, I boarded the flight for my maiden trip to Japan. I was really excited to see the place where a lot of my favorites come from, including sushi/sashimi, cute stationery, cool gadgets, and anime/manga. Of course, Japan is also a very beautiful country and the people are polite and nice. 

I spent the entire trip in Kyoto and went to Nara (an hour away) for a half-day trip. The cities are really beautiful even during the summer with different shades of green. I can imagine the beauty of these places during the spring cherry blossom and the colors of fall. I hope I'll be able to visit again during the spring or fall season. 

I think what really made me want to stay longer, or even considering to move there, is the people and their culture. People smile and greet each other, even strangers. You get excellent service at stores and restaurants. They give way when walking down a crowded street. They also tilt their umbrellas away to make way. On the subway, they don't push. Instead they make a line while waiting to board the train. And everywhere is just so neat and clean, even the streets.

Oh and the food....amazing! The plastic ones look so real that I sometimes double check to see if  they are indeed plastic. Hahaha.

I had a great time and it is even better than what I had thought it would be. :D I'm already adding Japan to my list of possible trips for next year. Hehe.