Okayama Pt 2 : Eat… and eat, and eat!

Admit it, this is really the main post you wanted to see about Okayama! Of course we filmed our indulgence, so check out the videos.

WARNING: do not read this before dinner (or doing groceries), you may not be able to control the impulse to indulge in #nom.

Parfaits (ice cream y’all)

Okayama is famous for producing their parfaits so fork out that ¥¥¥ and dig in!

We had a black sesame & soybean flour with mochi, chocolate cake, anko, whip cream and pudding parfait (and an extra 10 pds!) at Korakuen garden, but we also had a decadent budo grape parfait in Kurashiki at Momoko.

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I will never get over this parfait!
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Worth every penny in grapes.

There were 3 kinds of grapes and they ALL tasted different. The green one was fresh and citrusy, the red one was… well, like a grape, and the purple one tasted like red wine. Yes, yes, red wine!

Here’s more recommendations for your taste buds:

Contents Cafe

HOTEL GRANVIA OKAYAMA Café Restaurant Olivier

Kibi dango

Okayama is, after all, the city of Momotaro, legendary peach boy! As the story goes, his adoptive mother gave him kibi dango to take on his journey, he shared it with his friends (dog, monkey and bird), and together they defeated monsters!

Let me tell you, the dango here do NOT disappoint! They are light and fluffy, not dense, and are so fresh they only “keep” for 20 days. The peach dango actually tastes like REAL peach and there’s a harder to find, but totally worth it, chocolate & sea salt kibi dango.

So how can you get your hands on either or both of these delicious treats? The easiest is at Okayama station, right in front of the Central Exit.

Koeido has multiple flavours ranging from white peach to brown sugar and soybean flour; you can easily spot their colourful boxes covered in onni (monster) faces. Walk straight out of the Central Exit to the shops in front of you, the first one on your right should be Koeido. * There’s also a Koeido in Kurashiki.

岡山名物“きびだんご”。お子様からお年寄りまで愛され続ける日本一の桃太郎の“元気の素”です。
Photo curtesy of koeido.co.jp

As for the shio choco kibi dango (chocolate & sea salt), you can also find them at Okayama Station just off the Central Exit. I think… they where in the store on the right of the Central Exit? If not, just circle the omiyage shops until you spot them.

4. Best Buy in Okayama: Shio Choco Kibi Dango
Photo curtesy of allabout-japan.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oyster okonomiyaki

Along with fresh fruits, oysters are another BIG food feature of Okayama so YOU BET we were gonna lay our hands on some oyster okonomiyaki! Kamon okonomiyaki is close to the train station, so once you found your kibi dango, you can reward yourself by stuffing your face nearby.

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Oyster okonomiyaki

We got 8 giant oysters and nothing else (save the basics that come with) because we wanted to taste them pure. They were juicy and fresh, really delicious. But if I’m totally honest… I most fondly remember the grilled mochi and cheese okonomiyaki. This is my new favourite combo! The grilled mochi has a satisfying chewy, soft texture, and coupled with the cheese #perfection.

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Mochi okonomiyaki

Chocolate & fruit jelly

My life is now richer, for having eaten too much chocolate and for having discovered that Rokumeikan exists. Everything looked so good from the outside and this was day 1 of vacation adrenaline rush, so naturally we just had to buy their chocolates… and jelly… and cookies #foodie. The chocolates have very interesting flavour pairings (shout-out to the champagne!) and the jelly is like the most perfect gummy bear. I recommend both for self-indulgence and as a gift.

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Image curtesy of Rokumeikan

Related image

Image curtesy of Rokumeikan

Izakaya

Being the intrepid walkers that we are, and fearless adventurers, we ventured out into the unknown for an izakaya! Right in front of our Air BnB to be exact, at Nojika .

Can’t remember what sake we drank, but it was a tall glass and it was GOOD. They had Yuzu wine, but tragedies of tragedies they were OUT… so they kindly made us a yuzu sour on the house! * Apparently that wine was from Hiroshima.

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LOOK at that sashimi!

The standout dishes were an octopus salad entre, assorted sashimi and ochazuke. And I won’t snub my nose at the fried chicken, daikon soup and chicken stock onigiri freebies we got! Besides the food, the chefs behind the counter were very friendly and it made the experience that much more enjoyable.

