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East Asian Immersion: Osaka part I (Minami)


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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Horie is a hipster enclave just north of Dotonbori Canal and east of the elevated highway that marks the end of the Dotonbori nightlife area. It's a quiet neighborhood best known for fashion boutiques and trendy coffee shops, and it receives little of the tourist traffic that clogs nearby Dotonbori. The busiest commercial street is Orange Street, where we found a cozy cafe on the ground floor of a trendy furniture store.
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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.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 00:57 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka japan travel izakaya blog tony namba dotonbori friedman minami sennichimae Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Kyoto


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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.
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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 delicious. 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:23 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan travel shrine blog tony kiyomizu-dera kinkaku-ji ryoan-ji friedman machiya Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part III


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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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."
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:28 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony night_market friedman wukesong huguosi yuyuantan Comments (6)

East Asian Immersion: Qingdao part II


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The kids weren't too happy about having been so close to the beach without getting to set foot on it, so on our second morning in Qingdao we started out at No.1 Bathing Beach on Huiquan Bay. The sand was much lighter and finer than what we'd seen by the Zhanqiao Pier the previous day. To the east we could see pagodas atop Xiaoyu Hill, a well-known scenic outlook.
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We followed the shoreline southward, eventually ending up at a shallow wading spot where the kids could pick snails out from between the rocks. There were some large rocks to climb on and the decrepit remains of concrete piers that faded away into the sea.
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We were now at the entrance to the Badaguan Scenic Area, a neighborhood dating back to the German concession of the early twentieth century where Westerners of many nationalities constructed mansions in different styles. The ten roads in the area are named after important strategic passes from Chinese history and each is planted with a different species of tree. Some of the more famous mansions have been converted into tourist attractions while others remain residential. Although the neighborhood is unusual for China, it doesn't seem much different from any upscale area of an average American city.
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We still had most of the day ahead so we took a long metro ride to May 4th Square, the most remote on my list of things to see in Qingdao. The square is named for a popular protest against a clause of the Treaty of Versailles which transferred German concessions in Shandong to Japan rather than returning them to China. The protest culminated in the Chinese government's refusal to sign the treaty. The most recognizable feature of the square is the blood-red May Wind sculpture that symbolizes the movement.
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Aside from the ubiquitous soap bubble vendors there was a surprising lack of commercial activity around the square. We found a seafood restaurant where king crabs were practically crawling out of their tanks but the prices were exorbitant and clearly targeted for tourists.
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For lack of better options we headed towards a mall located within a cluster of gleaming skyscrapers. The interior design seemed to have been heavily influenced by MC Escher. We tried an indoor playground but the prices they quoted us seemed insane. Was this really China? The place seemed fairly crowded so clearly there was a decent slice of the population willing to pay the exorbitant admission. Instead we let the kids try a virtual reality ride and browse a toy store until it was time for dinner.
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We started our last day at Qingdao at a restaurant where they steamed live shellfish at the table. Mei Ling didn't have her camera ready for ours so she took some video at a neighboring table. The shellfish are steamed in broth that is boiled by a gas-powered furnace built into the table. Watching the shrimp trying to flip themselves out of the pan as shells slam shut with loud clacks is a little disturbing but it's an integral part of the Chinese emphasis on food freshness.
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Mei Ling had heard about another daily market in the northern reaches of the city and we took another long bus ride. I'll never say no to a market but this one hardly justified the journey. It was a particularly hot day and there wasn't anything we hadn't seen at the previous market, with the exception of the vendor selling stir-fried chicken embryos.
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One of the obligatory activities for visitors to Qingdao is a trip to Laoshan Mountain. The problem for us was that without our own car there was no easy way to see the most interesting sights, which were widely dispersed in the area. Our only option would have been to take a ninety minute bus ride to see just one or two temples and some scenery while taking the risk of missing the last bus back into town. After debating it for a few minutes we decided we'd be better off visiting Qingdao's largest city park instead. Zhongshan Park is supposed to have one of the best cherry blossom displays in China but we were a couple of months late for that. We were still able to entertain ourselves by strolling the beautifully landscaped paths and eventually found the lake where we rented a paddleboat. Afterwards we followed a very strange mechanical sound to an astroturf field where an elderly man was adeptly spinning a device on a string. I'd seen street performers with these before but never one that emitted sound. Some research later informed me that it's called a whistling diabolo.
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As we left we saw a multicolored display of runner cutouts across the street. One of the things I love about modern China is that these whimsical installations pop up where they are least expected, without the slightest context or explanation. It's a good reminder that sometimes the best art isn't in museums or on pedestals, but integrated into the urban environment instead.
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We ended our visit to Qingdao where it had begun, at Taidong night market. It was just too good to visit only once. We had enjoyed our stay in Qingdao but the city didn't have the same magical quality as Dalian. I wasn't disappointed though, because I've traveled enough to know that an experience like Dalian comes along very rarely. Now it was time to return to Beijing for a few days before our highly-anticipated stop in Japan.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 08:08 Archived in China Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Qingdao part I


