Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/5 - Day 20 - Ueno Park, Vintage Shopping and Curry

Breakfast today was again on the 30th floor dining room at the Grand Pacific Le Daiba hotel. This time we had a table that directly overlooked the harbour. With our remaining day in Tokyo we did a few less obvious things in the city...
We headed out to Ueno, another large neighborhood in Tokyo. Our original goal was Ueno Park, but we became sidetracked in doing some off-Ginza shopping in some of the side streets in the Ueno area. It was a little cooler and Sean hadn't brought a sweater, so he picked up a hoodie with some lovely bad English translations on it. I believe it says "Attention No Section GH University" Which I'm pretty sure is not a real place. (The closest thing I could get in a Google search was the University of Ghana.) Feeling slightly reenergized by shopping, we ventured off to Ueno Park.
Ueno Park is a large public park in the Ueno neighborhood, and home to several museums including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Gallery of Western Art and the Tokyo Science and Nature Museum. By now the leaves in Tokyo were starting to change a bit more, but they hadn't taken on the fiery oranges and reds that we had hoped for coming to Japan in the fall. It was still a very scenic place and worth a walkthrough.
Life-sized sculpture of a Blue Whale in front of the Tokyo
Museum of Science and Nature
We chose the Science and Nature museum as our musée du jour but as this is day 19 of our trip, we were pretty well exhausted going into it (the extra shopping energy had started to fade.) The rooms were warm, and there were a lot of examples of the geological and fossil history of Japan. I'm sure it would have been fascinating if A: anything had been in English, and B: we were touring it at any other time in the trip but the last day of the last leg. Still, one of the up-moments was a 360 degree movie theatre that presented two short films (both in Japanese of course), one of which was about the creation of the universe, big bang and all, and the other was about the rise of the evolution of man. They were both bombastic and spectacular, though the computer graphics were a tiny bit dated. We struggled through about half of the rest of the museum before retreating to the cafe for a coffee - a vain attempt to recapture some energy that failed. Sitting in the cafe, we decided that our best course of action was to continue to do the one thing that had energized us
A friend of ours spent some time in Tokyo last year and had recommended a shopping area known for vintage clothing, so we decided to hit up Shimo-kitazawa (charmingly ‘Lower North Swamp’). The vintage stores come at you right outside the subway stop, so we pretty much plunged immediately into shopping. Sadly, after a few hours of wandering in and out of little boutiques, neither of us came up with any treasure, but it was still a fun experience.
Tonkatsu curry with vegetables at CoCo Ichi
The last thing we had in mind for the day was eating some authentic diner curry. Diner curry is a staple of the Japanese businessman – much milder of spice, though often equal in spiciness, to Indian or southeast Asian curry. We decided on a chain, because it actually had pretty rave reviews in Trip Advisor, and went to CoCo Ichi, just outside of Shibuya station. I had a vegetable and tonkatsu curry at spice level 3, Sean had a vegetable and chicken katsu at spice level 2. The scale goes up to 10, but they won’t even serve you spice level 6 or higher until you’ve proven you can eat 5. While it was a little disconcerting seeing them cut open curry bags and tonkatsu bags and dumping things into pots and deep fryers, the end result was actually pretty darn good. Either the standard for fast food is higher in Japan (which is doubtful considering Burger recently released an All Black Hamburger there), or I don’t know good curry from shine-ola, or CoCo-Ichi makes legitimately good curry in their little plastic bags. Who knows?
Tomorrow is our last day, and it’s dedicated more or less entirely to travel. In fact, it’s really two days of travel, because we gain a day back when we cross the International Date Line. All in all our travel time door to door back home is going to be something along the lines of 20 hours. Needless to say I’ll be waiting until Friday to write my summary post.
Until then, goodnight good readers.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/4 - Day 19 - Old Wood and New Land

Anyway, our hotel is very nice, and we have a great view of Tokyo Harbour from our 24th floor room.  There's even a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty sitting right at the edge of the water. Tonight we decided to stick around Daiba. Nothing in this town is at ground level except parking. Everything is accessible via 2nd or 3rd floor walkway, and its all modern malls and restaurants. There are very few mom and pop places around here. There's even a small replica State of Liberty sitting by the bay. For dinner we went to a branch of the famous Gonpachi restaurant, known for being the inspiration for the restaurant fight scene from Kill Bill. To be honest, while the food was good, the whole place felt like a sort of facade of a real Japanese restaurant - everything seemed faked - like the Rio Bravo of Japanese cuisine. The food wasn't *bad*, but it wasn't spectacular, aside from a lovely expensive chunk of wagyu beef we enjoyed (certainly not the highest grade of wagyu, but great nonetheless.)

