Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Japan Solo // Kobe: Eating, Drinking, and Living the Life

Can't believe I'm nearing the end of my trip already! Kobe is my favorite city based on principle because my trip focused on eating and drinking. I was so pumped to try out the famous Kobe beef. People online recommended going to Steakland. Since it's conveniently located near Sannomiya station, that's where I headed.
I arrived at around 11:30 and there was already a line outside. The restaurant inside was full too. After waiting for 10 minutes a waiter came out and led us to another location that was around the corner into an alley marked by a drugstore.
Go to this location and you'll have a higher chance of being seated immediately. It's on 6F.

I got lucky and was seated in the very last seat (yay for traveling solo!) If you can't arrive by 11:30, I'd suggest coming at 1:00 when the first round of customers leave. Though I think half the reason why Steakland is so crowded is because service is very slow. There were only three teppanyaki chefs that I saw serving the entire restaurant. They would start from one end of the grill and go down the line. Service was not up to Japanese standards either.
I ordered the Kobe beef steak lunch. Since the other menu items didn't explicitly state Kobe beef, I assumed it was just normal teppanyaki. Kobe beef is already expensive for lunch. I can't imagine paying more than double the price for essentially the same thing except for dinner.
My cut of meat waiting to be cooked. Honestly I was very, very disappointed with the cut when I saw it. It didn't look very fresh (it has brown spots!) and seemed like a flank cut or something. Honestly I don't know much about cuts of meat, but it just felt very like very cheap quality for the price, though I know there are stringent standards for meat to be deemed Kobe beef quality.
The final product! It ended up being quite a bit of food to finish. Kobe beef has a distinctive taste that I can't say with certainty I liked. The fat tasted nothing like the fat of other steaks that I've had, perhaps because it was marbled and distributed throughout the entire piece of meat and not all gathered at the sides. This made for very, very soft and delicate meat that was easy to chew and buttery tasting. It felt like if the meat lingered in my mouth for long enough it would disintegrate and melt away. But it also had a unique taste, much like there's a unique taste to eating lamb.

The verdict? Worth trying out for a lunch, but I wouldn't recommend Steakland. Next time I'm in Japan I'd like to order Kobe beef again to get a better comparison. Based on online research that I've done, many Japanese locals deem Kobe beef to be overrated and instead prefer Matsusaka beef. Next time I'd also like to try that to compare the two.
After such a heavy meal it's time to digest and walk it off! Next stop is the Nunobiki waterfall, which is pretty famous in Japan. Since it's pretty famous I was excited about how big and grand it would be.

This was the scenery on the way to the waterfall. The path is well marked and easy to walk with some stairs along the way. It also seemed to be a popular hiking spot with locals as I ran into quite a few people on a weekday.
Pretty, but not big. Here are some more pictures of it more upstream.
I continue along the trail and also get glimpses of the ropeway heading to and from the Herbal Garden. It really is the perfect day for a hike. Beautiful weather and not too cold or hot.
Finally see the reservoir, indicating that I'm more than halfway to the Herb Garden.
On the last leg of the trail the path became unmarked. It was a bit scary since there was no one in sight and I wasn't sure if I was going in the right direction, but I just kept walking and finally saw the gate to the Herb Garden.
I think you have to pay to enter, but no one was checking tickets so I just went in. It's a pretty boring garden, but had a gorgeous view of the city.
After a long afternoon hike I wasn't about to attempt a descent on foot. Instead I took the ropeway and got a lovely view of the sunset. It truly is the little things in life that you learn to appreciate.
The next day I went to visit the Hyogo Museum. Ever since taking an introduction to architecture course, I developed an appreciating for buildings. This particular museum was designed by the famed Tadao Ando, whom I previously declared that I was sick of seeing (No more concrete!!). I went to see another one of his concrete masterpieces anyway.
Now I can rest in peace and say I've seen every single important Tadao Ando creation except the Church of Light in Osaka. The permanent collection in the museum wasn't terribly memorable, but I loved the one room that they dedicated to Tadao Ando. It had scaled replicas of his important works and detailed information of the conception and background of each project. The Ando Museum in Naoshima is similar except that museum focuses more on Ando's motivations in each project.
If you're an Ando fan you must visit the Hyogo Museum because the museum shop sells personally autographed copies of Ando's books. I couldn't justify buying one so I took a picture of his autograph instead as a memory. I love how he includes a sketch!
Had my Kobe beef, now it's time to do some drinking! Kobe is home to many sake breweries. I chose to visit Hakutsuru. 

The museum is free and was very informative about the sake brewing process. They had English on everything, short videos to show the process, and the actual tools that were used.
Sake is not my favorite type of alcohol, but the shop had free samples. Who would say no to free alcohol?! After tasting the samples though my opinion remains unchanged. Haha. I still bought some though. You can't visit a beer museum without drinking the beer, and so I couldn't leave empty handed! And with that, I'm leaving Kobe on a high note (pun intended). 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Japan Solo // Himeji: Japan's Famous White Castle

Himeji is a small town known for one attraction: the white Himeji Castle. It reminds me of where Glinda the Good Witch from Wizard of Oz lives. I arrived at night, but even then it's hard to miss.

This was a handy food map provided by the hostel that I stayed in, Himeji 588 Guesthouse. Awesome location (literally two minutes away from the castle area) and relatively cheap, so I'd recommend it. 

Woke up at 9am the next morning to an empty hostel, which made me freak out. I'd heard from my friend who visited previously that the line can get very crazy (took him 2 hours to get in!) and it seems like everyone was already queuing up! 

