Monday, April 15, 2013

Sakura in Osaka ( Part 5 ) Exploring Kuromon Ichiba Market

Today was our last day in Osaka.. While Corito was browsing the Michelin guide for a " molecular " restaurant in Osaka, the name Fujiya 1935 came out. It is owned and operated by Chef Tetsuya Fujiwara, who opened his restaurant in 2003, after extensive training in Spain and Italy. According to the reviews on the Michelin guide, Chef Tatsuya displays his latest techniques in this restaurant. We were all hoping to experience " fine dining " at Fujiya 1935 - a 3star Michelin restaurant where Chef Tatsuya and his wife  showcases their prowess in fine dining.  I have heard a lot about Chef Tatsuya while watching the food channels like: Masterchef and the Iron Chef. We tried to call for lunch reservations but it was fully booked.  Feeling downhearted we decided to proceed with our plan B -- " visit Kuromon Ichiba market ".

We were pleasantly surprised with our experience at the Kuromon Ichiba Market. Kuromon Ichiba is 15 minutes away from the Namba district ( just one subway stop ), we got off at the Nipponbashi station and the undercovered market was right in front of us. Kuromon Ichiba Market is an enclosed 600 meter market located in the Nippombashi district of Osaka.

The Kuromon market is famous for its wide variety of food stalls where you can spend an hour or two just wandering around. 

Known as "Osaka's Kitchen", this lively retail market specializes in all things food related, like fresh seafood, produce, cookware, and is a great place to find seasonal foods and Osaka specialties, such as Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.

Some of the shops freely give out samples or sell sample dishes and skewers meant to be eaten then and there. There are small restaurants and food stands selling ready made food. A few stands allow you to eat although other stands consists of no more than a couple of stools and a bar. They usually specialize in one type of food.

Corito did all the purchasing of what we were gong to have for lunch. Luz, the accountant of the group, took tabs on her purchases. We found a couple of food stands that allowed us to sit down and have our meals.

Here are the highlight purchases we had :

OTORO  - or Toro Belly is the fattest part of the fish, the colour is pink and it literally melts in your mouth!

Japanese Kumamoto Oysters -  The meat is plump and succulent. The flavor is clean, rich and briny. The shell is small but has a deep cup that is fluted and sculptured. The best months to eat these oysters are January, February, March, April, September, October, November and December.

Uni or Sea urchin --- Some people describe it as the foie gras of the sea, saying that the texture is smooth and custard like.  I like the taste of sea urchin but I think you must have an acquired taste for this delectable dish. Our uni was very rich, creamy, briny with a slight nutty flavor. It had a slight sweetness that is similar to raw scallops.

Amaebi or sweet shrimps - is praised for its clear and sweet aftertaste unlike the regular raw shrimps. It is best to eat Amaebi with wasabi or grated ginger as the main condiment for sweet shrimp.

The only meat dish we had was the Kobe beef  - The Kobe beef steak is said to be the best among beef steaks. For all the steak lovers, you should try Kobe beef steak in order to savor the distinct taste of this type of steak!!

Kobe beef is well known for its extreme marbling of fat. In fact, the Japanese grading system for the meat focuses solely on the amount of fat in a rib eye. The more the fat, the higher the grade.

I asked them to cook my meat lightly seared on all sides, seasoned only with salt and pepper and then sliced before it was served on my plate. Marvelous! The light searing on all sides ensured a slight crisp that added to the pleasure of chewing as the crisp outer gave way to its succulent pink insides as I devour each piece. I clearly remember the hot juices oozing out when I bit into each slice! The fat tasted like premium butter. 

When you buy a Kobe beef steak, it is like treating yourself like an emperor since this meat is very  expensive – with prices for each cut going at $200 upwards.  Is it worth it?  You have to taste and savor it to know.

Bon Appetiti !!!!!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sakura in Osaka ( Part 4 ) Nara and Kyoto

Kyoto and Nara are 2 of Japan's ancient capitals both located in the Kansai region. The prettier one to most people would be Kyoto. Most of the time, Kyoto would be in the list of places in Japan as a " must see places " in a travelers list.

Today is going to be a hectic day for all of us. We are going to visit Nara and Kyoto. We all decided to do the trip on our own instead of going on a tour. Yes, it would be more adventurous for us since  none of us speak any word in Japanese further than “ arigato ” or “ sumimasen ”. Yet we somehow survived a 5-day vacation there in self-exploration itinerary. I decided to write our experience, hoping that we can help other travelers who plan to visit Japan.

Japan is a cash society. It is the primary method of payment there. Some major stores accept credit cards, but if you expect to explore Japan in more traditional ways, going to places where locals go, then cash is a better option.

After a quick breakfast at the subway station near our hotel, we headed to the train station to go to Nara. From the information brochure we got at the lobby of our hotel -- the train ride should only take around 50 minute train ride from Namba station on the Kintetsu Nara line.

As we waited patiently at the train platform, I glanced at the digital display showing the name and direction of each train that arrives. This display shows the train name in kanji letters.  So if you see a display that only shows Japanese letters, no need to panic, just wait for few seconds and it will show you the “English” version. Make sure that you don’t enter the wrong train. There are also digital displays inside the train.  So you can always check the direction before entering.

