Day 4 in Japan – Osaka to Kyoto

A chartered bus transported our group the hour and a half drive from Osaka to Kyoto where we passed through the industrial section of Osaka on the outskirts of town. Just prior to arriving in Kyoto, low houses with Japanese style roofs lined the river as we moved into the countryside. photo 3photo 1

Kyoto is a city much smaller than Osaka with the charm of traditional Japan complemented by influences of the modern world. Our first two nights are spent at a Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese style hotel or inn. Our inn respects the unique and subtle beauty of Japanese culture and custom. We sleep on futons on tatami mat floors and have public baths for both men and woman in addition to deep soaking tubs in each room. We are offered Japanese Kimonos with formal silk jackets to wear for breakfast and dinner. The dinners are 16 courses of traditional Japanese food served in exquisite ceramic bowls where the artistry is as sensual as the textures of the food. Breakfast was a real treat with a cold soft boiled egg and rice, ginger and a score of other condiments.

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First dinner in Kyoto

First dinner in Kyoto

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The first temple we visited was Tenryu-ji Temple, which is a World Cultural Heritage Site. It is the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism and was established in 1339, by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of Emperor Go-Daigo. Throughout the years, it has been ravaged by fires more than eight times, most recently in 1864. However, the magnificent landscaped garden behind the main hall is one of the oldest in Japan, retaining the same form as when it was designed by Muso Soseki in the 14th century.  It was the first Special Historical Scenic Area named by the Japanese government, and in 1994 was designated by the United Nations as a World Cultural Heritage site. The garden is a MUST SEEphoto 2 photo 1photo 3

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After a traditional Japanese lunch with fish, tempura and other delicacies, we went to a high tea ceremony (which was a joke and really more of a photo op of Geisha and Maiko girls).  The tea ceremony, such as it was, was a prelude to a Geisha performance. All of the actors and musicians were females. The sets and costumes were breathtaking, colorful, and quite impressive. Otherwise, the show was a bit commercial for our taste.

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Day 3 in Osaka, Japan

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Most Americans have never heard of Momofuku Ando. I certainly had not… and perhaps one of the last products I would imagine to be synonymous with the quote “Peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat” is CupNoodles Top Ramen. In fact, I was quite curious as to why a visit to the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum was on the itinerary for our Japanese culinary tour.

The museum was swarming with people of all ages from school children on field trips to adults visiting from throughout the world. Each of us were shepherded through the lines to make our own personally chefed CupNoodles, while listening to the fascinating story of how one man, deeply affected by the poverty and starvation caused by WWII, invented the world’s first instant noodle product, and subsequently used his fortune to establish a foundation dedicated to the sound growth of young people. Who knew that CupNoodles has such a rich and textured history and global impact on feeding the world? It was indeed a morning well spent.

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Lou Preston thinking how to have organic make the same impact in Japan and throughout the world

Observations about Osaka as we leave for Kyoto:

–          There is a fanciful sense of style with young, old, men, and women in Osaka, where there seems to be no one fashion trend, rather, individuality and creativity with fashion.

–          At the Hotel Granvia Osaka, everything is minimalistic with exquisite attention to detail. The toilet seats are heated; there is a heated mirror in the bathroom to prevent the glass from fogging up; the beds are hard as can be but comfortable and rice pillows are a reminder of Japanese lifestyle.

–          Architecture throughout Osaka is in transition, with old narrow alley ways and crowded spaces that open into large boulevards with modern glass high rises, artistic sculptures scattered about, and innovative design. The city is very clean and people seem respectful and orderly. They drive and walk on the left side, as in England, and during rush hour the subway station is a sea of black moving quickly.

–          The best shopping for food is found in major department stores in the basement level. There are unbelievable choices of fresh fruits and vegetables, gourmet delicacies and packaged foods. Shelves upon shelves of soy sauce choices made us all laugh.

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Day 2 in Osaka, Japan

We began our day mastering the elaborate subway system beginning at our Granvia Hotel, which is centrally located next to the Osaka Station.

