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Monday, January 28, 2013

Japan - After thoughts & Tips

After thoughts

On the last night in Osaka, H & I stayed in the hotel packing up our luggage,  drinking beers, eating snacks, and watching Japanese game shows on TV.   I was not ready to put our trip to an end.  I would have loved to spend another day to wonder around window shopping, people watching, resting in a cafe, having dinner in a restaurant, and just taking everything in.  I can now understand why my Taiwanese friends visiting Japan over and over again.    

I did not expect to feel this way since this was my 3rd trip.  Perhaps it was more enjoyable because I saw Japan through H's eyes as a westerner coming to Japan for the first time: polite and reserved people, clean and orderly society,  meticulous attention to details, a relentless pursuit of aesthetics,   the refined, understated elegance in almost everything you see, and the contrasting and rebellious energy you found in pockets of the city. 

H enthusiastically said to me that he would like to come back again.  I smiled and nodded in agreement.  Yes, I'd like to come back again.  Hokkaido 北海道 is another region in Japan I would like to visit.   It probably will not be for awhile though.  I mean, there is still the Safari trip that I have been wanting to go for years, Machu Picchu has been calling my name too, and the list goes on and on........


  • Lodging: When travel to this part of JapanOsaka and Kyoto are both popular cities to stay. If you only have limited time and want to immerse yourself in the old JapanKyoto without a doubt is the best option, preferably a ryokan in Gian district if you have the money to splurge for at least one night.  If you have more time and want to visit other places in the Kansai region, Osaka is an ideal base with plenty of hotel options that meet your budget. Try to find a hotel near the Umeda station as it is the major hub for both Osaka subway railway systems so you do not need to deal with transfers from Osaka Subway to JR rail system. 

  • Railway:  Japan's railway system is a great way to travel.  They are clean, frequent, and amazingly on-time.  However the system is quite complex since there are several national and private owned railway companies and each company issues its own packaged deals.   It is worth doing your homework and learning to navigate the railway system. It will also make life easier if you pick one railway company as the mean of your main transportation during your stay to simplify your trip planning.

  • Kyoto Buses: Do not  feel intimidated to take buses in Kyoto.  The subway stops are limited and taking buses is the best way to travel from one temple to another.  Grab a bus route map,  and learn to take buses like the locals. 

  • Money: Credit cards are not as commonly accepted as in the U.S. and maybe other parts of the western world.  Most temples only accept cash payment. Same goes for the day passes for subways, trains, or buses.  Be sure to exchange enough Japanese Yen. 

  • Shoes: You will, without a doubt, be walking A LOT when you visit.  Bring a pair of comfortable shoes for walking that are also easy to take on and off, since you will be doing it a lot when you visit temples and staying in ryokans. 
  • Language: English does not seem to be as commonly used at the Kansai region as in Tokyo. The English channels we saw on TV, CNN & BBC, has Japanese voice over. Many websites does not have an English version (Google translation will be a great tool when navigating these websites).  Some locals shy away when you ask simple questions in English.  It makes the travel easier if you can read Chinese characters and it is definitely useful to learn some basic Japanese phrases.  But don't let it discourage you from visiting Japan.  All the trains, subways, and buses and major tourists sights have English directions. A little patience and some hand gestures will get you very far.  

Japan - Kyoto 11.09

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  • Kinkakuji Temple 金閣寺 (Golden Pavilion)
  • Ryoanji Temple 龍安寺
  • Ginkakuji Temple 銀閣寺 (Silver Pavilion)
  • Path of Philosophy哲學之道
  • Honen-in Temple 法然院
  • Nanzenji Temple 南禪寺
  • Kyoto Station 京都車站 

At 8 AM, we heard a gentle knock on our door.  It was breakfast time!  Tomako brought trays of food to our room: miso soup, tofu stew, grilled fish, tamakoyaki (Japanese omelette), tsukemono (various types of pickled vegetable and plums), nori (dried seaweed), and steamed rice.  We were still full from last night's dinner and could barely finish one third of the food in front of us. 

As I was eating the traditional Japanese breakfast and looking at the plates and trays used in the Japanese cuisine, I thought to myself, it must be hard being a Japanese housewife! Forget about the varieties of food needed to be prepared in one meal, to wash all the dishes along would take a very long time!   

