Captivating Kansai: The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji)

 Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto, Japan

We get off the train in Kyoto and after a brief moment of consulting our map and turning in circles, we walk over to the stop for our bus. There's already crowd. One bus comes. It's packed but a few from our crowd manage to get on and we shuffle forward. The next bus is supposed to come in fifteen minutes. We wait getting jostled and elbowed as more and more people push into the waiting area trying to find a safe space from the wind. The bus is late and we're getting cranky in the crowd.

"It looks like it's about two and a half miles, do you want to just walk?"

"Yeah, let's just walk, this bus is late and we might not even be able to get on"

I walk a lot every day but we walk even more when we're traveling, you get to experience so much more of the city that way.

The wind gets stronger and I try to wrap even more of myself in my pashmina. It helps a little and we search for the sunny parts of the street which helps more. This part of Kyoto doesn't seem to be too exciting. A bit industrial, some run down buildings, a huge baseball equipment store and a couple of cafes. This does not seem to be a walk where we're destined to find some hidden gem of a shop or bakery. Eventually we find ourselves on smaller residential streets as we close in on the temple. The sun is coming out and I can see green hills.

We merge into the crowd and by our tickets. Immediately past the gate we're directed to a dead end area on the left where everyone is taking photos.

"Well, that's just outrageous," Dan exclaims.

Which is, I think, an accurate statement about any temple covered in gold leaf.

Dan admires some koi and watches ducks diving in the pond while I snap my pictures. The pavilion might be outrageous, but the landscaped lake and the leaves just beginning to turn are stunning.

We leave the photo area and continue on the path around the lake. We seem to have arrived between two bus loads of people so we take our time, not eager to catch up to the crowd in front of us. I join the other travelers trying to throw coins into the Buddha's bowl but the smallest Japanese coins are incredibly light and easily misdirected by the wind. I manage to get in one and Dan takes his turn.

The bus load behind us is beginning to catch up so we hurry up the hill to another small lake and pagoda. The grounds aren't very big but already the crowds are starting to thin. Maybe this is another instance where people just take their pictures and leave?

We round a corner and suddenly have a view of the temple and the phoenix on its roof. It's still outrageous.

Down around the hill and we find ourselves in the souvenir area, while a man tried to tempt us with bottles of sake filled with gold flakes, I find myself eyeing the bowls of hot matcha, it's still quite chilly in the shade. We pay what is probably too much money for bright green matcha in a red lacquered bowl and a small mochi like sweet with a mold of the pavilion and a small piece of gold leaf. I've now warmed up enough to head on and sample many different type of yatsuhashi and other confections but even though they're all delicious, they seem a bit pricier here than we've seen other places so we don't buy any. I've now warmed up enough from the tea and the walking that I'm ready to finish our visit by stopping by the pavilion I saw on our way in advertising soft serve. I opt for black sesame and it's both the blackest and creamiest black sesame ice cream I've ever tried. Completely worth getting a bit cold again.

 Black Sesame Ice Cream. The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan.

Kinkaku-ji isn't near much, so while I finish my ice cream, we double check our route, leave the park and head towards downtown Kyoto for a more substantial lunch.

Kinkaku-ji is open daily 9-5. It doesn't have a dedicated website so for more information or suggestions how to get try here.

 

Captivating Kansai: Exploring Osaka

 Osaka Castle

Many people view Osaka as a jumping off point, a place to lay your head at night while you spend your days exploring the rest of Kansai, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some excellent sites (and food!) in its own right. We spend a lot of time walking when we travel just to get to explore different neighborhoods so we usually try not to cram getting to too many major sites in a day. Here's a (relatively) low key guide to a day spent exploring Osaka.

Our first site of the day was Osaka Castle. Like many castles and temples in both Japan and Korea, it's a recreation built on the foundation of the original but the surrounding park with an impressive moat and parts of the original fortress wall, as well as the view from the top floor, definitely make it worth an exploration, especially if you happen to be visiting while the leaves are changing (and I imagine also during cherry blossom season). We spent some time walking around the park before heading to the castle, it's quite beautiful, but unfortunately a large part of it was closed off due to construction when we went.

