Cheap Eats in Osaka

April 9 – 11, 2015

At first glance, it is not easy to figure out what’s there to do in Osaka. Not when its defining attractions are a rebuilt castle or some retro neon light displays. But arriving with no expectations can often breed surprises – after spending a few days in Osaka, I have to concede that Osaka is not without its charm. Despite the town’s modern outlook, it has a blue-collar vibe when compared to Tokyo.

More than anything else, Osaka is defined by commerce and food, and it might not even be in that order. As the famous Japanese saying “Kyo no Kidaore, Osaka no Kuidaore” (People in Kyoto ruin themselves by spending on clothes while Osaka people on food) shows, you can literally eat yourself to your financial demise in Osaka. Luckily there are plenty of cheap eating options in Japan’s second city to lighten the burden on your wallet (if not your waistline).

Note: There will be no mentions of takoyaki or okonomiyaki because I don’t care for either.

Again, ¥100 = 6.5 HKD; ¥100 = 0.84 USD

Kura Sushi くら寿司

A nation-wide conveyor belt sushi chain? I know what you are thinking. Hear me out first: It is impossible to mention cheap eats without bringing up ¥100 sushi, and Osaka-based Kura Sushi, one of Japan’s biggest cheap sushi chains, deserves to be the representative in this category.

I visited the Kura Sushi in Naniwa next to Richmond Hotel Namba Daikokucho (which I highly recommend). The only moment of human interaction is at the cashier where you will receive a number for your assigned seat, and from then on everything is automated. You get to your seat, pour yourself some tea and focus on the conveyor belt where sushi is constantly being refilled out of sight. If what’s available isn’t to your liking you can place your order on a touch screen; a few minutes later your food will whirl right in front of you through a special tube on top of the belt. Simply slide your finished plates into a chute under the belt and your sushi tally will be counted. The next time you will see the presence of a human is when you are ready to pay your check back at the cashier.

Look at the menu – the sushi, most of them two a plate, really cost only ¥100. That’s cheaper than a can of Coke. Don’t expect fancy ingredients like tuna belly or sea urchin, but the seafood is generally fresh. Cooked dishes like ramen and donburi are also available from ¥300 – ¥700.

Recommendation: 4/5
Address: Multiple locations
Opening hours: Generally 11:00 – 23:00
Website: www.kura-corpo.co.jp

Kanae Sushi かなえ寿司 

A main reason why I like to stay in Naniwa, besides being right next to Namba, is because it is home to Osaka Kizu Wholesale Market (大阪木津卸売市場). You can think of it like a very poor man’s Tsukiji Market; beginning at 4 am every morning the market is already in full operation mode where buyers from restaurants and retailers across Osaka are busy making purchases.

If you fancy having sushi for breakfast, you might consider Kanae Sushi. Opened in 1900, this unassuming shop is now manned by a father-son tag team. I walked in at 5:30 before my early morning flight and caught them by surprise – they clearly weren’t expecting a tourist at this hour.

I ordered the ¥1,500 set, with cooked prawn, squid, freshwater eel, scallop, yellowtail, mackerel and sea bream snapper. I don’t know if it was because of the early hour or I was a tourist, the quality was uneven. The sushi were laid out in a very casual manner. Worse, the rice was loose – I have never seen that before in Japan, not even at supermarket. The quality of the seafood was fine but not tellingly better than Kura Sushi’s.

With more than a century under its belt, Kanae Sushi deserves some benefit of the doubt, but there is a much better breakfast option nearby for me to endorse it.

Recommendation: 1/5
Address: 2-2-8 Shikitsuhigashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: Generally 4:30 – 13:30
Website: www.tabelog.com

Kawakami 川上商店

Not satisfied with the lazily assembled sushi at Kanae, I walked to the other side of Osaka Kizu Wholesale Market and found Kawakami, a unagi (freshwater eel) shop bustling with customers. Remarkably, this eatery has served its signature dish at the same location for over 200 years.

I ordered the ¥1,500 unadon (eel rice bowl). A middle-aged woman attentively reheat three pieces of unagi on a grill for a few minutes before the dish was served. The eel was crisp on the outside and tender inside. For the same price as the sushi set, this bowl of rice was much more gratifying.

Recommendation: 4/5
Address: 2-2-8 Shikitsuhigashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 5:00 – 13:00
Website: http://unagi-kawakami.co.jp

Ajiman 味万

If you are in need of a quick bite during your Shinsaibashi-suji shopping spree, Ajiman is not a terrible option – as long as you stick with katsudon (rice bowl with deep fried pork cutlet and egg). A katsudon set (¥950) came with miso soup and pickled vegetables. The batter was crispy while the pork remained tender.

We also ordered a bowl of soba and a plate of tenmusu (rice ball with shrimp tempura) – the noodle was soggy and the rice balls cold.