After breakfast and a bath, sadly, it was time to check out.  Although a splurge, we really enjoyed our short stay at Shiraume. 

We took the Kyoto bus to the opposite side of the town and arrived at Kinkakuji 金閣寺.   The temple was packed with tourists, understandably since it was an iconic and visually stunning temple in Kyoto.  The setting made me better understand and appreciate the classical Japanese literature I read in high school.  

Another quick bus ride later, we escaped the mobs of crowd and came to the peaceful Ryoanji Temple 龍安寺. The temple was famous for its rock garden.   Speaking of garden, we really loved all the temple gardens we visited so far, whatever styles they might be.  H kept saying that he would get a Japanese garden just like the Oracle CEO, Larry Ellison, has  if he had the money. 

The next temple on our agenda wasGinkakuji Temple.  From Ginkakuji, we walked down the Philosopher's Path, a scenic stone path by a canal.  Along the path, we stopped by two more temples,  Honen-in Temple 法然院 and Nanzenji Temple 南禪寺.  As New Yorkers, we  were used to walk everywhere.  However, after 5 days of walking,  our legs were hurting! 

After visiting all the temples, it was time to head back to Osaka.  But before we said good-bye to Kyoto, we spent sometime inside the ultra-modern Kyoto Station,  and had ramen noodles again on the 10th floor Ramen Koji 拉麵小路.

It was down to our last night in Japan.  Maybe we were too greedy about our itinerary  or maybe there was just too much to see and too much to do in Kansai region, this trip had been exhausting! But there was still so much we want to do;  I barely had anytime to shop,  H wanted to go back to  Dotombori 道頓堀 again, and we did not eat enough Japanese food!  

After getting back to Osaka,  we stayed in Umeda shopping district and did some last minute shopping before the  department stores closed at 8 PM.   As much as we wanted to go to Dotombori for our last night's meal, H & I eventually caved into our exhaustion.  We bought a hello kitty chocolate mouse cake from the food court (it looked good and tasted even better!), some special winter beers, and snacks from the convenient store  on the way back to the Sheraton.  Once we checked into, we never made it out of our room again until the next day when we flew back to New York.  



Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Japan - Kyoto 11.08

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  • Nijo Castle 二條城
  • TenTenYu Ramon Bar
  • Kyoto Imperial Palace 京都御所
  • Shiraume Ryokan 白梅料理旅館
  • Kiyomizu Temple 清水寺
  • Kodaiji Temple 高台寺
  • Gion 祇園  

Finally, it was time to visit Kyoto today.  H's birthday is in November.  When I was preparing for this trip, I decided to book a traditional Ryokan in Kyoto as H's birthday gift. Originally, I was planning to stay at Shiraume Ryokan for the first 2 nights of our trip.  However, with only 6 rooms in Shiraume, I was only able to secure one room for one night.  

We checked out of Sheraton and stored our luggage at the hotel since we would be returning the next day and only brought a small backpack with us to Kyoto.  The express JR train took less than 40 minutes from Osaka to Kyoto.  

Once at Kyoto station, we purchased the two day bus/subway pass for JPN 2,000.  We probably did not ride enough to make the pass worthwhile, but it definitely saved us a lot of hassle.

Our first stop was Nijo Castle.   The Ninomaru Palace had 5 huge halls with tatami floors and wall painting dividers connected by a corridor.  I kept wondering how people centuries ago kept warm in the winter in these types of architectures.   Walking on the corridor of the Palace, the wooden floor made  squeaking sounds, almost like bird chirping.  It was called a nightingale floor to alert guards when  intruders were coming in. 

After Nijo Castle,  we were starving.  Our next destination, Kyoto Imperial Palace, had free English tours at 10 AM and 2 PM.   We decided to get a quick bite before the 2 PM tour.  I was craving for Ramon and was lucky to find a small Ramon bar in Shijo.  The ramon noodle soups were delicious!

Kyoto Imperial Palace was inside the Kyoto Imperial Park. There were two subway stations at the opposite end of the park.  Imadegawa Station 今出川駅 will save you at least a 15 minutes walk and take you closest to the office of Imperial Household Agency to apply for the free tour.  After spending a lot of money on layers and layers of entrance fees the past few days, it was a pleasant change to have a free tour of the Palace.

