Arashiyama: The Red Sea

A couples of weeks back I went to Arashiyama for full momiji (autumn leaves) immersion. The whole of Kyoto decided to visit on that day too. Or maybe it just highlighted how crowded Japan is. I blame the mountains. They should keep chopping them down and using them for reclaimed land – that’s how they got the land for Kansai International Airport.


We walked across the bridge with a gorgeous view sweeping upstream of the Oi River, but I was too busy eating already:

Sod the scenery - let's eat!

(It actually wasn’t very satisfying; you can read all food-related trials here.)

We headed straight for Tenryu-Ji, the largest temple in the area and built in very strange circumstances. According to my sometimes faithful Lonely Planet, the temple was built on the former site of Emperor Go-Daigo’s villa after a priest dreamt about a dragon rising from the river. The dream was somehow interpreted as symbolising the Emperor’s uneasy spirit and the temple was constructed to appease it. I’m wondering who doesn’t feel better when they have big fancy buildings dedicated to them?

To be honest though, it wasn’t the temple we went to see; it was the gardens.

We then had lunch. And it messed with my tongue and my head. What’s worse is that we waited over half an hour to be seated for the lunch. At least we found a friendly house, apparently meant to play with your mind:

Mind Games

I also felt right at home at London Books.

Home to Hitler Paraphernalia

Actually that “at home” feeling vanished when the first book I pulled off the shelf turned out to be a manga about Hitler.  He was on every page, looking very angry.

After lunch, we visited the crowning glory of our trip – Okochi Sanso, the villa of an actor in samurai movies. And wow, did he have some taste when it came to garden design. Not only that, but it’s nestled into the hill with a spectacular view of the city. It really gives a sense of how Kyoto, like a lot of Japanese cities, is carved into the flat land between the clusters of mountains. Admire the Red Sea:

Tea under the maple leaves

Don’t do that to my taste-buds!

Don’t do that to my taste-buds!

That was the result of our lunch during our trip to Arashiyama to see the momiji. Firstly, I should say that I’m convinced there is a ginger conspiracy. People serving food around Arashiyama that day must have a thought process which goes something like the following: “Look at all the red leaves. So much red and orange. Imagine if all these crowds of people had hair that colour. Ginger hair. Ginger spice. Yes, let’s add lots of ginger to everything.” Now I don’t dislike ginger (or gingers for that matter!) but read on….

I arrived at Arashiyama already starving. The stomach didn’t care about the view; it cared about this big, fat nikuman. This is a steamed bun filled with pork, as pictured below:


I thought that this would be similar to baozi in China, which are simply delicious. I used to eat three for breakfast when I was teaching out there in February (NB: the baozi were NOT as big as the one in the picture!)

As soon as I saw the nikuman, the memories of China came flooding back and my stomach started calling for it, for its long lost love. And at 250円, I really hoped it would be delicious.

Nope, it had been Japanacised. No juicyness. Very sweet. Too much ginger. I couldn’t even finish it.

Needless to say, after that experience I hoped for a very good lunch. The streets were seething with people and the restaurants were seething with tourist prices. Just off the main drag, we managed to find a bakery-café, which did a pasta lunch deal that included coffee and dessert for 950円-not bad. Shame about the 30mins+ spent waiting to get into it.

The place: Doppo
The food: Pasta lunch deal

Below is a picture of the starters. A fresh salad, tartly dressed. Something squidgy and fishy that I didn’t fancy. Bread and sweet potato bread, which both tasted the same – bland. A soup that was really quite delicious but I can’t remember what is was. Do you know why? The memories of this part of the meal have been trampled on and murdered by what I was served next.

Starters, incl. purple sweet potato bread

How could pasta – spaghetti even – cause this much havoc? You may well ask…

I ordered a bacon and pumpkin spaghetti dish. Should have been delicious – bacon goes very well with sweet vegetables (my mother makes a delicious bacon, butternut squash and feta linguine).  But when I was served it, the sauce itself looked puzzling.


Yes, the sauce equated to not much more than a gelatinous coating. But that was a minor offence compared to the EXTREMELY LARGE PIECES OF GINGER THAT WENT WITH NOTHING IN THE DISH!! Would you put bacon and ginger together? Not particularly! Pumpkin and ginger maybe? No!

Just when I got a tasty chunk of bacon or pumpkin, a nasty piece of ginger came along and jarred through the mouthful. It was edible but it messed with my taste-buds terribly! The dessert didn’t help.

