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THE JAPAN DIARIES PART III: Osaka


Hey everyone,

So from Kyoto I made my way to Osaka.

In truth, I hadn't researched a lot about Osaka - anyone I asked who had previously been gave me either a black or white response: it was their least favourite major city in Japan (similar to Tokyo but more garish and less interesting) or it's been the highlight of their trip with lots of culture and the best food in the land.

With this in mind, I only gave myself 24 hours in the city with the intention to break up the journey between Kyoto and Koyasan, where I'd arranged to stay in a temple in the mountains with a bunch of monks. (As one does - post soon!)

I checked into my hostel and was greeted with these notices from the manager: enigma and local legend: Mr Yano.

   
When I Whatsapp-ed these pictures to my sister she replied "I think it's a cry for help."


J-Hoppers Osaka is easily one of my favourites I've ever stayed in - the atmosphere is very open and friendly, and downstairs in reception there is an open space kitchen offering free tea and rice.

After chatting with the receptionist for a bit, I sat at the table and enjoyed a free cuppa with a middle aged lady from Australia who was in the middle of a visa process with her Japanese husband.
I was sharing my slightly aged, but cosy dorm with a sweet German girl called Anja and we spent a wonderful chill hour hanging out and sharing stories about our travels.

As I only had a day, the receptionist handed me a city guide with a map and suggested I see Osaka Castle, wander down Dotonburi then come back for a night on the tiles with Yano-san.
Sounds like a plan, Stan!
(Stan-san? Stan-chan?)

The walk to Osaka Castle is through a beautiful Ghibli-esque park which is a little hilly in parts but never a really a struggle. There's plenty of concession stands along the way, and of course vending machines.



I got excited and thought the purple ice cream was taro but it was grape. Booo!
I did however have a watermelon flavoured slushie at it was sensational.


While I didn't want to waste an already short day wandering around the castle, there was still plenty going on when you reached the entrance.
Stalls selling souvenirs: small figures of the castle, t-shirts, sake. Food stands: everything from BBQ to Osaka's famous okonomiaki.

There was also a show of some sorts going on.
It was a bit shambolic, but that just made it all the more endearing.




After a quick picnic lunch under some trees, I wandered down to Dotonburi to see Glico Man.
It's basically Osaka's version of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Touristy and crowded but also very fun and flashy.

Unfortunately Glico Man was on the blink, and was temporarily replaced by Glico Girl:


I felt a bit of a scruffbag walking through the main street of Dotonburi which is home to major fashion brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior and Chanel.
It was hot and humid and I had sweated most of my makeup off walking up to the castle and back again.

I much preferred getting lost in the almost-sleazy-but-not-really side streets which were full of cute cafes, tiny restaurants and host and hostess clubs.


I also found where I believe is my true calling - a club called 'La Potcha Potcha' ("Chubby Chubby") where all the hostesses are over 80kg/176lb.
(Scottee wrote about his visit here)

GOALS.


After tiring myself out, I was ready to just throw myself on my bed and relax for the night - but I was ambushed by the elusive Mr Yano in the lobby, accompanied by some local Japanese English students eager to learn the language from natives.

A couple from New Zealand and an American guy called Adam also staying in the hostel were already ready and looking a little apprehensive so I decided to join them.

Honestly, it was the best decision I made as we went to an Izakaya, a Japanese pub of sorts.

Now I consider myself a very independent person when I travel, but I had been a bit uncomfortable going to the Izakaya by myself as it's either a place people go with lots of friends, or salarymen and their colleagues getting mortal after their long shifts end and didn't fancy an evening being peered at by myself.

Yano-san. Party boy and local legend.


My Japanese is appalling, so when Mr Yano offered to order for the table I accepted his kind offer. He also ordered everyone rounds of beer which for some reason I envisioned being schooner sizes, but out came massive jugs that wouldn't look out of place at an Oktoberfest.

Then came the sake.
Of course being from Newcastle, I out-drank everyone.

Before long, we were all suitably pissed and me and Adam in particular showed ourselves up singing RuPaul songs to the confusion of the Japanese students.
(His husband subtitles the show into South Korean. He told me the Korean for "hunty" which unfortunately I can' for the life of me remember.)