Horyuji Kondo with 5-Story Pagoda in the background
We needed to be back in Tokyo at some point today, but didn't really want to spend two entire days exploring there again, so we opted to take a side trip to the little town of Ikaruga, halfway between Nara and Osaka, to visit Horyuji Temple, the world's oldest surviving wooden structure.
Horyuji was created by a rich old dying emperor, as a way to heal himself. He died shortly after it was finished, so I guess it didn't work out for him...or perhaps it did, in an existentially ironic sort of way. Anyway, the end result is impressive nonetheless, as Horyuji has survived for more than 1300 years and was fairly untouched by war and fire. There is an interesting museum there, housing hundreds of priceless cultural artifacts, and the grounds are extensive, having two unique precincts, east and west, and covering about 187,000 square meters.
The most impressive structure is probably the main hall, or Kondo, which houses several bronze statues and some original wall paintings which are in pretty good shape given their pronounced age. The Kondo also features intricately carved wooden gargoyles in the shapes of dragons and lions on the awnings and columns. Horyuji as a whole is very well maintained. It certainly looks old, but it doesn't look delapidated. It was definitely worth the hour it took to get out there.
Replica Statue of Liberty at Daiba,
 with Rainbow Bridge in background
Horyuji viewed and appreciated, we went our way back to Osaka to retrieve our bags from their storage lockers at the train station, then proceeded back on the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Three hours later we arrived in the city and spent the next half hour trying to figure out how to get to our hotel in the neighborhood of Daiba, which is right on Tokyo harbour. The most efficient route to get there is on a private train line and after wandering the JR station for a while, then scouring their website, we discovered through a series of pictorial clues, that there was a completely separate station for the line, called the Yurikamome. We left the JR station and figured out our route. The Yurkiamome or Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Line is known for having a big loop midway through it. We can only guess that this seemingly inefficient design is due to the need to align the track both horizontally and vertically to a large bridge that crosses the harbour, but it seems like a waste of construction and time.
Daiba is built on reclaimed land from the harbour and is a brand new area compared to just about everywhere else in Tokyo. Until the 1990's Daiba was a series of more or less disconnected man-made islands in the harbour. But in the early part of the 90's the governor of Tokyo began an initiative to turn Daiba into a futuristic concept city called Tokyo Teleport Town. Several years and more than 1 trillion yen later, the governor's successor shit-canned the project, and Daiba remained unfinished and underpopulated. Daiba is still pretty empty compared to the rest of Tokyo, but it's slowly starting to develop, and is part of Japan's bid for the 2020 Summer Olympic games.
Tomorrow is our last day in Tokyo. We don't have any solid plans and we're both pretty exhausted at this point, but we're determined to do something with our last full day of our time in Japan. Until then, it's time for a nap.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/3 - Day 18 - Osaka On-Day

Osaka Castle - Bigger on the Outside
We ate breakfast in the apartment, having purchased eggs, ham and bread at a convenience store nearby the night before. We discovered this morning that Sean's iPhone had been damaged in a freak...bathing...condensation...accident and was no longer functioning properly. This is never good news, but particularly frustrating on a long overseas trip. He took the catastrophe fairly well, and we'll get it replaced when we get back to the states. In the meantime, I have the only working source of maps and information.
We took the subway to Osaka castle, one of the other major sights we had in mind for the Osaka leg of our trip. Osaka castle is the most *castle* looking of the castles we've seen so far. When we arrived at the castle grounds,  we discovered that today is a national holiday! Happy Culture day, Japan! Culture day is a national day of celebrating culture, the arts and academic achievement. People have the day off and are encouraged to go to cultural sites. Needless to say, we were not alone at Osaka castle. The grounds were full of locals and there was even a performance depicting the struggle between the Tokogawa and Toyotomi families over the castle starring a famous female performer, who flubbed her lines several times, but was nonetheless entertaining.
After the performance we went up into Osaka castle itself, which, to be honest was a little disappointing. The interior has been turned into a museum, which was *kind of* interesting, but I would have been much more interested in seeing the actual interior of the building, which was more or less annihilated in World War II. There was a nice view of Osaka from the top floor, and if you're in Osaka, it's more or less a given you're going to go to Osaka castle. Just prepare for the lack of interior.