Oh yes, it looks like a harmless piece of vanilla pudding, doesn’t it? Wrong!! It’s covered in a nastily strong citrus sauce that obliterates the vanilla and doesn’t go at all!

Overall 2/5 – The value was great. But do you want to subject your tongue to that?!


I did eat something that wasn’t gingered up that day. The entrance fee to Okochi Sanso included tea and a Japanese sweet. And if there’s one thing the Japanese love more than ginger, than it’s macha (Japanese green tea). Potent and bitter, it’s not my cup of tea (*cringe*) but for warming me up under the bright red leaves, it was perfect.

Macha sweet/biscuit


YO! Sushi* may have invaded the high streets of the UK but it’s no match for these gigantic roadside sushi stops that are peppered across Japan. A warehouse-sized room, at least 50m of conveyor belt and only 100円 a plate – it was no surprise this place was packed.

*YO! Sushi puzzles me. The food goes round and round looking far from appetising as bored-looking workers stand in the centre of the conveyor belt, clumsily shoving more sushi together. However, the name of it puzzles me more. It appears as if they decided that “Yo” sounded vaguely Japanese but by adding an exclamation mark, they could turn it black-rapper-gangster-style – an amazing two-in-one combination.

“You link EVERYTHING to food!” / My love for Nando’s just grows and grows

Me: Did you hear that that Assad guy – Syria’s President – gave an interview to a US TV channel and said he didn’t feel guilty cos he hadn’t killed anyone? He said he hadn’t ordered any violence and he didn’t own the country or control the military. That means he’s either a) a liar or b) a puppet. They’re saying it’s going to end up like Egypt.

Calle: Yeah, it’ll be like Cuba all over again. And Gaddafi – wasn’t he originally a freedom fighter?

Me: Oh that Nando’s advert 🙂

Calle: You link everything to food!!

The retracted Nando’s advert – Last Dictator Standing:

Light-up leaves

Kiyomizudera, moments before the alien invasion began

One thing that I particularly admire about the Japanese is their ostentatious appreciation of beauty. People in the UK might glance at autumn foliage and say “Ooh ain’t it lovely!” and then whizz right past in their cars. You rarely get the whole hoards of people, slamming on the brakes and whipping out their cameras.

I’m being a little unfair. Japan is full of, surprise surprise, Japanese maples, which turn a vibrant red colour and make for simply stunning scenery. The UK doesn’t boast quite such a collection of colours.

But there’s another reason. The Japanese are obsessed with not just the casual observation of beauty, but with its creation. Rather than the often-used yet awkward juxtaposition of man-made = ugly, natural = beautiful,  the Japanese seek to improve upon nature, taming it into perfection. Temples gardens are wonderful examples of  an attempt to control not only the nature contained within them, but people’s own viewing experiences. Everything is laid out so as to create the most satisfying view.

Actually, when I say “everything”, I might be overstating things, but I’ve been paranoid ever since I read about Japanese garden planners’ clever designs. Breaks in the path or awkward stepping stones force the walker to look down and watch his or her footing, thus not observing their surroundings. This can be used to either distract the viewer from a less aesthetic part of the garden or to reward them or make a strong impression with a particularly spectacular view when they look up again. Now every time I walk round a garden, I deliberately look around everywhere in some kind of desperate attempt to objectify my experience.

Creating satisfying views is unashamedly and boldly the aim of the momiji (autumn foliage) night-time light-ups which take place at various shrines and temples across the city.

On a VERY cold Friday evening, I found myself being led up a poorly lit street by my endlessly enthusiastic friend Mimi to see the lights at Shoren-in. We waited in trepidation at the mysteriously lit entrance:

The mysterious entrance

The queue grew longer and the crew of the TV van next to us grew twitchier and twitchier. Until doors opened and we rushed forwards…

For those who have never been to Japanese temple garden walk, let me explain. First of all, you approach a wooden building and take off your shoes. Carrying them, you shuffle inside the building which takes you on a veranda walk with views of the garden. You then put on your shoes for when you actually venture into the garden itself. The garden is, of course, laid out in a way that makes it wonderful to view just from the temple building itself.

On our trip, we were greeted not only with an outdoor light up but some tie-dye bruvvas glowing inside the temple.

Tie-Dye Gang$ta

However, the garden really did steal the show. If only my photos could capture it. The whole experience was strangely intimate despite the crowds of people. The only thing that really intruded were the continuous camera flashes, which could have made a light show of their own.