After the palace, we were ready to check into our Ryokan.  The Shiraume Ryokan was located in the heart of the historical Gion district with the Shirakawa Stream 白川 running in front of the Inn on the picturesque Shinbashi 新橋通 street.  It was an idyllic setting in a beautiful location.  We felled in love with the inn before we even stepped a foot in it.   

Satoko, one of the inn keepers was there to help us with the check-in and decision on dinner & breakfast details.  H was thrilled with our traditional tatami room and private garden and I was happy to share the experience with him.  Eventually, I had to force H out of the room so we could visit Kiyomizu Temple 清水寺 before it closes. 

Kiyomizu-michi 清水道, the street leading to the Kiyomizu Temple, was probably more interesting than the temple itself.   Beautiful old houses and souvenir shops along side the streets.   By the time we reached the temple, the sun had set.  The view from Kiyomizu Temple overlooking Kyoto city was beautiful.  

After Kiyomizu Temple, we headed back to our Ryokan just in time for our Kaiseki Ryori 懐石料理.  There were no other guests in the dinning room that night so we had the place all to ourselves.  The Inn owner, Tomoko, was serving us that night.  She offered a pot of Kyoto sake with golden flakes for H's birthday.  The sake was light and smooth, so much better than the sakes we had in New York.  Tomoko explained that Sake is a very delicate  drink.  Often the transportation of sake affects its flavor.  The ten course Kaiseki Ryori meal was too exquisite to be eaten.  Although every course came in small portions, we were quite full by the end of the dinner.  Tomoko was a gracious hostess and great conservationist.  Every time she brought the dishes to the dinning room, we would chat about the food, the Inn history and Kyoto.  Tomoko told us that Shiraume was originally an Oyagi teahouse in Edo period and she was the 7th generation owner, and that this type of business was only passed down to the women in the family.  Although there were other guests in the inn having dinner at their rooms, Tomoko gave us undivided attention, and the service was never rushed.

Two hours later, we finished dinner and headed out again to Kodaiji Temple 高台寺 as per Tomoko's recommendation.  During the autumn season in Kyoto, many temples and shrines host evening illuminations of the fall leaves in displays.  Kodaiji Temple is well-known for it. When the light lid up the garden, the reflection of the maple leaves on the temple's pond was absolutely breathtaking.  We reluctantly left the temple after the temple staff politely informed us of it's closing time. 

Walking back towards our ryokan,  we strolled through the cobbled street of Hanami-Koji 花見小路通.  The street was lined with traditional old wooden houses that operated as restaurants on both sides.  We saw Japanese men in business suites accompanied by a geiko (Geisha in Kyoto region) or a maiko (apprentice geiko) coming out of the restaurants.  Old fashioned taxies were waiting by the street as the restaurant hostesses and chefs came out bowing good-bye in a 90 degree angle.   The setting was so dreamy that H and I felt that we were transported back in time to the Edo era.  

It had been an amazing day with highlights after highlights.  Both H & I were exhausted, and we returned to our ryokan just before the mid-night curfew. 


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Japan - Kobe, Arimon & Mount Rokko 11.07

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  • Kobe Beef at Royal Mouriya 
  • Airman Hot Spring 有馬溫泉
  • subway+train+train to the hot spring
  • Airman hot spring
  • Mount Rokko 六甲山 cable car
  • Umeda Underground shopping malls
  • Izakaya 居酒屋

We had made our lunch reservation at Royal Mouriya before the trip.  It was the only thing I had on the agenda for today.  Last night at the hotel, we looked over our options  and decided to visit Airman Hot Spring and Mount Rokko after lunch. 

After an hectic day yesterday, we slept in this morning and did not leave the hotel until 10:3o AM.  Before we headed out to Kobe,  we purchased the Arima & Rokko one day pass (有馬六甲一日遊卷) with an extension between Osaka Umeda Station and Kobe Sannomiya-Eki (三宮) Station at the Hanshin (阪神線) railway office in Umeda Station for JPY2,400 and used the pass for today's transportation.  (Tips: There is no English version of the day pass, it will be almost impossible for foreigners to figure out how the pass works if you can not read some Chinese characters or Japanese.)