I arrived and the line didn't seem too bad, so I went to visit the west bailey (nishinomaru) furst, or the princess' corridors. Detailed explanations inside about the princess' life, the construction of the castle, etc. Ended up having to rush through it though because people were talking about how long the line to the main castle was getting.

And yup, by the time I make it into the line, it takes about 45 minutes to get into the castle. They limit how many people are in it at once, but it's still a pretty crowded experience inside. It's pretty bare inside and typical Japanese castle construction, but what makes it special is that it's original. It has never been damaged throughout all the historical events Japan has been through. You wouldn't be able to tell though as the castle just finished renovation and looks quite new.

It was really cute how they had people dressed up as ninjas or warriors hanging around the castle and interacting with tourists. I walked out of the castle to have this ninja attempt to slay me. You can take pictures with them for free too :)

I bought the combined admission ticket, so after visiting the castle I started walking towards Kokoen. It's a little walk from the castle, and on the way I passed this:

You can pay for a boat ride on the moat. It only operates during certain times of the year and space is limited, so take note!
Kokoen is one of the larger and nicer gardens I've been to. I was pleasantly surprised to see momiji in it and lots of koi fish! Definitely need to have your camera ready for this place.

At certain vantage points you can also get Himeji Castle peaking out in the background.

After Kokoen I rushed to the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History because of insider information that I saw posted in the hostel. The museum hosts free kimono or warrior costume wearing sessions at 10:30, 13:30, and 15:30 everyday. Only two people per session, and if more than two people sign up then they have a drawing to choose. I hoped thatt wouldn't be crowded.
I was just being a worry wart though. The museum was basically empty, and I was the only person waiting. I chose the Japanese aristocrat kimono costume. It was an intense experience because the staff helps you put on ten layers, literally. Took about 15 minutes to put it on and it felt like I was loading up on bricks. You can also buy 4x6 photos for 100yen each or purika sized photos for 150yen if you would like. Highly recommended for travelers on a budget.
The plaza across from the castle had food tents set up, so of course I had to taste some of it. Above is oden, which is various skewered items mostly made of fish soaked in soup.
And what I had missed trying out for breakfast: almond butter, a Himeji specialty. Though it didn't taste anything like butter. It tasted like peanut butter mixed with a buttery spread. Indulgently delicious and the perfect way to end my day trip in Himeji.

Japan Solo // Tottori: The Woman in the Dunes

After visiting Inujima I started reading up on Japanese author Yukio Mishima, which led me down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and ended with a Japanese novel by Kobo Abe titled The Woman in the Dunes. This inspired me to visit Tottori, the central place in the novel.
I'm pretty worried that my experience will be ruined due to bad weather. It's pretty rough as I sit on the bus, but I see a patch of blue sky and hold onto hope.
And just my luck, as I get off the bus the skies clear up more and the rain is starting to fade. I'm at the sand dunes! 
It's not a big patch so don't expect anything crazy. Technically it's not a desert either since the area gets plenty of rainfall yearly (I can attest...the rain was falling hard that day!). On clear peak tourist days they have camels, hang gliding, the like, that you can do. I don't know...I've seen sand on beaches before and the seashore, but I was still super excited to see this. 
And of course, as I head out to the sand dunes the weather turns on a dime. The wind and rain gets quite strong. Thank god I was smart enough to wear my North Face jacket. The way the weather changes in an instant brings back memories of Fuji.
Wish I could've spent more time enjoying the sand and the waves, but the wind was about to blow me over. I ran into a pack of girls wearing tall leather boots and short miniskirts trying to walk against the wind to the top of the sand dune. That was an amusing sight. Also, tourist tip: drop by the souvenir shop centers before heading out to the dunes. They have rubber boots you can borrow so you don't ruin your shoes in the sand.
Next stop was the Sand Museum! I didn't have high expectations for this place but ended up really enjoying it. The sand sculptures were mind blowing because they were so realistic!
This year's theme was Germany. Artists from around the world use sand to tell a story related to Germany. Below are a couple of shots of my favorite pieces. See if you can guess the topic!

Subjects of the sculptures, in order from the top: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", "Hohenzollern Castle", and "Sigmaringen Castle and a medieval fortress"

But the sand dunes aren't all that Tottori has to offer. The bus ride back passes through other tourist sites. Tourist tip: Get off any bus that leaves from the sand dunes at Nishi-machi and follow the signs to tourist attractions. They're actually all on the same street so it's easy to visit everything. I started first with the Tottori Prefectual Museum, which is free for students.
I was surprised by how modern the architecture of the building was. In a small place like Tottori I was expecting a more traditional brick building. It's a small museum in Japanese only and most of the items are replicas, but I came across this:
Anyone fancy that for dinner? It definitely killed all my cravings for squid. Shiver.
Walking further down the street I see this European style mansion, Jinpukaku Mansion. I feel like I've seen an exact replica of this building in the Rurouni Kenshin animes. If you keep going further you'll hit the edge of a mountain. I decided to explore it a bit because there are castle remains there. At the top I was greeted with this lovely view of Tottori.
There's not much left of any castle remains at the top, but this plaque explains its former glory. The city planted many cherry blossom trees at the top, so it's probably worth checking out if you visit during the cherry blossom season.
Coming down I saw this sign. Was pretty disappointed I didn't see any of this, though it's probably a good thing because I don't think I can outrun either and I didn't meet anyone on the way.
Another Buddhist temple, Kannonin Temple. I thought it would be a large temple, but it was tiny. It's very tiny but offers a nice garden view and tea. And that wraps up my trip to Tottori. Heading back into the tourist crowds for my next destination. It's famous for a white castle. Can you guess where?