Kansai Adventure Part II: Kobe & Osaka

July 14, 2013 in Japan, Travel


Dotombori in Osaka

This is the second part of our Kansai adventure, to Kobe and Osaka, which we knocked off in single day. We had been to both places numerous times so this time we narrowed our focus to the must-do things.


There are lots of things to do in Kobe, about a 50-minute express JR ride from Kyoto. We used to always head down to Harborland, which is an excellent place to hang out for a nice meal, shopping and some scenery. Most of all, there is a mini-theme park there which offers plenty of fun.

But with limited time, we narrowed our focus on Sannomiya, Kobe’s main terminal. If you are looking for Kobe steak (as we were), this is the area to visit, but I would still recommend doing some research beforehand because there are simply too many choices and you don’t want to end up picking the wrong one.

We did your research and chose a Kobe steak teppanyaki joint called Royal Mouriya (review here). It’s located on Ikuta Road, which is easy to find because there is a large arch on both ends which says “IKUTA ROAD.” There are loads of Kobe steak houses along this road and in the surrounding streets.


Another landmark to help you find this place is the massive Tokyu Hands you will see at one end of the street, just across the road. Tokyu Hands is one of Japan’s most famous specialty department stores and you can spend hours or even days in there wandering through the levels looking at really cool Japanese stuff. Check out the English website here. Basically, Tokyu Hands has whatever you want — their motto is “When You Visit, You Find What You Want” — except it looks more appealing because it’s Japanese and is packaged in that alluring Japanese style.

Tokyu Hands, the ultimate place to go for shopping

Tokyu Hands, the ultimate place to go for shopping

From snacks, phone accessories, travel goods and cooking utensils to stationery, home appliances, toys and cosmetics, Tokyu Hands as it all. Kyoto doesn’t have one, which is why we came all the way here, but Osaka has two and Tokyo has four. The one we visited, Kobe’s only store, had close to 10 levels. So if you’re looking to buy stuff — cool, quality, unique stuff — go there. I highly recommend it.


If you have to make a choice between Kobe and Osaka, choose Osaka. It’s bigger, as most of the things Kobe has, and it’s closer to Kyoto (about 25-30 minutes via the JR).

With just a later afternoon and evening to spend, we caught the JR from Kobe to Osaka and went straight to Honmachi for the massive Akachan Honpo baby store there (website – Japanese).

After spending a lot of money there, we went to the most happening place in Osaka, the lively Dotombori (or Dotonbori). It was raining pretty heavily that night but the area was still packed with people. It’s just one of those places with so many iconic images (the giant crab, the Glico runner, the drummer clown — though that place has closed down) and you just have to visit and see for yourself.

The giant crab!

The giant crab!

We first enjoyed some takoyaki (battered balls with octopus inside — interpret that as you wish) at this little dingy joint because it looked pretty popular. There are literally dozens of takoyaki places at Dotombori and I’ve tried my fair share over the years but none have been able to match the brilliance of Taco Tora in Kyoto (review here). The one we sampled on this night was pretty average, to be honest.

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The takoyaki was just an appetizer, as we then headed over to Osaka Botejyu for some okonomiyaki (review here). That was a great meal, but unfortunately it didn’t leave us with a lot of time or stomach space to try other places. So instead we went to H&M and bought a bunch of clothes and caught the JR back to Kyoto.


More shopping!

Kansai Adventure Part I: Kyoto

June 19, 2013 in Food, Japan, Reviews, Travel


Night view from outside the front of Kyoto Station

I’m back, and I have no excuse for why it’s taken this long to post. Anyway, the restaurant/dining reviews from that March trip to Japan have finally been completed, so now it’s time to offer a brief round-up of the rest of the stuff we saw and did.

We were only in Japan for effectively three days and three nights (and that includes piecing together two half days). One of those days was spent on a day trip to Kobe and Osaka, with the other day and two half days in Kyoto, where we stayed (at the awesome Hotel Granvia, which is right on top of the Kyoto Station).

