Friday, August 8, 2014

Two Days in Osaka

We awaken, rather late, past 8AM, and, of course, we look for breakfast.  We utilize the lounge on the Granvia floor, with free coffee, cookies, etc.  I plan to use the computers and printers to get our boarding passes the next day.  I track our suitcases from Tokyo to Haneda, and find that they found their way to their intended destination at the proper time.  What a relief, given the huge hurdles I had at the Yamato Kuroneko station in Tokyo.  That had been gnawing at me for almost a week.

Now, my stomach was gnawing at me, and after some meandering about Osaka / Umeda Stations, we decide to go to one of the ubiquitous, inexpensive Japanese breakfast places.  We get some simple, but filling breakfasts to start the day.

Afterwards, we get over to the Hankyu Depato, and peruse their basement food floors.  They really have a nice one (and later in the next two days, we find nice ones at Hanshin (a bit more low end) and Daimaru (also a bit more low end than the Daimaru at Tokyo Station). The girls, I admit, are a bit underwhelmed so far with Osaka, but it really is quite crowded and there are four big department stores adjacent to the stations (the Isetan-Mitsukoshi appears to be closed due to renovation), and there really are more shopping venues than right at Tokyo Station.  I believe that if they saw Osaka Station first, that Tokyo Station would be underwhelming.

Connie really wants ramen for lunch, so I search and find that there is an Ippudo nearby.  Ippudo is real traditional Hakata (Fukuoka) style ramen, with real Tonkotsu broth, and thin chewy noodles. There are branches all over the world.  In the US, only in NYC.  This place was down to earth, unlike the place in NYC.  They give a choice of hardness of the noodles, which is nice, because with thin noodles, it is easy for the ideal al dente, chewy noodles to become quite limp. While waiting in line outside in the light rain, I ordered the hard, Connie the regular, and Sam hard.  Em didn't want ramen and went to 7 Eleven and Don Quixote. Who would order soft noodles, really?

Anyway, we're seated really quickly (amazing for a Saturday right at noon), and soon, this burly guy comes over with a bowl, and says, a mile a minute, what this bowl is.  I ask, in very simple terms, if this is the hardest, and he blurts out the exact same thing, only this time, two miles a minute. Again, I ask him to slow down his speech for my small brain, but I think he had a thing against gaijin.  So, rather than continue this banter, I just say, leave it here.  We have trouble figuring out which one is the softest; they are all pretty firm.

The thin noodles absorb the nice pork flavor and stay firm through about the 1st half of the bowl.  The broth was not as thick as I have had before, but still had a lot of flavor.  They had fresh garlic cloves on the table, but I failed to see the garlic press, and I just made a slight effort to crush with my spoon.  In essence, I ate whole fresh cloves of garlic.  The rest of the family avoided me the rest of the trip, but I enjoyed my meal. Here's the front, with some customers in line.

We spent the balance of the afternoon shopping.  The others had leg and feet fatigue from two weeks of virtual non-stop action, so we took a late afternoon break before we ended up going to Kani Doraku, a tourist trap in Dotombori, an action filled place in Namba, the other crowded area in Osaka. I say tourist trap, but it is said to have quite good crab, which is all it serves. It was raining a bit harder, and the four of us crowded under the ¥570 umbrella I purchased earlier that day.  The walk from Namba station (three stops from Umeda Station, which is basically the same station as Osaka Station, just that it is the subway portion, where Osaka Station is the JR station) was less than a couple of blocks. I immediately spy the big crab on the building, and we approach.  We are greeted immediately and shuttled to our 4th floor table.  We had no reservations, but I heard that the place was huge, and seldom was there a wait (but when we were done with our ~ 1.5 hour dinner, at about 7 PM, there was a substantial line).  This place worked just like the crab restaurant we went to in Sapporo two years ago (Kani Honke). The four of us ordered three dishes.  A large Kani Shabu dinner, a large Kani Suki dinner, and a whole Kegani (Hairy Crab).  I figured that would be enough, since we also ordered two orders of the Zousui (okayu in Japanese, jook in Chinese) to end.  We were stuffed after.

