12/29/2013 – Day 10 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:43 am 1 Comment

We woke up early this morning to go to the famous Nishiki Market near Shijo street. Rich with local foodstuffs and traditional crafts, the market stretched block after block with so much to observe, taste, and enjoy! I didn’t recognize a lot of the foodstuffs sold, but we saw everything from big pots of miso of all different types, pickled vegetables, and raw and roasted fish to raw and steamed mochi, sugar candy with beautiful designs, and my favorite – matcha (green tea) warabi mochi. Grace and I shared a big box of the warabi mochi and relished it completely – if only we can get this in the United States! I love the soft texture that feels like chewing on a cloud, as well as the delicate flavor.

Nishiki is famous for its roasted baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed in the head (served on a stick), but we didn’t eat one this time around since it was too early for food like this. We did eat various desserts, shared an sweet potato and vegetable oden (fish cake base served hot on a stick), and Grace had a stick of marinated raw tuna on a stick. Since this is our last full day in Japan, we also bought a lot of the traditional omiyage for gifts when we get back. Kyoto is famous for its yatsuhashi, a confectionary sweet traditional the region with a glutinous rice flour shell wrapped as a triangle around a flavored paste of some sort, from green tea red bean to cinnamon and yuzu. The overall texture is soft and mochi-like, and absolutely delicious. Grace and I bought quite a few boxes to bring back!

We wandered into the Teramachi district to get a sense of Kyoto’s downtown. Most surprisingly, we saw so many traditional shrines, cemeteries, and temples fully integrated into the modern shotengai (covered shopping area). Literally, just stepping into a nook brings about another world – I’ve never before seen such a melding of old and new within such a small space. Grace and I had a terrific time poking around the shops, many of them dedicated to anime goods, manga, and Japanese pop culture. Grace bought some comics, doujinshi, and other assorted items, while I bought some keychains and cute trinkets. We saw a lot of Free! and Kuroko merchandise in particular, and marked it down on our list of animes to watch when return back home. I haven’t watched anime since freshman year of college – it may be time to re-visit my old comfort activity!

For lunch, Grace spotted an okonomiyaki restaurant on the third floor of a non-descript building! We had a blast eating the delicious octopus pancake and pork and seafood hiroshimayaki! I wish I could okonomiyaki everyday…I love the sauce, the cabbage, the special batter, the flavoring and the bonito flakes, and the interactive nature of smushing the pancake around on the hot table plate and shoveling it with the tiny picks. Despite stuffing ourselves, we somehow managed to find room for a matcha crepe for dessert afterward from a popular stand.

Our host had recommended visiting an onsen (hot springs) at a ryokan in an adjacent town, but given the difficulty of making the trip fit with our limited time, I did my research and found Funaoka Onsen on the outskirts of Kyoto, accessible by public transportation. Grace told me that she did not recommend that I go given the potential severity of the culture shock but I didn’t listen to her…oh how I wish I did!

Funaoka Onsen was listed as the top bath-house in Kyoto by Lonely Planet given its status as one of the oldest bath-houses in operation (over a century in age), and its famous carved wooden panels along the ceiling of the dressing room dating back during the period of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria – as expected, depicting often violent scenes. Funaoka contains an outdoor bath, a sauna, a cypress-wood tub, electric bath, Chinese herbal bath, and a few other small baths as well. Given the old history and traditional feel of the bath, we heard that it’s a favorite haunt of geisha, maiko, yakuza, and others seeking a more historical experience. Given how public bath-houses are an important cultural tradition in Japan, I thought that in theory it would be a great experience…the actual execution of our expedition, however, lets just suffice to say that I am glad that I went to see what it was like, but I will not repeat anything of this sort for the rest of my life.

There is so much hair-splitting etiquette in public bathing that without Grace, I would have been completely lost and likely ejected from the establishment. I think people in Japan are a lot more comfortable with being naked together compared to Americans…I had trouble psychologically getting over this hurdle and spent the entire time completely embarrassed. The baths were all very hot which made me feel very light-headed, and in shifting to the cold bath while outdoors on a 30 degree Fahrenheit day, I caught a cold and caused leg muscle spasms. Meant to be a relaxing experience, typical residents stay about an hour or so (if not more), but we high tailed it out in 10 minutes. I had trouble figuring out how to use the traditional washiki toilet, and couldn’t get the brown herbal bath residue off my skin (alongside the images of the naked old people out of my head). Grace was kind enough to do the “I told you so” routine only once, both of us reeling from the heat and vapors of the bath.

We took the bus back to central Kyoto, and had a soba teishoku at a delicious restaurant. If only I could eat like this everyday – we savored our last dinner in Japan with a lot of gusto. We then went back to the Kyoto Avanti department store to take some more purikura photos to commemorate our trip, as well as eat our dessert together. Grace and I split a mango waffle and green tea cheesecake parfait – alas, we’ll miss Japanese desserts!

With heavy hearts and heavy bags from our souvenir and gift shopping for family and friends, we headed back to our residence in Kyoto. I don’t feel ready to leave – Japan is a magical country to visit and my most favorite “tourist experience” I’ve ever had, ahead of Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, China, England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Mexico, and all the other places I’ve ever visited in my lifetime thus far. I love the exotic cityscape, the delicious and reasonably priced set meals and desserts that can be found everywhere and of elevated quality even just stumbling into a random place to eat, the convenience of the trains to see so many cities, the intriguing pop culture and subculture presence, the beautiful historical sights, the omnipresent vibrant shopping arcades, the traditional crafts, the “cute” trinkets sold everywhere from Rilakkuma to Pom Pom Purin, the fashion of the youth and the vertical hair, the anime characters everywhere…all of it! Furthermore, I love spending time with Grace, my dearest sister and best friend in the whole world.

One Response to “12/29/2013 – Day 10 in Japan”

  1. yoda Says:

    How could I left one entry without comment for your last japan trip? And, soon, I will comment on the new one! While most visitors find Japan expensive, exotic (eating raw fish?) , consumer paradise, cartoon-like and gadget crazy. Hopefully I will find my own comfortable angle when I mingle and should-to-shoulder squeeze in the Shinkansen – oh, I may confuse it with the scene s of Tokyo commuter train: they hire staffs to shove people into the car. Yes, I am looking forward to enjoying my visit with some reservation :-).

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