The castle museum itself is a bit dated and kitschy, with a lot of lenticular photos and dioramas that light up one after another to tell a story. It's a bit silly but also probably a fun way to learn some Japanese history if you don't happen to go to the museum on the same day as about a million groups of schoolchildren. After spending time admiring the view from the observation deck, we kind of did a speed through on our way back down, trying to stay one step ahead of school groups. The lower floors are less kitschy and more typical displays of clothing, weapons and other aspects of court life.

We decided to take advantage of the food trucks parked in the courtyard outside the main entrance for lunch and I had gingery, crispy karaage with mentaiko mayonnaise which was much more delicious than I ever would have expected food truck fried chicken to be. Of course, I followed up the chicken with a green tea swirl soft serve because, hi, have you met me?

 Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan

We explored the park a bit more while heading in the direction of the subway to head over to Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. The Osaka Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in the world, focuses entirely on animals that live within the Ring of Fire (also known as the Pacific Rim) and houses TWO whale sharks. Admission is 2,300 JPY (around US$19.00) but we thought it was well worth it. The aquarium is set up so that you start above ground where there things like capybaras, penguins, seals and sea lions hanging out at the top of tanks and where, if you time it right, you get to see feeding time and then slowly circle around winding down deeper and deeper into the "ocean". On each level you get to pass through tanks dedicated to different regions and see how the marine life changes as you get down into the depths. The highlight of the aquarium is definitely the HUGE Pacific Ocean tank with the whale shark, hammerheads, reef sharks and many types of rays though I always love the jellyfish section of aquariums and Dan was giddy after gently touching two different little sharks and a ray.

Right next to the aquarium is the Tempozan Ferris Wheel, which at one point was the world's largest ferris wheel. It takes seventeen minutes to go all the way around and feels like it moves so slowly, I sometimes would take a break from admiring the view and stare into the middle of the wheel just to make sure we were still going. We decided to go at night to get a good view of the city lights, though I'm sure the view is extraordinary on a clear day too. My only annoyance with the ferris wheel was that there was an endless loud loop of music and a woman telling us facts playing inside the booth that was a bit of a distraction from being able to just enjoy the view.

 Tempozan Ferris Wheel, Osaka

We hopped back on the subway for dinner of delicately flavored hot soba at Ayamedo, which despite its Michelin star, didn't require a reservation and was incredibly reasonably priced. The sweet fried tofu in Dan's soba I think actually complimented the dish better than the duck in mine but both were excellent and I drank about a gallon of the delicious housemade buckwheat tea. After dinner we took a long stroll back to where we were staying, with a stop in Dotonburi to see the lights.

Osaka may not be as pretty as Kyoto but its space age neon, billboards and architecture definitely give it a charm all its own.

Captivating Kansai: Beer Komachi

 Karaage at Beer Komachi in Kyoto, Japan

We went to Beer Komachi at the recommendation of my twitter friend and craft beer lover @megoizzy, primarily to sample some Japanese brews, with the intention of having dinner but not really having much in the way of expectation for the food. The Japanese beers were good, but the food, which is primarily a modern take on izakaya classics, was great.

For beer, I started off with the Pumpkin Ale from Iwate, which isn't a typical choice for me, but nothing else really struck my fancy. It was more of just a pale ale than a pumpkin ale, which was fine with me but I didn't love it.

To start neither Dan or I can ever resist ordering Japanese pickles and the spread here couldn't have made us happier. Alongside the more typical radish, cucumber and cabbage, was pickled eggplant, something I would've never even thought to pickle and would have guessed I would hate. I'm not a huge eggplant fan, so I did let Dan eat more than me, but I couldn't resist such an interesting combination of flavors and texture. This was definitely bar food taken to the next level and we were incredibly excited for our next courses.