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After our great experience with Dalian we were energized to continue with another mid-sized coastal Chinese city. Of course, in China mid-sized means 5-10 million people which would be the largest city of most countries. These cities may not be well-known internationally but the sheer number and density of residents means that there are always interesting things to do and see. Qingdao is on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, which along with the Liaodong Peninsula to the north separates the Yellow Sea from the Bohai Sea.
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Like Dalian, Qingdao occupies its own smaller sub-peninsula but is not anywhere near as isolated from the mainland. Aside from the roads leading north to the rest of the Shandong Peninsula, Qingdao is connected to the Huangdao District to the west by a tunnel and the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the world. To the east of Qingdao are Laoshan Mountain and the surrounding national park, which is filled with Taoist temples, mountain springs, and waterfalls.
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Once again our Airbnb was in an upper floor of a tall apartment building, and our views from the balcony were the best we'd had in China. To the east we could see past some interesting skyscrapers to Qingdao Bay and then Huiquan Bay. To the north were a middle school and the tall apartment complexes of the Badaxia residential district and to the south we had wide open views of Tuandao Bay and the Yellow Sea. The most interesting feature of the apartment itself was a hanging bubble chair in a sunny alcove of the main bedroom. The last thing we did every morning before leaving the apartment was to pry the kids out of it.
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Meiling was able to find two night markets in Qingdao. Naturally we went to the larger one on our first night, even though it was a long haul by bus. The boys conked out as soon as a seat opened up for them.
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As son as we got off the bus at Taidong it was clear that we were at a major evening destination. We arrived at a wide pedestrian street lined with boutiques and neon billboards and packed with people. We passed by a beer store where people were buying plastic bags full of beer from a huge keg. I won't even drink beer from a plastic cup, let alone a bag, so we compromised on a small plastic cask. I found the beer hard to drink as it was warm and had a strong fermented taste, not at all like the Tsingtao that comes in bottles.
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The Taidong night market occupied two side streets off the main pedestrian boulevard, and it was a tour de force of Chinese street food. The number of vendors and variety of food were overwhelming, as were the dense crowds moving through the narrow lanes between the stalls. Fresh fruit and shellfish were especially impressive. The main challenge was making sure we didn't get too full before we were sure there was nothing else we wanted to try.
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By the time we got back out to the pedestrian street darkness had settled but the crowds showed no sign of abating. One particularly interesting sight was the enormous and intricate murals painted on many of the apartment buildings that lined the street. The murals obviously represented some kind of coordinated municipal effort but such ostentatious decoration seemed quite out of character in China. I was reminded of the huge wall murals we saw in Spain or even the luftmalerei of Bavaria.
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Our Airbnb in Badaxia was somewhat remote from the center, necessitating a bus trip to get to most of the Qingdao's attractions. Fortunately we were within walking distance of the city's largest municipal market, which provided an amazing array of produce and seafood within a cavernous warehouse.
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The best part of the market was the food court, where we were able to bring our own seafood purchases and have them cooked to order. One thing that had changed from our last visit to China was that almost anything in markets could be purchased using WhatsApp. All that was necessary was a cell phone to take a picture of the vendor's QR code and a Chinese bank account, which we had access to through Mei Ling's family. Apparently the system is much less susceptible to fraud than using credit cards. We bought the most interesting and appetizing stuff we could find and the restaurant turned it into a delicious seafood feast.