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Octopus salad

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Royal milk tea pudding

Fruit liqueur etc.

Okayama is fruit heaven and white peach as well as budo grape are the shining stars. You can find sake, wine, liqueur and beer featuring their flavours. I enjoyed both the peach sake and liqueur and would recommend them as a gift. You can find them in any omiyage store, grocery store or specialty sake store.

Image may contain: drink and coffee cupStarbucks

… let me just hang my head in deep, deep, DEEP shame. I am NOT a Starbucks afficionado, I only go back home if it’s on a roadtrip of some kind with friends or as a meetup point, and I NEVER get the flavoured/seasonal coffees. But FOR SOME REASON, in Japan… they’re very enticing! I live in the deep inaka remember?

We were in Okayama right before the Christmas season so the Gingerbread latte, Pistachio candy latte, and Rasberry mocha were the featured items. Yes I tasted them all, yes they’re surprisingly delicious! Not sickeningly sweet, not syrupy, not articifial in taste (although they clearly are). It’s a good thing we indulged here because the week after, both the Pistachio and Rasberry mocha were mysteriously out of circulation. Thankfully the Gingerbread latte lingered on until mid-December.

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Rasberry mocha
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Pistachio and gingerbread lattes
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Okayama Pt 1: See & Do

My good friend was visiting Japan and, since I live in the middle of nowhere, I sort of randomly picked an accessible, not too expensive in train fare, meeting spot: Okayama. What a lucky random choice! o(^▽^)o Read on OR skip the text and watch our travel video.

*** I’ve got so much to share I couldn’t possibly do one post, so I’ve split it in two with food in Pt 2. ***

Okayama castle

Monday – Sunday 9AM – 5:30PM

2 Chome-3-1 Marunouchi, Kita-ku, Okayama-shi, Okayama-ken 700-0823

Also known as Crow Castle, it’s a striking black and gold edifice, unlike your regular white castles. Sure it was destroyed in 1945 (like everything else!) but its replica is apparently #onpoint, since the original blueprints were used. Bonus free kimono photoshoots are available on the second floor.

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Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, outdoor, nature and waterKorakuen garden

Monday – Sunday 7:30AM – 6PM

1-5 Kōrakuen, Kita-ku, Okayama-shi, Okayama-ken 703-8257

Not gonna lie… day 1 we decide to skip this… 400¥, are you crazy! Ya, we were just THAT stingy. But then we spent 1700¥ on a parfait so, we re-evaluated our life choices. Cough up that 400¥, it’s worth it! Dating from 1700, it hasn’t changed since the Edo era; waterfalls, tiny shrines, teahouses, miniature maple forests, a lotus pond, and rare red-crested white cranes. But the BEST feature? The nameless (as far as I can tell) teahouse that has DECADENT parfaits!

Image may contain: plant, tree, grass, outdoor and natureImage may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, nature and waterScenic bike rides

If you check Wikitravel, it’ll recommend doing a scenic 17 km Kibiji cycling trail. We did it and it was AWESOME… we also got lost at night time and needed the help of lovely 7/11 ladies BUT we made it home in one piece! Having survived the trail, here are my words of wisdom:

  1. Start at Soja and finish at Bizen if you’re based in Okayama, makes getting home faster. Basically, do the trail backwards.
  2. Make this a day trip. Yaaaaa you can do it in half a day BUT you’ll enjoy stopping at shrines a lot more if you’re not worried about getting the bike back in time.
  3. There are signs for the biking trail… most of the way? Sometimes the signs just drop off… which is lovely. Pull out that fully charged mobile and get back on track!

Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor, nature and waterImage may contain: sky, tree, grass, outdoor and natureKurashiki area

Only 10 minutes away by train, the main draw is the Bikan Historical Quarter. Honestly, it’s like stepping back in time and being suspended in a nostalgic bubble! The streets are cobble stone and the weeping willows lining the canal make for a scenic half day excursion. It’s also where you can find delicious fruit parfait, but more of that in Pt 2! Check out Ohashi house while you’re there, a typical wealthy merchant town house with tatami floored rooms, elegant sliding doors and hanging scrolls.

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Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, child, sky, tree and outdoorOkayama, initially a random choice, turned out to be a hell of a 4 day weekend! It’s also a great base to explore Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.