H always enjoys a piece of fat,  juicy steak. Naturally, he was excited about today's lunch.  Mouriya Restaurant has over 100 years of history and is quite well-known among Taiwanese travelers.  It has three locations on Ikuta Road serving similar menus.    We made a reservation at Royal Mouriya and arrived at their doorstep at 12:15 PM excited for our Kobe beef steak.  To figure out which part of the beef to order was a bit confusing. I think H and I ordered the Rib & Sirlion steak lunch set.    

The meal was prepared in Teppanyaki (鐵板燒) style.  The chef first cut off all the fat on the edge of the steak, and used the fat to cook our meal.  The meat was very tender, soft, and moist.  When I bite into it, I could almost can feel the fat running through my mouth.  H loved the meat and claimed that it was the best beef he had ever eaten. (Although I secretly thought the fact that we were in Kobe eating Kobe beef kind of enhanced the whole experience for him.)  For me, who has always preferred the leaner cut and denser texture of the meat, Kobe beef was slightly too fat.   The portion of the beef was quite small, especially considering how much it costed, but with such high fat content, the portion made sense.  

After the lunch, we headed to Arimon Hot Springs.  It was a series of transfers: Kobe subways, train, and bus.  It may sounded daunting, but they were all short rides with connecting transportation waiting at the gate.  Once again, they were amazingly on time and so well organized.  40 minutes later, we arrived at Arimon. 

Arimon Hot Springs is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan and the only one in the Kansai Region.  It is rated the top three best hotsprings in Japan.  The one day pass include a  free admission for one of the two public hotspring bath houses, Kin-no-Yu and Gin-no-Yu. The town of Arimon was small enough for a few hours stroll.   We took a quick dip at the Kin-no-Yu public bath house.  The public bath house was clean and small.  There were separate baths for men and women.  The hotspring water was quite unique.  The water had a golden brown color with shimmery minerals floating.  Before the trip, I read it on the internet that people with tattoos were not welcomed or permitted in some public bath houses in Japan.  However, H has three tattoos and did not encounter any issues in the bath house.  

After the Kin-no-Yu, we took the cable car to the Mount Rokko.  The cable car ride took about 15 minutes each way, and that was the main attraction of the Mount Rokko.   The view was absolutely stunning!  Once at the Mount Rokko, there was not much to do.  We ordered some tea at the only cafe to warm up and visited the Rokko-Shidare Observatory (Tips: Don't bother) before we headed back to take the last cable car at 5:20 PM to enjoy the million dollar view once again. 

We took the same route back and returned to Umeda station before 7 PM.  Umeda has the world's largest underground shopping mall complex.  One could easily get lost in it.  We were distracted by the gourmet food court inside one of the Department Stores.  All the food, pastry, and desserts looked so refined and appetizing.  Although we had a good time in Arimon & Mount Rokko, I almost wished that we could have spent the afternoon in Osaka to shop and eat. 

We had discovered some small eateries and bars in the underground level, which connected to the subway station next to our hotel last night.  These places seemed to attract a lot of after work crowds who would stop by for a quick bite and some drinks before heading home.  Some small bars were so tiny that it would barely fit 4 people. H was intrigued and we decided to check out one of these small eateries tonight.  We picked a charming izakaya that had a few dinning tables and felt low-key and intimate.  This izakaya was a two people operation.  One Japanese guy in his mid 40s was probably the owner/cook in the tinny kitchen.  Another woman in her early 40s was the waitress/bartender.

There was only one other couple sitting by the bar.  There was no English menu, and the staff didn't speak a word of English.  Ordering drinks was the easy part. However, ordering food became quite a challenge.  Luckily I could read Chinese characters, the waitress wrote down the menu items in Chinese characters combined with some hand gestures. The other couple sitting by the bar also jumped in with limited English.  After 10 minutes of guessing, we ordered our food and were excited to see what plates would be delivered to us. With the fresh beers in our hands,  we felt relaxed in our surroundings.  After a group effort to help us understanding the menu, all six of us in the restaurant felt a lot closer to one another.  The other couple spoke some English so we were able to have a simple conversation.  Occasionally, the cook joined in and the couple translated.  

Our dishes came.  They were simple, unpretentious, and perfect to go with beers.  We enjoyed our dishes, and everyone else was happy that we liked the food.  It was, after all, a group effort and everyone felt invested.  