Lunch today was takoyaki at the autumn festival on Osaka castle grounds. Takoyaki apparently originated in Osaka, and these last takoyaki of the trip were probably the best we've had so far.
We spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon getting to and hanging out at Osaka castle. Afterward, returning to the subway station, we ran into a culture day parade, with people on carts carrying fans, shouting orders to other people pulling said carts, while others within the carts played drums and bells. There was a line of these carts, each with varying levels of energy being put into their performances.
We headed to Shinsaibashi, a large shopping district in Osaka, where we wandered, stupefied by the enormity of the shopping area. There were so...many...stores. We walked about 1/4 of the length of the entire main street of Shinsaibashi before deciding to take a break and head back to the apartment before dinner.
Yum yum Okonomiyaki at Fukutaro
Dinner tonight was at an awesome okonomiyaki restaurant called Fukutaro. There was a line out the door, which we've experienced at every restaurant we've been to in Osaka, so I guess we picked well, with the help of Trip Advisor and our hosts. Okonomiyaki, for the uninitiated, are a type of pancake made from burdock root flour, cabbage, and usually pork. Osaka is famous for Okonomiyaki, and this restaurant, called Fukutaro, makes it exceptionally well. We had two types - the traditional version, made with pork, and a beef and onion version. Both were awesome. We also had some plum wine made from distilling plums, instead of infusing sake with plums. It wasn't nearly as sickly sweet as the plum-chu we've been having, and I actually much preferred it.
After dinner we went to Dotonburi, a nightlife area right along the Dontonburi river in Osaka. We checked out a bar called Space Station, run by an American ex-pat, that has classic video games at the bar and a bunch of video game themed drinks. We tried a "Hadouken" shot (which was cloying sweet and lit on fire) and a "Triforce" which tasted like cinnamon and was also pretty brutally sweet. To be honest, the drinks at Space Station were a little too college bar feeling to me. I wish they were a little more sophisticated with their choice of mixes. It's a neat idea for a bar, but I feel like it could be a lot more than it is.
After a few rounds of Street Fighter 2 and some Mario Kart on the Super Famicom, we walked along the river, past all the Love Hotels, night clubs and late night takoyaki joints, and wound up back at the subway station bound for home.
Tomorrow we're headed to one more temple, one of the oldest in the area, before heading back to Tokyo for a few more days.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/2 - Day 17 - Osaka Off-day

Pancake Benedicts at Pancake Days
Our first day in Osaka was a bit of a down day. It was raining, we were tired, neither of us wanted to do a whole lot. Osaka, to be honest, doesn't have a lot of particularly memorable sights, so we didn't feel too bad about spending a day doing relatively little. One of Osaka's main attractions is the aquarium, so we made that our top priority for the day. 
First off though, we had it in our heads to have pancakes for breakfast. We found a place rated on Yelp fairly highly for their pancakes, so we went off in search of Pancake Days, which was located in one of the vast multilevel department stores that Japan is crazy about. It turned out that the pancake restaurant was located on the kids floor of the department store, and we felt a little weird walking through it trying to find the restaurant. We had almost decided to give up - the weirdness was getting to us - when we found a map that guided us to the restaurant. Blessedly, there were some adults in the place without kids, so we felt a little more at ease eating there. Pancake Days was still more or less a children's restaurant. All the pancakes had smiley faces on them. I opted for a "pancake benedict" with poached eggs and hollandaise and bacon. It was pretty acceptable, and a nice change of pace from the fish and/or french pastry based breakfasts we were becoming familiar with.
Side note, all the grade-school kids in Japan have these bad-ass leather/vinyl backpacks that I've fallen in love with. I totally wanted one, and the department store we had breakfast in had them, but, and I'm not kidding here, they ran upwards of 600-800 dollars for the leather ones. I assume kids use them for many years, because the costs seem outrageous for them. Anyway, I still want one, but I'm going to need to find a much better deal than that to convince me to buy.
After breakfast, it was aquarium time.
If you squint, you can almost see a seal
The Osaka aquarium is vast, with over 11,000 tons of water and a 750 meter path winds its way up and down through the tanks. The facility specializes in aquatic life from all over the Pacific Rim and has dolphins, sea lions and even a small whale shark in an enormous tank as part of the central exhibit.