Recommendation: 2.5/5
Address: 3-6-12 Kitakyuhojimachi, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: Generally 11:00 – 19:00
Website: www.tabelog.com

Hokkyokusei (Shinsaibashi Original) 北極星 心斎橋本店

The concept of omurice (omelette with fried rice) has always intrigued me. A combination of two of my favorites, this seemingly easy to make dish is actually quite hard to master. I have yet had a decent one in Hong Kong – the egg is usually too thin and the rice too dry, so I made it a priority to visit Hokkyokusei, Osaka’s most renowned omurice shop.

Founded in 1950, Hokkyokusei is housed in one of the very few traditional Japanese style buildings remaining in Shinsaibashi, Osaka’s main shopping district. After removing our shoes at the entrance, we walked through a narrow corridor, passing a small garden, and were led to our seat at the edge of a large dining hall. Hokkyokusei’s fame evidently has transcended beyond Japan; on this night the clientele consisted visitors from all over East Asia.

We ordered the two most popular items on the menu – hashed beef omurice (¥1,050) and mentaiko omurice (¥930). Puffy and moist, the omurice looked really promising when they were brought to our table. It all went downhill when I cut mine in half – the egg was just as thin as the ones I had. The taste was forgettable; the hashed beef too salty, the mentaiko tasteless, and the rice was dry.

My quest for a good plate of omurice continues.

Recommendation: 2/5
Address: 2-7-27 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 11:30 – 21:30
Website: http://hokkyokusei.jp/sinsaibashi.html

Wakasaya (Namba) 若狭家 難波店

Thanks to persistent deflation, it is generally not hard to eat well with a tight budget in Japan. Now, I am not suggesting you should dine at ¥100 sushi or gyudon chains for every meal – this is the country with the most Michelin three-star restaurants after all – but with so many cheap and reliable options around, how much are you willing to pay for a very minor upgrade in quality?

Wakasaya presents such a case study. It specializes in chirashizushi, which is raw seafood scattered on rice. It offers most types of seafood, including popular ones like sea urchin, scallop, salmon roe, spot prawn and tuna. The quality of the ingredients are acceptable – not as fresh as Kura Sushi’s – but given its wider range Wakasaya charges about double the price. The size is also comparable. To have a filling meal it will cost more than ¥2,000.

I personally would rather pay less for a more basic alternative or trade up and have a proper sushi meal at an established shop.

Recommendation: 2.5/5
Address: 1-7-5 Dōtonbori, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 11:00 – 23:00
Website: www.tabelog.com

Jiyuuken (Namba Original) 自由軒 難波本店

Whenever I think about food in Osaka, Jiyuuken always comes to my mind. To me, this place is the prototype of eatery in Osaka; a small, time-tested eatery run by an old lady that oversees an even older staff. Walking into Jiyuuken feels like being time warped back to the sixties.

The signature dish of Jiyuuken is curry rice with minced pork and raw egg. The old lady who served us advised me to mix some tonkatsu sauce with the rice. The texture was both watery and sticky, but it was not unpleasant. I couldn’t really differentiate the ingredients as the tastes overlapped. Every spoonful was thick, hearty and comforting.

Recommendation: 4/5
Address: 3-1-34 Namba, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 11:20 – 21:20
Website: www.jiyuken.co.jp/shop/sennichimae.html

Lhasa: 2014

You can learn a lot about contemporary Lhasa simply by taking a scroll from Jokhang Monastery to Potala Palace at night.

Signs of encroachment from Han Chinese are everywhere between these two pinnacles of Tibetan culture. Head north from Jokhang is a police checkpoint to scan everyone entering and leaving Barkhor, the area surrounding the holy monastery. This historic center of Lhasa are now occupied by rows upon rows of cafés, souvenir shops, restaurants, hostels and bars that clearly cater to tourists and Han migrants. Most of these businesses are owned and operated by Han Chinese.

Lhasa is no longer the no man’s land of decades past, the place that could only attract the People’s Liberation Army, the most hardcore of Mao’s fanatics or communist party members seeking quick promotions. Since the inauguration of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006, a huge influx of Han migrants and visitors have poured into the city. According to the 2000 census, Lhasa’s population was 474,5000; it ballooned to 559,000 in a decade’s time, a growth of 18%. 

Most major Chinese cities have a street called Beijing Road, the equivalent to the Main Street in the States. Lhasa’s Beijing Rd is an exact replica of other Mainland cities’, complete with shopping arcades, outlets of major banks, China Post, China Insurance and most major Chinese corporations and government agencies. Conspicuous by its absence is any trace of a Tibetan business footprint. The only hint this is Lhasa are the rather poorly built Tibetan style buildings along the road.

A pool of water remains after the fountain show ends

Potala Palace, also located on Beijing Rd, dominates Lhasa’s skyline, even more so at night when this utmost symbol of Tibetan identity is lit up by floodlights. Before the 1959 uprising the palace was the residence of Dalai Lamas and the seat of government of Tibet, its 1,000 rooms functioned like a hybrid of the West Wing and the Vatican; today it is a hollowed out museum as dead as the Pyramids.

