poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie


Adventures in Japan, part V

I’ve been caught up with the goings-on at my nerdy science conference, so I haven’t had time to blog until now. Tonight is my last night in Japan, and I sort of have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I can’t believe I’ve been gone for 3 weeks and I feel like it should be time to go home. On the other hand, I don’t really feel like it… which may be, in the history of my traveling internationally, the first time where I feel ambivalent and even hesitant about going home. Despite the language and cultural barriers, Japan is a really interesting and fun place. I feel like I have still so much to experience here.

Anyway, enough rambling! Here’s a short summary of what I’ve been up to, and a few more tips I want to pass on:

My last 24 hours pre-conference was really fun. After dinner at Ganko Sushi (again, upon EO’s recommendation), I headed back to the hostel to meet up with some folks to head down to the Kamo river. Apparently, this is THE thing to do in Kyoto. We bought some drinks and snacks at the Lawson’s convenience store by Sanjo-bridge and proceeded to sit, chat, and people watch. It was, indeed, a lot of fun and super cheap as well. There were even flame-throwers/flame-twirlers (I guess that’s what you’d call them?) putting on a show.

Fire show near Kamo-gawa (Kamo river).

Fire show near Kamo-gawa (Kamo river).

On Sunday morning, a fellow hosteller TR and I headed to the Inari Shrine, home of 4-km of torii, or Shinto gates. Since it was a holiday, there were tons of people there praying and sightseeing. We fought our way to the top, where we were rewarded with solitude. The gates were so amazing; it was definitely my favorite site in Kyoto. I took pictures at every corner, it was ridiculous! I was also glad to have company. Not only was TR a good photographer (so I could finally have some photos of me for once!), but she was also fun and we got along really well.



My happy place, except for the killer mosquitos.

My happy place, except for the killer mosquitos.

Miles and miles of these gates...

Miles and miles of these gates...

For lunch, I went to the “Ramen Road” food court on the 10th floor of the Isetan Department Store next to Kyoto Train Station, which was recommended to me by my coworker HC. Afterward, I went out a side entrance, which granted me this crazy view of Kyoto Station.

Kyoto Station: a stark contrast to the temples, shrines, and gardens of Kyoto.

Kyoto Station: a stark contrast to the temples, shrines, and gardens of Kyoto.

Nothing much to report from the days at the conference, though there will be a food entry from one of the dinners. I wanted to conclude this post with a few more tips. These are more along the lines of my personal preferences rather than must-do’s, but here they are:

– Don’t be scared of the “public baths” (aka hot tubs). They are awesome for relaxing especially while traveling. The basic protocol is as follows:

  1. Undress.
  2. Shower.
  3. Plunge in the bath/hot tub.
  4. Shower again.
  5. After toweling off, put on the yukata/robe/pj’s. It’s perfectly acceptable to walk around your hotel in them. (I know, it sounds weird but it’s true.)

– After my hike at Inari, I had an ice cold Kirin Lemon (non-alcoholic) and it was SO GOOD. It’s like Sprite but not as sweet. Highly recommended!

– My friend ZF is coming to Japan in a couple of days and he asked about the best way to get cash in Japan. I can’t believe I forgot to mention that in my last entry, so here is my experience. Regardless of whether I used the ATM or whether I cashed a traveler’s check, I lost about $7 in the transaction. Also, only a few ATMs here will take international debit cards (the post office, Citibank, and 7-11), and most are only open during business hours. Considering the daily limit on my debit card ($300), I think a traveler’s check might be a better way to go, though of course you’d have to check out what fees you’ll get charged, etc. The reason this is a big deal is because Japan is still a cash-only society, for the most part. Plus, most credit cards charge per transaction while abroad, so it makes sense to use your card as little as possible.

– I don’t know why, but Asahi is always much more expensive than other beers. I think it might be slightly better than Kirin (the only other beer I’ve had here), but not really by much.

I’ll end with this photo, which is one of the funnier things I’ve come across. I found this phrase on all of the amenities at my conference hotel:

Wait, what are you trying to say?!

Oh really?!


Adventures in Japan, part IV: Travel Tips!

As a continuation of my last post, here are some tips that I’ve picked up so far about traveling in Japan:

1. Pass on the left. This was one of the first things I learned, especially in big crowds coming off the subway and trains.

2.Vending machine usage, for everything from subway tickets to cheap restaurants/ramen shops:

  • Figure out what you want/where you want to go, and how much that costs.
  • Put your money into the machine.
  • Make your selection.
  • Get your ticket and your change (if applicable).
  • If eating at a restaurant, hand the server your ticket. Then wait, and your food will be brought to you.