Scenic Attractions

This post features some highlights from our trip for those who might be interested in taking a similar short trip to Kyoto. That said, since we had been to all the tourist attractions in the city, all we did this time was shop and eat. So if you want to know which are the must-visit places, these are my personal recommendations:

1. Kyomizu-dera (清水寺) — in my personal opinion the prettiest of all the temples in Kyoto.

2. Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺) — if you’ve only got time for a couple of temples, then this is the second one I would recommend over Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺). The former is the Golden Pavilion and the second is the Silver Pavilion, and gold is better than silver, right?

3. Nijo castle (二条城) — a massive castle built in the early 1600s, complete with a moat and all.

4. Arashiyama (嵐山) — the place to go for mountain views, especially if you’re there in time to catch the autumn leaves.

5. Gion (祇園) — the geisha district; ’nuff said. If you’re there, check out this awesome Japanese ice cream place.

PS: If you are into manga, then check out the Kyoto International Manga Museum.

Kyoto Station

Chances are you will arrive in Kyoto through Kyoto Station. This time we stayed at the magnificent Hotel Granvia, which I highly recommend for its quality and convenience (it is literally right above the station).

There’s lots to do near the station itself. On the first night we were there, for example, we had dinner at Katsu Kura  (reviewed here), located on Level 11 of The Cube (a shopping mall connected to the station along with Isetan), which I believe is the best Japanese pork cutlet place I’ve ever tried.


The view of Kyoto Station’s open areas from above

The shopping at The Cube and Isetan are both excellent, especially if you are looking for Japanese sweets, desserts or souvenirs to take back with you. Food-wise, there is the famous Ramen Street on level 10 of Isetan. It’s not the best ramen you can have in Kyoto, but with seven (by my count) options to choose from, you can always find something to your liking. Even if don’t eat there it’s not a bad idea to walk through it and check them out.


The list of ramen restaurants at Kyoto’s famous Ramen Street


The ramen stores here use a ticket ordering system

For lunch on our last day in Kyoto we went to Salavtore Cuomo’s The Kitchen on level 10 of Isetan. It’s an Italian place where you can order main courses to go with a delicious all-you-can-eat buffet (review here). There are also lots of great (but expensive) restaurants inside Hotel Granvia; for cheaper delights, visit the underground food haven which can be accessed from directly outside the front of the station.

For dessert or afternoon tea, you can’t go wrong with the green tea delights of Tsujiri, of which there is a branch in Isetan. The main store is near Gion, but that one is nearly always has a ridiculous queue, so you might be better off trying your luck at Isetan, especially just after the department store opens or just before it closes.

Another famous green tea dessert place is Nakamura Tokichi (English website), located on level 3 at the Suvaco section of Isetan. There’s nearly always a lengthy wait there as well, but if you don’t mind getting some takeaway you can go to the food court on the ground floor — there is a small window store there where you can sample some of their delicious roasted matcha ice cream.


This is the food court stall


And this is the ice cream!

Outside the front of the station, to the right, is a newish building with Japanese Karaoke, which we went to on our last night (and had a blast). On the left hand side is a a branch of the electronics giant Bic Camera — which has just about every electronic item you can think of. Well, unless you go to the massive Yodobashi Camera across the road, which has everything you can think of and much much more. If you only have time for one, go to Yodobashi — I used to travel all the way to Osaka for this place, one of the best shopping experiences you can ever have as a tourist. If you’re tired, just stretch your legs out on one of the unbelievable massage chairs. And then try another one. And another. No one will care. I am certain I can spend a whole day in that place.



My favourite hangout in Kyoto when I was a student was Kawaramachi, a street, but also used to describe the most happening place in the city. Department stores, shops selling everything from souvenirs to hats to comic books and retro CDs, restaurants, cafes, book stores, cinemas, pachinko parlous, bowling alleys, karaoke bars, insanely awesome drug stores, and more — just go and enjoy.

This time, all we had time for was to visit the famous Musashi Sushi for the first time (review here) and then venture deeper into the district for some crepes at one of my favourite joints. But trust me, you can spend a full day at Kawaramachi. Easily.