To the south of the palace a large area of the old town had been cleared to make room for a communist style public square, in the middle of which stands a 37-meter-high spire-like concrete of an abomination called the “Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”. In the evening an equally tall fountain erupts from the ground just in front of the monument, its water dazzle in the bone-dry highland air to communist era songs. For a plaza designed for thousands, only a few camera-yielding tourists are in the proximity of this high-handed ostentation of Chinese authority.

“Closest to heaven”

At a two-storied tea house in Barkhor, a congruent crowd from all corners of Mainland China are sharing their Tibet travel stories.

“Ah, the sky. Nowhere else is the same as here.”

“This is as close to heaven as you can be on Earth.”

“A laid-back place to escape for a couple of days.”

As the conversation lingers on, one would be forgiven in thinking the topic is about a placid mountain resort in the Alps rather than one of the world’s most geopolitically sensitive regions. Any political topic like the 2008 unrest or the periodic self-inflammation of Tibetan monks are obvious nonstarters, but even the ubiquitous presence of police checkpoints and soldiers is never mentioned. For most Mainlanders, Tibet has been marketed as China’s Bhutan, a mystical place in the Himalayas where visitors can come and enjoy its one-of-a-kind culture and landscape, then go home and brag about the experience of surviving one of Earth’s most hostile environments.

Outside of a PLA barrack. The army has a highly visible presence in Lhasa.

As the opening of St. Regis shows, the tourism demand on Tibet is growing in size and trending upscale. An infrastructure boom is taking place in this once sleepy settlement, and the general view among Han Chinese is, thanks to this committed inflow of capital and labor, the standard of living is fast improving.

“When I was deployed here 40 years ago, you can hardly find a flushing toilet. Look around Lhasa now, you can find all kinds of modern amenities imaginable.” proclaims Mr. Chen, a trading firm owner from Chengdu who once served as a member of the PLC. “A rising tide lifts all boats. Without Chinese investment Tibet is just as improvised as Nepal. Tibetans should be thankful they are citizens of the great nation of China.”

“We can never leave”

Certainly economic opportunities unimaginable to previous generations abound in today’s Lhasa, and Tibetans do enjoy certain privileges such as exemption from the one-child policy, but are Tibetans truly equal citizens of China?

Pan, a second generation Lhasa native whose Han parents migrated from Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution, works for a travel agency that mainly caters to Japanese clients. His effort for passport renewal has been repeated declined since last year. The reason? There has been an exodus of Tibetans to Nepal and India and the authority wants to curb on this trend. If a Lhasa-based Han Chinese with genuine business interest is forbidden to leave the country, what kind of restrictions are placed upon Tibetans?

“We can never leave Tibet Autonomous Region.” Luoni, Pan’s coworker who works as a long distance driver, says matter-of-factly. “Our movement is traced closely by the authority. There are checkpoints along all major thoroughfares across the region which demand us to register with the authority. We are legally restricted by when, where and how long we can travel.”

Main staples such as meat have skyrocketed in price since the completion of the railway

Despite Luoni’s complaint about the higher cost of food and housing since the completion of the railway, he also admits being benefited by the influx of Chinese traffic. He now earns a higher salary than in the past when he was a construction worker, which afforded him a new home on the town’s outskirt, built by a competitively priced Sichuan firm.

This relative affluence does come with a cost to personal freedom. In the dining room hangs a poster that reads “Enthusiastically celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Tibet”.

“Inspectors come to check on every residence to make sure this poster is hanged and no improper material is displayed.”

An Unsolvable Dilemma

Wang Lixiong, one of the leading Chinese scholar and writer on Tibet, named the last chapter of his highly influential book Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet “An Unsolvable Dilemma”. The book was published in 1998 yet the current situation remains as inextricable as ever.

The Chinese Communist Party relies on two principles in maintaining its legitimacy: fast, enduring economic growth and an unflinching commitment on upholding every inch of its territory. Thus the ability to assert control over Tibet is crucial for the very survival of the CCP, and the party has responded by pouring an unfathomable amount of soldiers and capital into the region. This inflow of people and money has created resentment among the locals, which requires even more resources from the party to monitor and appease the populace. How this strategy will end is very much up in the air, but one thing is certain – while most locals still revere the Dalai Lama and identify themselves as Tibetan first and foremost, today’s Tibet, and especially Lhasa, resembles very little to the place where Dalai Lama called home back in 1959. CCP’s political apparatus has trickled into every aspects of life in Tibet; it might no longer be feasible for Tibet to become an independent nation-state, both politically and economically.

Circumambulating Jokhang remains a crucial part of everyday life for Tibetan

Every day in the very early morning and late in the afternoon, pilgrims and locals alike pray devoutly while circumambulating Jokhang Monastery and Potala Palace. This ritual has lasted for hundreds of years and always remain so, because no matter what happens, Lhasa will forever remain the spiritual heart of the pious Tibetans.

Mini Udon Excursion in Takamatsu

April 7 – 9, 2015

Japanese are serious food lovers. Almost every region is synonymous with its local specialty; for ramen there are Sapporo and Fukuoka, Osaka has takoyaki and kushikatsu, and okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. But probably nobody loves their local dish quite like the marriage-like devotion people in Kagawa Prefecture have with Sanuki udon (Sanuki is the former name of Kagawa).

