Monday, April 14, 2014

Seoul to Japan to Seoul - Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto



The next two days of my journey were spent in the three cities of Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. They are all very near each other so it was easy and quick to get from one to the other.

I arrived in Kobe late morning after a train ride from Hiroshima. For lunch my friend had his heart set on sampling the world famous Kobe beef so we headed to a nearby restaurant.

Since it was lunch time the price was more reasonable and it included a salad, soup, veggies, ice cream, coffee, and the steak of course. Breaking my vegetarian diet to sample this potentially once in my lifetime opportunity meal, I was wowed! Ethically speaking there are a couple sides to the Kobe beef issue, although none of the urban legends are confirmed. I personally didn't go out into the hillside and see the cow treatment for myself, but knowing there are only around 3000 head of this beef, that doesn't leave near as much measure for the overcrowded facility treatment that is so commonplace in America.

So leaving behind the ethics debate, I'll move on to the taste agreement. For sure, Kobe beef is the best tasting meat I've ever eaten. It nearly obliterates from memory all other steaks previously enjoyed. The belief that steak needs sauce or dips or rubs or added flavor is inaccurate in regards to Kobe beef. There was nothing but sea salt sprinkled on as the chef began grilling the steak on a hibachi grill right in front of my eyes. Then, after getting a few bites ready, he offered me the first bite instructing that I not place it in more salt or pepper or sauce, but just eat it completely natural. My taste buds exploded and an involuntary "oh wow" escaped from my lips. I expected it to be good but my expectations were shattered with the flavor and melting meat in my mouth.

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Unfortunately, you can't get Kobe beef in America. You'll have to go to Japan. All the people claiming it elsewhere are making false claims. Ask them for the 10 digit code that proves what cow it came from if you want to verify it's authenticity and you'll find they don't have one for you. Some restaurants import the same cattle but from other prefectures. It's not actually Kobe beef but it's really close. You'll pay a pretty penny though, so beware. If you want to experience the true thing, just go to Japan. The country is worth the visit and the Kobe beef is one of the extreme highlights along the journey.

After lunch it was time to explore the nearby woodlands. I hiked up through several small waterfalls, around a dam, up some giant sized steep stairs, and then strolled along a rather steep incline that wove its way through the Herb Gardens. Since it was winter time, not much was blooming but things were planted and the ground was being taken care of quite meticulously. It was still very beautiful. At the top there was a very handy and welcoming cable car ride to the bottom where it was time to jump the train to Osaka for dinner.

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Osaka has an entertainment district called Dotombori. It's a canal street that's super lit up with so many lights it's distracting. It's also crowded so moving along can be slightly difficult, even if it's a weekday evening. There was a recommended old fashioned noodle house in the Lonely Planet guide book so off I went for some udon. (Udon is a type of thick wheat flour noodle of Japanese cuisine. Udon is often served hot as a noodle soup in its simplest form, as kake udon, in a mildly flavored broth called kakejiru, which is made of dashi, soy sauce and mirin ~ thanks Wikipedia) This was by far the best udon I've ever had before and since. The noodles were perfect and the broth was delectable! I had a tempura prawn in mine and with the flavors of the broth soaked into it, that prawn was the most delicious prawn I've ever had in my life! I could have had two bowls of that soup!

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But the night was young, so after a light dinner it was off to explore and hunt down some sake!  The first bar was a hole in the wall, straight out of a movie scene, packed with locals, nice looking bar...that didn't serve any sake. So instead (I wasn't going to waste the trip, right?) I enjoyed some nice port wine as an after dinner beverage.

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Now the need for dessert got much stronger and it was time to taste the famous waffles advertised and eaten for every meal in every restaurant it seems. It wasn't hard to find an open cafe with some waffles served with ice cream, chocolate sauce and a banana, YUM!

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After dessert it was back to the mission of sake hunting. It is now extremely apparent that the Japanese don't drink sake like the Koreans drink soju. Both are the local famous beverage, but the Japanese merely export it because many bars don't even offer it and you rarely see the locals drinking it (this was my experience anyway).

After much hunting, I finally found a bar that had sake plus a lot of character! I mean, a lot of character. And the owner surely put his character into the bar because he was sooo thrilled to see Americans. My friend and I were ushered upstairs along some crazy narrow stairs (the kind where you have to use the right foot on the corresponding stair to walk up them) into a small room with silver Sharpie writing everywhere. There was a little sink and a little bathroom and just a few very small tables. He brought us some free food and a nice sake gift set. Then as we went to leave the bar he offered to take our picture and thanked us a million times for visiting.

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It was late by then and time to head to bed before a big day in Kyoto the next day. Osaka sure was fun and full of life. Someday I'd love to go back!

My favorite artsy picture of the Dotombori Canal featuring the ever popular bicycles and sparkling lights!

Kyoto is known as one of the most beautiful cities in Japan and in the late spring/summer and maybe even fall I could see the possibility, but during the winter... it just wasn't charming for me.

Still, there were many many many many (did I mention there were many?) temples and castles and other various religious monuments to go see. My friend wanted to go see the Golden Palace first so we did. Here's the picture.

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Yes, it's gold. Would I bother going all the way there to see it? No, the Notre Dame dome in South Bend is just as big and more sparkly if gold is your thing, and there are many other more fascinating historical monuments elsewhere around the world.

Kyoto was where the hot pot meal was had. It was all you could eat for 2 hours and it was very delicious! Definitely still a huge fan of hot pot!

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Geisha's are a popular sight in Kyoto and in the Gion district you can see them walking home every evening.


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These girls were even nice enough to take a picture with us.
All in all, it was a fun and fast couple of days. In Kyoto was were I stayed in a Ryokan, the traditional Japanese housing. There are tatami mats on the floor with some cushions and blankets and that's about it. It was actually super soft and comfy. Ryokan stay, check :) Next it's off to Tokyo!