The plates were all interesting and very tasty. Pickled eggs, tempura fish, chicken karaage and the most tender, sticky pork I've ever tasted in my life.
I gestured to the pork, gave Mr Yano a thumbs up and bumbled in slurred, broken Japanese: "butanikuuuu, oishiiiii!"

Mr Yano looked confused.
"Not pork. Is heart. Pig's heart."

I stuck to the safer options like these little burgers after that.



After we stumbled home and I waddled up to bed I decided that a cleansed body and mind was definitely needed. And a trip the mountains would do my already throbbing head the world of good.

Ommmmmmm-wards and upwards.


Muchos love,
Carla

THE JAPAN DIARIES PART II: Kyoto


Hey everyone

Welcome to part two of my Japan diaries - part one covered the crazy metropolis of Tokyo.
If you're like me and have a two-week stay, Kyoto is usually pretty high up on the wish list.

Only a few hours outside Tokyo on the Shinkansen, it's a great option for a change of scenery - and getting there really is half the fun!


I mentioned the Japan Rail Pass in my previous post - if you have a pass then this is already paid for and you can even reserve a seat for free.

TOP TIP: Request a window seat on the right hand size for awesome views of Mount Fuji:
Just ask for: "Fuji-san mitai. Migi-seki" ("I want to see Mt. Fuji. Right seat.")


I only had two days in Kyoto, so by the time I'd arrived from Tokyo, checked into my hostel, unpacked and freshened up it was already around 5pm.
So I took it pretty easy the first night, wandered around my neighbourhood to get my bearings, found the nearest metro station and went downtown for an early dinner.

I hadn't been to a sushi belt in Japan so I took a punt and checked out a place I found in my Lonely Planet. (While we're on the subject, Lonely Planet guides can be pretty hit and miss - but I've got so much use out of my Japan one I do recommend it!) 

For somewhere in a guidebook, it was surprisingly full of locals - me and another couple were the only gaijin there.


I started selecting a few things from the belt - but quickly discovered everything automatically comes with wasabi. I know, I've tried and tried but I LOATHE wasabi - I think even a little bit makes everything taste of wasabi, and you can't taste anything else.

However there was a sign saying you can order without, and the waitress although spoke only basic English was able to take my order which was awesome.

Once wasabi-free, everything was delicious and fresh.
I accumulated quite a few plates and it amounted to around the £7.50 mark including green tea.

After a night's sleep (disturbed by my roommates deciding to repack their suitcases at 1am - I'm too old for this so I pointedly got up and turned the light off...) I only really had one full day, so decided to hit up the famous Tenryu-Ji Temple and the nearby Bamboo Grove.

The Arashiyama area is a great call if you're like me and want to experience Kyoto in a nutshell if you're on a bit of a time restraint.

There are lots of things to do on your walk to the temple - small, interesting shops selling souvenirs and many many restaurants, cafes and food stands.

An adorable chopsticks shop - I bought a set for my sister and they carved her name in Hiragana for a very small supplement.


 
An old man was selling green tea ice cream and allowed you to serve yourself.
Perfect snack for a hot, humid Kyoto day!

 
If you like shrines - you'll love Kyoto!

There is a big beautiful garden surrounding the temple full of small shrines. Despite it being packed with tourists, it was actually very peaceful. 

 

 

 


I love visiting Japan in the Autumn as it's still warm enough for yukata.

 Tenryu-Ji Temple.

I can never resist tourist tat like charms, but they make for inexpensive souvenirs.
(I'm from a Roman Catholic family, and you can always find a medal, rosary, holy card or charm in Italian Catholic Mother's handbag - so she always appreciates these!)

Bamboo Grove is a short, pleasant walk from the temple - you're pretty much there if you leave via the north garden exit.

Sadly, none of my pictures made the grove look as stunning as it is - but just imagine towering bamboo trees as far as the eye can see. 

The trees act as shade, which was needed as it was a very hot day when I visited. Huddled in the grove are several small shops and cafes to explore. 

It's all very Alice In Wonderland, with very few signs in English. 
 



It was difficult to find a western-style toilet so sadly I was caught short and had to use a squat toilet.

Not my finest moment.



It was also here I met my first tanuki...

Well that sounds marvellous, I'll just stroll on down and...

OOHHHHMYGOD

"Hi kids, would you like to see some puppies?"

HERP DERP.
Ahem.

