While most travelers to Osaka gravitate to the frenzied commercial nerve centers of Minami and Kita, those neighborhoods only represent a tiny fraction of the city's expanse. We found quite a lot to see and do in the areas just to the south and west of the center as well. On our first full day in Osaka we walked south from our Airbnb through Denden Town, Osaka's electronics and geek culture district. I was always a book nerd and never got into electronics or comics so there wasn't much of interest to me in Denden. The kids were mostly fascinated by the endless rows of vending machines selling cheap toys in plastic spheres. Close to Denden is Rockstar Reptile Cafe, where you can enjoy the company of reptiles and bugs while you drink coffee or nosh on fried worms. Rockstar copes with curious tourists by charging a one thousand yen lifetime membership fee. If you're a tourist passing through on a one-time visit, expect to pay this hefty cover. If you're local and become a regular you only have to pay once. We understood the point and we wanted to work with them, but they insisted that each one of our small kids pay the full cover. That didn't feel very welcoming and we weren't about to pay fifty bucks plus the high prices for coffee so our kids could play with a couple of snakes and bugs. Mei Ling got a video of the place while I tried to negotiate and then we hightailed it.
Before we visit a major city I always search online to see if there are any special events or festivals occurring during our visit. I had timed our visit to Osaka partially to coincide with the Aizen Festival, the first of three major summer Buddhist festivals in Osaka. The problem was I could find next to nothing about the festival schedule on the English language internet. In the end we just decided to walk to the Aizen-do Shomanin Temple on July 2, the last day of the festival. The temple is in Tennoji, a few blocks east of Denden Town. We climbed a long flight of stone steps to the top of the hill where the temple sits. When we reached the top there was no festival and practically no one there besides us. One Westerner walked by and explained to us the proper way to use the purification fountain. He had never heard of the festival. Fortunately I hadn't told the kids anything about it so they wouldn't be disappointed. It was a very beautiful place and since it's not well-known enough to be in any guidebooks we had it all to ourselves.
Further south, Tennoji Park is home to the Osaka Zoo and the Osaka City Museum of Art as well as Keitakuen Garden, a traditional Japanese garden that was designed more than a century ago. The central pond is surrounded by immaculately trimmed dwarf trees and has a central island which cannot be accessed. The foliage and the art museum in the background are vividly reflected in the mirror-like surface of the pond, a welcoming tableau for a group of painters on the opposite shoreline.
From Keitakuen we took the metro north to Osaka Castle. Osaka lives in the shadow of neighboring Kyoto when it comes to historical sights, but the castle is the city's one claim to traditional glory. Although there has been a fortress on the site for almost five hundred years, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The most recent restoration was completed just twenty years ago. The castle is surrounded by two wide moats whose walls are constructed of granite boulders that have been carefully fitted together. The absence of mortar makes the walls more resistant to earthquakes as they can shift without cracking. The multi-story castle also sits on a stone base and has a very pleasing Japanese house-of-cards appearance with some ornate golden flourishes. On learning that the interior mainly consists of museum exhibits we decided to forgo entrance, instead providing the kids with oversized and startlingly fluorescent shaved ices at the gift shop.
Just west of Tennoji is Ikuno, home to much of Osaka's sizable Korean community. Many Koreans emigrated to Japan in the early part of the 20th century as menial laborers subsequent to the Japanese annexation of their country. The Tsurahashi district in the northeastern corner of Ikuno Ward is almost entirely Korean and contains Osaka's most vibrant and authentic market. Close to the Tsuruhashi metro station, the neighborhood changes from typical Japanese streets into a maze of narrow pedestrian alleys that have been converted into arcades lined with Korean businesses. Naturally the main event is food and produce, but housewares and furnishings are also sold. It was similar to markets we'd seen in Seoul such as Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, although smaller.
At the eastern end of this nest of alleys is the wholesale fish market, which in true Japanese style is virtually closed down by noon. We were early enough to catch it on our second attempt but it was a bit of a letdown in both size and variety. The only restaurant within the fish market was a coffee shop that didn't offer any cooked food.
Undaunted by the absence of a seafood feast at the fish market, Mei Ling put her homing instinct to work and soon located a crowded Korean restaurant back within the main market. The spicy Korean food was a pleasant break from our lengthy submersion in Japanese cuisine and the authentic, energetic atmosphere couldn't be beat.
South of the market the neighborhood quickly changed into a rather boring residential area. Fortunately we decided to return to the station along the neighborhood's main street where we encountered an unexpected crowd at one intersection. A banner across the cross street announced we had arrived in Korea Town and we realized we were at the beginning of a long alley lined with Korean restaurants and businesses. I hadn't realized that Korea Town referred to a specific pedestrian street as well as to the market and the neighborhood. We'd almost missed one of the best parts of the experience and just stumbled on it through dumb luck. Humbling. The street is nameless on Google Maps but locals call it Miyuki-Dori (Google will take you to a completely different place with that search entry). We walked about half a kilometer along Miyuki-Dori to the Hirano River enjoying kimchi samples and other snacks for the entire length of the street. Ian was in heaven because he loves kimchi but all the kids were ecstatic when we bought a cotton candy rabbit from one of the street vendors.
