“Hmm…I think that the Kansai airport is right in the middle of the sea so that if the plane crashes, no one on the ground will get hurt.” I spoke a tad too loudly over the roar of the jet turbine. On my left, my colleague gave me the evil eye. I clammed up, dropped my guide book back into my bag and scrolled through the movie list on the Japan Airlines screen. Maybe some things are better left unsaid.
It was autumn and I was heading to Japan on company expense. With me were my colleagues and we had every intention to squeeze out every second of the trip as long as my boss was paying for it. To my employer’s probable relief, my colleague had skilfully procured tickets for everyone to Osaka for about $450, well under the $700 average cost of a flight there from Singapore.
Autumn is an excellent time to head to Kyoto as this is the time when the famous cherry blossoms turns a deep hue of orange and red.
Once we landed at Kansai Airport, I was subject to the usual discriminatory bag inspection while my Chinese colleagues went through without a hitch. Such a great beginning to any trip. I had to stop myself from loudly asking the Japanese customs officer whether he wanted to strip search me too.
The great thing about Kansai International airport is the convenience it offers to passengers. The location for the train station is clearly marked throughout the airport so we had little trouble locating it.
We watched wide eyed as a sleek and empty train pull up to the Kansai airport train station and the seats inside hydraulically rotate to face the direction of travel. Impressed was too mediocre a word to express what we felt then! Taking the early 7am JR Express train to Kyoto, it took slightly longer than an hour to reach Kyoto. We then transferred to one of Kyoto’s efficient bus service to get to our hotel, confused for a moment as entry was from the rear door of the bus rather than the traditional front door.
For travel in Kyoto, we depended on their bus service as well as the main railway to get from one location to another. With clearly marked bus stops and helpful brochures distributed with the tourist passes however, their public transportation system is easy to figure out and the city itself easy to navigate.
For further explanation on Kyoto’s public transportation, please see: http://www.city.kyoto.jp/koho/eng/access/transport.html
Like the faithful tourists that we are, we had listed down a number of places to visit. Being an avid fan of the PC game Shogun Total War, I had more in-depth knowledge about Japanese history especially during the Sengoku Jidai period than most of my colleagues. I won’t bore you here with the details but looking back now, I believe I certainly did bore the rest of them to the bone with a rather dry historical narrative of Japanese history.
There is a saying about temples and castles that when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I found Kyoto different. While trying to squeeze eight temples dotted across Kyoto in just two days is certainly a trying task, a couple of temples did stand out among the rest.
Despite the throngs of Japanese crowding the temple grounds, there is still a sense of serenity that transcends time within the temple. One can almost imagine monks from a hundred years ago hurrying across the grounds, their heads bowed in deference.
A little waterfall flows within the temple grounds and supposedly grants the person who drinks from it longevity, wisdom and health. Another story says that the person will find the love of their life after drinking from it. While I pondered which story was true, I did notice that many teens in school uniform drinking from the fountain. I don’t think they were too interested in wisdom…
Fushimi Inari Taisha
In the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ , there was a scene where a young Sayuri runs up the footpath lined with the orange torii. I was fascinated with the place and when I had the chance to see it, I was enthralled to see that it was exactly like in the movies.
What no one told me was that the paths all led up the mountain to the many small shrines. After about half an hour of walking uphill, we came to a stop where the entire Kyoto city could be seen below us. With the cool breeze sweeping the mountain side and the striking orange leaves of the cherry blossom trees, it was indeed a spectacular place to be.
Eating in Japan is definitely not cheap. In fact, I found the prices almost comparable to eating out in France. A simple meal of noodles in miso soup easily cost upwards of S$8 to 15 at a simple unassuming restaurant. A supposedly good way to get good cheap food is to watch where the Japanese office workers eat. Hang around outside at lunchtime and just watch them herd into cheap eateries. I tried that tactic and found out one thing that doesn’t work to my advantage. The staff can’t speak English, I can’t speak Japanese past Arigato and there is no English menu. I could only point and hope for the best.
While I enjoy fresh sashimi and tempura, I am generally not a big fan of Japanese cuisine. I could not appreciate the tastes of dishes such as cold Soba noodles or the miso soup. In Japan however, I was blown away by one street food that was incredibly delicious….and hot. Takoyaki.
Takoyaki in Japan are different from in Singapore. They are fatter, filled with a piping hot filling and tastier. Unlike Singapore where there is only a measly piece of octopus in each takoyaki ball, Japan’s takoyaki balls are filled with chunks of octopus.
The best time to eat Takoyaki is when the weather is cold. Nothing beats popping a freshly cooked takoyaki into your mouth under the cold lash of the wind. It’s better than sake and you better believe it.
As for the interesting dish section, I came across quite a number of restaurants selling fugu, the pufferfish. The pufferfish is a highly toxic creature and only some parts of its body are edible. Certified chefs slice these edible parts thinly and serve them raw to those who dare to try them. The Japanese rate the flesh of this fish highly. But pop the wrong piece in your mouth and before you know it, you’ll be on the floor foaming at the mouth in your death throes. Every year, a couple of unfortunate souls kick the bucket due to fugu poisoning.
For a long while, I carefully considered whether I should order the fugu as the waiter looks on patiently and expectantly. I ordered the snow crab.