The crepe store is situated inside the Gourmet City supermarket


The crepe joint I’m talking about


Crepe master hard at work



Nishiki Markets

This 400-year-old market is worth a visit even if you are not all that interested in the food they have to sell. It’s located a road one block north and parallel to Shijō Street and west of Teramachi Street (thanks, Wikipedia), but all I know is that it’s pretty easy to access from Kawaramachi.


Inside the narrow Nishiki Markets



The thing I would recommend at Nishiki markets are definitely the fresh strawberries (they look so red and perfect that I initially thought they were fake), though the other fruits looked pretty scrumptious too. There are plenty of local delicacies you can try, and the more popular ones include the egg rolls (literally a roll of egg) and the store that sells soy soft serve ice cream and soy donuts. It’s also a great place to get some sweets and snacks to take home.


The egg roll store


The famous egg roll


Soy soft serve and donut store




I’m not usually a candy fan, but I have a fetish for grape candy (which is a popular flavour in Japan), and the best I’ve ever had might be this sour grape fettuccine pictured below. I believe I bought around 10 packets and devoured them all in the ensuing days. And that’s all I have to say about that.


The Beijing Diaries, Day 2: The Day Before the Day

November 10, 2012 in China, Travel

What is Lebron doing in D-Wade’s jersey?

November 7, 2012

With a day to spare before the opening of the 18th National Congress, my second day in Beijing was supposed to be a relaxing one, scoping out the various venues I would soon be visiting on a daily basis. How naive I was.

When I woke up in the morning my initial impression last night that the cheap (US$46 a night) hotel was pretty decent took a bit of a hit. I must have been too tired to have noticed the broken cobwebs on the ceiling and it was way too dark, even with all the lights on, to see the stained walls and the chipped furniture. And when I wiped a bit of spilled water off the floorboards with a tissue, the tissue was all black. Yikes.

I began the day walking from my hotel to the hotel I was supposed to stay at (but got cancelled) to attend a small team meeting with the other reporters from my newspaper group. It was only 5 minutes by taxi but the walk was a long one. I didn’t mind it though because I got to go down Wangfujing, the famous pedestrian shopping street in Beijing. They say China has changed a lot and it sure has. Wangfujing has pretty much everything you could get at any other department store in the world. There was a Nike store, a Zara, branded luxury goods, and of course, an Apple store. The Chinese make most of their products anyway.

Yes, there is a Zara in Beijing

But first I needed to get a local sim card, which anyone can just pick up off the street from one of those dodgy looking grocery stores. In fact, I got mine from a little “adult shop”. It was only after I picked up my sim for 80 yuan that I noticed all the dildos next to it!

Anyway, the meeting was boring and pointless, as expected. We had a quick lunch at a nearby local restaurant which probably cooked everything with recycled gutter oil (it sure tasted like it) and I went off with one of my colleagues to Tiananmen Square, where a supposedly “more convenient” hotel was located. As it turned out, while it was very close to the Square and the Great Hall of the People, the hotel was a little on the expensive side for my cheap company’s budget, plus I would have had to travel quite a distance to get to the media center (where many of the press conferences are held). Oh, and I forgot to mention that they didn’t even have any spare rooms anyway.

So that was a complete waste of time. But after saying bye to the colleague I went through the big red gate (the one with Mao’s headshot on it) to visit the Forbidden City, and that was pretty cool. Interestingly there were lots of basketball courts inside. I don’t think people from the Qing dynasty played hoops, but perhaps the People’s Liberation Army cadets there make good use of them.

Nothing like a bit of pick up ball in the Forbidden City

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into the Palace Museum because it was near closing time. Apparently I could have gotten in for free with my press pass (I hope so, or else it would be embarrassing to try and then get rejected). Mental note to visit the place again when there’s time.

I then tried getting over to the Great Hall of the People but was blocked by the guards, who said I needed some special invitation and not just the press pass. Whatever. I decided to walk back to the hotel, which took about an hour. I had been out all day and didn’t even have half a story to write, so I sent back some photos instead.

Later that night, I went out to dinner with my cousin’s husband who works in Beijing as an executive. He has his own personal driver and everything, which is pretty cool (I was impressed), and he and a colleague took me to a famous Peking duck restaurant. I’ll post some pics of that memorable meal shortly.

