31. December 2010 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Toys & Technology, Traveling · Tags: ,

Blogged at Kansai Airport! I haven’t taken too much of an interest in shopping itself so far in the three cities we’ve been to this trip. I find merchandise and product pricing to be quite expensive for many goods, and the fact that the exchange rate between Japanese Yen and Singapore dollar isn’t favorable for us at the moment.

That said, we passed by a large department mall on our way back from the Umeda Sky Building yesterday night, and the Osaka Explorer Guide map we had noted that this mall, the Yodobashi Umeda, is one of the largest and best-stock electronics store in the country. That’s too tempting for a visit to resist, so after our visit to the Osaka Aquarium (the photos are on the D300 and I’ll do a blog post on it when I’m back in Singapore) and lunch, we returned to Umeda Subway Station for a look-see.

The Yodobashi Umeda Mall; just outside the Umeda Subway Station.

And boy, I wasn’t disappointed. This is the most well-equipped electronics mall I’ve seen yet out of Singapore. Unlike Sim Lim Square where the mall comprises all small and separate retailers, a good part of the Yodobashi Umeda mall comprises a single business entity which offers everything you can think of that’s electronic. What especially interested me though was the camera equipment floor at level 2. Every mainstream camera model and lenses were on display and for people to try out at their convenience. Oh, you could try out similar equipment in Singapore stores, but the shop keepers back at home routinely give you the evil eye if you ask to inspect the equipment unless you convince them first that you’re a genuinely interested buyer.

The Yodobashi Umeda camera floor was thus a godsend. I tried out all the camera models to my heart’s content; including the top-of-line full-frame Canon and Nikon models (Nikon D3S – ooh lala with the 24-70mm f2.8!), the very new Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 OS, the new Olympus E-PL1S, the new Panasonic GF2, and an entire bunch of micro-4/3 lenses! Even Ling remarked that she’s never seen me so thrilled with shopping in Japan before.

Trying out the Nikon D3S - my dream camera! :)

And that was just the camera floor. There are six other floors (the top two floors are restaurants) in the mall, with entire floors dedicated to mobile phones, games & DVDs, home electronic appliances and the like. I could easily spend an entire day just in this mall alone. Most of the items though were priced at standard retail and comparable if not slightly more expensive than if I bought in Singapore; so I was satisfied just to pick up two 40.5mm filters (a Marumi CPL and a Kenko ProDigital clear glass) for my E-PL1, and a green funky looking camera brush. If I’m ever back in this city, I’m gonna plonk an entire day just for this mall.

Well, it’s nearly time to check-into the airport departure gate now for our 7 hour flight back to Singapore. There are a couple more posts I’m going to do to wrap our visit up; including our visit to the world’s largest aquarium, and walkabouts in Kyoto and Osaka.:)

30. December 2010 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Dining, Traveling · Tags: , ,

Like most of Kobe and Kyoto, there was no lack of dining opportunities in Osaka and you’re only limited by how crowded the restaurant is, the waiting time you’re willing to accept, and your budget. When it came to lunch, we were about the Subway Namba Station area. This station is connected to the next one – Subway Nipponbashi Station – by a long underground mall. Having come off Tonkatsus, we were up for ramen this time. One Ramen restaurant called “Koten” at the underground mall seemed quite popular with the locals and the prices quite attractive. So, we ducked into this place for lunch.

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This waitress at Koten spoke fluent Mandarin. I'm guessing she's a PRC national who learned Japanese as a second language.

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Like many other restaurants and eateries offering ramen, it's crammed with fast patron turnover. Lots of people coming in, eating, then leaving. We got a table for two though which allowed us to dine with a bit more leisure.

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There are different options for each ramen type, and are for soup types. Some of the details were lost on us, even when shared by the Mandarin-speaking waitresses. But we got the gist of it: salty, saltier, and saltiest!

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I was supposed to get the ramen set, but Ling miscommunicated the order and I got something pretty plain jane (bottom of the picture). Still alright though.

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Bill at Koten was 1370円. Ramen was so-so. Not quite like the amazing ramen we had at Takaraya Ramen Pontocho in Kyoto though, but oh well.:)

By dinner time much later in the day, we’d explored the Shopping Arcades, stopped by First Kitchen – a Japanese fast food chain that offers pasta, burgers and salads – for coffee, and done the Osaka City night panoramas at Umeda Sky Building night. Heading back to the JR Osaka Station/Subway Umeda Station, we explored both the underground and surface areas for dinner opportunities. Found ourselves at the 14th floor for restaurants at Daimaru Department Store, and left has hastily when we saw the prices and the likes of restaurants like Le Figaro – wandered around a bit more, and it started snowing again LOL.