BUT Estelle… what… what about the food!? Pfffffff as if I could forget. Get yourself to Pt 2!

Tales from the inaka: 3 months in

A little over 3 months into my life in Japan, sounds like a good time as any to update you on my inaka life! WARNING… this is a long one:

September ended with a 2 for 1 deal, culturally speaking. My town and a junior high school in New Zealand have been partnering in an exchange program for over 20 years. Good news for me, since I was the English attaché for the duration of their stay! I discovered New Zealand culture AND Japanese culture in one breath. We started off with a trip to a local aquarium that had very beautiful fish BUT the show stealer that day was the majestic, black male deer that appeared out of nowhere on the road: we did a hard brake, it stared at us, we stared at it… then it jumped back into the forest! That was some Princess Mononoke level experience right there.

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Following that was a whirlwind of local dancing (yosakoi), flower arrangement (ikebana), summer kimonos (yukata), temple visits, tea ceremony (sado), and the gutting of an unsuspecting bonito (katsuo). If you aren’t already following me on facebook or insta, then let me enlighten you about bonito. It is THE local fish, star of every tourist meal, an unmissable delicacy. A famous restaurant here kindly organised an activity where the students prepared the fish themselves, A-Z.

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This was the yukata I picked out for the day! I love that the obi belt wasn’t pre-made and I had it done in a pretty bow.
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Green tea ceremony (sado)

Speaking of bonito, October 14th there was an entire festival dedicated to this delicious fish. That’s right, you heard me, a fish festival. Basically, it’s a bunch of tents with a bunch of food and IT IS AWESOME. Don’t take my word for it, watch the video I made instead! Of course I had seared bonito (katsuo tataki) and I washed it all down with yuzu shaved ice (kakigori). Yuzu looks somewhat like a lemon, either yellow or green and is SUPER aromatic. Forget lemons, once you’ve had yuzu, you don’t go back!

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yuzuuuuuuuuuu kakigori #nom

Dear readers, you may or may not have had the chance to taste Yuzu before, so you may or may not understand my sorrow when *cue dramatic music* the “#%&$’”%& damn typhoon cancelled a Yuzu matsuri I was planning on attending.

Most of October was overwhelmed by typhoons which means rain, rain, rain. But hey, I didn’t let that dampen my spirit! In fact, before the rain hit we had the JET surf camp and yes, I went surfing for the first time in my life EVER! Omg, omg omg omg omg it was so amazing. I managed to stand on the board TWICE in 2h #goals. I can’t wait to go again!

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Exactly what I looked like on the water

Kochi city held a local products festival mid-October, at a shrine that had my name written all over it. Deer hot-dogs? Rose petal soda? Yes please! That very night was also the last performance of traditional dance (kagura) held at Kochi castle and I had been obsessing about seeing it. The entrance to the castle was lit with beautiful light installations and we were given paper lanterns to carry up the stairs. Check out the video I put up on my YouTube channel!

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#nom
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Kochi castle by night

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Multiple rainy weekends means keeping yourself busy. I spent one very wet and windy Saturday at Cap Ashizuri, touring Kongōfuku-ji Temple (one of the largest temples on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage) and walking along the high cliffs that jut out into the Pacific.

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Kongōfuku-ji Temple

22550032_1474990815909845_1964867755258620107_nI’ve also been playing the local tourist which in my book means FINALLY tasting the local katsuo tataki burger! I could talk about it buuuuuuuut I have a great video up on my YouTube channel that gives you a much better idea of how delicious it was. And if the burger isn’t a big enough draw for you, well I’ll have you know there’s also the skeleton of a whale in that video!

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Katsuo tataki burger = DELICIOUS

22851683_1480589298683330_4181534632271501283_nI’ve passed the 3 month mark and am loving every minute of it! Well… not so much the minutes spent on the surprise malfunctions of my car (looking at you alternator) but hey, no point sweating the small stuff.

Fall is kicking off here which means season themed decorations everywhere, including decorations made from Japanese pampas grass (susuki), eating rice dumplings (Tsukimi dango), roasting sweet potatoes and finding chestnut products everywhere; my favorites are the homage to the mythology of a rabbit living on the moon.

