Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Traveling Solo - Japan (3)

Let me just go ahead and say this:  I love traveling alone!!!  I am not sure if I wanted to go anywhere with anyone else anymore...

Here are some advantages on solo traveling: 
  1. You get to see everything at your own pace.
  2. You will only compromise with yourself.
  3. You are more likely to find help from locals.
  4. You are more likely to meet like-minded travelers.
  5. You will be able to observe and see more.
At the same time, traveling alone also have its disadvantages: 
  1. You have to be alert with your surroundings and take your personal safety very seriously. 
  2. You can only eat so much and you won't be able to just have a bite of everything...
  3. You will find accommodations / restaurant reservations frustrating since the nicer places normally adds a surcharge to solo travelers.  
  4. You will need a tripod (and perhaps a remote) to take your own pictures.  (I always bring my tripod since 99% of the time I don't like how other people frame my pictures...)
  5. You will have to carry all your stuff wherever you go (e.g. the bathroom).
I think the advantages trump the disadvantages and Japan is hands down a solo traveler's heaven!  I got to do everything I planned plus more and met quite a few interesting people.  The weather was perfect and I was under-budget!!!  My total spend for 9 days came out to be just around HKD$15,000 (all inclusive).  My budget was HKD$16,000!  I am so proud of myself!!!

Here's a breakdown for those of you who are interested:
  • Flight HKD$2,139 (include 1 checked baggage round-trip)
  • Accommodation HKD$2,777 (1 night at Japanese budget ryokan, 6 nights at youth hostels, and 1 night at a budget onsen hotel, which includes dinner and breakfast)
  • Transportation HKD2,140 (round-trip ferry fare from Macau to HK, bus fare from HK to HKIA, taxi to go home in Macau, JR Kansai Wide Area Pass, Haruka+ICOCA one-way, bus passes, days passes, single fare, etc.)
  • Food + Shopping + Entrance fee ate up the rest of my budget (Please note that I ate very well and shopped a lot this trip... if I stick to a reasonable meal expense and no shopping, I can probably do with a lot less... A reasonable food budget would be around JPY2,500-3,000 a day in my opinion for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)
So here's a recap and pictures from the trip...

Day 1:  The trip to Japan was smooth overall.  I still have my ability to fall asleep before the plane took off and slept the entire way.  Boarded the first Haruka towards Kyoto and arrived at the hostel before 9am.  Checked out Heian Shrine as soon as I dropped my bags, didn't even bother to put on any make-up and off I went.

If you are going straight from the airport to Kyoto, the Haruka and ICOCA ticket combo is the way to go. 

I have been collecting these stamps wherever I see them
where I bought my one-day bus pass 
A very nice Japanese ryokan for budget traveler
what a beautiful day...
Heian Shrine is just as beautiful as I have imagined.  I did not go in the garden this time since I didn't think I have enough time to appreciates its full glory (and it costs JPY600 to enter). 

all the popular sake brands of the area

I love even the taxi drivers are in suit.
The Jidai Matsuri advertising poster

I made my way towards the bus station and headed towards Nishiki Ichiba / Market, or Kyoto's kitchen.  The walk from the Heian Shrine is beautiful and I can only imagine how pretty the ginko trees will be when they turn gold in mid-November.  This is when I know I will return to this beautiful country.
the ginkgo trees

I checked out the different stalls along Nishiki Market and stopped at the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine.  I find it amazing how religion is s closely blended into the local's everyday lives.  Most people I found would make a stop at the shrine before going grocery shopping at the market afterwards.

The Nishiki Market is not very big but has just about everything you would need to cook a nice meal.  The poeple here are very friendly too.  I bought some snacks at one of the stalls and the lady gave me a big handful of the samples, just so I can snack along the way.  Because I have lunch planned, I didn't want to overeat at the market.  Nevertheless, it's just hard to resist a fresh bacon fritter ... and to wash it down, I got myself a tofu ice-cream.

biggest chestnuts I have ever seen! it's from Tamba (丹波)
I only know about their red beans but didn't know their chestnuts are so awesome too
various types of fishcakes
a well-known egg roll shop
fresh off the fryer
very delicious!
tofu ice cream
Lunch today was this famous sukiyaki place I found from a Taiwanese backpackers forum called Mishima-tei.  The restaurants is an traditional styled Japanese building and offers a special priced lunch menu at JPY4,505.  It's an expensive lunch but it was worth it.  (Dinner starts from JPY8,085.) The service was impeccable and you enjoyed the privacy from a enclosed room.  Lunch is cooked in front of you and it tastes delicious!  I don't mind paying more for just about anything in Japan because I know I get what I pay for.

if you are planning to go on a weekend, you may want to make a reservation.
since the restaurant only take phone reservation from a local number,
you may want to ask your hotel to help
it's a full service dining experience
look at the marbleization of the meat!
I arrived around 1130am on a weekday, so I didn't have to wait
(and I didn't make a reservation)
grilling meat on sugar, it's my first time seeing beef cooked this way.
that round egg looking thing has the most interesting texture...
it's almost like chewing gum...
it melts in my mouth... oiishi!
I checked out more shops along the Teramachi and somehow stumbled upon Ippodo Tea Shop (Ippudo is the ramen place!), which is where I was trying to visit anyway... They offer free tea tasting and I finally tried a cup of properly made matcha and gyokuro!  They taste very different from the green tea (sencha) most people are used to and of course I am in love... it took all my will power to settle just for the limited edition matcha (you will find I literally have zero resistance to anything "limited").  I wish I had took more advantage of the filming function of my phone and camera... tea brewing is definitely an art...

