Wednesday, March 29, 2017

[Japan 2016] Kobe: Nankinmachi / Kobe Chinatown + Motomachi Shopping Street

Photo By: Elinchow

Rise and shine! We started our fifth day of our 7D6N Japan Trip in Osaka early this morning. Our plan for the day was to visit the cosmopolitan port city of Kobe. Kobe is the sixth largest city in Japan and is the capital city of Hyogo Prefecture, famous for its Kobe Beef and crisp pure Sake. To be honest, Kobe Beef was also the main reason why we decided to include Kobe into our travel itinerary.

Before setting off, we dropped by the Lawson store below our Airbnb apartment to grab some quick breakfast.

Tuna Onigiri

Price: 108 Yen

Tuna Sandwich

Hokkaido Yogurt Drink

Premium Boss Latte

We bought Tuna Onigiri, Tuna sandwich, Hokkaido yogurt drink and Premium Boss Latte from Lawson and went back to our apartment to eat them. I became addicted to Onigiri, or Japanese rice balls because they are just so delicious! Furthermore, they are really filling and cheap.

After a simple and quick breakfast, we headed out to Osaka-Namba Station, to take a train to Kobe city. There are three main train stations in Kobe - Sannomiya Station, Kobe Station and Shin-Kobe Station.

Surprisingly, the busiest train station in Kobe is not Kobe Station but Sannomiya Station, which is conveniently located right at the center of the city. Most of the attractions in Kobe are located near Sannomiya Station. It is a main terminal for people visiting Kobe city as it provides immediate access to Kobe's main business, shopping and entertainment areas.

Sannomiya Station is served by five different railway companies, consisting of several stations. Some stations are simply named Sannomiya and others are named Kobe-Sannomiya Stations. However, both Sannomiya and Kobe-Sannomiya Stations are located in the same location.

The most direct way to get from Osaka-Namba Station to Sannomiya station in Kobe is by the Hanshin Namba line operated by the private Hanshin Electric Railway. At Osaka Namba Station, the Hanshin Railway share the same ticket gate with the Kintetsu Railway and departs from Platform 3.

The Hanshin Electric Railway will arrive at Kobe-Sannomiya Station not Sannomiya Station. By Rapid Express train, it will take 44 minutes to get from Osaka Namba Station to Kobe-Sannomiya Station. Please note that the Hanshin Electric Railway is not covered by the JR Pass. The one way fare from Osaka Namba Station to Kobe-Sannomiya Station is 410 Yen.

Arriving at Hanshin Kobe-Sannomiya Station, we headed straight to Nankinmachi, which is Kobe's Chinatown. Nankinmachi is located 10 minutes walk away from Kobe-Sannomiya Station and 5 minutes walk away from Motomachi Station.

Sannomiya is the largest commercial and shopping district in Central Kobe. It is a popular place for shopping, dining and entertainment. Most of the attractions in Central Kobe are located within close proximity to each other, so it is possible to cover them by foot.

Sannomiya is an excellent place to shop and dine, especially for people who have limited time in the city. The streets are lined with large departmental stores, shops and restaurants. It is a great place for shop for fashion, but less for souvenirs.

Nankinmachi is one of the three largest Chinatown in Japan, along with Yokohama's Chukagai and Nagasaki's Shinchi Chukagai. Just like any other Chinatown in the world, Nankinmachi is a popular tourist attraction, famous for its shopping and dining.

Nankinmachi is made up by four main streets converging at a small central plaza. Hundred of shops, restaurants, food stalls and Mahjong clubs lined both sides of the streets, most of them with facades and architecture reflecting traditional Chinese style.

Most restaurants and food stalls in Nankinmachi serve traditional Chinese food like dim sum, dumplings and buns. Besides Chinese food, you will also find several restaurants serving Japanese and Western cuisines in Nankinmachi.

There is always a queue in front of a famous restaurant or food stall. But ironically, the most delicious food found in Nankinmachi is probably not from China. Located in the central plaza, there is a food stall selling the legendary Kobe Beef. We did not get to taste the Kobe Beef here because we were saving our stomach space for a more expensive Kobe Beef feast later. But if you are traveling on a limited budget, this is probably the cheapest way to sample this wonderful meat in Kobe.

Actually, truth be told, most of the dishes found in Nankinmachi are not authentic Chinese dishes. Most of them have often been Japanized to suit local tastes. But even so, they still taste delicious.