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Chestnut cake!
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Rabbit in the moon.
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Rabbit in the moon

Kyoto Part 4: Kiyomizu-dera

Ok so no, I didn’t go to the golden temple… I went to Kyoto and only did 2 of the major temples. And you know what, I survived to tell the tale!

Listen, Kyoto is FULL of temples and you could spend your entire trip doing just that, so I decided to cut down (+ I’m going back in March so I’ll do more then). The temples I did do were: Fushimi-Inari and Kiyomizu-dera. Check out the videos.

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templeTo reach the temple you’ll pass a thousand and 1 shops of various goodies and be MEGA matcha overloaded. Since I did this trip 1 month into my arrival in Japan, I wasn’t yet jaded by the hyper commercial alley. But I digress.

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The first thing that hits you upon entering Kiyomizu-dera is the brightly painted, coral red gate and pagoda. But what truly blew my mind is that this structure dates from 1633 and NOT A SINGLE nail was used to build the 13 meter stage! Fun fact, Kiyomizu-dera gets its name from the waterfall area near it, Kiyomizu meaning clear or pure water.

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statue templetemple BnWI have a very vivid memory of accessing the wooden stage under a ceiling of wind chimes. It was such a beautiful and peaceful sound, a welcome soundtrack while overlooking the lush greenery from the stage.

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Buddha statueroosterDragon water fountainherronSo there you have it, you CAN visit Kyoto without doing EVERY  SINGLE temple until your eyes bleed, and still enjoy the ones available to you!

Location

1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku

*** 10min walk from Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi Bus Stop, Kyoto City Bus 100 or 206 from Kyoto Station

Opening hours

6am- around 6pm

Fee

Adults: 300 yen

Junior and elementary school students: 200 yen

Kyoto Part 3: Unique Japanese fashion

I couldn’t continue talking about my Kyoto adventure without including fashion! SOU・SOU was created in 2002 by Katsuji Wakisaka, Hisanobu Tsujimura and Takeshi Wakabayashi and is based in Nagakyo-Ku. Their products are a modern interpretation of traditional Japanese clothing and techniques. In addition to their Kyoto location, they also have a store in Tokyo and San Francisco. DO YOU KNOW HOW EXCITED I WAS TO SEE THEIR STORE!? DO YOUUUUUUUU?

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A VERY short walk from the Nishiki market, you’ll spot the store’s banner.

 

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They have dedicated stores for men, women, kids, shoes, accessories and textiles.

22069076_10155039502622817_552380718_oThe expression of Japanese culture is at the heart of SOU・SOU and the name itself is an entertaining example. Of course, we all know how often sou sou is used when speaking in Japanese, and according to the founders, the use of sou sou is a direct expression of Japan’s uniqueness.

 

What are some of the aspects that allow SOU・SOU to offer a modern Japanese style? Let’s start off with the beautiful textile designs created by Katsuji Wakisaka. Often debuting as postcards, the designs are inspired by changes of the season in nature and traditional Japanese patterns. Follow them on Instagram for an @sousoukyoto! Fun fact, Wakisaka was the first Japanese designer to work for Marimekko (1968-1976), a well-known Finnish textile company.

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One of my scarves from SOU・SOU with a fun and elegant pattern.
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Another scarf from SOU・SOU with a simple and geometrical pattern.

Moving on to a distinctly Japanese item that often results in many giggles in the West: jika tabi. Believe it or not, this split toed shoe wasn’t invented for laughter but rather to offer better balance. All SOU・SOU shoes are handmade in Japan and in order to adapt to our modern lives, the traditional thin sole is replaced by a thicker, sneaker like sole.

 

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22050828_10155039502647817_109015805_oTheir men and women’s line is what first drew me to the website of SOU・SOU. The kimono is such an emblematic feature of Japan and, especially in the West, seems impractical for daily wear. The kikoromo is SOU・SOU’s answer to this dilemma for women. Men can turn to the kei I clothing line, a modern interpretation of kabuita mono or kabuki mono,Muromachi era terms describing carefree people with a different dress.

Their clothing line is fascinating and endearing to me because of the traditional elements that come together: the overall shape, the patterns and the fabric. The Chizimi, Bizen and Ise cotton are found in many of their collection; Chizimi is a Japanese crepe cotton, Bizen is a cotton produced in 1950 for school uniforms and Ise is a special export from Tsu city.

