30 June 2016

Kyoto Daytripping: Arashiyama

Whilst staying in Osaka in April/May this year, I visited Kyoto on a number of occasions. One of the main reasons I chose Osaka as my base was its proximity to Kyoto and other locations in the Kansai region. Even though I enjoyed my trips to Kyoto, and certainly preferred it to Osaka (in terms of appearance and atmosphere), it still didn't quite live up to expectations, given its reputation as a must-visit destination in Japan (this is despite being awe-struck by two geisha I spotted one night in the historic geisha district of Gion - surely the quintessential experience for the tourist in Japan). Maybe it's because most of the times I visited Kyoto I had the misfortune of torrential rain so spent a lot of time in museums rather than wandering the streets or parks. Or perhaps it's because I'd reached temple/shrine saturation point by the time I visited those located in Kyoto. Either way, my two highlights of the Kyoto area are actually located outside the city itself: Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari (which I will write about in another post). Both of these places are in my opinion much more impressive than anything I saw in the city. If you ever spend a short stay in Kyoto, I would suggest making a day trip to one or both of these places rather than focussing solely on the attractions in the city itself.

Arashiyama is located in the western outskirts of Kyoto. If you take the Hankyu line to Arashiyama like I did, the first thing you do once exiting the train station is walk across Togetsukyu bridge which crosses the Katsura river. The river itself is covered in pleasure boats and is a good location to spot local wildlife.

Thickly forested riverside with pleasure boats

Cormorants enjoying a day of fishing on the Katsura river

The river as seen from a observation point near the bamboo grove

Once you cross the bridge, you are confronted by what looks like an extremely touristy area with masses of souvenir shops and tourists disembarking from coaches in their hundreds. Luckily, once you move away from this central area, the attractions tend to be less busy. The one exception to this is the bamboo grove, which unfortunately was horrendously busy, as I suppose is to be expected given it is the most famous attraction of the area. This was a real shame, as it seemed like a magical place, but you couldn't truly get a sense of this with the number of people walking through it. I was also slightly disappointed that there was only one designated path through the bamboo grove, and you could not simply wander through it freely.

Walking through the narrow path of the bamboo grove was one point at which I got extremely frustrated with people spending what felt like hours taking photos of themselves, with or without selfie sticks. It's quite a narrow path through the grove, so if there is a group doing this you not only can't pass but it takes up your entire view of the grove, which is somewhat distracting to say the least. I know I'm as guilty of taking photos as the next person, but sometimes I wish people would spend more time simply enjoying their surroundings rather than taking photos of themselves in said surroundings. I completely understand the need to record experiences for posterity, but not when it's at the detriment of enjoying the here and now. And that's the end of my selfie rant.

Bamboo Grove: vertical view

Bamboo Grove: horizontal view

After battling our way through the tourists at the bamboo grove, we went to a much more tranquil location: Okochi Sanso Villa. This is the former villa of samurai actor Denjiro Okochi, who carefully worked on the design of the gardens for 30 years. Since his death in 1962 the gardens have been open to the public. The entry fee is 1,000 JPY which includes green tea and a biscuit in the teahouse. Not only are the grounds themselves imprressive, but also afford stunning views of Kyoto as it sits on a hill. I also found the journey through the garden very interesting and different to any other Japanese garden I had visited (and I have visited quite a few now!). The paths between different locations within the grounds were frequently built up with foliage so that you were walking through 'tunnels', from which you could not see the overall plan of the garden, meaning that when you appeared in the next location it was all the more surprising and impressive. It also meant that the contrast between the 'closed' passages and the great open viewpoints of the city was even more breathtaking.

Restorative matcha and red bean biscuit in the teahouse

Chumon (middle gate)

Daijo Kaku (main building)

Jibutsudo (small temple)

After enjoying a quick lunch back down by the river, we visited Monkey Park Iwatayama. I was initially sceptical about this, partly because I expected it to be a quasi-zoo (and I'm not a huge fan of zoos), and partly because I'd stumbled across a 'monkey park' in a public park in Sakai the previous week which had been full of pretty mangy and unhappy looking monkeys. However, my preconceptions of Monkey Park Iwatayama turned out to be completely wrong, happily. The park is really just an area where the wild monkeys (Japanese macaques) that live in the mountains congregate because they are offered food. 

After buying your entry ticket to the park, a steep hike up the mountain for 20 minutes or so is rewarded by being able to get close to these monkeys in their (near-enough) natural environment. It happened to be the right time of year for baby monkeys to be born, which massively added to the cuteness factor.

Deep in thought

Family portrait

I'd prefer a hot bath


Just having a snack

But mummy I want to play

The monkeys and the turtle dove

If you visit the monkey park, definitely stick around for feeding time. The park 'ranger' has a bucket full of food from which he throws handfuls out for the monkeys, and they get so overexcited that they almost forget that they're wild (I had a couple of monkeys nearly run right into me in their haste to get to the tasty snacks). The monkeys are apparently omnivorous, and in the park they are fed things such as soybeans, chestnuts, peanuts, bananas, and even Japanese persimmons. No wonder they like to gather here from all over the mountain. Oohing and aahing over the baby monkeys was a great way to end the day in Arashiyama, and the sun even decided to come out for the first time all day.

If I went back to Arashiyama, I would love to spend more time simply hiking in the mountains. I spotted a couple of temples in forested areas in the mountains and it would be great to hike around there and discover some of the less well-trodden paths. As has been the trend for me so far in Japan, I've enjoyed the beautiful parts of the countryside more than the urban centres.

Have you ever been to an animal park?