We had a long metro journey from western Osaka to Osaka Bay to visit the Kaiyukan Aquarium, one of the world's most highly regarded aquariums. Our last aquarium visit in Valencia, Spain had been disappointing so we were looking forward to making up for it in Osaka. The central feature of the aquarium is a 30 foot deep tank that holds two whale sharks, the largest species of fish in the world. We were fortunate to be there in the afternoon when the otters and fish were feeding. The larger fish like sunfish and rays were being hand-fed by divers. It was amazing to see the affection of the divers for these gentle giants of the ocean as they made sure all of them got their share of food. The walkway wound around the enormous central tank allowing close inspection of the beautiful rays and sharks from above and below. It was the best aquarium I had visited since Lisbon five years previously.
Outisde the aquarium we stopped to watch a juggler toss some torches around while balancing on a rickety ladder. He either wasn't very adept at it, or it was all part of the act to keep people wacthing. Either way it was quite entertaining. On the opposite side of the plaza is the Tempozan Marketplace, a collection of fairly boring stores and coffee shops. At the very back of this mall is Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho, a food court composed of narrow, dim alleys intended to convey an authentic impression of mid 20th century Osaka. We probably would have been more impressed if we hadn't already been submerged in delicious food in the far more energetic areas of Namba and Dotonbori. As it was we found a bowl of noodles for the kids and moved onward. We also passed on the landmark Tempozan Ferris Wheel adjacent to the mall, knowing that there would be more exciting adventures awaiting us no matter where we chose to go next in Osaka.
In the north of Osaka city an island is formed by the wide Yodo River to the north and a much narrower river to the south whose name changes several times as it winds upward to join the Yodo. In Western countries this island would certainly have had a name, but if it does have one in Japan then it is very rarely used. Instead, Japanese refer to the three city wards that comprise the island: Kotohana on Osaka Bay, Fukushima in the center, and Kita on the western side. Kita has become the second urban hub of Osaka thanks to the enormous Umeda and Osaka train stations that are the main connection between the metro and the national railway system. The area around the stations is a dense conglomeration of department stores and business skyscrapers with an enormous variety of restaurants and entertainment. If one were to make a rough comparison to New York City, Kita would be Midtown and Minami downtown. If you're more familiar with Tokyo, Kita is somewhat like Shinjuku while Minami is more like Shibuya.
We didn't make it to Kita until our third full day in Osaka. Our first exploit didn't even require us to emerge from underground. We were able to walk to Hanshin department store via the enormous network of underground tunnels that connects the train stations with many of the surrounding buildings. The tunnels contain hundreds of restaurants and stores that comprise a virtual underground city. Hanshin's basement is the best-known department store food court in Osaka and we weren't disappointed with the selection. Some of the food was being prepared in booths with enormous picture windows to permit visual inspection of the technique.
Once we had stocked up on food court delicacies, we looked around for a place to sit and eat and were completely unable to find anything. Even the coffee shop upstairs only had tiny tables with barstools that looked pretty uncomfortable. Eventually we gave up searching and plopped down on a platform at the base of an escalator in the station. It was far from an ideal setting but we made the best of it. The worst part was that the first thing we came across after we finished was a huge common eating area on the way up to the surface.
The center of Kita is quite overwhelming. Crowds of people rush in every direction in underground tunnels, on the surface, and on elevated walkways that enter directly into the commercial buildings. It was difficult to navigate out of the complex even using GPS as we continuously found ourselves getting diverted away from our chosen direction.
Kids Plaza is a large, modern children's museum in Temma, about twenty minutes walk east of Umeda. The enormous building housing the museum juts out of the corner of a rather barren city park like a futuristic fortress.
Inside we found an enormous, colorful play structure full of towers, slides, and bridges. I couldn't understand why it seemed so familiar until I found a mention in the brochure that it was designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose Hundertwasser House we had admired in Vienna.
The games and exhibits were so good that we stayed for almost four hours, and the kids probably would have kept going the whole day if we hadn't dragged them out. Overall I would say that Kids Plaza was comparable to the excellent children's museums we'd visited in Copenhagen and Gothenburg, and nowhere near as crowded. Despite the amount of time we stayed the kids got to try barely half what was available. One of the coolest things for Cleo was a media display where she got to play the role of a news anchor and then watch her performance afterwards.
On the way back to Umeda I wanted to explore an area called Nakazakicho, a small old-fashioned neighborhood of narrow alleys and traditional buildings that has thus far escaped Kita's furious modernization. We walked north and overshot our left turn by a couple of blocks. Before we could retrace our steps a sudden rainshower descended and we took refuge in a covered arcade with some very appealing cafes and izakayas. Spenser had conked out on my back so Mei Ling took the two older kids inside a steamy little izakaya while I kept exploring the arcade. Eventually I crossed a street and found myself in a busy shopping street that was so long I gave up on reaching the end. I had accidentally discovered Tenjinbashi-suji shopping street, the longest shopping arcade in Japan. Unlike Shinsaibashi-suji in Minami, this street was completely devoid of tourists and the wares were very practical with no souvenirs in sight. By this time Spenser had woken up and I made my way back to the izakaya before he could demand to be taken to the bathroom. Then I had to schlep everyone back to Tenjinbashi-suji for more snacks.
By the time we arrived at Nakazakicho darkness had fallen and it was still raining. There were only a few stores open and no restaurants to speak of. We spent some time roaming around the narrow streets but the area was so small we were out of it in just a few minutes.