A quick search on Tabelog.com shows there an incredible 5,100 restaurants that sell udon in Kagawa. That’s one udon eatery per 195 people (For comparison 22,482 people share a single McDonald’s in the States). Many sell only udon and are opened for just a few hours a day or until stock runs out. One is always just around the corner – you can even find them in the middle of rice fields.

So what’s different about Sanuki udon from the ones commonly available elsewhere? Traditionally the noodle was made with a locally produced wheat flour, but nowadays most of the grain is imported from Australia. The noodle is square in shape, has flat edges, and is only cooked briefly in boiled water to retain its distinguished chewiness. The broth is made from dried sardine and is much lighter in color and salinity than outside of the prefecture. Most shops have a self-serve counter where the patrons can add scallion, ginger and tenkasu for free, or pay extra for various deep fried toppings or raw egg.

I was prepared to eat nothing but udon for three straight days – when in Takamatsu, do as the locals do, right? I love pasta, not a fan of most Chinese noodle except daoxiaomian, and of the three main types of Japanese noodles I only care for ramen and udon but not soba. My point is – I have a high tolerance for noodle. My carb-cutting wife, though, would sensibly have none of it, so I would have to pick and choose my spots flexibly. A second breakfast? Great. Afternoon tea after a filling lunch? I was up to that too. Somehow I worked in three meals in total around Takamatsu on the recommendation of a friend and Tabelog.com.

Yamada-ya うどん本陣 山田家 本店

“All the udon shops taste the same.”

“Everyone goes to Yamada-ya.”

Bestowed with these two advises from my Osaka-based friend, we began our udon journey at Yamada-ya on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. Humble and unfurnished are the traits of the typical udon joint, but Yamada-ya completely destroys this stereotype like how the Mountain smashed the Viper’s head into smithereens. The front gate of Yamada-ya looks like that of a prestigious kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto; it leads to a large Japanese garden that wouldn’t look out of place if it was teleported to a World Heritage temple like Kinkaku-ji.

Such extravagance means two things – this place is hugely profitable by selling a modest soul food, and this success probably mainly comes from tourist dollars.

Since it was late in the afternoon we didn’t have to wait to get a table. This was not a self-servicing kind of place; we were led through the automatic door to our table where two booklet awaited us. The menu had several categories – it began with two pages of seasonal specials, then followed by a wide range of udon, deep fried dishes, oden, pressed sushi and tofu. Unfazed by this onslaught of choices, we went with the basic and ordered the cold udon and a few sides.

Cold Soba

The cold soba (¥570) came with a bottle of room temperature broth and the usual toppings like chopped scallions and tenkasu. It was not as chewy as I expected. It was alright – but there are better ones in Takamatsu.

Yamada-ya is located to the east of Yashima, which makes it a convenient noodle break after visiting the mountain. Otherwise it doesn’t warrant the commute.

Recommendation: 3/5
Address: 3186 Mure, Murechō, Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture
Opening hours: 10:00 – 20:00
Seat: 260 (additional 30 at the garden if weather permits)
Website: www.yamada-ya.com

Udon Bakaichidai 手打十段 うどんバカ一代

Most highly regarded udon shops are located outside of Takamatsu, which isn’t surprising given the city’s relatively expensive rent and the low margin of profit for selling udon. Udon Bakaichidai is the highest ranked one that’s close to the city center. On foot it is a 15 min walk from Kawaramachi train station.

We arrived at 8:30 in the morning and the shop was filled with locals having breakfast. Imagine a polar opposite of Yamada-ya and you will get Udon Bakaichidai. Everything is self-service, kind of like a fast food joint that only sells udon. The ordering was quite straightforward except you could choose the quantity per bowl, from one to three servings. The local’s love for udon is really not an exaggeration – almost everyone went for the max serving. I could barely finish one.

Cold Soba with deep fried pork chop

Again my choice was cold udon (¥210 + ¥80 for commonly free toppings), and a deep fried pork chop. I always prefer cold udon because the coldness accentuates the noodle’s chewy texture. The noodle was thicker than Yamada-ya and the firmness was about the same. The pork chop was cold and tasteless. Given the price and location there was not much reason to nitpick.

Recommendation: 3.5/5
Address: 1-6-7 Tagachō, Takamatsu, Kagawa
Opening hours: 6:00 – 18:00
Seat: 42
Website: www.udonbakaichidai.co.jp

Udon Ippuku うどん 一福

Not content with what I had so far, immediately following my breakfast at Udon Bakaichidai, I made a last-ditch attempt to satisfy my need of knowing I had at least one decent bowl of Sanuki udon at its place of origin. My choice was Udon Ippuku on Takamatsu’s west side. This is one of those highly regarded shop that only opens for a few hours each day over lunch and closes whenever stock runs out.