I was completely buggered by the time I got back to the hotel and I had to get up before 7 the next morning for the opening ceremony — so I just crashed.

I had a feeling then that this was going to be a very long trip.

Lazy Morning at Shanghai’s Xin Tian Di

July 25, 2011 in China, Travel

It was our last day in Shanghai and we decided to check out the so-called ‘hippest part of town’, known as Xin Tian Di (or Xintiandi).  It’s a pedestrian-only area filled with stone houses, narrow alleys and plenty of chic restaurants, shops and cafes.  Reminds me a little of a substantially more upmarket Ximending (from Taiwan).

At night, Xin Tian Di supposedly comes to life and it’s where all the youngsters go to hang out.  However, with no more evenings in Shanghai, we visited on this rainy morning, where it was relatively serene and filled with mostly tourists.

We walked around a little, took some happy snaps and bought a couple of souvenirs in the gift stores.  Even though we didn’t spend much time there it was interesting to see how rapidly Shanghai was developing.  With all the bars and restaurants there (some of them looked absolutely sensational) I imagine it would be crazy there after dusk.

For more information visit the official website, which contains just about everything you would need, including maps and directions and lists of available stores (split into restaurant, culture, fashion, lifestyle and service).

Here are some random photos (I’ve always wanted to try the ‘gallery’ format).

Shopping for Pearls (and DVDs) in Shanghai!

March 31, 2011 in China, Travel

The red banner ironically prohibits the sale of imitation goods

If you are looking for quality pearls (and some quality imitation branded goods) in Shanghai, look no further than Hongqiao International Pearl City.  I wasn’t, but we still ended up going there twice because the freshwater pearls are so insanely cheap compared to back home that we just had to.

Located at 3721 Hongmei Rd (near Yan’an West Road), Pearl City is actually on the second floor of the fairly large two storey building.  The first floor sells predominantly imitation goods, which is hilarious because as soon as you enter there is a large red banner in Chinese that apparently says ‘Sale of Imitation Goods Prohibited’.  In fact, imitation goods is pretty much all they sell.

The second floor, huge and arranged like a department store, is filled with different pearl vendors.  Most of the vendors know how to communicate in English, which is why Pearl City is such a popular place for expat shoppers.  They vendors we dealt with were very courteous and hardworking people, and even gave us free bottles of water (which we sorely needed after a long day out)!

However, if you don’t know your pearls or you don’t know how to bargain, chances are you will end up paying exorbitant prices or end up with poor quality pearls.  Honestly though, the prices are so cheap there that you’ll either think you’re getting crap quality (when it’s not) or you’ll think you’re getting a fantastic deal (when you’re not).  My wife spent about $50AUD and got 4 pairs of pearl earrings, a pearl necklace and a pearl bracelet.  You’d be lucky to get one pair of pearl earrings for that much in Sydney!

The best way to go is to go there with someone local, or someone that knows what they are doing.  We did, and we went to the store in the far right corner (from where you come up the escalators).  Certain times they wouldn’t budge from their prices or didn’t have exactly what we wanted, but that’s okay — you just go to another place and compare.

One word of advice: sometimes the vendors might try to play the sympathy card and say that they don’t make any money from the pearls or won’t be making any money if they sell it to you at X price.  Don’t believe them.  As long as they are willing to sell it to you, they are making money.  No vendor will sell to you at a loss or zero profit.

For those who think pearls are boring but are forced to go, don’t fear.  There are two ‘classic’ Shanghainese DVD stores right next to the building and across the road.  These DVD stores miraculously stock wall-to-wall DVDs of all the latest titles, of films currently at the cinema and films not even out yet!  And they are all wrapped up nicely like real DVDs. The staff there can speak English and can even give you recommendations, including which DVDs are of good quality (aren’t all DVDs good quality?).

Just be careful bringing them home, that’s all.

PS: There are lots of these DVD stores around in Shanghai.  I saw one of the movie The Fighter, which actually says, ‘The Wrestler, but with boxing’!  Oh, and there are street vendors selling DVDs in plastic wrap without cases — apparently the quality of these are sometimes questionable, but they are of course cheaper.