Back at Umeda we searched among the labyrinth of tunnels and elevated walkways for the Isetan food hall in the basement of the Lucua1100 shopping mall. The effort was more than worthwhile because it turned out to be one of the best food halls we've encountered anywhere in the world, with cuisine of far-flung ethnicities such as Italian and Mexican along with numerous types of Japanese cuisine. Almost all the restaurants were packed with locals, with many having a long line outside despite it being a weekday evening. The food hall was adjacent to a more conventional department store food court which had a huge chocolate fountain, much to the delight of the kids.
It occurred to me that we hadn't had an authentic Japanese shabu-shabu thus far and it seemed like the perfect place to find it. I employed TripAdvisor which found a highly-rated shabu-shabu practically under our noses but after walking around the food hall three times we still couldn't find it. Eventually a security guard directed us to the top floor, which is generally where the more high end restaurants are located in Japanese malls. As soon as we walked in I knew we were going to take a blow to the wallet, but casual shabu-shabu doesn't seem to be a thing in Japan. It was a very different experience than our other meals in Japan, mainly for the extraordinary attention we received from the waitress as we consumed our shabu-shabu. I think I spent as much energy nodding and assuring the waitress we were OK as I did eating. As I expected, it was by far the most expensive meal of the entire trip that we paid for ourselves. I hate to say it, but I enjoyed the last shabu-shabu we had in Los Angeles more. On the other hand, the ambiance in Osaka was much more authentic.
A few days later we returned to the Isetan food hall during lunchtime. It was just as crowded as it had been on our prior visit, but this time we were determined to try one of the restaurants and eventually found ourselves wedged into a corner table at an Italian seafood place. The food was decent but they had the decor nailed. Italian products and themes were displayed with Japanese over-the-top exuberance.
Outside of Osaka Station is a large plaza with shallow pools that seemed made for small kids to wade around in. Ours jumped in before I even had time to process the scene. A gigantic fluorescent green teddy bear was relaxing in the middle of one pool, squirting a constant stream of water from his mouth. The water from the pool flowed down a staircase to a lower level, creating a sense of a malfunction and impending flood. It was another typically whimsical Japanese scene.
We could see Umeda Sky Building from the plaza, although it proved to be a longer walk than it first appeared. Although it's far from the tallest building in Osaka, the Sky Building is probably the most unique and iconic. It looks like a Lego construction at the hands of a particularly imaginative eight year old. Two gleaming forty-story towers are connected at the top by an observation platform which is accessed via escalators that are suspended vertiginously in thin air. The reflections of the clouds in the pristine glass walls of the towers makes the building seem almost transparent. The tableau is an absolute delight for anyone with even a casual appreciation of architecture.
The views from the lower level of the observation platform were good enough that we decided not to pay the exorbitant price for the Floating Garden roofdeck. The kids would have been happy to spend the entire afternoon in the gift shop. Pressed for time and full of stomach, we also skipped the Takimi-koji food hall in the basement of the building.
The Umeda Sky Building might be only the second most unusual building in Kita. Top honors should probably be awarded to the Gate Tower Building, This otherwise undistinguished 16 story office tower is neatly penetrated through its middle floors by a highway offramp that never actually contacts the building. The unusual fusion of familiar urban structures came about thanks to the refusal of the property owner to alter his development plans to accommodate the simultaneous highway expansion. One might imagine an ideal situation of parking immediately adjacent to one's work cubicle, but in reality all cars that enter one side of the building have no choice but to emerge on the opposite side.
Within the river that flows south of Kita is a skinny little island named Nakanoshima. Despite its small surface area, Nakanoshima is home to an impressive number of Osaka's most important municipal buildings including City Hall, a major library, and several museums. The only one of these that we visited was the Osaka Science Museum, a surprisingly inexpensive institution that easily outclassed all of the science museums we've visited in the United States. Although the exhibits are aimed mainly at children and teenagers, I was captivated by their excellent design and how effectively they demonstrated basic concepts of physics and chemistry. I probably could have spent the entire day in the museum on my own. As it was, the two hours we had wasn't nearly enough for the kids who didn't even make it through one floor of the three floor museum before it closed.
Outside the museum a street performer was putting on an energetic and very funny juggling show for a large audience. Soon the kids forgot their disappointment at the museum closing before they were done. Osaka never failed to bring all of us enjoyment from morning until night. It's like a city where boredom was never invented. Adjacent to the Science Museum is the subterranean National Museum of Art, which is marked by a large sculpture of metal tubes by César Pelli that is intended to evoke reeds or stalks of bamboo. Despite this intention, most visitors seem to agree that the sculpture resembles nothing so much as a giant pair of rabbit ears.
Nakanoshima is also a great place from which to observe the beautiful interaction between architecture and water that is emblematic of Osaka. The O River, a late branch of the Yodo, splits in two around the island and then reforms downstream as the Aji River before emptying into Osaka Bay a short distance further. Countless bridges cross the Dojima and Tosahori rivers on either side of the island and provide a great vantage point to see Nakanoshima's glass skyscrapers reflected in the water. The rose garden at the eastern end of Nakanoshima is reputed to be very beautiful but we didn't have time to visit. On our next visit to Osaka, a complete circumnavigation of Nakanoshima's riverside promenades will definitely be on the agenda.