Bamboo grove

Kiyomuzudera was an entirely different experience. It’s a famous tourist hotspot with in Kyoto and rather than being intimately tucked away, it sits boldly on a hillside overlooking the southern part of Kyoto. On the steep ascent up to the temple, the main building becomes visible, lit up in glorious orange with a beam passing straight through the upward protruding part of the roof. It’ss meant to make a statement.

Cameras flashing and sprawling landscapes, this is a place where I had to get your elbows out and squeeze into the gaps to find the view. Nevertheless, the colours are enthralling. And a night-time city scape always has a mesmerising quality.

Pizza Ball House and Other Osakan Eateries

According to my Lonely Planet, Osaka is renowned for good eateries. And whilst that statement might be true, after interrailing round Eastern Europe in the summer, I don’t trust anywhere Lonely Planet recommends.

So we wandered the streets at leisure, stopping to laugh at all the ridiculous places we found. Here they are, in ascending order of amusement:

1. Snack Donkey

Snack Donkey has squeezed itself down a dank-looking alley, to serve you God knows what.

Snack Donkey or Snack Donkey

2. Eat Man

Really? Eat a man? Cannibalism? Or is this a case of punctuation – Eat, Man!

24hr cannibalism

3. Pizza Ball House

This serves takoyaki (fried octopus balls). Maybe it serves pizza as well. But it definitely does not serve pizza balls. The octopus looks just as confused as we were.

Octopus: "Huh? They wanna eat me?"

4. Far D

Mmm, which would you choose?

Take a look at this food. Yes that is an omelette stuffed with rice, served with a hamburger and a pile of spaghetti. Yes, the Japanese have VERY different tastes when it comes to what flavours they believe fit together.

However, look at this preposterous claim:

The Natural & safe cooking from style of Canterbury

From Canterbury? Yes, I believe the Archbishop eats that dish daily.

But on to our actual lunch restaurant….

The place: Buzz Brasserie & Wine Café 
The food: faux-European 

We spied this stylish place straight after crossing the road from Umeda Hankyu station and later returned to it hungrily to snap up what we thought was a 1,500円 lunch deal. And European food! I get so sick of eating rice, rice, rice and pickles. Hooray for chips and steamed veg!

Although on the main road and at the beginning of a rather dirty “shopping” arcade, Buzz was clean and quiet inside – despite the fact it was packed with people.

They had three options: lunch deal 1 (hamburger), lunch deal 2 (spaghetti carbonara) and lunch deal 3 (mustard chicken). I eyed the room eager to spot what everyone else was eating. I could only see hamburgers but didn’t really fancy it as it came covered in thick tomato-based sauce. Nor did I fancy the pasta because Japanese pasta is notoriously bizarre (I ignored my own reservations just the other day and regretted it – post coming soon). So I ordered the chicken. Mistake. If no-one else in the room was eating it, then there’s probably a reason.

It wasn’t terrible. But the mustard sauce was hardly complex in the flavours employed, and the meat itself was rubbery.

Mustard chicken

Calle took the pasta, which was “all right, especially for Japanese pasta”, and given that they’d adapted it to make it veggie.

Spaghetti with veg and salad and chips!

However, it really was amazing to have steamed vegetables!! And chips!

Plus the appetisers were delicious, and steeped in olive oil and basil and oregano, which are rare finds in Japanese food.

The dessert was also good – not the tastiest brownie in the world, and definitely not home-made, but the fresh fruit provided a delicious contrast.

Gratuitous shot of the super-fancy coffee cup:

Overall 3.5/5

Visit for relatively well-priced and above average “Western” food.

Food quality 3/5 – Pretty good for the price. Given the quality of ingredients and effort that had done into the appetisers, the rubbery chicken was the biggest disappointment. My ice coffee was also undrinkable – no idea what they did to it.

Value for money 3/5 –  let down by not including the dessert in the price. They slapped a cheeky 300円 extra on for it!

Atmosphere 4/5 – Busy yet quiet. Pleasant, stylish interior. Just enough space between tables so as not to feel uncomfortable.

Service 5/5 – Very helpful and obliging. Water glasses were continuously refilled. The till lady then directed us to the nearest cash machine.

How to find it

See this map on their website:

Turns out they also have a restaurant in Tokyo too:

The Hepatitis Whale / Never take directions from a drunk man

Last week, was a national holiday in Japan. Why? Who knows? Who cares?! It means no work, no school and LOTS of fun.

Actually, what it really meant was traipsing to Osaka to buy a second-hand printer we’d found on the Internet.