Seriously though, these little Japanese racoon-like animals are often found outside restaurants, cafes and bars beckoning customers in for revelry and good times. 
(As you can see by their cheery faces, fat bellies and usually clutching a bottle of sake. I can relate.) 
They're also traditionally believed to bring good fortune to the proprietors. 

Also hilariously (although sadly you can't see in my photos) they're traditionally portrayed with enormous, protruding testicles. 

There's even a folk song which pretty much translates to:

"Tan-tan-tanuki's balls ring ring ring
The wind's stopped blowing
but they swing-swing-swing!"

Never change, Japan.

Aaaaaanyways...

While it was a beautiful day, I do come out in hives if I'm outside the city for too long so I took the advise of my Lonely Planet and went for dinner at a restaurant in the basement of one of the department stores. 
("Depachika" - literally "Department basement.") 

To save money in Japan, I tend to eat out for lunch (nearly all restaurants have a lunch special) then grab something quick from the konbini for my dinner such as a bento set, instant ramen or (if you're also visiting in the Autumn) oden
Oh, oden I love you. Yum.

I've sadly forgotten which one I went to (there are three huge ones near Kyoto train station) it was sadly a bit of a disappointment.

Sadly this dinner set was the blandest meal I've ever had in Japan. 
The cold soba noodles and greens were nice enough, but nothing really had a lot of flavour.


So yeah, if you're in Kyoto I'd give this a miss.

I had a bit of an early night as I was off to Osaka the next day, which I will save for my next post.

I hope you're enjoying these posts - they're making me miss Japan terribly - roll on 2017!


Muchos love,
Carla 

MITN: Newcastle Wine School


Hey everyone,

It's Valentine's Day tomorrow, and another one rolls around being very happily single.

And of course one of the joys is that I get to spend another GALentines Day with my fellow (sort-of) singleton Claire.
(Last year we went to a tea party at a cat shelter, then went back to her house for pizza and we watched The Simple Life into the early hours.)

We're going to Barcelona in May for my birthday, so when Claire discovered Newcastle Wine School was hosting a Spanish and Portuguese themed night so close to Love Day, we couldn't really say no.

    

Claire has been to a Newcastle Wine School event before (on a Tinder date!) so advised me to bring along a notebook, and something on my stomach.

Hosted in the conference room at Blackfriars, last time Claire reckons there was more of a mix of ages, friends, siblings and couples - but probably due to being so close to Valentines it was mostly middle aged couples apart from us and a couple in their early 30s - however everyone was very friendly.

Our host first of all gave a quick presentation about wine tasting - I've done coffee tasting before during my barista training, so I'm actually quite good at recognising flavours on different parts of my tongue:

(The only one you may not recognise above is 'umami' - which is difficult to describe but it's a savoury, almost drying sensation which causes salivation - making certain foods seem very 'more-ish.'
Food containing high levels of umami include green tea, shellfish, cured meats, cheese, soy sauce and Marmite/Vegemite.)


Watching wine experts like Jilly Goolden on TV sticking her nose into a wine glass always looked a bit poncey to me, but a lot of the taste is in the smell.
Every wondered when you have a blocked nose your food tastes a bit weird?
(Which I know all about - I have a sinus infection at least every other week.)

Our host demonstrated this by asking us to take a pinch of cinnamon, hold our nose and put the cinnamon on our tongue - and we couldn't taste it! As soon as we unblocked our noses, we all started coughing and spluttering.
At least my sinuses were happy! (First time for everything.)

For £25.00 per person, this bought us an evening of seven different themed wines: three white, three red and one sparkling.
We began with the Cava - I'm a huge fan of fizz and it was crisp, fresh and delicious.


The three whites were all very different - especially when you gave them a long sniff before.

The only one I wasn't too keen on, was the Vega de la Reina Verdejo 2014 which was very aromatic and fragrant.
However our host suggested it would be delicious with fatty tapas - rich garlicky prawns, chorico, cheese on bread, and I can certainly see her point.

I'm not a natural red wine drinker, so I did struggle a little.
However the last couple were full of delicious black cherry notes, and tasted similar to Port which I adore, and reminds me of Christmas.

Claire preferred the slightly paler red which was an El Chaparral De Vega Sindoa 2013, but for myself it tasted like I'd chugged a mouthful of pepper.
But as everyone in the room agreed, all tastes are different and nobody is every going to like the same thing.