Next came the house smoked selection of the day; egg, seasoned cod roe (mentaiko), Japanese radish, cheese, salmon, edamame and pork liver. I like liver in pate and mousses but I very rarely like it whole but the smoked pork liver was an exception. I'm always a little mixed on smoked cheese, I find too often instead of a balance between creaminess and smoke, you can end up feeling like you're just eating a weird hunk of solid smoke but this one was done perfectly, slightly smoky on the rind but still creamy and delicious in the middle. The smoked egg was perfectly done with a still translucent yolk. There wasn't a loser on the plate but the smoked mentaiko absolutely stole the show. It's no secret that I absolutely love cod roe but Dan was also on board with me when it came to this being the winner. A punch of salt and smoke with a texture unlike anything else, the serving was almost too much but also made me only want to eat that forever. If Peach flight prices drop insanely low again, don't put it past me to fly to Kyoto just in hopes that the mentaiko will still be on the menu.

Our "main course" was karaage and french fries because I'm also incapable of saying no to Japanese fried chicken. I stole Dan's Black IPA from Tochigi when it turned out to be more like a porter and less like an IPA which was ideal for me. The "fried potato with Kyoto chili peppers" were nothing exceptional but they were well seasoned. The beer battered karaage was beautifully fried, crunch on the outside, well seasoned with just a hint of ginger and steamy and moist on the inside.

With it's low key atmosphere and our seat at the bar allowing us to watch the preparation of so many delicious foods coming out of the tiny kitchen behind the bar, we wanted to stay for another round (and considered ordering more food even though we had had plenty) but unfortunately it's cash only and we realized we had just enough on us to cover our four beers and four plates so instead we settled up and headed back to the train to Osaka. But if we go back to Kansai, we might need to stay in Kyoto instead just to be able to stop by more than once.

Beer Komachi is located at 444 Hachikencho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan, you can find more information on their facebook page or twitter.

Captivating Kansai: Yamazaki Distillery Tour and Tasting

 Hakushu 12 year (smoky) Hakushu 12 year (sherry cask) Hakushu 18 year. Yamazaki Distillery between Kyoto and Osaka, Japan.

With a lot of our friends having already taken advantage of the cheap Peach flights between Seoul and Kansai, there was A LOT we were excited about for our trip to Osaka and Kyoto, but I'm not sure there was anything we were more excited about then the tour of the Yamazaki Distillery.

Dan and I are both mostly bourbon drinkers but we're still pretty big fans of Japanese whisky. Sweet and smoky, its flavor and price point tend to be a middle ground between bourbon and scotch. For a long time, both 12 year Yamazaki and Hibiki could be purchased at the same price as some more expensive bourbons but was about twice as smooth and would leave you with half the hangover. Unfortunately, all us whisky revival, Peggy Olsen and Don Draper emulating, millenials seemed to figure that out at the same time and, for the moment, we have literally drunk Japan out of whisky. Or at least, affordable whisky with an age distinction. Don't worry, the new no-age Yamazaki is still pretty great, so if you go on a tour and decide you just can't get enough of Japanese whisky, you'll still be ok.

 Whisky Library, Yamazaki Distillery

When we went you had to make a reservation for the tour but it was free but starting in January 2016 you can make reservations for the museum, whisky library and bar part of the facilities for free but it costs JPY 1,000 for the tour. For free, we got the new no-age Yamazaki and the regular yellow label Suntory whisky at the end but it looks like the new tour gives you Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve and an opportunity to taste unblended Yamazaki, so since the price is just over $8.00, it still seems worth it for your first visit.

The museum focuses on the history of Japanese whisky while the tour is a blend between some distillery history and the whisky making process. The tour is given in Japanese but with free audioguides available in a number of languages. I'm very rarely a fan of audioguides, and this one was no exception. I zoned out a lot of it. Some sections of the guide were more interesting than others, but mostly I enjoyed the walk through the facilities.

The room with all the aging barrels is maybe the most delicious smelling room I've been in in my life, and I'm a professional baker, so I'm pretty much an expert on delicious smelling rooms. Woody, sweet, yeasty, boozy. I swear, if you spent enough time in there, you'd get drunk from just breathing. Maybe we were a bit tipsy, because at least all the other American tourists on the tour were running around with huge giddy smiles on their faces, shouting and posing each time they found an older barrel.