We were not the only ones who thought it was a good idea to go to the aquarium on a rainy Sunday. It felt like half of Osaka joined us, and the combination of the enclosed space, the crush of people, and the visual distortion caused by the foot thick acrylic they used in the tanks, was disorienting after about an hour in the enclosure. By the time we were done with the aquarium, we were pretty much done for the day as well. We went back to the apartment and rested before heading out to dinner later on at an extremely popular ramen joint near the apartment.
The ramen joint was called Muteppou, and it had a line out the door - a clear indication in Osaka of a good restaurant. After a half-hour wait we ordered from a ticket machine entirely in Japanese - it's my theory in these places that if you order the most expensive thing on the ticket menu, you'll usually do fine, so I got a 1300 yen ramen, which amounts to about 13 dollars. 
Deliciously Sludgy Ramen at Muteppou.
Needed some Sansho though...
It turned out that major difference between my ramen and Sean's, who got a 750 yen bowl, was more broth, and a boiled egg, which suited me fine. The waiter informed us in English that there were three decisions to make for your ramen in their shop - thickness and type of noodle, thickness of soup. He recommended going standard across the board since it was our first time in the restaurant. The ramen there is of the "sludgy" variety, which is a bit of a gross description, but it just means they thicken the broth, and it lends a creaminess to the base. It was good ramen. Very good. It was made better in both our opinions by a spicy, salty garlic condiment that they had on the table, that we eventually used in quantity.
Full of soup, tired as all hell, we retired to the apartment. The next day was going to be sunny and cooler, and had a few surprises for us...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/1 - Day 16 - Nara and Fried Things on Sticks

East and West Breakfast at the Nikko Nara
We overslept until about 8:00 today, due to a combination of walk exhaustion and highballs. It was raining in Nara, and continued to do so for the remains of the day. Breakfast this morning was of a buffet sort at the hotel - a combination of Japanese and western style. Again, buffets are usually kind of awful, but this one was well attended, which helped the quality, and they actually put on a pretty decent spread. We filled our plates with runny scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, grilled fish, rice porridge, shumai and dozens of other little things and ate two meals worth of food. Sean also had more repellant natto. I'm a little surprised we didn't get any looks from the quantities we consumed.
Nara is known for a few things. It was the capitol city on and off again, the longest stretch of which was about 70 years. According to wikipedia, during the shogunate, it was common practice to move the imperial residence every time a prominent member of the family died, for fear of  angering the dead relative's ghost by sticking around. That means there were a lot of imperial residences, though most of them were made of wood and very few have survived. Nara is most famous for Nara park, which houses a few very important Buddhist temples and a *lot* of deer.
The Nara Deer are everywhere in the park
The deer in Nara are pretty awesome. They act more like goats than deer, and they are everywhere in the park. They are completely unshy around people, probably because of how much they get fed by tourists, and they will come up to you, playfully eat out of your hand or allow you to pet them, and then equally playfully shit all over your shoes. Shitting aside, they are pretty adorable, and even though photography was difficult as it was pouring for most of the morning, seeing them wandering around the park was a pleasure.
The first temple we visited was just off the main road, and featured a famous five-story pagoda, second tallest in all of Japan next to Toji temple in Kyoto. We free English speaking tour guide came up to us and gave us a verbal tour of the elements that make up the pagoda and we learned a bit about how the temple is designed to withstand earthquakes by allow the different floors to shift around the main support beam in different directions.
After the pagoda we walked through the park and visited the largest wooden building in the world - the Daibutsuden (great Buddha hall) at the Todaiji temple complex.
The giant Buddha at Daibutsuden
The building itself is very impressive, but the most impressive piece is the enormous 50 foot tall statue of Buddha within the shrine, surrounded by more-than-life-size bronze Bodhisattva and flanked by two more huge Bodhisattva. The whole main statue is massive and weighs more than 500 tons. In 855 the head of the Buddha randomly fell off and had to be reseated, but despite a few fires and earthquakes, the temple and the statues are more or less original.
Todaiji is connected to several other shrines and temples in Nara park via a path through the forest, parts of which are lined with beautiful old lanterns. In some areas, these lanterns are covered in moss and ferns - the whole area looks like something out of a fantasy movie. Many of the lanterns are also covered in paper, and we wondered if they lit the whole thing up at night. It seems unlikely now, but one can imagine they used to do this with oil reservoirs and the path must have seemed very mystical indeed. From Todaiji we walked along the base of Wakasuka Hill where more deer were hanging out.