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Arriving at Osaka Castle Parkwe were greeted by an impressive rock garden (a mini version of Stonehedge). IMG_4481

We crossed the Gokurakubashi Bridge leading to the castle which was built between 1583 and 1598.

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The museum displays with human actors animated over-elaborate artwork depicting scenes from the violent history of this castle throughout the centuries. The original castle was built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi at the site of Ishiyama Hogan-ji Temple. After being reduced to ashes during the Winter Siege and Summer War of Osaka in 1614, Tokugawa Shogun mobilized 64 feudal lords in western and northern Japan and reconstructed the castle over a period of 10 years. Apparently, over 500,000 stones were used in the reconstructed walls of this castle.  IMG_4485

As you can see in these photos of John Ash and Rick Permutt, it doesn’t matter what century one lives in the lure of battle looms large. Rick Permutt

Our tour guide had brought Bento Box lunches for us to enjoy among the Stonehedge-style gardens of the park. Rick, ready to retire as a Kaiser Doc, is practicing for his new career as Japanese Sommelier, while Vintner Susan and Lou Preston pose for a photo op for their new Japanese brand.

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No rest for the weary as we continued our adventures in Nakazakoi, a neighborhood reminiscent of New York’s Chelsea. Nakazakoi offers a welcome reprieve from the bustling metropolis of Osaka with its fancy shopping, offering small boutique shops where entrepreneurs sell handmade artisan items. The shops are interspersed between quaint living spaces with tidy, abundant gardens.

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Our favorite shop, Nijiyura, sold batik fabrics representing both traditional and modern Japanese art.

We opted for the wild and crazy nightlife scene and took taxis to Dotonbori area of Osaka which resembles New York’s Time Square on a quiet night.

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Eating octopus balls on the street encouraged us to look for a more subdued place to dine along the Tombori (river walk). Much to our surprise, John and Jill found a well-named restaurant – Zen. This tiny restaurant on the river front seated about 15 people. The owner’s father-in-law who spoke perfect English lured us in, helped us to order, and after trying many of the house Sakes, upon hearing that we were from the Sonoma wine country, treated us to a bottle of quite delicious white Japanese wine.

…Just another day in the Land of the Rising Sun.

On the Road Again – to Japan!

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On the Road Again, this time in the Land of the Rising Sun, on a Japanese culinary tour organized by my chef friends Mei Ibach and John Ash. There are nine of us from Healdsburg and Santa Rosa and we arrived last night for a 13-day adventure in Osaka and Kyoto.

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Awakened in Osaka to a bright, sunny day and Wendy and I took our traditional morning walk, albeit not on the Healdsburg Ridge. We set out at 6:45 am in search of coffee and what was our surprise to discover absolutely no coffee that early and very few other people out, yet a sake shop with three eager patrons.

Never too early for sake!

Never too early for sake!

Our day as a group began at the Osaka Municipal Central Wholesale Markets, where we experienced global food in all its glory. We were surrounded by boxes upon boxes of fruit and a sea of local fresh, gorgeous fish. Auctions were taking place throughout the market where commercial buyers were setting their prices for quantities of food for their retail shops and restaurants. This market, which was established when Osaka Castle was built (and I’ll tell you when that was tomorrow, after our visit to the Castle), and provides Osaka consumers produce from various producers throughout the world, in a venue where fair prices are set and stable distribution is a given. We sampled food through the market and our first taste of sashimi melted in our mouths… IMG_4385IMG_4391IMG_4412

By 10:30 am we were more than ready for brunch, which turned out to be by far the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. I promise to take better notes about the specifics of what we eat, especially since Mei and John are experts. For our first day, let it suffice to say that eating sushi while walking it off as we strolled through a park filled with the fragrance and beauty of cherry blossoms in full regalia couldn’t have been more perfect. This park is the only place in Osaka where the trees are still in full bloom as a result of being covered each night, at the government’s expense, to extend the weeks of blossoming. IMG_4420IMG_4415IMG_4448IMG_4457