JPY150,000 for a basket of mushroom (or matsutake if you want to be technical)
even the cheapest ones are going JPY15,000 and up
Ippodo Tea Shop
I got to try some freshly brewed match.
Tsukikage Special Matcha (only available in autumn!)
Originally, I am really supposed to be looking for a bus station and head to the Ginkakuji but instead, I found myself in the Imperial Palace Park... it was HUGE!  I did not enter the palace since I didn't apply for the special visitation permit but I still enjoyed chilling at the benches.  Isn't it amazing that a place where you need to be a royalty to even enter is now open to the public and people can actually lounge on the benches without fear of getting shot!?

that actually looked very comfortable
it's huge!
I did what the guy in the other picture did... very relaxing indeed...
putting on my feng shui hat - the palace does face due south :P
Finally, I decided it's time to head to Ginkakuji.  Contrary to the shining golden pavilion (Kinkakuji), Ginkakuji is a humble structure.  However, the beauty is not to be underestimated.  The place is full of zen.  I really enjoyed Ginkakuji.

the most photographed spot in Ginkakuji
The Ginkakuji and the Nanzenji temple is connected by the Philosopher's Path.  It's one of the best places to go during the sakura season as there were hundreds of sakura trees planted along the banks.  Since it's the off season, the walk is quiet and really leaves you pondering.  For instance, I kept thinking how much longer I have to walk and I am definitely riding a bicycle next time.  

the fishing bears
I also saw a few cats towards the end of the walk and they were so fluffy and cute!  (I am a cat person.)  My spirits are lifted after seeing these cats and I was elated to find I have finally arrived at Nanzenji.  It was getting dark and I am already too tired from all the walking today, I only stayed near the main temple hall and the main gate.

finally reach Nanzenji

The next stop is souffle at Rokuseisa-tei and I can't believe myself but I walked there / . \ (they looked so close to each other from the map, plus the bus will send me in circles) Their soufflé, is raved on the Taiwanese travel blogger circle. I ordered the plain vanilla and I am shocked when the soufflé doesn't collapse! (You know how most soufflé collaspe as soon as they were brought out of the oven? This one does not!) For any soufflé lovers out there, this is a must try.

vanilla soufflé
I went back to the ryokan and rested a little before I head out again for dinner.  It's always good to check in as early as you can especially at a shared room since you get to pick where in  the room you want to sleep.  I picked a corner spot far from the door for tonight so I won't be bother by foot traffic :)  Everyone in the room (3 Japanese girls + me) was very quite so it wasn't much of an issue anyway.

I had picked out this udon place called Okakita before my trip but I ended up going to the place next door - Yamamoto Menzo - since there was a line when I Googled Okakita on Google Maps Street View, when I passed by it in the morning after I left Heian Shrine and when I went to Okakita.  I thought to myself, I think I need to try this place instead!  Hence, I stood in line with everyone else. 

Okakita is right next to where all the bicycles are parked
look at all the people inside
their operating hours
The server brought hot tea for everyone since we were standing in the cold, which was very nice. He also took our order at the door and since I did no prior research, I have no clue what to order! So I just picked some hot udon (since I was cold and didn't want to eat anything that will make me colder).

The wait was roughly 45 minutes and the moment I sat down, I knew what I should have ordered (since almost everyone was eating the same thing. It WAS NOT what I ordered! *cry*)

this is hot udon with fluffy eggs and tempura flakes
I was also sat next to a caucasian guy that speaks perfect Japanese... damn! Why did the server boy took my order first! I would have asked the caucasian guy what I should have ordered and avoided this misery!!! (No, the server doesn't speak much English so all my attempts on asking what's their #1 item failed >.<) Note to self: I must learn this sentence in Japanese or in any other languages before I go to any foreign country again.

Don't get me wrong, my udon still tastes delicious... it's just not what everyone else was eating... which look yummier than mine... I guess I must have looked sad because the couple behind me who later was sat next to me tossed me a piece of fried chicken just to cheer me up... (nah, they just asked if I would like to try a piece of the fried chicken, which was really nice of them and it was so delicious!! That just confirm how much more better my dinner would have been if I ate the dipped udon with burdock root tempura instead!  The chef rinsed all the udon by hand in ice cold water ) I later found out that this place is famous among locals (and on Chowhound too)... so good job on following my guts?

Although I was tired, I decided it's too early to call it a day (it's only a little past 8pm).  So, I took the bus and walked around Sanjo, Shijo, and Gion.  I found the other restaurants I researched about and planned to try for the days coming... and by the time I reached Yasaka Shrine, I conclude my feet are too tired to walk anymore.

in Sanjo near Loft, one of my favorite stores
a gyoza place that I wanted to try
a yakitori place (tori-sei) which I also wanted to try
somewhere in Shijo
one of the popular tourist places, I didn't go in but it's quite interesting from the outside
my lunch tomorrow, Tenshu
my dessert tomorrow, just a few shops down towards Yasaka Shrine from Tenshu,  in Gion
a place my foodie radar went off, across from Yasaka Shrine, also in Gion
Yasaka Shrine at night
Shopping of the day:

Japanese crackers, matcha from Ippodo, oil blotting sheets from Yojiya and my egg roll
free samples I got from Loft


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