It was the first day after the US presidential election, we were out all day without the internet access.  We were curious about the election outcome.   The couple next to us said "Obama" while put out 3 fingers, and gestured 2 fingers for Rodney.   We were not sure what the fingers meant, but we understood that Obama had won the second term.  I clapped my hands and said "Yeah!"  The couple, the cook, and the waitress all smiled and nodded.    

Sitting by the bar of this unknown izakaya in Osaka,  it was exciting and foreign, yet strangely familiar and comforting. 


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Japan - Arashiyama & Nara 11.06

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  • Hozwkyo 保津峽
  • Arashiyama 嵐山
    • Tenryu Ji天龍寺 
  • Nara Park 奈良公園
    • Todaiji Temple 東大寺
    • Kasuga Shrine 春日大社
It was going to be a hectic day today.  We bought the one day JR-West Rail Pass and intended to take full advantage of it.  

Umeda (梅田) station was a major hub, connecting subways and many railway lines.  When we came here for the JR train, it was the morning rush hour.  Countless expressionless Japanese men with black suites all carried briefcases, and women with business dresses walking synchronized to the different entrances of the station. There was no rowdy chatters, only the sound of heels hitting the tiled floor and soft background music playing in the station.   It reminded us of the sardines in the aquarium we saw yesterday.  It also reminded me of Haruki Murakami's (春上村樹) novels:  The subway music felt hypnotizing and we had entered into this surreal world in one of his novel setting. 

Or first stop was Hozwakyo (保津峽), it was written in my Taiwanese guide book as a beautiful gorge to see fall foliage.  The JR train ran extremely efficient, incredibly reliable and punctual.  The transfer is always scheduled in a way that the other train is at the same platform and next train departed a few minutes after the first train arrived.  

The train dropped us off at the Hozwakyo station. The deserted station was bridged between two mountains.  We were a bit apprehensive at how remote the station was.  With the limited time that we had, it was a destination that we could have skipped.  

30 minutes later, we hopped on another train and moved on to our next destination: Arashiyama 嵐山.  Tenryu Ji (天龍寺) was the most important temple in Arashiyama.  The zen garden and the pond inside the temple was breath taking.  

 It was H's very first Japanese temple, and H absolutely loved it.  Unlike the ornate and intricate temples in Taiwan, Japanese temple architectures were simplistic and calming and the  gardens were exquisite. 

After Tenryuji temple, we tried the Arashiyama tofu & Soba noodle at a random street vendor for lunch.  They were delicious! So simple yet so tasty!

We walked around Arashyiyama a little more after lunch, browsing through some sovounier shops and stopped by Togetsukyo Bridge (Moon Crossing Bridge 渡月橋).  

Finally at 2pm, we arrived in Nara Park.  The train station was about a 20 minutes walk from the main sights in the park.  We checked with the information booth before getting out of the train station and hopped on the bus taking us straight to the Dondaji temple (東大寺).

The first thing you noticed once inside the park were all the deer roaming around.  Many tourists bought the megadeer crakers from the street vendors to feed these cute bambies, but quickly realized that they were surrounded by the relentless deer that were quite aggressive until the crackers were gone.  Watching the scene, I thought the idea of feeding deer was more fun than actually doing it. 

Dondaji temple was one of the most impressive temples I have ever seen.  It was grand and solemn.  Unfortunately it was also a very popular site and there were a lot of school tours the day when we visited.  

After Dondaji temple, we walked through the park for ten minutes and came to Kasuga Shrine (春日大社).   

Before we headed back to the train station, we passed Kofukuji Temple's Treasure House (興福寺), but it was under renovation.  Many people liked to spend more time in Nara Park.   However, since this was not the peak of fall foliage, we didn't lingered in the park for long. 

On our way back to the Nara train station, we walked passed Coco Curry House, a chain restaurant which serves curry dishes.  Our brother in law had worked in Japan for 2 years and recommended this restaurant to us.  We decided to get a bite before heading back to Osaka. 

Japanese curry is very different from the southeastern Asian curry dishes from India, Thailand, and Indonesia.  It did not have all the other spices the southeastern Asian curry dishes have.  It was creamy and milky and usually served with fried chicken or pork cutlets with a flaky crust.   Personally, I like Japanese curry better. 