All kind of weirdos hang around Osaka at night

The morning stated badly – as in the old-married-couple-row kind of badly. Darling Calle had been asked to buy eggs the evening before. When it was subsequently revealed that there were no eggs, his first excuse was “How was I supposed to know that we were totally out of eggs?”, which changed to the more preposterous, “I couldn’t afford to buy the eggs!” What was wrong with walking to the ATM which is on the way to the supermarket and withdrawing money, I shall never know.

The result – I had an insubstantial breakfast and was incredibly grumpy. This mood was accentuated by the fact that I had to then pay for Calle to accompany me on the trip as JP Bank ATMs are located inside post offices, which, unsurprisingly, are closed on national holidays. To make matters worse, when changing stations we were directed the wrong way by two locals independently (NB: they weren’t even drunk!)  and ended up walking BACK the way we’d travelled on the subway, making it even further to reach the right station. As it turned out, it wasn’t going to be a successful day for directions.

SO…we arrived in Osaka later than intended. With only time to sit in café before we had to go on our printer mission.

Printer collected, deposited in locker, plans for Osaka castle postponed by rain, we found ourselves wandering along a shopping arcade, mainly full of low-end eateries and gaming zones. But AH! was it good to be strolling in Big City air. How I miss that living in Kyoto. We entered a game zone where my money-hunting mode overrode by conscious senses and I located myself a 1,000円 (~£8.70)  note – nice! It, therefore, felt like a legitimate activity to try and win some kind of paraphanalia relating to possibly the strangest popstar ever to exist…..because she doesn’t actually exist. Yes! Japan is home to a CGI superstar.

How can a cartoon be this hot?

We then went to check out a large manga store. And I swear I’m not exaggerating when I say that about 50% of that store was dedicated to porn.  Don’t just think of the porn for the guys. There was plenty of S&M yaoi (boy love) for the ladies. Oh, but here I do exaggerate a little bit: I did find a really heart-warming incestuous story about two brothers as well. Standard.

So after perusing the store, and Calle bemoaning the lack of decent sci-fi in stock, we had to hunt out a restaurant before I gave in to my brewing cannibalistic tendencies. You can read about our lunch, all the weirdly-named eateries and gross food by clicking here.

Refuelled on Western food, or at least, a Japanese attempt at Western food, it was time to hit the shops. But which direction to go in? Where was the best shopping district? We could see a couple of giant department stores but we wanted to find smaller shopping districts. Sadly, that was not to be. Whilst stopped outside a conveni, a man sidled up to me, giving me a smile and a nod. Are you lost? he asked. It was pretty clear that whether we were lost or not, he was going to “help” us. He wore a leather jacket and was swigging cheap beer from a can. He was definitely inebriated. “Shops? I know shops! Big shopping centre! Follow me!” Our protests that we’d already seen the shopping centre were in vain. We were escorted there….so we decided we might as well enter the 9 storey monstrosity.

The name of the mall itself was intriguing: HEP FIVE. Now I’d only heard of Hep A and B. But conveniently, Wikipedia, informs me that there are actually 5 hepatitis virus forms. Could it be that you can find them in this mall, all under one roof?! Don’t forget about the Hepatitis Whale to keep you company as you shop. I like to think of him as benignly spreading STDs with the help of his cousins, the Sperm Whales.

The Hepatitis Whale

We perused the fashion shops, all aimed at the young market and yet with prices way above high street shops in the UK. Why? Probably because they have to fund projects like this to invite people in:

Now that's what I call a Bunny Girl!

However, this mall has subsequently become a very important place for me. For a very personal reason. I decided to get married. I can remember the very place. It was on the fourth floor. We’d just come up the escalator from the third floor. And then I realised: I HAD TO WEAR THOSE WEDDING DRESSES OVER THERE, LOOK LOOK LOOOOOOK!

Check these babies out:

Actually, the ones in the store were even more ostentatious, and possibly nauseating to many. But I love them! I want giant flowers and bows all over my wedding dress. I can see it now… I just need to convince Calle to marry me and pay for the dress… and for the divorce should he fail to buy eggs again.

We continued on our upwards journey until we got to floor 7, where for only 500円, we got to ride a really slow ferris wheel, 106m up in the air. Calle was completely comfortable with the height.

Calle: "Stop jumping, Phoebe. Please. Please!

The views it afforded were amazing! Can’t wait to go again on a sunny day!

Our day concluded by attending a Thanksgiving party, hosted by my employer, Tom Brown, of Tom’s Burger Bar and Brown’s English. He cooked a meal for a small army. Check it out:

Turkey feast