The Lantern lined path leading to Kasuga Taisha
The rain had stopped at this point but most of the tourists weren't quite out yet, making the walk a little more pleasant. Through the lantern strewn path we went to Kasuga Taisha, famous for its bronze lanterns and homage sites to gods that ward off evil and the spirit of the summit of the mountain. There is also a darkened corridor that is dimly lit by hundreds of bronze lanterns, made to simulate a lantern festival that used to take place there.
It was early afternoon, and there was still one specific site we wanted to see in Nara, on the other side of town. We hopped on a tourist bus, which was a slower trip but cost about half as much as the city bus. We were bound for the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was excavated in the 1970s and relatively neglected until the early 2000's when the Japanese government decided to reconstruct (based on paintings and, to be honest, a whole lot of guessing) how the main building of the palace would have appeared in its hey day. There was a festival going on at the site but we never actually figured out what it was. There was food carts however, and in the end, food carts are all that matters.
This time I decided to get a little crazy and try a Korean street food called Pa Jeun, which are scallion pancakes. This was served with a flaming hot kimchi, possibly the hottest I've ever experienced. It was a great combination with the mild, oniony pancake. We also had some pour-over coffee, because daddy needs his coffee. The hot coffee actually played surprisingly nicely with the kimchee.
The Daigokuden, the recreated central building of the
Imperial Palace at Nara
The recreation of the main building of the Imperial Palace, called the Daigokuden (Great Hall of State), was finished started in 2001 and finished in 2010. The place still looks and smells brand new, but give it two or three hundred years and people will probably start thinking its the original again, like with many of the other rebuilt structures in Japan. It has beautiful paintings on the inside and the whole thing is done in a similar fashion to other structures of the era, so they're hoping for a measure of authenticity. It was an interesting comparison to see a structure just newly reconstructed, compared to the reconstructions of the past. We left Heijo palace right when the festival decided to let out, so we were jammed into the tourist bus like circus clowns, with way too many people to be safe, and carted back to Nara station. This is the closest thing we've experienced to the "packing in" that is usually seen on the Tokyo subway, and it was pretty unpleasant. Everyone was nice enough about it, really, but when you get that many people into a single vehicle, you're bound to invade on someone else's personal space.
Around 5:30 we boarded another local line train to Osaka. We once again transitioned from city to country to city, and were left in Osaka itself, a much bigger city than Nara by far - the third largest in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama. We followed our hosts very specific instructions to our airBnB home for the next three nights. It's another nice apartment, very quiet, just outside the Dotonburi shopping/nightlife district, so it's pretty much perfect.
Fried things on sticks at Daruma
We left the apartment intent on finding a ramen shop that our hosts gushed about, but when we discovered it, we also discovered a line practically around the block to get into it. This was even with the rain coming down pretty heavily. We decided instead to find a kushikatsu place that Trip Advisor recommended, but before we got to it, we found another kushikatsu place with a crowd of locals around it, and decided this was the place we wanted. The restaurant was called Daruma (transliterated 'Dharma'), and it pretty much rocked. Kushikatsu is fried shiskabobs - its fair food. Stuff deep fried on sticks. Need I say more? Ok, I will. There was variety of meats, veggies and other things to choose from, and a perfectly reasonable English language menu to order from. We had chicken skin, chicken tenders with garlic, quail eggs (amazingly good, the yolk took on a sort of deviled egg consistency), mochi (awesome), sausage (not so awesome, more like jimmy dean red hots than actual meat-food), octopus, beef, eggplant, sweet potato, regular potato...good lord did we eat a lot of those sticks! If you go, it's worth the wait in line, really. The staff are very personable, and the whole place has a fun, if a bit loud, vibe.
Tomorrow we have little planned. It's supposed to rain all day, so we're going to try to do indoor things and have a sort of off-day so we can wind down a bit. I might combine tomorrow and the next day into one report. Anyway, off to do more things!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/31 - Day 15 - Kyoto Castles and Copies

We started the day determined to have a sit-down breakfast, since for the last several days we've been going to bakeries in the morning and grabbing something doughy and fast. On the way to our first stop of the day, Nijo Castle, we found a breakfast diner called Hello and Goodbye which happily proclaimed that they featured American style breakfasts. Well alright then, Kyoto, show me what you've got. Unfortunately, what Hello and Goodbye had was a pretty bizarre take on an American breakfast - scrambled eggs with their whites and yolks more or less entirely seperate, toast with margarine (ick),  cabbage salad (no idea where this one came from), some pieces of deli-sliced turkey-ham, and some watery diner coffee. Ok, at least they got that last part more or less correct. We also got a piece of cheese cake because why not? The owner did seem a little confused about the fact that we ordered that along with the breakfasts, but he also uses cabbage slaw in his American breakfast, so I dont hold his opinion in the highest regard.