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Chizimi top AND scarf: perfect pairing!
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Upping
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Upping my game with another chizimi top and linen pants, great for 35+ weather!

Being a lover of Japanese culture as well as art and costume history, I am mesmerized by SOU・SOU. I am now lucky enough to be a proud owner of 6 SOU・SOU pieces and wanted to bring to light their efforts in maintaining and adapting Japanese techniques and aesthetics. I hope the information I’ve highlighted will encourage you to discover not only their history but also the clothing and fabrication history of Japan.

Location

583-3 Nakanochō (Shinkyōgokudōri), Nakagyō-ku, 京都市中京区 Kyōto-fu 604-8042

Website: sousou.co.jp

Telephone: 075-212-8005

Kyoto Part 2: Soba by day, sake by night.

What better way to kick off part 2 of my Kyoto adventure than with some #nom food, delicious sake, and David Bowie. I (didn’t) know much about sake but, I wanted to delve deeper into it; little did I know I would get a 2 for 1 deal since this establishment I found doubles as a soba restaurant during the day and a sake bar by night!

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Tooru soba restaurant during the day
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Yoramu sake bar at night

So let’s kick off with the soba first! Soba is Japanese for buckwheat but refers specifically to these thin noodles that can be eaten hot or cold in a variety of ways. Soba has been a popular dish since the well known Edo period, in fact many establishments doubled for soba and sake… just like this one! The restaurant is small, serving maybe 10? The chef is welcoming but busy as it’s a popular destination. The menu is short and sweet, as it should be; I decided to go ahead with the classic mori soba (chilled soba noodles served on a flat basket). Open from 11:30 am to 3:00 pm, there was a constant flow of local traffic, looking to slurp down the delicious chewy goodness that are these hand cut soba.

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Mori soba, plain and simple!

 

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The master’s tools resting in the back.
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When you finish your soba, you will be served some soba water to drink; add some of the mentsuyuu for added flavour.

It’s funny enough that I should choose to eat soba in Kyoto because it’s known as a typical Kansai dish, meaning it’s more popular in Tokyo (for example). It’s also a staple New Year’s eve dish that I’ve been fortunate enough to have in the past for that very occasion.

Now on to the sake! As I mentioned earlier, the establishment is shared and turns into a sake bar at night. It’s open from 6 pm to 12 am, from Wednesday to Saturday. If you do decide to go, I suggest reserving ahead of time as it’s quite popular and small. Why is it popular? Well it might have something to do with the owner being able to speak English (Yoram is not Japanese, he hails from Israel originally) AND him being very well versed in the ins and outs of sake.

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A small sample of the selection offered by Yoram.

Sadly I don’t remember the names of what I tasted BUT I did take pictures of the bottles I liked with my phone so I’ll include them below. First important element of note: We’ve all been drinking sake wrong! Following Yoram’s instructions you must take a sip, keep it in the front of your mouth for at least 5 seconds and then swallow. IT. CHANGES. EVERYTHING. To be honest, before this I’ve always found my sake experiences to be very hit and miss and quite frankly it wasn’t really a go-to drink of mine. With this method however, you can really appreciate the individual and unique flavour that lingers in your mouth and doesn’t burn you in the back of the throat. Really eye opening!

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Who knew sake could take on an amber tone.

Second important element of note: sake is not always pale or clear in colour! The reason behind this is of course oxidization, however it is not an indication of the age of sake. In fact, sake changes overtime in the bottle and doesn’t necessarily reach a cap; that is to say it can go from good, to bad, to good, to bad and on and on.  Unlike wine, sugar is not responsible for the change in flavour, but rather the amino acids. Sake is produced by a brewing process similar to that of beer, where starch is converted into sugars which ferment into alcohol. Tasting sake through time is how to know if it’s ready to be consumed.

Last important element of note: warm sake is not of superior quality to cold sake. Yes temperature does have a role in the overall flavour, but to say warm sake is superior is equivalent to saying white wine is inferior to red, or white Porto to amber (for example). So drink up and enjoy!