15 June 2016

The (Fukuoka) Ramen Diary

As a big fan of ramen, the fact that Fukuoka is the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen made spending a couple of weeks there an attractive proposition. Tonkotsu broth, where pork bones are boiled for hours to create a rich, creamy broth, is definitely my favourite kind of ramen. Back in London there's been an explosion of ramen restaurants in recent years, many of which serve the tonktosu-style dish (such as Shoryu Ramen) but of course when I came to Japan, and specifically to the Kyushu region, I simply had to try the real thing.

Ramen restaurants are popular all over Japan as a quick and easy place to grab a bite to eat: and it's one of the cheapest meals you can get. A bowl of filling ramen for 600 JPY (around £4) is not uncommon. In London I think you'd struggle to find a bowl for under £10. As I stayed in Fukuoka for the last couple of weeks of my holiday between winter and summer jobs, when my bank balance was starting to look less than healthy, ramen was a great go-to option for a cheap meal.

Below is a run-down of the ramen I tried in the Fukuoka area. I only wish I'd had the time to try a few more!

When researching ramen in Fukuoka, I'd read about a place called Ramen Stadium, located in Canal City, a shopping mall in Hakata. This seemed like a good place to start my ramen journey, as it has a variety of different vendors serving ramen from around Japan, including quite a few from the local area. The ramen 'food court' is a convenient way to have a variety of choices all under one roof. The day I went it was raining torrentially all day, so going to a shopping mall and eating ramen seemed like a sensible option!

The entrance to Kanada-ya, with vending machine to buy your meal ticket

After looking at a few of the different Kyushu-based ramen shops, I gravitated towards Kanada-ya, mainly due to the promise of a broth made from 100% black pork bones, which I'd never had before. I did immediately wonder if it was the same Kanada-ya that can now be found in London. And it turns out that it is! Kanada-ya was actually one of the ramen shops in London I never got around to trying, so it was great to try it for the first time, in situ in Japan.

Original ramen topped with charsiu pork, spring onions, nori, wood-ear fungus, soft-boiled egg

First up, this was definitely the most delicious broth I've ever had in a ramen. It was ridiculous rich and creamy, unctuous with the fattiness of the pork and full of the savouriness of those long-boiled pork bones. I could drink the broth alone for days. The noodles, which I ordered hard (I find if you order them regular or soft they simply don't have enough bite as they continue to cook a little in the hot broth) were cooked to perfection. The boiled egg was a bit too strongly flavoured for me. It was one of those eggs that is marinated in a soy-based sauce. I prefer an unseasoned boiled egg in my ramen so you can just enjoy the texture of the soft boiled egg as it soaks up the main flavour of the broth. But all in all an incredibly satisfying bowl and one that I would order again and again.

Ippudo is one of the most popular ramen chains in Fukuoka, and I visited the branch in Hakata station. It's actually in the huge commercial complex attached to the station, Amu Plaza, whose 9th and 10th floors are dedicated to restaurants: a good destination for the hungry traveller.

Although we did have to queue for a seat, the queue disappeared quickly and we were served in the hasty style you expect from a proper ramen joint. I went for the Shiromaru Classic for 720 JPY, the original tonkotsu ramen of the brand. The broth is cooked for 18 hours and then left to infuse for a further 24 hours to enhance the flavour.

Although the broth was very flavourful it didn't compete with the smooth richness of Kanada-ya's (although it did have a greater depth of flavour). The plain soft boiled egg was much more to my liking although a little on the runny side, so that the yolk escapes immediately into the broth upon delving into the egg, never to be seen again. It was a solid bowl of ramen, but not particularly memorable, nor one I would bother queueing for again. Given that Ippudo is hyped as one of the best ramen restaurants to hail from Fukuoka, and with its first branch opening in 1985, before I was even born, it was slightly disappointing. Like Kanada-ya, Ippudo is now a chain with branches around the world.

Manichi Gold Label
This ramen restaurant is actually in the city of Kurume, a stone's throw away from Fukuoka, which apparently is the original birth place of the tonkotsu ramen. Manichi is also a long-established brand, originating in 1953. The branch I went to was in Kurume station. Ramen restaurants are often located in stations, I suppose because it's something you can eat quickly in 10 minutes before catching your train.

I ordered the ramen bowl with spicy miso and black garlic oil. I love a plain ramen but sometimes it's nice to throw in some toppings with a little kick, to counteract the richness of the tonkotsu broth. These toppings did just that without overpowering the entire dish with their flavours. The bowl arrived with the toppings adorably assembled to look like a smiley face.

The restaurant served the best charsiu pork I've had in a ramen: beautifully melt in the mouth and rich in flavour. However, there wasn't very much of it (it's barely visible in the photo above! I think it's hiding under the miso. There was a misleadingly generous amount of pork depicted on the photo menu, as always). The soft boiled egg was the perfect texture, so I could enjoy the yolk without it disappearing into the broth. The only downside I have for this ramen, and it is a big downside, is that there was simply not enough broth! One of the primary reasons to have ramen is the broth, and I love the moment when you have finished the noodles and can simply savour the remainder of the broth. But there was so little in this bowl, that it was pretty much absorbed by the noodles by the time I was finished. I'm not sure if this is common in this restaurant or whether my server was being particularly stingy. Nonetheless, it was a memorable bowl which I thoroughly enjoyed... I just wish it had lasted longer.

That's it for my delving into the world of Kyushu's regional tonkotsu ramen, in Hakata and Kurume. For ramen lovers such as myself, I strongly encourage further reading in the form of Lucky Peach's Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan.

How do you like your ramen? Do you have a favourite broth or topping?