Soba with raw egg

Already a long lineup of around 20 people had formed when we arrived at 10:30. This time I ordered the Tsukimi Udon (udon with raw egg; ¥330) for a change, along with some deep fried shrimps. One note on the shrimps first – it was oily, cold and tasteless. After suffering the same fate at both Bakaichidai and Ippuku, I recommend not ordering any deep fried food at udon shops unless it was just out of the deep fryer.

On the first bite it was immediately apparent Ippuku’s udon was in a different league to all others I encountered thus far. Even consumed hot it was much firmer than the cold udon at Yamada-ya and Bakaichidai. While there should be even better udon in Kagawa, I left Ippuku learning two things: Not everyone has to go to Yamada-ya, and more importantly, there are tangible differences between a passable bowl of udon and a good one.

Recommendation: 4.5/5
Address: 169-1 Kokubunjichō Nii, Takamatsu, Kagawa
Opening hours:
[Mon – Fri] 10:00 – 14:00
[Sat – Sun] 10:00 – 15:00 or out of stock
Seat: 40
Website: www.udon-ippuku.com

What’s to Do in Kagawa Prefecture?

April 6 – 9, 2015

Photo set on Flickr

When I was sitting under the Nagoya TV Tower ten years ago deciding how to spend my Golden Week weekend, I went unconventional and headed south to Takamatsu for a three-day udon pilgrimage. Kagawa, the prefecture that Takamatsu is the capital of, is not a very popular tourist destination. Heck, the entire Shikoku is pretty off the beaten path, and for good reason – there is just not much to do on this mostly rural island. After surviving the ordeal I wanted no part of this place again, just like how Bran felt toward the tower where he got shoved out of the window.

Fast forward to 2015. After a few days in Okayama, our next destination was a choice between Hiroshima and Kagawa. Given our priorities of crowd avoidance and sakura, Kagawa came out on top because I knew almost nobody would be there and Shiudeyama (紫雲出山) seemed like a top-notch hanami spot.

Revisiting this place ten years later – I was genuinely surprised at how little seemed to have changed. When even Kyoto, the physical manifestation of more than a thousand-year-old Japanese history, is changing constantly due to the relentless onslaught from tourism, Takamatsu’s quiet shopping arcades and empty streets feel eerily reassuring; no matter what transpires in this crazy world of ours, there are still pockets in this planet that will by and large always stay the same.

Gradually I developed a soft spot for this place and came to really appreciate the kindness of the locals. Japanese are known for their politeness, but they are also generally somewhat stoic and unapproachable. Not so in Kagawa. These people are extremely friendly – in a way you wouldn’t expect if you have never strayed away from Tokyo or Osaka. They will chat with you in spite of the language barrier. Their politeness is so inexorable it brings an element of unintended comedy to many mundane exchanges; I asked a stranger for direction and he bowed and apologized to me after leading me to my destination; the boy who bowed both before and after crossing a pedestrian crossing because I had the courtesy to stop as a driver; the elderly owner who grabbed my hands and stared into my eyes like a long lost son after I complimented his café; the cook who laughed uncontrollably when I asked to take his portrait then immediately asked me to share the result with him…

People. Udon. Sakura. There are more than enough reasons to spend a few days in Kagawa. Want some diversions? Try these few places that warrant a few hours each.

Kotohira-gū 金刀比羅宮 

 

A Shinto shrine almost as well-known for the 785 steps of stairs to reach the main hall as its status as the headquarter of all the shrines bearing the names Kompira and Kotohira, Kotohira-gū is the most significant cultural site in Kagawa. Located at Mt Zōzu next to Kotohira, a small town 30 km south of Takamatsu, this shrine is home to Ō-mono-nushi-no-mikoto, a deity of seafaring who has the power to heal and bring good fortune to its subjects. The ema hall next to the main hall is filled with large wooden plagues and photos of fishing boats and merchant ships, but apparently this deity is not confined to Earth, as there is a plague of an astronaut coming here to give thanks for his safe voyage.

Kotohira doesn’t warrant an overnight stay, but we found a good deal with Kotohira Grand Hotel Sakuranosho (桜の抄), an onsen hotel located at the foot of Mt Zōzu. Our western-style room with full board (dinner and breakfast served at the top floor dining hall) and public onsen came at ¥21,330 per person. The quality of the hot spring was passable – I couldn’t smell any mineral and my skin felt dry after my dip – but the kaiseki dinner was pretty decent.

Ritsurin Garden 栗林公園

The concept of a stroll garden is that by following a path around the garden, visitors are able to enjoy a different view every step along the way. Many of Japan’s premier gardens are of this variety, including the big three of Kenroku-en, Koraku-en and Kairaku-en. Kenroku-en especially is lauded by many as the most beautiful garden in Japan.

Kenroku-en and Koraku-en are fine (yet been to Kairaku-en), but my pick for the best garden in Japan lays much further south in Takamatsu. Ritsurin Garden simply blows the competition out of the water. Take Koraku-en for example; along the main path are meticulously trimmed pine trees, quaint tea houses, quiet streams and a mirror-like pond. Everything projects serenity and dedication – like a still-life masterpiece by, say, Willem Claeszoon Heda. The technique is out of this world, a museum-worthy piece, but the inanimate and everyday subject lacks emotional appeal or scale. Something is lacking when a 33-acre garden resemble a 103 x 123 cm painting.