Hard as it is for me to believe now, I had almost no awareness of Osaka prior to this trip. As far as I knew, Tokyo was the only world class city in Japan and Kyoto was the place to go for temples and other historic sights. I was under the impression that Osaka was just a relatively colorless second city that was focused on business. In fact, I originally had no intention of going to Osaka at all until I learned that the only convenient way to get to Kyoto from Beijing was to fly to the Kansai Airport in Osaka. That forced me to do little more research and I soon realized that Kyoto is just one hub of a huge metropolitan conglomeration that includes the larger cities of Osaka and Kobe as well as many smaller towns that surround Osaka Bay. This conglomeration comprises the bulk of the population of the Kansai region of central Japan. Naturally we weren't about to land in Osaka and bypass it completely to go to Kyoto. When I began to investigate Osaka seriously for the first time I realized that we were going to need to extend the Japanese leg of our trip substantially. Osaka looked awesome.
Osaka is a huge city but not overwhelming for two reasons: most of the places of interest to tourists are fairly central, and the metro system is as close to perfect as anyone could hope for. There are two major commercial centers, Kita in the north and Minami in the center. Our Airbnb was close to the busiest part of Minami, a few blocks east of Namba Station and a few blocks south of Dotonbori Canal. Our host had sent us instructions to navigate our way from Namba Station, since locating buildings by street address is an intimidating prospect for Westerners. In Japan buildings are grouped by block rather than by street and the numbering system for both blocks and buildings may be anywhere from orderly to random. Even Google Maps is hopeless for locating destinations by address in Japan. We had been provided with a series of photos of the neighborhood and instructions on how to proceed from one photo to another once we recognized the landmarks. Mei Ling was the first to recognize a building from a photo and after that we were able to follow the sequence fairly easily. Our apartment had only about half the space we had in Kyoto and lacked the redeeming traditional character of the machiya. Four of us slept in two full size beds that occupied 90% of the single bedroom while Spenser slept on the love seat in the tiny living room. The owner's claim that the apartment slept five adults was ludicrous.
We had passed through Kuromon Ichiba Market on the way to our Airbnb, so the first thing we did after dropping off our bags was double back for lunch. Like Nishiki Market in Kyoto, this was a single arcade extending for several blocks. We instantly liked it better than Nishiki because there were more locals mixed with the tourists and there was a heavier emphasis on food over souvenirs. The first stop was a tiny sashimi stall where we enjoyed some unusual offerings including puffer fish and mantis shrimp.
We worked our way north through the market, sampling whatever looked most appetizing along the way. In Japan it's considered rude to eat while walking but the market was clearly an exception to the rule due to the preponderance of tourists. A lot of the food was being cooked on small robata grills with a blowtorch being used to accelerate the process.
We continued north towards Dotonbori Canal, another nerve center in Namba. We soon found ourselves in an extremely crowded network of arcades called Sennichimae that was full of restaurants and shops.
Just before Dotonbori we found Hozenji Yokocho, a narrow alley that leads from Sennichimae to the Hozenji Buddhist temple. The flagstone-paved alley is hundreds of years old and has become famous for the high quality izakayas that line both sides. The temple is particularly beautiful, an island of lamplit serenity within the madness of Namba.
Just when we thought we'd acclimated to the intensity of Namba we found ourselves at Dotonbori. The pedestrian street that runs parallel to the canal was crammed with people of every possible ethnicity who were browsing the seemingly endless selection of multistory restaurants and street food kiosks. Most of the horde was comprised of locals and tourists from various Asian countries, but there were plenty of Western Europeans, Russians, Americans, South Asians and Middle Easterners. It was one of the most diverse crowds I've experienced outside of New York City and London. The gathering dusk was rendered irrelevant by the omnipresent illuminated signage and old-fashioned street lamps. The smell of food and pictures of food were everywhere, and as if to drive home the point several restaurants were decorated with enormous avatars of their specialty cuisine such as bulls or crabs. Dotonbori Canal is best appreciated from one of the many short footbridges that connect the pedestrian streets on either side. I've been to most of the world's major metropolises and I can't recall experiencing anything as overwhelming to the senses as Dotonbori. Imagine Times Square, if you've been there, with all the dazzling crowds and displays and electronic billboards and multiply its size by ten. Then add a sparkling canal running right through the middle of it with boardwalks on either side lined with busy outdoor restaurants. Throw in the tens of thousands of people hanging out or moving through Dotonbori at any time of the day or night and the energy level is indescribable. I was completely flabbergasted that somehow I'd been traveling the world my entire life, reading all kinds of travel literature, talking to people from all over the globe and still had absolutely no clue that this incredible place even existed. It was a humbling idea that perhaps there are many more such locations around the world that still haven't crossed my radar. We strolled Dotonbori for an hour, drinking in the electricity that suffused the streets around the canal, until we found the perfect izakaya which had an opening at the counter that seemed made just for us.
Given our location, we often began and ended our days in Namba and Dotonbori and we had many of our best Osaka experiences there. Namba was a maze of streets and alleys filled with izakayas, colorful architecture, and all sorts of strange entertainment. If we hadn't had our GPS we would have been hopelessly lost every night, but it's hard to imagine a more fascinating place to be lost in.
On our second to last night in Osaka we finally made it to a beautiful izakaya in Namba that we had been eyeing all week. Once we were inside we realized we'd stumbled on a true food hall with seven or eight tiny restaurants and a large communal eating area in the center. Most of the offerings were Japanese of very good quality, but there was also Korean and even Italian food. The squid ink pasta with oysters and flying fish roe might have been the best thing we tasted on this trip to Japan.