Eventually, we ended up at the Hanshin Department Store that’s just across JR Osaka Station where there were several quiet restaurants at Basement 2 (Basement 1 has an totally crazed out wet-market for fresh foods, including huge mutant-sized crabs). Of the lot, we settled on a corner restaurant offering tempura sets which Ling and I both had. Interestingly, this restaurant was wait-staffed entirely by elderly folk, compared to the usual young adult wait staff we see everywhere else.

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Yummy tempura!

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My set came with a few extras; basically vegetable tempura, including a ginger one (never tried this before). Bill was 1545円. I hope the old lady didn't mind me offloading all my 1 and 5円 coins to her when paying the bill!

Our last stop for the Day 9 evening was the Floating Garden Observatory at the top floor of the Umeda Sky Building. This is the seventh tallest building in the city, and actually comprises two skyscrapers that is interconnected with an observatory at the 39th floor. This observatory offers a spectacular 360° view of Osaka, and I was really looking forward to this experience with the memory of going up the Prudential Tower in Boston for the roof top photo shoot still very fresh in mind.

The Floating Garden Observatory itself is a covered and sheltered compound, with a few cafes and couple-seat viewing areas. The real prize though is the roof top that you go up a level more where you can get full 360° views in the open. According to Ling’s itinerary, we had a choice of going up during the day or evening time, but I chose the latter. I’ve done enough day time roof top shoots, and was looking forward to a night shoot instead. The views at least didn’t disappoint, but the photography wasn’t quite so easy! Didn’t have a tripod, and it was freezing cold up top in the open. Shot around 184 exposures and 16 panoramic compositions. I’ve just processed these panoramas, and it’s amazing that even half of them turned out well. Bits of camera shake here and there at the very slow shutter speeds I was using, handheld LOL.

Admission fee is 700円. Worth every yen! All the pictures were taken using the D300 and Sigma 18-250mm.

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The Building has an iconic '173' marked everywhere - the building stands at 173 meters tall. I took a series of shots at the ground level to capture the height of the building, and have aching necks to prove it!

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The Floating Garden Observatory. Plenty of use of down lights, but these show up as reflections regardless if you try to take pictures of the skyline, though you get fully uninterrupted views.

There are security personnel at the roof top patrolling the grounds to make sure that no one gets any funny (i.e. suicidal) ideas. Also, the circular pathway is lit like this that makes it easy to watch your step.

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Lots of bridges for vehicular traffic and trains connecting the Osaka districts together over the river.

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Osaka City by night!

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Street views from the top. This was taken at the Observatory; it's impossible to do this down pointing angle at the roof top.

Absolutely spectacular views!

The height of the Umeda Sky Building is at 173m; lower compared to Boston’s Prudential Tower’s Skywalk Observatory’s 228m, but no less impressive. Recommended for Osaka visitors! :)

30. December 2010 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Traveling · Tags: , , ,

Our third and last hotel for our 10.5 day Japan trip is The Lutheran Hotel, a 10 story business hotel located at a relatively quiet district of Osaka City. The reviews for the hotel were quite positive, and rates attractive at just over SGD100 per night. Moreover, the hotel is located right next to the Tanimachi 4-chome station and a short 4 minute walk to Osaka Castle. Internet access was complimentary, and our room even came with a HP notebook in case we wanted to use the hotel’s one.

The room is about the same size as the one at Mitsui Garden Hotel; relatively small compared to Singapore hotel room sizes, but average by Japanese standards. The room was very clean, and had pleasing color combination in its decor and furniture. Moreover; the room had an Ion Humidifier, like the Mitsui Garden Hotel though we couldn’t figure out how to operate the one at the latter.

Best of all; the concierge allowed us to check in at 11:30 AM instead of the usual 2:00 PM. That was very welcomed.:)

The one and almost serious downer was that we were given a smoking room as all the other rooms were unavailable. There was a scent freshener in the room that helped to remove the smell, and the windows could be opened too to further air the room so it wasn’t that much of a big deal for us. The range of toiletries was also a little limited, but this wasn’t an issue for us as we always bring our own.

Our stay is for just one night, but if we were staying at Osaka for a long stretch, we certainly wouldn’t mind staying at this hotel for longer.