3. Taking the bus (this is how it works in Kyoto, not sure how much it applies to other places):

  • Get on at the rear of the bus. Take a ticket from the machine, if there is one.
  • Front seats are mostly reserved for elderly. If you want to sit, go to the back.
  • When your stop is coming up, press the stop button (purple with a bunch of Japanese written on it).
  • As you exit, drop the change into the coin slot, along with your ticket, if applicable.
  • If you are traveling outside of the flat-fee zone, check the monitor at the front of the bus for the correct fare (the ticket will have a number on it).

4. It’s useful to carry a package of tissues with you. A lot of restaurants will supply wet naps, which aren’t so great for wiping your mouth. Also, most bathrooms have toilet paper, but I went to one today that didn’t have any. Better safe than sorry.

5. Also, there seems to be a dearth of hand soap in the public toilets, at least in Kyoto. Bring some hand sanitizer if you desire clean hands.

6. Don’t be confused by the excess of Japanese phrases that get thrown at you when you enter and leave stores and restaurants. The only ones you are expected to reply to are:

  • When entering a restaurant, you’ll be asked how many people in your party. Gesture with your fingers, which is what the Japanese do.
  • When buying something at the store (especially at convenience stores), you’ll be asked if you want a bag. Gesture no, and they’ll put a piece of tape on your item, designating that it was paid for.

7. Most useful phrases:

  • Wakarimasen (I don’t know/I don’t understand).
  • Ego ga hanase maska? (Do you speak English? Unfortunately, most people here don’t.)
  • Sumimasen (excuse me)
  • Gomenosai (Sorry)
  • Gochi so sama! (That was a feast! – said after a meal to the chef or server.)
  • And of course: Konichiwa (hello) and arigato gozaimasu (thank you).

8. Price ranges for food (in yen; current exchange rate 100 yen = US $1.10):

  • 500 for a set breakfast, which includes a drink like juice or tea.
  • 300-600 for soba or udon noodles.
  • 500-1000 for ramen, depending on how much meat and other goodies are in the bowl.
  • 500-1000 for take-out sushi.
  • 700-2000+ for restaurant sushi.
  • 2000 mid budget dinner, including a beer.
  • 400-600 glass of beer at a bar
  • 200 large can of beer at a convenience store

9. It doesn’t seem like you can go wrong with food in either Osaka or Kyoto. There are a lot of good restaurants and it’s easy to compare prices by looking at the plastic molds of food or photos of food in front of the restaurant. I also like to follow my nose or go where there are the most people. It’s usually a good sign.

10. When eating at non-vending machine restaurants, you’ll often be given your check straight away on a small clipboard. You can always order more, and they’ll add the items to your check. When you are done with your meal and ready to pay, go to the front where there’s a cashier and give him/her your clipboard.

11. For train travel, it’s always a good idea to check how much time you’ll save by getting a reserved seat on a limited express train. Sometimes you’ll pay 500 yen extra just to save 10 minutes. Not worth it.

12. Get a map with both English and Kanji (Chinese characters) if possible. Most train stations will have English names on the map, but sometimes they only have Kanji and they don’t always announce the next stop.

13. When leaving a subway station, ask or find out which exit is the best one to use.  Many subway stations are large and disorienting, so it’s easy to get lost.

14. As an extension of tip #12, try to get the English, Kanji, and phonetic versions (hiragana or katakana) of your intended landmark. For instance, my capsule hotel was only written in katakana, and many temples names are written only in Kanji. Having it written out can also help you get directions from locals.

15. Everywhere I stayed supplied soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, tea, water, and hairdryers. DIY laundry facilities were also available at the capsule hotel and my conference hotel.

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Adventures in Japan, Part III

Main temple at Ryoan-ji

A temple roof at Tenryu-ji

Written 9/19, posted 9/20

Greetings from Kyoto! I arrived yesterday around noon and dropped my bags off at my hostel, Ichi En Sou (more on that later). Then I was off to the infamous Nishiki food market for lunch and foodie worship. I’ll dedicate an entire post to Nishiki Market, so you’ll have to wait for the details. For most of my Kyoto trip so far, I’ve relied on the advice of fellow blogger EO, who is quite familiar with the city. Since it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number temples here, and because they all charge an entry fee of some sort, it was really helpful to know which ones to focus on and which ones to overlook. For my first temple, I headed over to Nanzen-ji, a huge Buddhist temple that EO recommended because it’s free (it only costs money to go up to the 2nd level). There was also a big Roman-style aqueduct and a secret temple in the woods that were neat.