Dotonbori also has much more to offer than sensory overload. Across the main pedestrian bridge from Namba is Shinsaibashi-suji, one of the largest and best known shopping streets in Osaka. The entrance to the arcade from Dotonbori is the mouth of a river of humanity that only resolves into individuals once it spills into the open air.
A Dotonbori canal cruise is de rigueur when you're keeping three kids entertained in Osaka. We had a quick snack on the boardwalk before jumping onto the boat. There wasn't much on the ride we couldn't have seen from the bridges but I was happy to get a look at Dotonbori from every possible perspective. We topped off our evening with the enormous, schoolbus-yellow Ferris Wheel attached to the gigantic Don Quijote variety store. The ride didn't seem like it was that high from the ground but I was amazed by the extensive views of Namba at the apex.
Minami is an area that demands exploration. Each time we visited we tried to find a new street that we hadn't investigated and we were always rewarded with something whimsical, attention-grabbing, and unique. Of course there's much more to Osaka than Namba and Dotonbori but this was the area that meshed perfectly with our desire to submerge ourselves in the most intense urban experiences when we travel. Thanks to Minami, our relationship with Osaka was one of love at first sight.
Once we decided to center ourselves in Beijing for the trip we had to decide if we would spend the whole six weeks in China or if we would spend part of the trip in another country. We'd had great experiences in Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei on our prior China visits and there were still a lot of east Asian countries we hadn't visited. The problem was I wasn't comfortable going to most of them because we were still fresh off Spenser's frightening asthma attack in Mississippi. Eventually we decided it had been long enough since our visit to Tokyo that we could use a Japan refresher so we settled on Kyoto. I was confused when I researched the flights from Beijing to Kyoto because they all required a plane change in Tokyo, hundreds of miles to the east. Soon I realized that the major international airport in the area is not in Kyoto, but Osaka. Even though Osaka is Japan's second largest city (if counting Tokyo and Yokohama as one), I'd heard very little about it as a travel destination and assumed it was a relatively colorless large city. Once I started reading about Osaka I realized there was so much of interest there that we would probably want to spend more time in Osaka than Kyoto. However, it made more sense to do the Osaka visit last so that we wouldn't have to get all the way back to the airport from Kyoto the day we left.
The flight from Beijing was only three hours but the ease of that leg was deceiving. The Kansai airport was a madhouse and we had to find our way to the Japan Rail office to get the discounted tourist tickets for the train to Kyoto. Once there, we waited almost an hour on line to buy the tickets for a discount that wasn't worth the trouble. We didn't have assigned seats and the car we boarded was completely packed. Fortunately enough people got off at early stops that we were able to get the kids into seats but I had to stand for the entire hour and a half. By the time we arrived in Kyoto it was after nine and we were in dire need of sustenance. There was nothing but noodle vending machines in the station but we found an underground mall just outside and we were able to get in to one of the restaurants just before they stopped seating for the night. One of the many great things about Japan is that the staple foods you can find anywhere are really, really satisfying. We ate udon, ramen, and sashimi ravenously and emerged from underground with renewed energy. We were going to need it since the bus we had been instructed to take didn't seem to be taking us in the right direction. All I had was the GPS on my iPhone since we hadn't purchased a SIM card for Japan. Our Osaka host would be providing us with a portable wifi and we had figured we could get through three days in Kyoto without our own internet access. The bus driver shook his head when I asked about our stop and we clambered out to the street at the next opportunity. It was close to midnight and we had no clue where we were. We found a taxi fairly quickly and the driver appeared to be in his mid-eighties, although he could easily have been older. We showed him the taxi instructions our host had provided us and he looked at it blankly. At this point we capitulated and began using our AT&T international wireless service so that we were able to get directions on Google Maps. At first we tried handing the phone to the driver to put on his dashboard, but he made it clear he had no idea how to use the navigation. Instead we held onto the phone and I quickly looked up the Japanese words for left, right, and straight ahead. Somehow we got close enough for Mei Ling to recognize the street from the Airbnb photos and we tumbled out of the cab. Twenty bucks for the fare and ten for activating our cell phone service meant that we hadn't exactly saved money by skimping on the Japanese SIM card.
Our Airbnb was a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse whose interior was classically styled with sliding paper doors, tatami floors, and exposed wooden beams. Even though I'm below average height even by Japanese standards, I still had to duck through the doorways and wedge myself into the toilet and shower rooms. The biggest surprise was the bathtub which was a round well sunk about three feet into the floor. I don't think most elderly people or anyone with a significant physical disability could have negotiated it. I have to admit it was fun tossing all three kids into it and pretending that I was making soup.
The other draw of our Airbnb was that it was centrally located, just across the Kamo River from the main downtown attractions. The river originates in the mountains north of Kyoto and courses south through the eastern part of the city before merging with the larger Katsura River. Kyoto historically had trouble with flooding from its rivers but with improved drainage and concrete reinforcements the Kamo seems to have been welcomed to the urban landscape. People stroll the promenade on the western bank which is also lined with restaurants that feature balconies for outdoor dining. The entrances to the restaurants are on Pontocho Alley, a pedestrian street that runs parallel to the river.
Japan doesn't have the culture of buying fresh food at community markets that is shared among most other East Asian countries. Typically these types of markets in Japan are mainly geared at tourists, but they are still a good way to experience the variety of Japanese cuisine in a lively setting. Nishiki Market is the only street market for food that I was able to find in Kyoto. The market takes place every day on a long covered arcade whose narrowness ensures it is consistently crowded. The market features snack stalls, small restaurants, grocery stores, pickles and dried foods, and some boutiques selling traditional art and tableware. Most of the customers were clearly tourists and prices were generally high but not exorbitant.
