Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Travel tips to Osaka and Kyoto

Day 8 (Sat, 30 September 2017)

It was bye bye Osaka for us, bright and early, to catch the 10.55am flight back to Singapore.

Getting to Kansai Airport from Namba station is quite straightforward. Take the Nankai Line (Limited Express Rapit takes about 38mins). I recommend booking online to enjoy a discounted price of Y1,130 (one way) vs the normal price of Y1,430. Don't worry, you don't need to specify the time of the train when you book, just the date. We caught the 7.30am train and arrived at Kansai at 8.11am.

Nothing much to talk about on this day so I'll just share a few tips and observations on travelling in Kyoto/Osaka.


Trains in Osaka and Kyoto are no different from the ones in the rest of Japan - they're fast and reliable. However, getting on the right train can be confusing, especially in larger stations like Kyoto and Namba. While getting to the correct line is usually easy, we found that their signages for the direction can be a little muddled. Sometimes, the same destination is depicted on the walls for opposing directions, which makes things somewhat confusing.

The frequency of their subway trains is high but less so when it comes to rail. To compound matters, there are often multiple types of trains for one route, eg. express, special and local, with different timings and frequencies. Here's a very useful site to check train schedules and figure out the best route to your destination.

In other words, when travelling on the trains, do give yourself ample leeway in terms of time - at least 15 minutes extra. At times, we'd gotten lost in the station, waited at the wrong platform or gone to the wrong counter to collect tickets. Since some trains run only every half an hour or so, going early also means you have a higher chance of getting a seat.


Many places in Osaka and Kyoto offer free wifi, whether at the hotels, train stations or cafes.

However, the strength of the connection varies. Even in our five-star hotel, the connection dropped intermittently. For this reason, I highly recommend Changi Wifi. At only $5 a day, you get wifi on the go for your family (it also provided incentive for my kids to stick close to me if they wanted wifi 😆). Having wifi on the go is particularly useful in areas where there are simply no road names or English names. Many a times, we couldn't find our destination using a regular map and had to resort to using google maps for walking directions. Saved us from getting lost.

Fruit and Veg

I'd noted this in my Tokyo trip 9 years ago, and it's still true of Osaka/Kyoto today. Fresh fruit is a rare commodity in Japan. For those of us who are used to eating 1 or 2 servings of fruit each day, we found it very difficult to keep this up in Osaka/Kyoto. At the supermarket, the selection of fruit is puny compared to what we're used to, and ridiculously pricey. Most fruit is sold singly, even bananas, and it's hard to find anything under Y250 (about S$3).

In the markets, we saw melons being sold at about S$8 a SLICE and these weren't even the premium gift melons famed in Japan, just ordinary ones. This photo was taken at Kuromon Ichiba Market. Peaches for up to Y2,500 (about S$30) each and grapes for Y1,500 (about S$18) per punnet.

I'm not sure why this is so. I tried searching on the Internet and some say it's because Japan has very strict standards on fruit - it has to be perfect before it can be sold, hence the high prices. Others say it's due to high import taxes on fruit. Whatever it is, it seems like fruit to the Japanese is a premium item like cake to us, not something you eat every day.

Same goes for veggies. In meals, it's rare to see a lot of fresh veg. You tend to get only pickled veg in small quantities. On our first night back home, it was wonderful to be able to eat a huge plate of stir-fried broccoli - I think we ate more fresh veg in that one meal than in our entire trip put together.

There's not much you can do about this but if you want to get your servings of fibre without spending a fortune at the supermarket, one option is to bring bags of dried fruit like raisins, prunes or apricots. 

What to Buy

Obviously this is up to individual preference, but go for Japanese goods (duh). Very popular among tourists are Japanese cosmetics, which are a lot cheaper in Japan than in Singapore. For instance, the  Liese hair colour sells at Watson's for S$19.90, whereas in Osaka, you can get it for Y650 (about S$8). Incidentally, Japanese women go ga-ga over mascara and eyeliner - these two items hog advertising space throughout the city, even on trains. And speaking from personal experience, nothing beats Japanese brands in this department.

Furthermore, most of the discount stores offer tax-free shopping. Just bring along your passport for a waiver of the 8% tax. You can find these beauty stores all over Dotonbori.

Of course, another huge shopping hit is Uniqlo. There's a large outlet at one end of Shinsaibashi. And for us foodies, surprise surprise...food! We love snacks that you can't find in Singapore. Edamame bean Pretz! Calpis sweets! Sake Kit Kat! Green tea Cream Collon! So kitschy and so fun. There's no one shop that sells everything cheaper, you'll need to compare. We went to Daikoku at Shinsaibashi which carries both food and cosmetics. The prices there are quite reasonable.

Vending Machines

Ah, the thrill of Japanese vending machines! They sell anything from beer to hot food to umbrellas. What really amazed me though was that they can be found anywhere. Driving must be thirsty business in Japan because there was a vending machine at the entrance of virtually every carpark we passed. Once, we were waiting for the traffic light to change at a traffic junction and there, on the island in the middle of nowhere, was a vending machine.  

Andre was very fascinated by drinks he'd never heard of before. Who knew Coke could be a health drink?

He tried this one that quickly became a favourite - Fanta Kiwi!

English Signs

Finally, Japan wouldn't be Japan without their idiosyncratic use of the English language. I was very tickled by many of their signages.

Delicious hormone therapy
Japanese lifts are very kind - they never put you down.
It sells clothes.
There IS such a word but it probably isn't what they mean.
Sometimes, it's really just gibberish.

And that's a wrap! Japan is one of my favourite holiday destinations - it's unusual and strange but in a comforting way, like a good friend with a quirky personality. It's a land of contradictions. The people are reserved but warm. The latest technological advancements co-exist easily with century-old traditions and customs. People can don kimonos one day and manga outfits the next.