Nankinmachi is fairly compact and you can actually walk through the streets in an hour or two. Enjoy strolling down while you grab a bite from the many food stalls along the streets. The atmosphere is lively, with the streets packed with both Japanese and Chinese. But it was not overly crowded, probably because we visited on a weekday. So I really recommend visiting on a weekday if you can as it can be extremely crowded on weekend.

Feeling hungry, we decided to grab a quick bite from one of the food stalls along the street.

Steamed Pork Bun

Price: 300 Yen

We bought steamed pork bun or simply known as Bao from the store. The Bao was served fresh and piping hot from a steamer. It was steamed until puffy filled with aromatic pork and is best to be enjoyed warm from the steamer.

Peking Duck Wrap

Price: 500 Yen

We also bought Peking Duck Wrap from the same store. This is basically just Peking duck, vegetables and sweet sauce wrapped in a rice paper wrapper. The duck meat is roasted to prefect crispiness with most of the fats rendered out during the roasting process. It was delicious and my husband love it very much. However, I did not like it as much as my husband. I actually find the sauce a little too sweet for my liking.

Please note that there are no rubbish bins in Nankinmachi, so make sure you bring your trashes with you before you leave this place.

In the center of Nankinmachi, you will find a small plaza decorated with colorful chinese lanterns. Sitting in the middle of the plaza is a pavilion and a Chinese temple dedicated to Guan Yu. Surrounded by stone cravings of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, the pavilion is a popular place for tourists to take a souvenir photo.

The small plaza is a popular meeting place for both locals and tourists. You can take a seat and enjoy your food in the pavilion, but it is always crowded with people. It is not easy to find a seat in the pavilion unless you are really lucky.

There are three archway in Nankinmachi. You will find Chang'an Gate on the East entrance, Xi'an Gate on the west entrance and Nan'lou Gate on the South entrance. The North entrance has no gate and is guarded by a pair of lions.

The North entrance of Nankinmachi is connected with the Motomachi Shopping Street, a fully covered shopping arcade lined with over 300 shops and restaurants, including shops that are centuries old. 

Established in 1874, the entire street is 1.2 kilometres long and has a fairly relaxed atmosphere.

It is one of the best place to get some gifts and souvenirs for yourself and your family and friends back home. If you interested to know what I bought at Motomachi Shopping Street, please read my "Huge Beauty + Snacks Shopping Haul" post.

If you are interested to know more about our trip, you may want to check out our 7D6N Osaka - Kyoto - Nara - Kobe Trip Itinerary + Overview for the list of attractions that we had visited during our 7 days in Japan. For anyone planning your first trip to Japan but have no idea where to start, you should read my "How To Plan A Trip To Japan" post.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook or Twitter for the latest updates on my 7 days adventures in Japan! You might also want to check My Wanderlust page for some of my other travel adventures.

Monday, March 20, 2017

[Japan 2016] Nara: Nara Park + Higashimuki Shotengai Shopping Street

Photo By: Elin Chow

Good morning! We started our fourth day of our 7D6N Japan Trip early in Osaka this morning. Our plan for the day was to visit the ancient capital of Nara located in the Nara Prefecture in the Kansai region.

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan established in 710, a time before Kyoto and Tokyo even existed. Located between Osaka and Kyoto, Nara is often overlooked by time-pressed travelers. Most tourists tend to bypass Nara and head straight to Kyoto, even though it is a famous day trip sightseeing destination in the Kansai region.

The beautiful city of Nara is famous for its many temples and the thousands of free roaming deer. It is located less than an hour by train from both Osaka and Kyoto, making it a perfect destination for day trippers.

Getting to Nara is fairly easy. Nara is served by two railway companies - Kintetsu Railway and JR West. The cheapest way to get from Osaka-Namba Station to Nara is by the private Kintetsu Railway, which will arrive at Kintetsu Nara Station.

To get to Kintetsu Nara Station, you can take either the Limited Express and Rapid Express trains. By Limited Express, the one way trip takes about 30 minutes and costs 1020 Yen. By Rapid Express, the one way trip takes about 40 minutes, but only costs 560 Yen. Please note that the Kintetsu Railway is not covered by the JR Pass.

For those who have a JR Pass, you might want to take the JR train. The JR Nara Line departs from Tennoji Station and arrives at JR Nara Station. You can get from Osaka-Namba Station to Tennoji Station by the Subway Midosuji Line. The one way trip from Osaka-Namba Station to Tennoji Station costs 240 Yen. From Tennoji Station, transfer to JR Yamatoji Rapid train, which will arrive at JR Nara Station. The one way trip takes about 35 minutes and costs 470 Yen.