At the end of the tour we were shuffled into a huge cafeteria sort of room where we lined up for highballs made with Yamazaki and then were given snacks designed specifically to pair with the whisky. For our next two free tastings we were allowed Suntory as a highball, neat or on the rocks. I'm a pretty big fan of Suntory highballs but I wish we had been offered the Yamazaki neat instead. After that, we were of course guided to the gift shop where the effects of the whisky shortage became quite apparent. Each guest is only allowed to purchase one bottle and the only bottles with age distinction were the Hibiki 12 year and some tiny sippers of Yamazaki (that don't count as your one bottle allowance). Disappointingly, while there was plenty of types of Jim Beam, there wasn't any Hakushu (Beam Suntory's other Japanese distillery, and makers of my favorite purse whisky bottles). You can also buy unblended bottles, like the ones in the picture of the library, for cheap which seems pretty cool but could also seem like you could end up with something not that great so with our one bottle each limit, we went with whisky we knew we'd like.

 Hibiki 17 (sherry cask) Hibiki 17 (Mizunara Cask) Hibiki 17 (smoky) Yamazaki Distillery between Kyoto and Osaka, Japan

The real highlight of the experience is the tasting bar by the whisky library. There is a giant overwhelming menu of all sorts of distillery only pours along with some more easily found options if you're not feeling too adventurous. The Jim Beam offerings cost as low as JPY 100 per pour (yep, $.85) and the Suntory offering are mostly around JPY 300 ($2.50) though you can spend significantly more. If it's cold, there are seats inside, but I recommend sitting outside since the distillery ground are quite nice and if you go on one of the later tours, you might catch a glimpse of the sunset.

We decided to build our own flight of Hakushu for the first round and went with a Sherry Cask Hakushu 12 year, a Smoky Hakushu 12 year and the Hakushu 18. The smoky was not very sweet and definitely would appeal more for scotch drinkers. Dan let me drink most of it after having a taste and declaring it "interesting but not for me". The sherry cask had more depth with complex hints of fruit and spice while the 18 year was spicy, a bit sweet and so smooth I could drink it all day like water.

Our second round we went with a smoky Hibiki 17 year, sherry cask 17 year and a mizunara cask 17 year (JPY 1,200/US$9.86). The Yamazaki Mizunaras have won awards the last few years, but I think were sold out, so I was pretty excited that Dan decided to get the Hibiki Mizunara. The older smoky Hibiki was definitely a bit smoother than the younger Hakushu but way too much for Dan. Smoky is all for me. Again, the sherry cask added a depth of flavor but the clear stand out was the Mizunara. I'm not sure I can even describe it accurately from one tasting, there was so much flavor complexity. Since it's distillery only, I'm just going to tell you to get yourself there and make sure it's in your line up.

I would've loved to do another flight but our day had started off behind schedule due to me making sure that a coffee shop would be open early but not making sure it would be open that day... and after making new breakfast plans and still visiting Fushimi Inari in the morning, we arrived at the distillery without having lunch. So unfortunately, we decided it was probably a better move to find some convenience store snacks and get back on the train to head towards food. Don't make the same mistake we did, eat before you go so that you can try as much whisky as possible and still feel capable of getting yourself back on the train to Kyoto or Osaka, there aren't any snacks at the bar.

The Yamazaki Distillery is located between Osaka and Kyoto at 5 Chome-2-1 Yamazaki Shimamoto-chō, Mishima-gun, Ōsaka-fu and you can find more about there hours and scheduling a tour on their website.

Photo Post: Fushimi Inari Taisha

 Fushimi Inari Taisha Kyoto Japan

The secret to this gorgeous shrine is definitely to just keep hiking up until you find yourself in rows of tourist free Torii Gates where you don't have to jostle for selfie space. Next you'll find yourself walking through peaceful, rustling bamboo groves. Keep going and you'll find all sorts of smaller hidden shrines and side paths. When you decide to work you're way down, head over down the road with the food vendors and find yourself the guy with sake soft serve. It's weird but delicious.