We were able to feed ourselves pretty well, first with rice bowls in a restaurant and then with fresh seafood prepared a la carte at the market. It's hard to resist live oysters and sea urchins that are being opened right in front of you.
On the way back to the bridge we took a quick walk up and down Pontocho Alley to scout out possible dinner locations. It was a little early for most of the establishments to be open but the vibe seemed very promising. Pretty much every building appeared to be a restaurant.
Kyoto is much smaller than its neighbor Osaka but much better known to Western tourists. One of the reasons for that is areas like Gion, a neighborhood just to the south of our Airbnb on the eastern side of the Kamo. Gion is the most historically preserved neighborhood of Kyoto, full of machiyas and traditional teahouses where customers are still entertained by geishas. There are many women wandering Gion in geisha-type costumes but the vast majority are tourists who have rented them for the day to spice up their photos.
Gion is also the site of several important shrines including Yasui Konpira-gu where people crawl through a narrow hole in a creepy-looking rock completely engulfed in white prayer strips. The sight of people emerging from the hole seemed like it might have been the inspiration for more than one J-horror movie.
Just to the east of Gion is the Higashiyama area which contains a small network of pedestrian streets that are a hive of tourist activity during the day. Of course the scene was very commercial which rendered the traditional architecture of the buildings irrelevant. It was a great example of what I call Epcot Syndrome, in which an authentic location over-commercializes itself to such an extent that it becomes indistinguishable from the Disney World pavilion for its country. The best known streets are Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, both of which include long staircases lined with shops.
One of the more enjoyable parts of our walk was when we took a side street seeking a shortcut. The street eventually ended in a dead end, which explained why the tourist crowds completely vaporized as soon as we turned off the main pedestrian artery. It turned out to be a great opportunity to experience an authentic Japanese neighborhood in complete peace and quiet just a hundred meters from the artificial madness.
The morning flow of tourist traffic in Gion leads to Kiyomizu-dera. Visiting shrines is the main way that tourists in Kyoto keep themselves busy and prove the completeness of their experience on social media. Our preference is for markets and neighborhood walks but it's hard to visit Kyoto and forgo shrines entirely. The shrine sits atop a hill that requires the ascension of several flights of stairs. At the top are views of the city to the west and a forested mountainous area to the east. Kyoto reminded me a little of Seoul in that there are some impressively wild and uninhabited areas within the densely populated urban expanse. There was quite a lot to see outside the formal entrance to the shrine so we decided not to join the hordes of tourists lining up to pay the admission fee.
We still had some time before dinner so we took the bus north to the Philosopher's Path close to the eastern edge of Kyoto. I was expecting to find this well-known walking trail quite crowded on a pleasant Saturday afternoon but as it turned out we saw hardly anyone at all. The path follows the course of a shallow canal that is fed by mountain springs in the area, and derives its name from the philosopher Nishida Kitaro who used it to reach Kyoto University from his home in the early twentieth century. The path is lined with cherry trees but I was glad we weren't there during sakura season so that we could have the walk to ourselves. Despite the absence of foot traffic in that moment, a bank of colorful and elaborate vending machines testified that the path had the potential to be overrun with thirsty visitors.
Once we had completed the scenic portion of the path we continued our walk into residential areas alongside the canal. We hoped to come across a restaurant but the neighborhood seemed to be devoid of commercial activity. We didn't mind the opportunity to see some immaculate and uniquely Japanese houses in a completely untouristed corner of Kyoto.
Soon we abandoned the idea of stumbling upon a restaurant area and I employed the Restaurants Nearby function of TripAdvisor, which has often proven invaluable in our travels. This time was no exception as it guided us towards the major avenue in the area where we found several restaurants. We chose Okariba and were greeted by an elderly man with a serene demeanor who directed us to a booth containing a wooden table with a central robata grill. The stools were short sections of logs with cushions on top. He quietly whisked away a sign on the table that marked it as reserved. We didn't try to speak any English and neither did he, but he produced an English menu with pictures of intriguing dishes such as grasshoppers, horse sashimi, and grilled boar. Crisp and refreshing beer arrived in large frosted mugs and was a welcome companion as we worked our way through most of the items on the menu. The proprietor was never far away, beaming at our kids. A few other groups showed up at the door while we were seated and he turned them all away. I had a distinct feeling that we probably would have encountered that same fate if we hadn't had the kids with us. I think he sensed that we really needed his restaurant at the moment we walked in, and we returned his generosity by eating as quietly and courteously as we could. Looking back on our stay in Kyoto it's clear to me that this evening was the highlight of our visit. A warm welcome and delicious food after a peaceful walk in a beautiful place, and best of all we had discovered the real Kyoto without another tourist in sight.
The next morning we had to brave a downpour in our plastic ponchos. Fortunately our first destination was the Daimaru department store food court so we made a quick detour upstairs and bought the kids some real raincoats. According to the forecast it was going to rain frequently for the rest of our stay in Japan so it seemed like a smart investment.