The private Kintetsu Railway is best choice for those who do not have a JR Pass. Furthermore, Kintetsu Nara Station is much more convenient because it is located closer to most of the main sightseeing locations in Nara.

A 40 minutes train ride later, we arrived at Kintetsu Nara Station. We visited Lawson, a tiny local convenience store located at the entrance of the train station to grab some quick breakfast. 

Tuna Mayo Onigiri

Price: 110 Yen

Salmon Roe Onigiri

Price: 162 Yen

Premium Boss Coffee

Price: 122 Yen

I got Tuna Mayo onigiri and my husband got Salmon Roe onigiri and a can of Premium Boss coffee. Both were satisfying delicious and affordable.

After a quick breakfast, we headed down the main street from the train station, which is lined with hotels, restaurants and shops, leading to Nara Park.

The ancient capital of Nara is home to eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, along with several fine gardens, museums and traditional neighbourhoods. If you only have one day to spend in Nara, I would recommend you to focus your trip on Nara Park. Most of the main attractions in Nara are concentrated in Nara Park and can be easily accessible by foot. This would mean that you can visit most of the attractions in a day.

Nara Park is a public park located at the foot of Mount Wakakusa, just 5 minutes walk from Kintetsu Nara Station and 20 minutes walk from JR Nara Station. Covering an area of 660 hectares, extending 4 kilometers wide and 2 kilometres deep, it is known to be the oldest and largest park in Japan. The vast park is renowned for its free roaming deer and world famous temples and shrines. It is open all year round and entry is free.

At the entrance of the park, you will find a lot of rickshaws (Jinrikisha) for hire. Prices generally range from 2,000 to 3,000 Yen depending on the distance you want to go. The rickshaw drivers can take you anywhere in Nara. It is the best way to move around and explore all the top sightseeing spots in Nara if you do not wish do sightseeing on foot.

When you think of Nara, you will first think of deer. Nara Park is also known as Deer Park since over 1,200 wild Sika deer roam freely around the park. The deer of Nara Park are once considered divine and sacred because they are believed to be messengers of God. 

Back in ancient times, killing a deer is punishable by death. But after World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their divine and sacred status. Today, they are protected as national treasures by the Japanese government.

There are warning signs placed all around the park warning visitors about being attacked by the deer. Despite the warning signs saying the deer may bite and kick, they are cute, friendly and generally tame. 

Deer are the major tourist attraction of Nara Park. They are the most recognizable symbol of Nara and also the reason why tourists flock to Nara.

It was not long before we get to encounter a deer, just at the entrance of the park. In fact, there were a few of them resting under the shade of trees. Most of the Sika deer are reddish brown with a white tail and less visible white spots.

Excitedly but carefully, we approached one of the deer,  hoping to get a closer look of the adorable creature. We squatted down and pat it gently on its back. Surprisingly, the deer sat frozen still, as if waiting to be pet and fed. Most of them have grown so accustomed to the presence of humans that they are completely unafraid of humans.

Kofukuji Temple

Continuing down the cobbled stoned path, we arrived at Kofukuji Temple, which is located around 10 minutes walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.

Kofukuji Temple is a Buddhist temple that is registered as one of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list. The temple is established in 710 by Kagami-no Okimi, the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari. Originally, the temple consisted of over 150 buildings, many of which were destroyed by civil wars and fires for multiple times.

Today, only a couple of the buildings remain, including a five-storey Pagoda. Standing at 50 metres, the five-storey pagoda is known to be the second tallest pagoda in Japan. First built in 730, it is a now landmark and symbol of Nara.

Even though the official opening hours is from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, the general temple grounds can be visited at any time of the day. Entrance to the temple grounds is free except two areas: Kofukuji's National Treasure Museum and the Eastern Golden Hall. Admission to these two areas will cost 300 Yen.

Right behind the five-storey pagoda, you will find a paved path leading to Nara Park. The park is best experienced by walking, with several walking paths that leads through many historic and nature areas, dotted with shrines and temples.

Thus, it is not necessary for one to rent a bike or get on a bus to explore since most of the attractions are located within close proximity from the two train stations.

One of the top things to do in Nara Park is to feed a deer. All around the park, there are vendors selling deer crackers, or Shika Senbei. Visitors can purchase deer crackers from these vendors to feed the deer in the park. The crackers are tied with paper made from soybean made from a mixture of rice and flour.  