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There are several coastal areas which have been called the Chinese Riviera, but Qingdao is the only one that I know of in the north of the country. The southern coast of the city facing the Yellow Sea is composed of a series of semicircular bays that allowed the formation of long beaches. Since we live in Miami we don't travel for beaches, but our kids never get tired of them and it can be fun to experience the activity on the busy boardwalks. Qingdao has numerous beaches that are generally referred to by numbers, and I never bothered to figure out which was which. One of the most popular was the one on Qingdao Bay, just a short walk from the center of town. The sand was an uninviting shade of dark brown but there were a lot of people sitting on the beach in street clothes and dipping their feet at the shoreline.
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At the eastern end of the beach is a long pier called Zhanqiao which projects into the center of the bay, and at the end of the pier is a traditional Chinese octagonal pavilion. People were lined up outside the pavilion for a historical photography exhibition which we passed on. From the pier we could see the island Xiao Qingdao (little Qingdao) which is connected to the mainland by a short causeway. Xiao Qingdao consists of a small park and a lighthouse, which wasn't enough to attract us for a visit.
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The busiest road in central Qingdao is Zhongshan Road, which dives into the city opposite from the entrance to Zhanqiao. Several blocks north of the beach we spotted one of Qingdao's iconic landmarks, St. Michael's Cathedral. The cathedral is a remnant of the brief period of German control over Qingdao in the early twentieth century. Although the Germans lost their concession at the outbreak of World War I, several buildings with German architectural influence are still present in Qingdao. Construction of the neo-Romanesque cathedral was eventually completed in 1934 using Catholic diocese funds. The building was substantially damaged during the Cultural Revolution, the saddest aspect of which was the destruction of the 2400-pipe church organ. The cathedral was subsequently restored at the government's own expense after the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution in the 1980's. The cathedral is possibly the most beautiful sight we encountered in Qingdao. From Zhongshan Road a wide cobblestone street leads up to a low hill where the church sits in an expansive square. It's a very popular place for group photos and the toy vendors make sure the air is never free of bubbles.
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Another famous building in central Qingdao is the former German governor's residence. This mansion is so opulent that the governor who ordered its construction was forced to resign after the Kaiser received the bill. Despite the rapid arrival of sunset we raced through the streets trying to find the mansion before it was too dark to see. Unfortunately I couldn't use Google Maps because of the firewall and Apple Maps ... well, the less said the better. I had a VPN but it wasn't compatible with the Chinese cellular service we were using, so we were reduced to getting directions from bystanders which ultimately led us to the wrong building. Still, it was an interesting walk through an attractive part of Qingdao.
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It was now dark and we never found the Governor's mansion. However I pulled this aerial photo off the internet so that you can see what we missed. The website I took the photo from has a wealth of information about the brief German colonial era.
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The other major night market in Qingdao was back on Zhongshan Road, although the entrance was so low profile we had some difficulty locating it. Pi Chai Yuan was definitely more touristy than Taidong, but the setting in narrow alleys with bright and colorful signage was more visually appealing. The food also tended to be more exotic than in Taidong, probably to be more alluring to the tourists and their cameras. One dish I hadn't seen before was blocks of tofu that were covered with a wispy white fungus or mold that had been allowed to grow on them. Eventually we came across a vendor selling various deep fried bugs and other creepy-crawlies, which brought back fond memories of Xingshun night market in Shenyang two years earlier. We settled on a large scorpion and a couple of squishy caterpillars, of which the scorpion was definitely the more enjoyable.
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We had been going nonstop on our first full day in Qingdao and we'd seen some great markets and scenery. The best part was that we still had two full days to go and plenty of things left on our itinerary.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 16:36 Archived in China Comments (0)

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