When we arrived at the Nara station. We headed to the nearest map of Nara and figured out where we wanted to go. I suggested that we go to the nearest temples. Kofukuji temple was the nearest to the subway station and it said --- it was 700meters ( it took us 20 minutes walk from the Kintetsu Nara Station ).  As we exited the subway station, we saw that it was a bit overcast and we were all concerned that it might start raining.  Neither of us had an umbrella though we had hoods on our coats.  Still we were hoping the weather gods would be with us and keep the rain away. Nara is not the place you want to be when it starts to rain because unlike Kyoto and Osaka -- you can still find plenty of things that will keep you dry.

The Kokufuji Temple is said to be the second tallest pagoda in Japan. Kofukuji Temple is a five storied pagoda that is very important for Buddhists due to its history.  It is a beautiful structure, but one that is hard to get in a photo unless you are standing far away.  We stayed in this area for about 30 minutes, then headed to the Nara park beside the temple. 

Nara Park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer so we knew we were in the right place for some deer hunting. The deer at Nara Park are symbols of the city and are considered to be natural treasures. Just be careful though because they are not as harmless and tame as they appear to be. Nearly two dozen deer and an equal number of tourists were clustered in front of a small temple. Their attention was focused on the deer  (who were about four feet tall not including antlers ).

For 150 yen, tourists  can buy packets of deer snacks, which are flat brown crackers to feed the deers and hopefully take a photo. As long as you were food-free, most of deer were fairly docile.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sakura in Osaka ( Part 3 ) Underground shopping at Namba

On my recent visit to Osaka a few weeks ago, I discovered a unique characteristic of life in this particular urban center -- Osaka has an extensive system of subterranean shopping malls that seemed to stretch for kilometers beneath major thoroughfares, branching off in every direction imaginable from subway entrances.

There are tons of underground shopping malls in Osaka and this one in Namba is particularly good with a wide selection of clothing, accessories and home decor at cheap and affordable prices.

There were lot more stuff sold for women than for men.  Walking here can take you three hours minimum without stopping. There were so many things to look at and wonder if you should ever buy them.

You can find everything in Namba! We especially loved the bakeries were we found food for breakfast every morning. Some of the store clerks speak broken English, but they were all extremely helpful and  polite.

Namba is like an American Mall complete with department stores, trendy clothing shops, souvenir shops and side aisles of great noodle shops and other restaurants. We spent hours just walking around. The entire Namba complex is like a labyrinth both above and underground.

A trip to Osaka is not complete without a few hours wandering around in Namba.  If it’s raining outside, there’s really no need to worry because you can often get from the train station to your destination without ever seeing the sky. If you are willing explore a little, amazing experiences are waiting just below the surface. There is one thing that Osaka has more of than any other city in Japan -- it’s underground. 

Sayonara !

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sakura in Osaka ( Part 2 ) Osaka Castle

I’ve heard many things of Osaka from huge shopping centers, endless restaurants -- Osaka is a great all around place where you can indulge in eating and down right spending! Since this was my first trip to Osaka, I was excited just to walk around the downtown area and see what the daylight and night time would be like.  The cherry blossoms, known in Japan as sakura, are usually only in full bloom for around one week. After the period of full bloom the small, round shaped flowers start to flutter gracefully from their trees and the blossoms are said to be the most beautiful in this final stage as the white and pink petals gently float to the ground.

After breakfast the group met at the lobby and we began to strategize our plans for today. We were going to go to the Osaka Castle. In the past, I used to plan all my trips in detail. I gave that up. I came to Japan with only one specific objective, the see the cherry blossom. This was where our navigation skills were put to test. My cousin, Corito was the designated navigator and researcher of the group. She asked for a map at the lobby and we studied which train to take and what exit to go. Luz, acted as our accountant of the group. I was the assistant navigator and photographer of the group. Jojo and Nita helped in reading the subway stops. Before we left, I said we should always allot an hour in travel time just in case we get lost on the way. 

Our first stop - The Osaka Castle

The Osaka Castle was originally built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1583 - 1615) and it underwent several reconstructions over the period of centuries and the last major restoration was completed in 1995 - 1997. The castle grounds boast 4300 cherry tress where you can enjoy the charming cherry blossoms with castle tower in the background. It is one of the most famous landmarks in Osaka.

We wandered through the park and up toward the castle, passing through a handsome gate on the way. We decided not to go to the castle anymore and spent the whole morning at the park.

It was a lovely day to visit the castle as the air was cool and although the sun was not out, the flowers of the hundreds of cherry blossoms were all out in full bloom to greet all the visitors.  

I even saw a couple having their bridal photo in the park.

What a wonderful place to stroll around, enjoy a friendly park atmosphere, and see one of Osaka's top tourist sights.If you want to see cherry blossom in full bloom, this is the place to be. The Osaka castle looked beautiful and prominent to be located in the middle of Osaka City with lush greenery and water surroundings. Osaka Castle is excellent for cherry blossom viewing. A historical site that a tourist must go and visit. Be prepared for a long walk when you plan to visit this place.

We went to have a bento lunch at a nearby restaurant near the subway station before going back to Namba district.  Here was what we had:

Sayonara !!