We bought a stack of crackers from one of the vendors in the park. For 150 Yen, we got 10 pieces of it. 

The deer of Nara Park are usually very gentle and tame and can easily be photographed. They are scattered, walk through every corner of the park with confident, oblivious to the large crowds surrounding them. But once they spotted food in your hand, they will start flocking to you, trying to get your attention.

So I hid the crackers deep inside my coat's pocket, taking out only one at a time. I approached one of the deer in the park, holding a cracker in one hand. The deer politely eat the cracker right out from my hand while I stretched out my other hand to stroke it.

Some can become aggressive and demanding when you start to feed them. The deer of Nara Park are so accustomed to be fed that they are always on the hunt for food, sniffing and nipping tourists' clothes for treats. A few of them even began to thrust its antlers at me while I was feeding them. 

My husband was worried that I might get injured while I was feeding them. He wanted me to keep a safe distance from the deer, but I could not resist the urge to get close to these adorable creatures.

The most interesting thing about feeding the deer is if you bow to them, they will bow back to you. We all know that Japanese are one of the most polite people in the world. But surprisingly, even the deer in Nara are polite and well-mannered!

Besides that, the deer are very clean and not smelly, unlike those that you will normally see in a zoo. However, there were deer droppings everywhere in the park, so be careful not to step on them while you walked across the grass fields. The park grounds are also very clean and well-maintained, with deer casually grazing in the fields.

There is a program managed by the Foundation For the Protection of Deer to care and supervise the health aspect of the deer. All the deer are implanted with microchips in order to keep track of its population. Thanks to conservation efforts, the number of deer has remained consistent throughout the years. 

Every October, the Deer Antler Cutting Ceremony is held by the Foundation For the Protection of Deer where the antlers of the deer are cut in order to protect Nara's residents and visitors and prevent them from causing damages to property.

Todai-ji Temple
Without realizing, we found ourselves standing right at the entrance of Todaiji Temple. At the entrance, a large crowd of tourists gathered, excited to enter the temple through the 7 metres tall Nandaimon Gate.

A landmark in Nara, Todaiji Temple is listed as one of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list. Constructed in 752 by Emperor Shomu, most of the buildings in Todaiji Temple were destroyed by fires and earthquakes throughout the years. Although the temple was reconstructed in 1692, little of the original buildings actually remain.

The Daibutsuden, which is the main hall of Todaiji, is currently the largest wooden structure in the world, even though it is only two third of the original temple's hall size. The Daibutsuden houses a 50-foot (15 metres) bronze Buddha, which is also the largest in the world.

The approach to the temple is lined with food stalls, souvenir shops and restaurants that catered to both locals and foreign tourists.  

Fried Chicken

Price: 500 Yen

Feeling hungry after the long walk, we bought some fried chicken from one of the food stalls lining the street. 

On the approach to the temple, you will find hundreds of deer awaiting for the arrival of tourists. This was also where we found the largest population of deer in Nara Park.

Kagami-ike Pond

In front of Todaiji Temple, you will find the scenic Kagami-ike Pond, which offers a great view of the temple. 

The wooden ship that sits in the pond is part of "To Build a Ship" project by Cai Guo Qiang, a Chinese artist based in New York.

It is said that 10 carpenters from China specially came to Japan to construct the wooden ship, similar to those traversing the East China sea as part of the "Culture City of East Asia" project. The aim of the project is to promote cultural exchange between between Japan, China and South Korea at different host cities every year.

We ventured deeper into the park located next to the temple. This was also where we found the best collection of color changing trees in the park. Among all the Japanese cities that we have visited during this trip, Nara actually offers the best fall foliage.

But unfortunately, Nara is often overshadowed by Kyoto. While everyone raves about how awesome Kyoto is during Autumn, I actually prefer Nara more. Although autumn is beautiful in Kyoto, it is perhaps even more beautiful in Nara.

Continuing deeper in, you will find colorful trees lining a canal, albeit sparsely as many of the leaves have fallen, decorating the stone pathways. Although most of the trees were shedding much of their leaves, it was still an incredibly beautiful sight.

Nara is blessed with beauty of the nature and is especially beautiful in Autumn, drawing a large number of tourists to the city every year. Even so, it is not as crowded as Kyoto.

The spectacular fall foliage offers plenty of opportunities for photography. So please remember to bring along your camera if not you might regret.

All around the park, you will find plenty of lovely spots where you can stop, rest and relax.