Scale is not an issue for Ritsurin Garden, which takes up 185 acres of land and benefits by being located at the foot of Mt Shiun (紫雲山). Tired of taking closeup photos of pine trees? Climb atop Fuyō-ho (飛来峰) at the park’s southeast corner for a panoramic shot of the whole park. Want something that moves for a change? Look for the resident crane at the southern lake or head to the northwest for a waterfall. Prefer to wander aimlessly for a while? Go to the northeast where the towering trees block all sunlight from penetrating to the ground.

Ritsurin Garden has everything you would expect for a Japanese garden – namely the attention to detail and an antiquated sense of artistry, in addition to a scale that none of its peers could match. If it were a painting it would be Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Castle , a landscape painting that seems fairly typical until you are drawn in by Rembrandt’s genius use of light and mood that gives the castle a scale much larger than first appeared.

Shikoku Pilgrimage 

Yashima-ji

The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a 1,200 km route that traces back the steps of Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in the 8th century. Consisting 88 temples over the island’s four prefectures, the pilgrimage requires 6 weeks to complete on foot. Even by car it is an exhausting task – think about it – a daily routine of 110 km and 8 temples will still set you back 11 days.

Kagawa is home to 22 of these temples, from #67 Daikō-ji to #88 Ōkubo-ji. They scatter all over the prefecture and you are bound to come across a few no matter where you are heading. None of them is a must-see – head to Kyoto for architectural wonders – they are more like your local churches where people come to hone their spirituality. Only difference is here has a dress code of white shirt and sedge hat.

I visited #70 Motoyama-ji (本山寺) and #84 Yashima-ji (屋島寺). The former’s main hall is designated as a national treasure and the latter, located at the top of Mt Yashima, offers a panoramic view of the eastern part of Takamatsu.

Awaji Yume no Butai 淡路夢舞台

Yes, Tadao Ando’s creation to commemorate the victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake is located on Awaji Island, which is part of Hyōgo Prefecture, but everyone passes by it before crossing the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge when driving from Kagawa to Osaka.

The construction of Kansai International Airport began as a land reclamation project, and much of the earth came from the northern part of Awaji Island. To rebuild and draw visitors to this area, Ando was commissioned to build a golf course and a resort. What he had in mind was something much grander – Yume no Butai (the Dream Stage) was his vision of a harmonious coexistence between human and nature. Before he could realize his plan the Kobe earthquake struck and absolutely devastated the area. He went ahead with his initial design of a conference hall, a hotel, a chapel, an outdoor theater, a botanic garden, but added 100 flower beds on top of the fault line to remember the dead.

There is no better place to admire the work of this Pulitzer Prize winner. His trademark use of concrete and emphasis on light and shadow are all over this 28 hectares of land, but Yume no Butai is more than the technicality of his design. It is a place where an once-in-a-generation architect tries to inspire his compatriots that their country can recover and become a better place even after a hollowing disaster like the Kobe earthquake.

Sakura Viewing in Okayama Prefecture

April 5 – 6, 2015

Photo set on Flickr

Our great start in Himeji didn’t last. Rain poured nonstop over the two days we were in Okayama Prefecture, ruining our visits to two of the supposedly finest hanami sites in Japan. Doing hanami in the rain is like watching a grainy version of the Game of Thrones on live stream – technically the visuals are all there, but it is impossible to differentiate the subject from the background. Still, even though the weather didn’t cooperate, Okayama Prefecture does boast some quality hanami spots that are different than what Kyoto has to offer. (Again, click here for Part I and Part II of my Kyoto trip)

Kakuzan Park, Tsuyama 津山鶴山公園

Tsuyama is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It is a 1.5 hr drive from both Okayama and Himeji. From Osaka it is 2 h 15 m. So when my Japanese friend heard I was going to Tsuyama for sakura, he smirked and said, “You know, there are sakura everywhere in Japan. Literally.”

But Tsuyama’s Kakuzan Park is unlike anywhere else I have been. No, I am not talking about its status as one of the top 100 sakura spots voted by the Japanese Cherry Blossom Association, a list that’s an absolute crapshoot. What’s impressive about this park is its sheer number of cherry trees. When the old Tsuyama Castle was demolished in 1873 following an ordinance by the Meiji Government to abolish unnecessary castles, the city planners went all in and planted a freaking cherry forest over the ruins. How many to be exact? Try 5,000. For reference, Ninna-ji has around 200. Heian-jingu? 680. Even Daigo-ji is home to just a thousand.

This determined planting spree makes Tsuyama arguably the top hanami spot in Chūgoku (the westernmost region of Honshū that includes the prefectures of Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori and Yamaguchi). Besides its massive quantity of sakura, what’s unusual about Kakuzan Park is how the cherry trees are allowed to be planted all over the old castle walls. Typically such as with Himeji Castle, sakura is seen as a compliment to the historic site, but here it is clearly the other way around. The result is multiple layers of sakura where the blossoms can be seen when look up, straight, or down.