While everyone is quite reserved and quiet at the beginning, once the wine starts flowing so does the conversation. Soon everyone is sharing tasting notes, what they like, what they don't - it's a very sociable, fun experience.


The host was kind enough to lay out jugs of wine which did come in useful - not only for cleansing your palette, but also to attempt to avoid a fuzzy head in the morning.

We were promised suitable snacks - however we only had baguette and a few bags of tortilla chips - it was definitely something to nibble at, but I would have preferred something a little more on theme, which is really my only critique of the night.

What I liked is that none of the wines were really out of our price range.
Real talk: me and Claire tend to stay around the £5.00 mark - bonus points if it's been marked down from a tenner.
But the wines were around the £10.00-£20.00 RRP mark - nothing that's really going to break the bank.

Other groups have been offered the opportunity to buy a bottle or two from the host, but this wasn't offered in our session. Perhaps we drank them dry!

If you have any interest in wine at all - whether you're deeply interested in the fine art of crushed grapes, or you just enjoy a bit of a knees up, I definitely recommend paying them a visit.

There are branches all around the country so do check them out.

The only dignified selfie of the evening. Just saying. 


Visit: www.NewcastleWineSchool.com to book your visit. Courses start from £22.50 per person.

Sessions are hosted at:

Blackfriars
Friars St, 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 4XN


Muchos love,
Carla


THE JAPAN DIARIES PART I: Tokyo


Hey everyone,

So this is the first in a series about my trips to Japan.

Tokyo is so vast, I'm going to focus on specific areas in a few different blog posts.

For now, I'll just share some of my favourite photos from what I do my first week in the crazy, amazing Japanese capital...

 
If you've had a long journey (it's a 13 hour flight for myself to Tokyo - and that's after my connecting flight from Newcastle!) no matter what time I arrive I pretty much like to write the day off. 
I always stay in an AirBNB as I think you get a lot more value for money, and I find Tokyo hotels extortionate.

I like to unpack, take a long nap, then wander around my local neighbourhood - it's a good idea to source the closest metro stop and convenience store ("konbini") and browse the local stops and restaurants. 

Oh, and the above pic is the view from the first apartment I stayed in 2014, just outside Nakano. (I was above the bus depo.) While I loved the apartment, it was a little far out than I would have liked and it was tiring passing through Shinjuku station everyday. 

The year after I stayed in Meguro which was adorable and a lot cheaper, but not a lot as much to do locally. 

When I return in 2017 with my sister, I want to stay somewhere around Shibuya. 
Anyway, I digress...

 
It's also worth checking out your traditional Japanese bath - it's actually a lot more comfortable than it looks, although the first few tries you do feel like a laundry load.

If you're going to bath the correct way - if course you're supposed to shower before, stepping into the bath completely clean. 

This is because the bath is really only to be used for relaxation, and also in Japanese families the same water is shared by everyone. 

However I was by myself so just chucked a Lush bath bomb in. YOLO.

Well rested? Good. Time to explore...
 

If you plan to travel around Japan quite a lot as I did my first year, I can not recommend a Japan Rail Pass enough. 

This allows you to use JR local lines which operate in major cities (most notably the Yamanote line in Tokyo which takes you to most touristy places) as well as most bullet train ("Shinkansen") servies nationally. 

However if you are just planning to stay in one city such as Tokyo, then it's not really worth it. Just buy an IC such as a Suica or which work the same way as Oyster Cards in London. 
Except they're much cooler as you can use it to buy from vending machines, convenience stores, fast food resteraunts and so much more. So it can be handy getting one anyway. 

(Check out this page from Japan-Guide to see which card is best for you during your stay.)
Don't forget to buy a cute case from...

   
Harajuku is a place I've been dreaming about for the best part of fifteen years. While the scene isn't as huge as it was in the 90s, it's still an awesome place to shop for cute, alternative fashion. 
(Think Camden in London). 

 I prefer going on the morning on a weekday when it isn't quite so manic - it's absolutely packed on weekends. However please note if you go during the week, some stores aren't open. 

Don't forget to stop for a famous Harajuku crepe. Though when I went in late 2015, there seemed to be a craze for huge, pastel candy floss (or cotton candy if you're from the USA!).