We got back to Osaka around 7 and neither one of us was hungry.  H decided to take a nap in the hotel while I did some shopping at the near by mall.  Unfortunately, all the department stores and shops close by 8 pm in Osaka, so we really did not have much time to shop during this trip.   By the time I returned to the hotel room, we never made it out again. 


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Japan - Osaka 11.05

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  • Takoyaki 章魚燒
  • Osaka Castle 大阪城公園
  • Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan 海游館  & Tempozan Ferris Wheel
  • Someone-cho 宗左衛門町
  • Dotombori 道頓堀 
  • Hozenji-Yokocho 法善寺橫町

After a two week stay in Taipei with my family, H and I took an early flight leaving Taipei at 8:00 AM, and arrived in Kansai International Airport before 11:30 AM.  The airport bus took us directly to the Sheraton Meyako Hotel Osaka in 45 minutes.  The whole process was surprisingly easy.  Although the bus took a little longer than the train and was slightly more expensive, the convenience of door to door service was hard to beat. 

Like most hotels in Japan, the rooms at the Sheraton Meyako was pretty small.  It was a mid-range hotel with relatively convenient location.  There are 2 subway lines and Kintetsu private railway located in the same station (Tanimachi Kyuchome-subway station/ Osakauehonmachi - Kintetsu railway station) right beneath the hotel with a small shopping areas nearby with underground food courts and supermarket connected. 

Shortly after we had checked in, we headed out to the underground food court and had takoyaki for a snack.  H was excited setting foot in Japan, and I was excited sharing the experience with him.  Before taking the subway to Osaka castle, we made a quick stop to buy the JR Kansai Area One Day Pass for the next day. 

We were walking around the Osaka Castle by 4 PM.  It was the beginning of the fall foliage season, and a few trees began changing colors.  After some photos and a decadent Hokkaido milk ice cream cone, we  headed to the Osaka Aquarium.

Osaka Aquarium is one of the biggest aquariums in the world and was the one place that I wanted to visit in Osaka.  I  figured that coming to a country surrounded by an ocean and famous for their variety of seafood, the aquarium should be interesting.  It did not disappoint.  Osaka aquarium was a really fun and fascinating place to visit especially if you have kids.  The  central tank with a whale shark and a swarm of sardines was the center of the show.  H and I spent a long time just watching the fish swimming in a mesmerizing rhythm.

By the time we got out of the aquarium, the night has fallen and it was a good time to take the ferris wheel ride. The Tempozan Ferris Wheel was one of the tallest one in the world and the view from above was beautiful. 

After the trip to Iceland and Russia where we had the luxury of 18, 20 hours of daylight, it was a rude awakening when we did not have the luxury anymore.  After the Ferris wheel ride, we took the subway back to the famous Dotombori for dinner.

Before we found Dotombori, we went to the opposite side of the canal, Soemon-Cho (宗右衛門町) which turned out to be a red light district.   There were girls dressed in school-girl outfits approaching Japanese business men passing by.  Some much younger looking girls dressed like teenagers walked arm in arm with much older men in business suits.  The scene fit all the kinky  Japanese stereotypes.  It was pretty fascinating to watch, I must say.  After walking around for 10 minutes on Soemon-Cho, we finally realized that we were on the wrong side of the canal.   The burst of energy in Dotombori is the complete anti-dose of the old Japan: over-sized store signs, neon lights, restaurants after restaurants....We got lost in all the stimulation.   As tired and hungry as we were, it took us awhile to finally settled for one restaurant specialized in fugu (blow fish) for dinner.

We ordered the fugu sashimi, raw fish rice, and Okonomiyaki(大阪燒). The fugu fish' meat texture is quite distinct, almost squid like, but the flavor is pretty plain.   I was glad to have tried it, but I couldn't understand why Japanese people were making a big fuss about Fugu fish. 

After the dinner we took a stroll and came to a small street, Hozenji-Yokocho.  All the noise and chaos just disappeared. The stone paved narrow path led to a Hozenji (法善寺), a small charming temple.  Along the stone paved narrow path, there were small eateries and bars on both sides.  It was enchanting and dreamy.  It was only our first day in Osaka  but it had made me begin to appreciate Japan in a way that my previous trips to Tokyo didn't.


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