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Ling checking us in.

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A small office-styled work area for me.

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And almost colorful room even.

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The LCD TV was programed to received HD broadcasts. Not that we were watching local TV very much, but the previous two hotels weren't broadcasting HD content.

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A generous suite of tea choices.

In all, The Lutheran Hotel gets a recommendation for us. Just slightly lower-priced than Mitsui Garden Hotel, but about its equivalent in creature comforts.

The Doguyasuji stretch actually continues from where Sennichimae Shopping Arcade, and is marked on our Explorer Osaka Guide to be an area that features specialized stores selling cooking and kitchen tools. The stretch itself isn’t very long – perhaps just a 100 meters long – and there are perhaps just three dozen stores in all, ranging from shops that sell just pottery to shops that sell wares for industrial-sized kitchens to feed thousands. A lot of the pottery items are certainly cheaper than what we saw at the tourist traps at several of the popular temple sites in Kyoto, though they don’t come in no-frills packaging (if at all even) and not packaged in gift box sets or the like.

We went into a couple of shops to check out their pottery ware wanting to pick up some small items for our kitchen, and eventually settled on a two matching pairs of sauce dishes and bowls for a total of about 1,120円. Hopefully they’ll survive the trip home.:)

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The start of the Doguyasuji Shopping Arcade.

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Ling browsing through one shop's wares. This shop has sufficient walking room, as compared to...

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... this one! This neighboring shop was scary to navigate, given the extremely narrow walk areas. Swing your backpack or your legs the wrong way, and you'll send the heaps of pottery crashing to the floor.

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Made for a very colorful picture.:)

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The same scary shop LOL.

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Ling with her her choice of items. These are the sauce dishes. We chose matching soup bowl items too.

30. December 2010 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Traveling · Tags: , ,

Our first impression of Osaka is that it feels terrifically different from Kyoto. We’ve read enough about the importance of both cities and how they differ, but there are many other little things. Like how when emerging from Tanimachi 4-chome train station and taking a look at the very modern and futuristic towering buildings, or that women in Osaka seem to dress more practically than their counterparts in Kyoto do (the latter all dress to impress above all else, as Ling remarks).

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Three buildings in one! One is a museum (I think), and another is the NHK tower; the last one, no clue.

Our side of the city when the hotel is located is an extremely quiet area, with little vehicular traffic and even fewer persons milling about or going on their business. After checking in early just before noon and settling down our luggage, we first swung by Osaka Castle to take a look at the exteriors, though the castle itself is closed. Took a couple of pictures before rain forced us to duck back into the train station for cover.

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That's about the closest we got to Osaka Castle which is closed for this time period. The castle has a very impressive and wide moat.

Ling said that the ‘happening’ place is around Namba station. So, we proceeded to Namba. And boy… the difference was like night and day there. It’s like the whole of Osaka city transit along the Namba stretch. Everywhere we turn there were people about, and since arriving in Japan, we finally got to be shoved, push and squeezed through more times than we can count just to get through a 10 meter stretch.

After lunch at a basement ramen restaurant (will blog about this in another post), we wandered around the district and eventually found ourselves in the Sennichimae shopping arcades. This is a criss-crossing area with hundreds of shops and thousands of persons squeezing past each other. There were queues everywhere – including a couple for octopus balls and other snacks – that would give us Singaporeans who queue with a passion a run for money!

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Osaka people queuing up for something!

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People Mountain People Sea.

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Bull on the loose!

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Osaka people queuing up for something! You can see Ling kay-posing in the picture too (she's with the light blue backpack).

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More Osaka people queuing up for something!

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This I assume is one of the Crab restaurants in the district. As in restaurants selling crabs, and not about the quality of the cuisine.

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Octopus balls. Lots of people lining up for stalls selling this thing.

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More people, everywhere!

We did have something specific to look out for in Osaka though; Green-tea Kit-Kat, and selected pottery items for the kitchen. We’d been looking for the former in Kobe and Kyoto, but had no luck, and are starting to think that maybe that item is only available at specific times of the year. We found Doguyasuji Shopping Arcade – an area that our friend Ann recommended to us for pottery and kitchenware – and picked up a couple of small items. That’s in the next post.:)

30. December 2010 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Traveling · Tags: , , ,

Day 8 and our last day in Kyoto! Strangely, time has passed by relatively slow for us when we’re on vacation. Though it’s just been a little over eight days, it seems like we’ve spent months staying at our ‘home’ at Mitsui Garden Hotel. We spent the last early morning hours in Kyoto taking a walk around the Karasuma Train Station area, scrounging around for breakfast, before checking out mid-morning for our 90 minute journey to Osaka.