One of the resplendent gates at Nijo-jo
After we broke fast, we headed across the street to Nijo-jo, a castle originally built by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1626. The castle keep suffered a series of disasters and was rebuilt twice since the original construction. Once in 1750, and then again in 1788. It is a large complex, parts of which were even imported from other castles during the original construction. The coolest part of Nijo-jo was the "nightingale floors" of the central building. They are built using special nails that shift in the supports when you walk across them, and they make a noise that sounds remarkably like the musical honks of a nightingale. I recorded it and I'll try to post the sound later when I have access to a program that will let me do that (I'm writing this from my iPad and there's not an elegant way to do it from here.)
Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. Not quite as jazzed up
as its older twin.
From Nijo castle we took the bus out to the Philosopher's Walk, a stone pathway running along a canal on the western edge of Hirashiyama. It was given its name because a prominent professor at the University of Kyoto in the early 20th century used to frequent it. It connects several of the shrines and temples in the region and is lined with shops and food stalls. Apparently it is gorgeous in the Spring due to all the cherry trees that line the path, though I have only seen it in early Autumn and mid-Winter and it was pretty enough even then. We walked the path up to Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion, which is a less  spectacular version of its older twin, Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion. Kinkaku-ji was created by son of the creator of Ginkaku-ji, and he *did* have plans to foil the building in silver to match the gold of its twin, but a war got in the way of his plans and then he died, and well the whole silver part of the silver pavilion just never quite got around to happening. While that bit is a little disappointing, the best thing that Ginkaku-ji is its gorgeous grounds, which are even better than its older twin's, much lusher and more beautiful in every season.
After Ginkaku-ji we were a bit templed out, but we still wanted to see the Heian-in shinto shrine, if anything for its enormous tori gate. It was starting to rain by the time we got there, but we saw the gate, the grounds, and the shrine itself which were actually a bit disappointing after all the grandeur of the last few sites we had visited. Heian is in a bit dishevel compared to some of its comrads - the paint is starting to chip a bit, the wood is starting to look a little rough. It's probably due for some maintenance. After Heian we were pretty much spent on Kyoto shrines and ready to head out to our next destination, Nara. Nara is the pre-Kyoto capital of Japan, and since Kyoto was the capitol city for over 1000 years, we are talking the *old* old capitol. Of course, it isn't the *oldest* old old capitol, and was in fact the seat of the empire for only about 70 years, and its tiny compared to every other city we are visiting, but the little guy has a lot to offer. 
We took a local JR line train from Kyoto to Nara, which took about 45 minutes, and checked into our hotel, the Nara Nikko, which is literally attached to the train station. It was late enough that all we really wanted to do was get something to eat and relax for the rest of the day, so we walked around the corner to a restaurant highly rated on Trip Advisor, a seafood restaurant called, wait for it, Uosen Suisan Sakanaya Dojo Nara Sanjo-dori... or at least that's how it is listed on Trip Advisor. There is no English signage at the restaurant.
Big Sashimi bowl at Uosen Suisan. They
give you the head and tail to prove how fresh
it is, then fry the bones up for you as crackers.
We sat down, our waitress brought us some chopsticks and then promptly disappeared. We ruminated over the all-Japanese menu for several minutes and she hadn't returned...many more minutes passed and I was beginning to think that we were receiving the unwanted tourist treatment, then the Japanese couple next to us asked us in pretty good English whether we needed help ordering, and we discovered that you had to *summon* the waiter with a big red button that was sitting on the table the entire time. It was definitely an embarrassing stupid tourist moment, but lucky for us, our discomfort and disquiet at being ignored made us some friends, as the couple chatted with us for most of our meal about cultural differences, why we were in Japan, what we did, and all that. And once we actually figured out how to order, the restaurant really did have some great food. The sashimi was super fresh, the takoyaki was much better than the stuff I had in Tokyo, and we got to try some new things including a mixed grill of chicken yakitori (including skin and gristle, which were both actually pretty good), and a dish typically made by fishermen called Sangayaki, which although tiny, was also good - sort of like a small tuna casserole without the noodles. Maybe it was the several drinks we had, but we were very chatty with our new friends, and it was a nice evening. We payed for it a bit the next morning when we were supposed to be up and touring Nara, and were instead oversleeping with hangovers. But that's for tomorrow!