And of course, the food is simply to die for. If you've never visited the land of the rising sun, I recommend you do so soon.

Arigato gozaimasu!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Closing our gastro journey with a burp - Kuromon Ichiba and Dotonbori

Day 7 (Fri, 29 September 2017)

Our last day in Osaka 😢 In the morning, we took a short walk to Kuromon Ichiba Market, right by Nippombashi station.

Kuromon Ichiba Market is a fresh food and seafood paradise - a souped up version of Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Everywhere you turn, vendors are selling trays and trays of seafood that they can cook or prepare for you on the spot. If you are a seafood lover like I am, then this is probably as close to food heaven as you can get.

There are many stalls where you can sit down and eat the food you ordered, but we were headed specifically for Kuromon Sanpei.

Kuromon Sanpei is one of the larger stalls, with quite a lot of seating inside. You can pick up one of their many trays of seafood on display or you can order one of their rice bowls.

We did a combination of both. We ordered three rice bowls:

Special seafood bowl (Y1,500)
Two of today's special - featuring the catch of the day (Y3,000 each)

And a few extra items. Kenneth loves these octopus stuffed with quail's eggs. Very good value here - a pack of 3 for Y300. Other stalls sell them for at least Y200 each.

There's a guy outside the shop who grills some of the seafood for you.

I saw the lobster and couldn't resist - had to order one. Y1,500.

And of course, we had to order their specialty - otoro or fatty tuna belly sushi (Y2,300 for a pack of 4).

Just look at it! The slices of tuna are massive and completely cover the rice.

As they like to say on Japan Hour, everything was oishii.

It was a hearty brunch and we were quite full, but we gave in to the temptation to try a few more items as we walked the rest of the market.

Grilled large prawn
Sardine tempura
Grilled scallops with butter and soy sauce

Since this was our last day in Osaka, we had dedicated the afternoon to shopping at Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori. Shinsaibashi is the main shopping street in Osaka. It's said that some 60,000 people pass through it on weekdays and double that on weekends. It stretches almost 600m end to end, with stores lining both sides of the pedestrian walkway. Orchard Road is an amateur wannabe compared to Shinsaibashi.

However, most of the stores along Shinsaibashi are high end ones or commercial chain stores, eg. Forever 21, Zara, etc - nothing we were interested in. So we kind of wandered around aimlessly. The only store that caught our eye was this one:

Only the Japanese can have an entire store dedicated to Calbee. You can find a gazillion types of potato chips and snacks. There's even a sit down area where you can eat the chips you've bought!

After a not-so-fruitful trip at Shinsaibashi, we returned to our favourite street - Dotonbori.

We had already walked Dotonbori several times but I'm blogging about it all at once here. Dotonbori is a quirky, uniquely Japanese food street. Everywhere you turn, you see larger-than-life 3D installations fighting for your attention. It's almost like being in cartoon land.

Dragon ramen?
Because Spiderman loves scallops too, apparently.

But it is at night that Dotonbori roars to life. There is no subtlety here - everything is bright and loud, with a carnival vibe. The ubiquitous Glico Man leads the charge with a flashing LED background. To me, the Glico Man is vitality, illusion and nostalgia all rolled into one. That seems to sum up the dreamlike quality of Dotonbori.

Both sides along a canal, hordes of people gather to eat, meet and soak in the atmosphere.

Dancing girls advertising products in shop windows

Being in Dotonbori is a heady experience. You are bombarded by bright billboards, jingles and announcements from loudspeakers, as well as the enticing smells wafting from street vendors grilling seafood and meat. It's a sensory overload...and we love it.

One of the items Andre wanted to try in Dotonbori was takoyaki (octopus balls), as that's one of Osaka's most famous street foods. The most well-known takoyaki stall in Dotonbori has to be the Osaka Takoyaki Museum, where you can actually make your own takoyaki on the second floor. You can't miss the shop - there's a huge octopus above the awning, with moving tentacles.

No, Andre didn't make his own takoyaki. He preferred to leave it to the professionals.

Sticky, gooey and delicious.

Finally, we went for our last dinner in Osaka. (Of course we had space for dinner! What do you mean?) As mentioned in my first post of this trip, I had almost all our meals planned for each day. The reason is simple - there's simply too much good food in Osaka, and only a limited number of meals. We didn't want to waste any of them eating randomly. Also as I said in the first post, we're pigs 🐖.

This dinner was the only one that was not planned. We decided to try some yakitori as we had yet to eat that during this trip. In one of the alleys close to our hotel, we had come across this Izakaya (Japanese gastro pub) that looked interesting. It doesn't have an English name and we tried to look it up on Google but to no avail. (In case you're interested, it's directly opposite Ten-Ti-Jin ramen shop). 

We checked out the menu on a signboard outside the restaurant and decided to try it.

We ordered 9 sticks of yakitori and some small plates of food. 

Potatoes with butter, potato with cheese and karaage (fried chicken)
Fried tofu
Beef short rib, pork rib, chicken skin, chicken gizzard, asparagus

It was a noteworthy experience. We were the only foreigners in the restaurant, most of the patrons were there to drink and snack (and smoke, unfortunately). It's really the Japanese equivalent of a pub. We got to try some things for the first time. Chicken skin was a hit - light and crispy. Gizzard, less so - it had a strong taste. Kenneth and Lesley-Anne loved the tofu. The karaage was beautifully crisp and addictive.

And that marked the end of our mouth-watering culinary journey in Kyoto and Osaka. Oh, unless you count the red bean fish we bought for supper. What do you mean, how did we have room for supper? We're on holiday! 😍