Yoramu was attentive and kindly answered the many sake questions that were thrown his way. But his most important quality? He’s got good taste in music! I spent a delightful evening noming on grilled mochi (with butter and soya sauce) and yuzu chrysanthemum petals, sipping wonderful sake, all to the tunes of David Bowie. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Sake Bar Yoramu

Nijo-dori east of Karasuma, Nagakyo-gu, Kyoto

Tel: 075-213-1512

Email: yoram@sakebar-yoramu.com

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Grilled mochi, humble yet delicious!
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Who knew you could eat chrysanthemum petals!

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Kyoto Part 1:Fushimi-Inari Taisha

Kyoto has the honour of being the first road trip I’ve taken since I arrived in Japan. Since I did a fair bit in 4 days, I decided to break it up into several parts. And what better way than to start with the stunning Fushimi-Inari shrine! I’ve also put a video up on my YouTube channel so be sure to check it out.

*Scroll to the end for details on how to get there.

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Main gate of Fushimi-Inari Taisha
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One of the MANY kitsune (fox in Japanese).

Torii 4You’ve probably seen its iconic red torii gates in movies (Memoirs of a Geisha to name one) or even photographs. They are absolutely enchanting, a bright vermilion, lining most of the 4-5 km trail up the mountain. Founded in 711 AD, the shrine and the mountain it sits on both bare the name Inari. Fun fact: famous cosmetic company Shiseido revers Inari and even have shrines on top of their corporate headquarters!

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torii 2torii 6Inari is the main Japanese Shinto deity of foxes, fertility, rice, tea (and sake), agriculture, and financial prosperity. Foxes, or kitsune in Japanese, act as messengers for Inari and are pure white. And you will get your fill of foxes while there, either big statues with a key (for the rice granary) in their mouth or small icons places at the base of tori. I find the foxes absolutely delightful and along with the torii they provide all the character and charm of the area. Walking up to the entrance you’ll encounter many vendors selling fox masks, key chines, cookies and basically anything you can transform into a fox… I got a charm for my cellphone!

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Kitsune 3kitsune masksTorii n kitsune 2torri n kitsune.jpgSince this shrine is dedicated to a deity associated with prosperity, allllllllllll those red torii you see were actually donated by a patron upon their wish being fulfilled; the right hand side bears their name and the left hand side the date it was donated. Although I didn’t do the whole trail –it was 35 degrees hiking up that mountain!- I did get my fill of these vermillion beauties. Despite the decent amount of tourists, the area is peaceful and surprisingly quiet.

Although the torii are the show stealers, let’s not forget about the other buildings in the complex! Past the main gate is the dance stage where the Miko (shrine maidens) perform during yearly rituals and to its right is a small subshrine named Higashimaru-jinja Shrine.

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Another view of the Fushimi-Inari Taisha main gate.
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The back of the stage where the shrine maidens dance.

 

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small temple.jpgThe latter is also were I experience my first dose of harassment… fuuuuuuuuuuun. A random Japanese man has been very angered by my presence and proceeded to repeatedly yell at me and then physically intimidate me by pushing himself on me. He also yelled at me to get out of Japan, clearly oblivious to the fact that I was among MANY foreign tourists… But the most unpleasant part was the employee at the shrine who refused to come to my help (despite my calling him over), laughed at me from his booth and then told me to get out when I confronted him. Crazy right?! So, if this should happen to you: Snap a picture of the offender (in this case I felt the employee had behaved worse than the random crazy man) and proceed to the nearest information area and make a complaint. But most importantly, don’t let it ruin your day in such a beautiful place!

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Sake.jpgTorii lampTorii black n whiteI believe you can visit the shrine at night? I’ve also read that it’s a popular destination for hatsumode (first shrine visit of the new year); I don’t know if there’s snow at that time but if there is it must be quite a sight to behold.

So there you have it: Fushimi-Inari Taisha!

HOW TO GET THERE

68 Yabunouchi-cho, Fukakusa, Fushimi-ku

kyoto map

FROM THE EAST

  1. Take a train to Fushimi (Keihan Line)
  2. Get off at Keihan Fushimi-Inari Station.
  3. Walk out of the station.
  4. Take a left and walk up the hill (follow the tourists)
  5. You will see the first torii of the shrine.
  6. You’ve arrived!

FROM EVERY OTHER DIRECTION 

  1. Take take the JR Nara line.
  2. Get off at Inari Station.
  3. You will see the first torii of the shrine.
  4. You’ve arrived!

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