Next on the list was Choin-in. Unfortunately, I got a little lost and it was closed by the time I got there. Sad face. I was pretty tired anyway at this point, from the travel and the hours of walking. I headed back to my hostel and met up with fellow hostellers to go out for dinner. Friendly owner Yashi took all of us out for okonomiyaki, a Japanese omelet specialty filled with miscellaneous items, depending on the region. Afterward, most of us continued on for a stroll through Pontocho, stopping for a beer en route.  Then, a few of us tested our voices with a short, one-hour session of karaoke. You’ll be glad to know that yes, they had Baby Got Back, and yes, I totally killed it. After traveling by myself for the first two days, it was nice to hang out with like-minded, English speaking people. The hostel is small (only 10 people can stay here at any given time) and very clean. Yashi opened the hostel about 18 months ago, and everything is new and well designed. I am staying in a 4-person girls only dorm room, which is set up in the traditional, tatami style.

A lantern on Pontocho

A lantern on Pontocho

Today, I woke up super early to head west to Arashiyama, where I looked forward to beating the crowds at the bamboo forest north of Tenryu-ji. I did manage to get there early for a Saturday, but unfortunately I didn’t get the complete solitude I wanted. It was still pretty neat though – just as my guidebook had described, it was like a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Then I walked towards the big river there (actually, 2 rivers: Hozu-gawa and Katsura-gawa), which was really scenic but also filled with Japanese tourists. In front of a kimono fabric workshop, I paid 100 yen (about $1.10) to take a photo next to a faux-geisha. Actually, the 100 yen was an entry fee to the workshop, but it was sort of understood that picture taking wasn’t free.

The bamboo forest at Tenryu-ji

The bamboo forest at Tenryu-ji


Posing with the faux geisha

Since it was still fairly early, I spontaneously decided to fight the crowds at Ryoan-ji, site of the famous Zen rock garden. Yes, the rock garden was very pretty but certainly not peaceful with a throng of tourists. Luckily, the rest of the grounds, especially the pond full of lily pads, were lovely and well worth the entry fee. At this point, both of my camera batteries ran out (both my DSLR and my point and shoot. FAIL.). I headed back to the hostel, stopping by the Takashimaya Department Store for a quick lunch. What I found in the basement was amazing. It was almost more enthralling to me than Nishiki market: beautiful bento boxes, amazing Japanese and Western pastries, sushi and sashimi… I was in foodie heaven. I settled on a small tray of nigiri sushi for the cheap price of $7.50.

The beautiful pond at Ryoan-ji

The beautiful pond at Ryoan-ji

There’s more but I’ll stop with the recounting and switch to my recommendations/observations about being a tourist in Kyoto:

  • Because there are so many tourists here, a lot of restaurants have English menus. Just ask for one!
  • The public transportation network is widespread but not well consolidated. For instance, there are 2 main subway lines, a lot of private train lines that also act as commuter lines, as well as a bus system and an electric tram. None of these use the same pass, nor do they offer transfers. (I think you can by a Kansai regional pass but they are pricey and you’d have to be traveling a lot to make it worthwhile). For my money, I’d recommend the bus system. It’s easy to use – the English map from Kyoto Station has clear instructions.  I also like riding the bus, even though it usually takes longer, because it helps me to orient myself and lets me see different areas of the city that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
  • I’m glad I chose to stay in Gion, one of the oldest quarters in Kyoto. It’s a happening place and the buildings are really unique compared to the more “modern” parts of Kyoto. Geishas are often spotted here; unfortunately, I never saw one. Sad face.
  • As I mentioned above, it doesn’t always pay to buy entry into every temple. In fact, sometimes you can see just as much for free. I suggest doing some research into each temple, and making sure there’s something special about the place before you shell out $5-$6/temple.
  • Though convenient, vending machines can be a lot pricier than 7-11, am/pm, and family marts (Japanese convenience stores). In fact, the convenience stores also stock lots of cheap bento boxes and rice balls for an economical meal/snack. I bought a (cooked) salmon rice ball for $1.50, which tied me over until I was able to get a proper lunch.
  • There are a lot of things hidden in tall buildings. Commercial buildings, such as department stores, will have a floor guide at the entrance or just right inside – take a look and you might find something you’re interesting in (i.e. food). This is how I found the Takashimaya food court.