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Stumbled upon a delightful little bakery and cafe called "Bread's Court" located at the basement of Karasuma Station.

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Breakfast was delightful, though an elderdy local sat next to Ling and made her feel a little uneasy the way he was looking at what we were having!

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Several pastry items, coffee for Ling, tea for me - for about 900円.

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Several hours later at about 11:30 AM, and several train platform transfers, we finally reached Osaka.

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Our hotel, and believe it or not, a Christian hotel with a church built into the building even. This hotel is located right beside the Tanimachi 4-chome station along the Chuo train line.

We went back to Shigeharu today to purchase a second chef knife for our own use after realising that we have sufficient remaining cash with us. The first knife was bought especially for someone special which we shall not reveal yet until it is presented to the person. :)

This time round though, we asked the knife maker whether he could engrave Chinese characters onto both of the knives. And he kindly did it for us. He could only do it on the metallic portion of the handle. My guess is that if the engraving were to be done on the blade itself, it would affect the integrity of the blade’s performance.

Yang took a few more shots of the visit today, including the actual knife we bought before it was all wrapped up. Below is a selection of photos.

The shop has a really authentic feel to it, as though it was belonging to a master artisan would makes and sells his own knives. On the other side of the room were several used knives which we suspect he was maintaining for their owners.

The knife maker and shop owner hand-engraving our Chinese characters.

Our second and new knife getting a sharpening.

One of our two knives before it was put through a final polish. Cost 8,000円 each, and we bought additional whetstones at 2,000円 for each too.

Day 8 of our Japan trip was spent visiting two of the most iconic and unique sights in Kyoto City; the Kinkakuji Temple, and Fushimi Inari Shrine. Both institutions were in almost opposite sides of the city; Kinkakuji was in the north-western part of Kyoto, Fushimi Inari in the south-east. Just as well; we went to the former in the morning, and on our way towards the latter stopped by Kyoto Station for round #2 at God-of-All-Katsus-Restaurants, i.e. Katsukura. Had exactly the same thing again, which only goes to show how delicious the tonkatsus were.:)

Kinkakuji is also known as the Golden Pavilion as the three-story structure is totally covered in gold leaf, and on its roof top sits a bronze phoenix ornament. The entrance fee was 400円, and there already quite a few visitors by the time we got there just past 10:00 AM. But we were blessed with great sunlight, which gave an awesome sheen and gloss to the structure, and an almost perfect reflection of the structure itself into the pond. There is adequate viewing areas for visitors so that shoving and pushing to get a view weren’t necessary, though I think there were one or two really excellent spots for photographic composition. I was initially a little leery of having to pay yet again for admission into a site, but this was really worth the fee.

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The Golden Pavilion is set in a lovely Japanese garden.

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Some of the outerlining structures in the compound.

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Not quite sure what the function of these structures are though.

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The pond is a lot wider than what the 18mm could manage, so I took a lot of panoramic compositions that I'll post up later.

Tummies filled with tonkatsus at lunch, we headed to Fushimi Inari Shrine and reaching the venue at 2:10 PM. This shrine is dedicated to Inari, the deity of rice and sake, but is especially well-known for the tens of thousands of torri (gates) that line a long path that leads to the inner shrines. This much photographed avenue shows up as one of the most iconic pictures of a lot of Kyoto travel books, and is also in the Memoirs of a Geisha film. There were a lot of visitors about, which made photography tricky. I didn’t need to photoshop anyone out though – thankfully – but did have to wait at several points for a moment where there weren’t any visitors to take some of these pictures. Absolutely stunning locale – and no admission fees too!

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One side of the gates is inscriptionless...

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But turn around and you'll see them! These gates are donated by businessmen.

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Contrasting colors. The left path was leading up to the shrine, and the path on the right was leading down.

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The gates line a path that I think is at least a kilometer and a half up to the summit. We didn't get to the top (inner shrine) though as we had to rush for a 3:09 PM returning bus back to Kyoto Station.

More ground shots of moss, rocks, pebbles, and rocks! All were taken two days ago; the first two during our visit to Katsura Imperial Villa, and the last three from Shugakuin Imperial Villa.

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