Here's our Hairy Crab with Crab butter. Boiled and chilled.  Really, very nice, but Dungeness, I think, is just as good. Firm flesh. Not as sweet as dungeness. Easy to remove from the shell, with the way it is presented.  The Crab butter is the best I've had, way better than plain dungeness. However, we're spoiled to live on the west coast of California; Dungeness takes no back seat to this crab.

Here is the Kani Shabu, with the king crab pieces and veggies.

We're asked to cook the veggies first.  There is a little piece of dried plain mochi, which is ingenious.  Em eats the whole thing.  We gotta remember this.

The Kani Suki (nabe), which is basically cooked in the same broth, making that broth really rich. We cook the crab, which basically takes about a minute or so.


After we're done with our crab, we're pretty full.  But then we had ordered two portions of the zousui.  I knew, going in, that we shouldn't order four full portions, and our waitress understood!   She placed the cooked rice into the broth, and began scooping out the foam and tended this nabe with great care.

We're getting the tsukemono (including a nice eggplant).

She puts the egg slurry into the broth, and adds green onion.

The finished product was superb!  A little nori for a garnish.

Later that night, we go to a dessert place in Lucua, a shopping center adjacent to the station.  Our favorite, shave ice.

These are huge!  We cannot finish them.  They're quite good, but I am partial to the ones in tokyo station. Something got over Em.

So, the next AM, our last day in Osaka, we head out in search of breakfast!  Here's what we end up with.  We found an "ok" France pan, not as good as Hokkaido France pan.  

White an taiyaki like dessert.

Anago sushi for the Shinkansen to Tokyo.

Spaghetti and omuraisu. Not too good according to Connie, but Sam ate it all up.

Once we get to Haneda after one transfer at Shinagawa station, we get pick up our takyubin-ed luggage, get it straightened away, mail back our pocket wifi, and we get ramen again.  This place has Tonkotsu ramen with nice noodles, not quite on a par with Ippudo. It's called Setagaya, named after the district that Haneda is located in.

They have tsukemen too, but again, this is airport food.  It beats any US airport food, I think, but...

Anyway, we go through a super short security line and we relax at the gate, and explore, and find, rats, a Rokurinsha!!!  It was beyond security!!!  No wonder we couldn't find it two weeks ago!!!  And we were full!!!  Next trip!!!  Sayonara, Japan, for 2014.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

To Okunoshima

So, we get to Onomichi after several train transfers.  We took the Kinosaki limited express from Kinosaki Onsen back to Osaka, then transferred to a Sakura Shinkansen to Fukuyama, then a local JR train to Onomichi.  We stayed one night at the Green Hill hotel, just across the street from the main Onomichi station.  There's a Shinkansen station at Shin-Onomichi station, but for some curious reason, it is very difficult to get from Shin-Onomichi to Onomichi.  No trains, no direct buses.  You could walk the mile down a steep slope. Anyway, you don't care about that.

Onomichi is famous as the setting for the hometown of the protagonists of Tokyo Monogatari, an awarded film, that, in 2012, received the best film of all time award by the British Film Institute.  I won't go into gory detail about the film; suffice it to say that it was a provocative look at post war Japan family relationships. There is an Ozu (director of Tokyo Monogatari) museum in Onomichi, but we didn't have time to get there.

The others found the place to be boring.  I didn't mention that Onomichi is the gateway to the seven bridges to Shikoku.  People stay in Onomichi to ride their bicycles across the bridges to get between two of the four big islands of Japan.

But, we weren't doing this, either. Onomichi is the home to Onomichi style ramen, a particular type of ramen that is known for its light shoyu broth, with a hint of fish, but also with a layer of fat on the top which acts as an insulator for the heat that is contained in near-100° C broth. Great for forming blisters on your palate as you eat.  But this wasn't to be, either.

We couldn't agree on food that night.  We walked to Tsutafuji where we hoped to get some really good ramen.  We stuck our heads in, and heard Irashai, but when we said we were a group of four, then we were told that they didn't have enough broth for four bowls.  It was about 7 PM.  Connie wanted to divide up, but I thought that would be unfair, so we all left, dejected.