Japanese department store basement food courts, or depachika, are the stuff of legend and have influenced food culture all over East Asia. I still have vivid memories of my first experience with them in Tokyo thirty-five years ago. The enormous selection of sashimi and cooked foods at Daimaru was overwhelming. It was like eating at a restaurant with a menu the size of a phone book, with all the time in the world to browse the selections and choose whatever made our stomachs growl the loudest. It's certainly not cheap eats, but still less expensive than eating equivalent food at a restaurant. We put together an enormous meal of roast cod, conventional and exotic sashimi, and seafood salads and consumed it in a basement coffee shop.
Based on my research from travel guides and blogs, most Western tourists in Kyoto spend their visit traipsing from shrine to temple to shrine with an emphasis on the ones with the most impressive visuals. I knew I wanted to visit Ryoan-ji because I had memories of being there with my parents as a teenager, and that made its neighbor Kinkaku-ji an obvious choice as well. I knew exactly what to expect if we went to see the famous torii gates at Fushimi Inari Temple or the Sagano bamboo forest in Arashiyama: crowds of tourists jostling each other for the perfect Instagram photo. We decided to keep the impression we had of those places from the flawless pictures on the internet rather than spoil the illusion.
Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji are just outside the northwestern edge of the urbanized Kyoto area, in the foothills of the Kitayama mountain range. Kyoto is surrounded on all sides except the south by mountains which create a sharp delineation between urbanized and wilderness areas. A very detailed and interesting description of Kyoto's topography can be read here. Kinkaku-ji can be accessed from downtown by an easy bus ride. Now that we had paid for internet access and were using Google Maps, getting around Kyoto by bus had become quite easy. The only downside was the frequent fearful looks our hyperactive kids elicited from middle aged Japanese women as they hopped from seat to seat.
Kinkaku-ji is probably Kyoto's number one tourist attraction because the pavilion's upper floors are covered in gold leaf. Cover pretty much anything in gold leaf and people will come to see it. Try it with your house! In terms of the history or cultural significance of the temple, I doubt one in twenty of the visitors had a clue and we were no different. I only learned later that the golden pavilion is a modern reconstruction of the 14th century structure that was burned to the ground by a schizophrenic novice monk in 1950. The temple was crowded but not obnoxiously so and it was possible to get a few pictures without being photobombed. It's unquestionably a splendid building in an attractive setting, but we didn't linger very long.
Most people take the bus between Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji rather than walking twenty minutes, but we were too impatient to wait. Three buses passed us as we walked between the two temples, but we got to take a close look at the exterior of the Insho Domoto Museum of Fine Arts which was a very intriguing structure in its own right.
The Zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji is one of the emblematic images of Kyoto. We arrived in the late afternoon not long before the 5 PM closing time and were rewarded with a relatively empty temple. The symbolism of the rock garden has been lost over the centuries, if there was ever any at all. Lover of greenery and landscaping that I am, I prefer the less photographed moss garden at the rear of the temple. It wasn't the first time that I've retraced the footsteps I took as a child traveling with my parents, but it was one of my clearer memories and elicited some contemplation about the passage of time. I was sharing an experience with my own beautiful wife and children that my parents had originally given to me, and I could imagine the pride they would have felt if they were still alive.
I had researched a couple of fun and unique food experiences for our last evening in Kyoto. At Alpha foods & drink, close to Nijō Castle, we bought a Cloud Coffee and a potted plant chocolate dessert. The cotton candy cloud suspended over the steaming coffee will eventually melt and "rain" into the coffee, but our kids didn't have enough patience for that. They were also highly amused by the diapered terrier that roamed the cafe.
Menbaka Fire Ramen is unquestionably a tourist trap that no Kyoto resident would want to be caught dead in. In fact, the first thing the staff asks when you enter the restaurant is which country you come from. The truth is I'm not averse to touristy stuff if I think it's fun, I just won't go somewhere only because it's considered obligatory. Also, I couldn't wait to see the kids' faces when the flames shot up in front of them. Fortunately the restaurant is well-prepared for the selfie aspect of the experience. As soon as we sat down they cautioned us that it was not safe to take our own video as the flaming oil was poured, but they placed my phone in one of the many holders that was attached to the kitchen equipment in the ceiling. The video came out much better than any I could have managed on my own, and the kids' jubilant expressions were very gratifying. The ramen itself was perfectly good, although I'm not enough of a ramen enthusiast to say if it was in any way distinguished from any non-flaming ramen we might have encountered in another restaurant.
Menbaka had been fun but we weren't about to let a bowl of ramen be the coda of our eating experience in Kyoto. We returned to Pontocho Alley and picked the most promising izakaya we could find. We tried almost every grilled skewer they had on their menu, from sweetbreads to Camembert, before returning home for our last night in the machiya. We had accomplished all of our goals in our two days in Kyoto and we were excited to begin our much longer visit to Osaka.
For our second stint in Beijing we decided to stay to the west of the center, in the Haidian District. We had a suite in an upscale business hotel that we'd been provided with by one of Mei Ling's friends from the Chinese community in Miami.
On our first night back we only had time to visit Qianmen Street, a pedestrianized shopping street just south of Tiananmen Square. Almsot all the stores had already closed, but it was cool to see some of Beijing's most famous gates and forts illuminated in the stillness of the night. It was the closest we would come to a Western tourist's experience in Beijing.