Further in the park, you will find spacious lawns with footpaths, lined with trees ablaze with color in Autumn, presenting you with beautiful scenery at every turn. I believe it is hard for anyone not fall in love with such natural beauty.

It is pleasant to stroll around the park. We enjoyed being surrounded by deer, open spaces, lush greenery and fall colors. The atmosphere is peaceful and tranquil, making it a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city life.

For anyone planning for a visit, please remember to wear comfortable walking shoes because this walk in the park can last for hours.

We spend most of our time wandering around the park doing absolutely nothing, enjoying the beautiful scenery and cool crisp air.

While strolling through the park, we took our time to appreciate the beauty of the stunning blend of yellow, red and orange leaves. Autumn is so breathtakingly beautiful!

It was a fascinating sight to see a wild deer wandering over a carpet of yellow during autumn.

After 7 hours of walking, we decided to head back to Kintetsu Nara Station. It has been a tiring but extremely fulfilling day, even though we did not get to see the entire park. For anyone traveling within the Kansai region, Nara is certainly worth a visit. You might want to allocate at least half a day of your visit in order to experience the best of Nara.

Higashimuki Shotengai Shopping Street

Located just beside Kintetsu Nara Station, you will find the Higashimuki Shotengai Shopping Street.

Measuring 250 metres long, the covered shopping arcade is lined with shops and restaurants, making it the busiest shopping area in Nara. If you interested to know what I bought in Nara, please read my "Huge Beauty + Snacks Shopping Haul" post.

Feeling hungry, we randomly dropped into a small Japanese restaurant to grab some lunch. The restaurant serves traditional Japanese dishes at a very reasonable price. English and Chinese menus are available for foreign tourists.

Curry Rice

Price: 700 Yen

I ordered Japanese curry rice, which is one of the most popular dishes in Japan. This is basically just plain steamed Japanese white rice served with thick curry sauce and garnished with some pickled vegetables. The curry is not spicy but a little sweet.  It was delicious and comforting. But serving size was a little too small, so it was not actually filling enough.

Kinoko Udon

Price: 800 Yen

My husband ordered Kinoko Udon, which is basically just mushrooms and Udon. This is a very simple noodle dish served in a transparent soup based on dashi with a variety of mushrooms. The serving size was also small but delicious.

Nakatanidou Japanese Rice Cake (Mochi)

Right at the end of the street, a large crowds gathered in front of a small store called Nakatanidou. Nakatanidou, a well-known mochi store famous for their dramatic mochi-pounding process, a traditional Japanese technique known as mochitsuki.

All mochi sold at Nakatanidou are manually hand-pounded. which is a highly labour intensive process. The rice mass is put into a wooden mortar and pounded manually with a heavy wooden mallet at a high speed. In fact, Nakatanidou actually prides itself as being the fastest pounders in Japan. The store perform high speed mochitsuki everyday at the shop, once every half an hour, producing hundreds of freshly made mochi at a time.

Price: 130 Yen / piece

Unfortunately, we did not get to witness the mochitsuki performance because we were not able to squeeze our way through the crowds. 

Nakatanidou speciality is Yomogi mochi, which sells for 130 Yen per piece. It was slightly expensive but incredibly delicious. Yomogi is a Japanese wild plant, which gives the mochi its pale green color. Each piece of Yomogi mochi is palm sized and dusted with Kinako (roasted soy bean flour) before serving. 

The texture of the mochi is delicate, soft and chewy. It is not sweet and inside the mochi, it is filled with a generous amount of anko sweet red bean paste. The sweetness of the paste complements the mochi really well.

Price: 756 Yen

After lunch, we decided to head back to Osaka. While we were making our way back to Kintetsu Nara Station, we bought some strawberries from one of the stores along the street.

Back in Osaka-Namba Station, we headed back to our Airbnb apartment for a short rest, dropping by the Family Mart just below our apartment to grab some drinks. Once dusk fall, we ended up back in Dotonbori again for food and shopping. This was basically how our fourth day in Japan ended. It was a long tiring day, full of fun and adventures.

If you are interested to know more about our trip, you may want to check out our 7D6N Osaka - Kyoto - Nara - Kobe Trip Itinerary + Overview for the list of attractions that we had visited during our 7 days in Japan. For anyone planning your first trip to Japan but have no idea where to start, you should read my "How To Plan A Trip To Japan" post.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook or Twitter for the latest updates on my 7 days adventures in Japan! You might also want to check My Wanderlust page for some of my other travel adventures.