Ambience is a big part of the hanami experience and clearly people love this place. We bumped into giddy day trippers, local teenage cosplayers and kids performing taiko. Kakuzan Park ranks as one of my favorite hanami spots despite the gloomy weather.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: 7:30 – 22:00
Admission fee: ¥300
Parking: ¥500
Address: 135 Sange, Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture 708-0022, Japan

Daigo Zakura, Maniwa 真庭市醍醐桜

Japanese are obsessed about top threes. They practically have a top three ranking for everything, from castles and mountains to rather obscure ones like lanterns and cemeteries. You bet they have a top three ranking for thousand-year-old cherry trees, which are Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima, Gifu’s Usuzumi Zakura and Yamanashi’s Jindai Sakura. A fourth one with much less recognition called Daigo Zakura is located on top of a hill in Maniwa about an hour drive west of Tsuyama.

Do a quick google search and you will find one of the most impressive cherry trees anywhere on Earth. I didn’t get to see that version of Daigo Zakura. Even though Hanami Walker forecast the tree was about to approach full bloom (~70%) on our day of visit, in reality we were greeted by mostly green sprouts. The tree is treated almost like a deity – a tiny shrine rests next to its giant roots and a few feet away is a cemetery of a clan.

Check this local website for more up-to-date information. If the tree is not in good condition, don’t make the long drive to Maniwa; there are too many other sakura options elsewhere.

Sakura Index: n/a
Opening hours: Open 24 hrs
Admission fee: Free
Parking: ¥500
Address: Bessho, Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture 719-3157, Japan

Kōraku-en, Okayama 岡山後楽園

Just like Himeji and its castle, the only reason to visit Okayama is for Kōraku-en, one of the “Three Great Gardens of Japan”. The garden was built by the lord of Okayama Ikeda Tsunamasa in 1700 and got its name from the Confucianism concept of “grieve earlier than others, enjoy later than others”.

The 133,000 square meters garden has all the expected elements of a classical Japanese garden, with a large pond, artificial islands, numerous streams, tea houses, a few hills and, most importantly, 300 cherry trees. Unfortunately more petals were found scattered on the ground than remained on the branches after days of relentless raining. Okayama has several other famous hanami spots like Asahi River Cherry Road and Handayama Botanical Garden, but the damp weather killed all of our enthusiasm to linger.

Unless you are a big fan of Japanese garden who is determined to visit all “Three Great Gardens of Japan”, I would suggest not bothering with Okayama. Further afield in Shikoku is a less-heralded but much more photogenic garden that I will cover later.

Sakura Index: 2/5
Opening hours: 7:30 – 18:00
Admission fee: ¥400
Parking: ¥100 per hour
Address: 1-5 Kōrakuen, Kita Ward, Okayama, Okayama Prefecture 703-8257, Japan

Bikan Historical Area, Kurashiki 倉敷美観地区

Although not a hanami spot, this is arguably the most visited attraction in Okayama Prefecture. Kurashiki was an important rice distribution port in the Edo period and an industrial center during the Meiji Revolution. Kurashiki is so synonymous with the rice trade its name can be roughly translated as “town of storehouses”.

The Bikan Historical Area is renovated from the old merchant quarter and contains the main section of the former canal system. Things to see include Japan’s first Western art museum, the Ohara Museum of Art, along with many of the town’s iconic white-walled and black-tiled warehouses that are converted into museums, restaurants and shops.

This area is especially photogenic at night, when the warehouses and willow trees are lit up by floodlights and their reflections glow on the canal’s dark water. The few cherry trees add a welcome tint of pink to the composition, like a piece of dried plum in a bento.

There is not much to do in Kurashiki, but its central location at about the midway point between Osaka and Hiroshima makes it a convenient base to explore the Chūgoku region. It is also a logical resting point for drivers before crossing the Great Seto Bridge onward to Shikoku.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: Open 24 hrs
Admission fee: Free
Transport: 10-minute walk south from Kurashiki Station through a shopping arcade

Sakura Redux (2015 Edition)

April 4 – 11, 2015

Photo set on Flickr

Despite Japan’s long standing status as the most beloved destination among Hong Kongers and Taiwanese, traditionally it has not received much foreign visitors due to its high cost. As recently as 2013, tiny Hong Kong received 2.5 times more tourists (granted most were Mainlanders) than Japan. To drop a casual Game of Thrones reference, that’s a massive upset on the scale of Tyrion chopping off Jamie’s hand in a hypothetical duel between the Lannister brothers. (Note: GoT references will be a constant. I am pumped for season 5.)

All of that turned in a dramatic way since the sharp drop in the value of the Japanese yen in late 2014. Over 2015’s first quarter Japan has seen a huge increase of foreign visitor, with the key growth coming from China (80% increase vs year ago). As with everywhere else which has received a sudden spike of traffic from China, this development is greeted with mixed response in Japan. Retailers and hotels welcome the additional revenue, even if all this money comes with some welldocumented nuisances.