     
I'm a sucker for anything 'kawaii' so when I stumbled upon this PomPomPurin cafe I had to nip inside for lunch. 

I had a peach iced tea and a custard pudding, though the set meals also looked wonderful.
  Meiji Jingu is a beautful Shinto shrine, located a stone's throw from Harajuku station and offers a haven for quite reflection opposite the bright colours and loud music of Takeshitedori. 

It's very popular with locals and tourists alike - I went around lunchtime and there were several salarymen praying for prosperity on their break.

  For around 500 YEN you can buy a wooden plaque to hang your wish or prayer. This was mine.

 
Head to Akihabara - aka 'Electronic Town.' An otaku heaven. 
Sadly (and some would say surprisingly) I'm not a huge anime fan so a lot of the products in stores go right over my head.

I think it's still definitely worth a visit for the maid cafes, original cat cafes and if you bring your passport you can shop duty-free in the district's many electronics stores. 

It also looks amazing in the evening when the sun goes down, and the neon lights are still blaring. 

     
The 5-story Sega Centre where I got lost and had to ask an amused assistant where the exit was. 
A Maidreamin' maid drumming up business.

I actually much prefer Nakano for my geekery when I'm in Tokyo. 

It's a three-story shopping mall packed full of little independent shops selling mostly second hand goodies. Also the ice cream stall in the basement is something of a local legend and has been frequented by celebrities such as Naomi Watanabe and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

My personal favourite stores are one which sells second hand Nintendo memorabilia (I've got some amazing deals on plushies and figurines - nothing I've bought is over £10) and another which is a room full of gachapon capsule machines:

 
I've seen these machines around my local toystores in the UK,  but they're got usually pretty crappy prizes. 

However I've seen everything from Super Mario Bros, Totoro, Hello Kitty, Disney, Zelda, Animal Crossing, Hatsune Miku, Rilakkuma, even stationary..ranging from ¥200 to ¥400 they can make for super cheap, adorable souvenirs which won't take up lots of space in your suitcase. 
Beware - they can become very, very addictive! 

And yes, I did spot a gachapon where you can win panties. 
Not USED panties as legend dictates, but panties nonetheless.

Shibuya 109 is a huge department store which is definitely worth a look if you're at all into Japanese fashion. 

Being a size 18, there's not a lot I can squeeze my big butt into - however there is a branch of Punyus, which is an awesome store selling sizes UK 6 - 20. 

There are also plenty of other stores I found myself losing a whole afternoon in - accessories, jewellery, wigs, cosplay, beauty. 

Though beware if you're not keen on crowds, I wouldn't go on a Saturday. Bedlam. 

 
After you've inevitably spent all your holiday money in the places mentioned above you'll be in need of a cheap date. 

I recommend visiting the Tokyo Government Building - on the top floor there is a free observatory offering amazing views of Tokyo. There's also a gift shop and several cafes. 

I recommend getting there early to beat the crowds then treating yourself to an inexpensive ramen or udon lunch at one of the many shops nearby, surrounded by harassed salarymen.

OK, now back to the madness...
   
The Robot Restaurant is a must-do for all first-timers to Tokyo. 

(Though 'restaurant' is pushing it a bit - you really just receive an overpriced Bento box so I recommend eating before you go as we did.) 

While you are waiting for the show to start, a robot band treats you to elevator music and wedding party classics. 
You haven't lived until a robot has serenaded you to The Carpenter's 'Close To You.' Beer is 100% necessary. 

And the show... 

I know it's a very 2005 word, but 'random' is the only was I can really describe it. 

Bikini babes on traditional (albeit, covered in LED lights) drums, a boxing match between the robots and dinosaurs, pole dancing, idol girls riding sparkly unicorns singing Lady Gaga...it's just madness.

Me and my friend Hiro-chama were sitting near some fellow Brits who looked throughly unimpressed, but if you go in with an open mind, embracing the sheer hilarity and craziness for an hour or two, you'll have a great night! 

 Again - I reiterate - beer very much helps.

 
Don't forget you can take a robot selfie during the break!

And that should have you covered for the first week of your trip. 

I'm going to slot in a few extra posts about specific things to do in Tokyo I want to go into more detail about, such as the Studio Ghibli museum and a few more of the crazy themed bars. 

We'll also be moving on to a few other major cities soon so do check back for more soon!


Muchos love,
Carla