We walked all around the main town, and saw a bunch of places, but none caught our eyes, so the kids bought salads, and stuff at the Lawson combini and the basement of the Fukuya depato (that is ubiquitous in Hiroshima prefecture), and Connie and I went out again searching for real food.  A row of lights along a street caught my eye, and we headed towards it, and we got there, and found a pizzeria with a wood burning oven.

It was called Tranquillo, and it was pretty good. Not superb, but they were friendly and hard working there. It looked quite new, and there were a bunch of customers there.

The wood burning oven is behind the guy in the white T-shirt.  You'll have to trust me on that.  We got a salad, a margherita pizza, an order of arancini, and a beer.  

I thought the arancini was pretty good, not soggy at all but Connie wasn't a fan.  The pizza was good, but needed a bit more time in the oven.  Still, the effort of the people working there was appreciated by us.

I struck up a brief conversation in my broken Japanese with the guy who was likely the owner, manager, head waiter, main dish washer, and I asked him how long this place was open.  Three weeks, he said!  Wow, this place isn't in Tabelog yet, in all likelihood, I thought (and it isn't yet).  They need a bit more work, but I'd come back in a year.

So the next AM, we arise early to get to the destination for which we stayed in Onomichi.  Ookunoshima. Or if you google it, Okunoshima.  It was two trains and a boat ride to this island.  It is known for having a bunch of wild and tame rabbits.  Tons of them.  

Here is Onomichi station where we start out the day's journey.  There is a temple at the top of the hill, which looks like a castle. Onomichi has a whole bunch of temples along the slope, which we didn't get to.

First stop at Mihara station, where we stow our excess luggage in coin lockers.

Then to Tadanoumi, where we catch the ferry to Ookunoshima.

The ferry to the island.

As soon as we disembark, we see what we came for.

We bought a bunch of lettuce and carrots, because we didn't want to spend ¥100 for pellet food.  Healthier too. The rabbits liked the food. They weren't necessarily really friendly, but they weren't especially afraid of people, either.

Ookunoshima is famous (infamous) for another thing too. Pre and peri war (II), it was where the Japanese did chemical warfare research.  They readily admit it now, and there is a museum that shows how atrocious such weapons are.  

We're all a bit underwhelmed by the whole experience.  Kind of macabre to be where they did poison research on rabbits (and no, I've read that these rabbits are not the descendants of the prior test subjects). They even have a resort hotel on the small island, but I'd never even think of staying there.

Back to Tadanoumi.

Onto the Sakura Shinkansen and we travel to Osaka. Here is a screen shot from my iphone from my nav app.  This isn't kph, but it's mph!

We're staying at the Granvia Osaka, another JR hotel, right in the Osaka station.  There is a brand new huge Osaka station (called Osaka Station City), which, even after two full days, I cannot navigate through at all; it is so huge.

We're told by Cal and Kayla that we have to get to Isaribi, a robatayaki near Umeda station (adjacent to Osaka JR station).  Lonely Planet lists it as a select restaurant. Anyway, I'm worried about finding the place, since the directions I've found on the internet are all over the place. But we stumble our way out of the station.  Google and Apple maps on the iphone work well for GPS navigation, even underground in the basement levels (I can't explain how that's possible); you just need decent internet access on the go, like I have with my pocket wifi. We are walking on the streets and there is a very small sign that says, "Isaribi."  "Yonin," I say, to which I hear the familiar, "Yonmei sama."  I ask for a counter seat and this is our view, just at opening time (5 PM).

We order a bunch of stuff, including fresh sushi.

Here is our cook tending the fire (huge fans overhead).  He has these long handled paddles (see picture below) that he uses to hand the cooked goodies to us.

Large snail cooked in its shell.



Grilled green peppers, mildly spicy.

Bacon wrapped asparagus.

Yaki tori.

Large prawns.

Yaki tori.

Chicken cartilage, better than you'd think.


More sushi.  Kampachi.

Grilled corn.

Really nice yaki-onigiri.

Our guy in action.


Really nice meal.  Back to our hotel.  We stayed on the Granvia level, the 27th floor, with its own lounge, with complimentary beverages, including alcohol in the afternoons. Some nice snacks. 

Tomorrow, exploring Osaka.