We too found the cheap yen (¥100 to 6.5 HKD; ¥100 to 0.84 USD) too tempting to pass up so we were back to Japan for the sakura season for the second straight year. We headed west this time to Okayama Prefecture and Kagawa Prefecture to avoid the expectedly huge crowd in Kyoto.

Himeji Castle (Taken in Jun 2008)

To properly kickstart our hanami road trip was the just-renovated Himeji Castle. The 5.5-year-long restoration removed all its accumulated grey smudge (seen firsthand in 2008) and allowed the castle to once again live up to its moniker as the “White Heron Castle”. The adjacent Koko-en Garden is home to 1,000 cherry trees, which is 2.5 times that of Nijo Castle, one of my favorite spots in Kyoto. Quantity is not everything, but with a background as photogenic as the White Heron Castle, this park beats all the places I visited in Kyoto last year.

Our trip was off to a promising start.

Roman Sites in Provence

Photo set on Flickr

At its peak, the Roman Empire stretched across 2.75 million km² over much of Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. One of the greatest empires in history, its ruins now can still be found all over Europe and the Arab world. Provence in particular has one of the highest concentration of Roman sites outside of Italy. For anyone who isn’t a buff on Roman history, should you divert your limited travel time away from Provence’s many impressive attractions, assuming you have already been to Rome and Pompeii (a.k.a. the best)?

I had been on both sides of the coin. On my first visit I saw Pont du Gard then headed west to the Luberon, deciding the rest of the Roman sites in Arles, Orange and Nîmes to be too similar to the ones I saw in Italy. “Twelve years later, now with an obsession on World heritage Sites, I spent a day on visited the three towns I bypassed on my first trip.

Arles

Arles Amphitheatre

For most cities, a 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater is a gift from history that will manage to draw tourists from across the globe for eternity. Arles merely treats this amphitheater, along with other Roman sites, as a sideshow. See, most tourists associate Arles as the temporary home of Vincent van Gogh where the artist enjoyed the most productive phase in his short and volatile career.

Compares to the many other highly-polished Provençal towns, Arles seems to be in a perpetual state of dilapidation, and any oversized expectation of an artistic haven that once managed to inspire a troubled genius will be quickly dashed. Already a backwater back in Van Gogh’s time, it was precisely Arles’ ruggedness in contrast to Paris’ glamour that attracted the artist to settle there. But like most impressionist masters, Van Gogh’s brilliance laid in his depiction of subjects of everyday life. When you follow his footsteps in Arles, what you will find are real but mundane version of a café, a courtyard, a bridge, and a flight of stairs.

At least the Arles Amphitheater is relatively well-preserved. With a capacity over 20,000, it is still in use for bullfighting and summer concerts. But its enormous stature is constrained by the tiny square it finds itself in – surrounded at all sides by residential buildings, the setting is similar to the Pantheon in Rome.

Orange

Théâtre antique d’Orange

Built in the 1st century AD, at a time when southern France was established as a colony of retired soldiers, the Théâtre antique d’Orange (Ancient Theatre of Orange) was a perfect example of the Roman policymakers’ attempt to distract its citizens from engaging in politics by providing them free entertainment.

From the outside, the theater looks like an imposing fortress, dominated by a 37-meter high wall which Louis XIV declared as “the finest wall in my kingdom“. This towering wall was not just for show; its size allowed for proper sound projection and served as a decorated background of the stage. The theater could hold 10,000 spectators and had a retractable canvas canopy to protect the audience from the elements.

Its size stood out, but what made the theater a versatile platform for various types of shows was the ingenuity of its stage design. A system of cables, winches and counterweights allowed the actors and working scenery to be hidden from the audience using a curtain, along with trapdoors that enabled the crew to suddenly appear or vanish from the stage. With clever designs like these, the thought of people spending entire days at the theater watching mimes and improvisers becomes much more comprehensible.

I didn’t regret visiting Orange, but the theater was also not a must for anyone who isn’t into collecting WHS.

Nîmes

Maison Carrée

Before we get to Nîmes’ Roman sites, let’s clear some facts about its host city first. Located in Languedoc-Roussillon and the capital of the Gard department, Nîmes is 33 km and 45 km from Arles and Avignon, respectively. After visiting little towns like Arles and Orange, Nîmes, with its 140,000 citizens, feels downright like a metropolis.

Arena of Nîmes

Nîmes also has the most impressive sites out of the three, even though the Arena of Nîmes and the Roman temple Maison Carrée are not inscribed as WHS (they are on the tentative list). Of all the Roman arenas/amphitheaters I have seen, I would rank them as Rome>Nîmes>Verona>Arles>Pompeii. Nîmes’ was by far the most intact among them and was the only one that could almost measure up to the Coliseum. Maison Carrée was also unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.

Nîmes is the only can’t-miss among the three towns, and it makes a good day trip together with Pont du Gard from Avignon.