In the morning I saw that we were within walking distance of an interesting-looking park called Yuyuantan Park, which takes its name from the large pond that occupies most of its area. Although Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world not to be built near any major river or coastline, it contains many canals and small lakes which are sourced from natural springs. Many of the park lakes are connected by the canals and there is even a boat that can take you from the Beijing Zoo to the Summer Palace five miles away. Yuyuantan is also connected to one of the canals that eventually leads to the Summer Palace. When we arrived at the west entrance to the park and looked out over the pond it was hard to believe we were still in the center of Beijing. We were almost the only passengers on a good-sized boat that ferried us to the narrow strip of land in the center of the pond that supports the steep marble bridge.
Yuyuantan Park was a good example of why it's sometimes better to toss away one's guidebook and let Google Maps help you explore a city. While most of the Western tourists in Beijing were slogging and sweating their way around the Forbidden City that morning, we were enjoying a leisurely walk through lush greenery surrounded by water. Everywhere around us were the rhythms of daily life in Beijing, from locals strolling with umbrellas to the elderly men taking a dip in the pond. In the distance we could appreciate the hypodermic elegance of the CCTV tower.
We continued our exploration of modern Beijing at Wukesong, an area that's only known to Westerners for its large market for second-hand camera equipment. The area is now the site of a large outdoor mall with upscale restaurants and boutiques. We found an outpost of a chain restaurant that specialized in whole broiled fish smothered in savory sauces.
A welcome surprise at the mall was an exhibition of sculpture by an artist named Wang Yi, about whom I could find nothing in the English language internet. His compositions featured bald, middle-aged men in apparently uncomfortable situations such as being attached to puppet strings or tightly packed into a monument. Placards in front of the sculptures provided rather abstract, inoffensive explanations of their meanings. Perhaps it was just my unconscious bias at play, but I couldn't escape the impression that the artist was engaged in a subtle protest of totalitarianism. What could be more subversive than tricking your oppressor into celebrating your defiance by misrepresenting its true message?
The mall also featured long, tubular slides that never would have been insurable in the United States. They were accompanied by long lists of rules in the inimitable Chinese style such as "The drunk is not allowed to take part in this game."
We spent much of the afternoon at an acrobatic show that Mei Ling's friends had given her tickets to. Some of the stunts were truly terrifying, as were the apparent ages of the performers. Mei Ling ran into some of the girl acrobats during intermission who claimed to be teenagers but looked much younger. They told her they had been exclusively training and touring with the troupe since they were ten years old, but we suspected they had probably started at age seven or younger. Outside the kids got to hang out with one of the older acrobats who was taking a smoking break.
We still hadn't visited all the food streets in central Beijing and the most promising of the ones that were left seemed to be Huguosi. We were fortunate to encounter one of the local specialties at the first storefront we came to. Beijing yogurt can be recognized by the distinctive white ceramic jars with blue cow labels. We meandered down the colorful street and eventually settled on a skewer restaurant where the highlight was perfectly-crisped chicken feet. Huguosi had a more authentic feel than Nanluoguxiang and was much more focused on food rather than shopping or souvenirs.
The next morning we took the metro way out northeast almost to the 5th Ring Road to meet yet another of Mei Ling's friends at the 798 Art Zone. I had fond memories of this unique art district that had arisen from the occupation of a complex of abandoned factories and warehouses in the mid 1990's. There was still a lot to see in terms of sculpture and street art, but 798 had changed a great deal since my last visit eleven years earlier. I remembered large galleries that were full of beautiful abstract art and so few visitors that the staff often accompanied me around the exhibits to answer any questions I had. The area was much more crowded now, with many Westerners, and a large industry of coffee shops and various forms of tack. The galleries were smaller and more numerous, and many had given over space to selling things like posters and T-shirts. We searched in vain for the inspiring displays that I remembered and then succumbed to the growing impatience of the children with our efforts.
In the evening we hooked up with more Chinese contacts for a banquet at a Yunnanese restaurant in the Wudaokou neighborhood. I wasn't that impressed with the food, but the design of the restaurant and the epicurean market upstairs was very appealing.
Back at the hotel I saw Cleo preoccupied with the pen and notepad while the two boys were watching TV. We were busy packing and I didn't pay her much attention. In the morning I came across the pad on my desk and I was shocked to see that Cleo had started her own travel journal. She had recently been asking questions about my blog but I hadn't realized how interested she was. Sometimes I wonder if I've surrendered to some kind of delusion by making travel one of our family's highest priorities. I've thought that perhaps our kids would be better off spending the summers at camp with friends instead of being dragged around to places they're too young to appreciate. Seeing my seven year old starting to click not just with the joy of travel, but the idea of sharing her experiences with the world was a true epiphany that reassured me that I haven't lost my mind after all. I also had to remind myself not to underestimate my daughter. Before long I think she's going to be taking over this blog.
On the way to the airport we passed one of the strangest skyscrapers I've ever seen, which in Asia is saying a lot. Thanks to the internet I learned it's the tallest tower of Pangu Plaza and the curvaceous upper floors are intended to resemble the head of a dragon. In 2016 the building was seized from a billionaire real estate developer as part of a corruption crackdown and it is now the Chinese headquarters for IBM.
As it turned out this would be our last sight of Beijing on this trip. We had planned to return for another stay in Beijing after Japan but events took us in another direction. We didn't make it to a couple of the food streets on my list but after experiencing Nanluoguxiang and Huguosi I doubt we missed much. Beijing may be a better city now than it was in 2008 for a lot of people, but for travelers like us it has lost much of its appeal and I really don't know if or when we'll be back. We boarded our plane with great anticipation for our first visit to Japan since Cleo was a baby.