Listed on UNESCO Heritage Site since 1995, the popularity of Shirakawa-go has been increasing ever since. The special characteristics of the heritage village in Gifu Prefecture is the thatched-roof farmhouse, gassho-zukuri. Its unique shape that looks like hands in prayer position whose length almost touches the ground has caught attention visitors worldwide.
Your visit to Shirakawa-go could be much more memorable if you have a chance to go local by staying in one of these houses. Indeed, some of them are not only transformed into restaurants, souvenir shops or museums, but also guest houses where you can stay overnight.
Interested? To make your holiday plan runs smoothly, here’s what you need to know before staying in a gassho-style guesthouse.
In fact, larger-scale accommodation sites you’re familiar with, booking.com and agoda.com for instance, hardly have gassho-zukuri guest houses on their list.
ROOM RATES: NOT A SHOESTRING, YET RELATIVELY AFFORDABLE
The average rate per night for staying at gassho-style guesthouses is between 9000 Yen and 13,000 Yen ($84 to $122), including breakfast and dinner. There’s an option for dinner or breakfast only as well, or none.
Historical houses requires old-fashioned maintenance, that usually takes a lot of money and time. Therefore, the rate won’t beat budget hotels in a million years. Bear in mind that some guest houses only receive cash payment, so please double check this to the agent.
Like all traditional Japanese inns, or ryokan, all gassho-zukuri rooms have neither private toilet nor private bathrooms. So yeah, you have to share those facilities with others. You will sleep on futon bed on tatami floor, Japanese carpet made of straw or styrofoam.
OLD-FASHIONED DINING EXPERIENCE
Since all restaurants in Shirakawa-go don’t open until late at night, it is recommended to take the dinner package at the guest house. The streets are dark after 7 pm and night life equals to staying at home.
At the same time, it’a a great opportunity to reach the experience of going local to the fullest by enjoying home cooking. You will seat on the floor, with a pillow that takes place of a chair, with a table surrounding irori, an ancient Japanese sunken hearth to heat to heat the room and cooking.
Suppose you have certain allergies, vegetarian or pescatarian, you should inform the owner or the agent prior to your arrival, so they can adjust your preference.
UNUSUAL Check-in AND Check-out TIME
Only starting from 3 pm can you actually check in at the guesthouse and surprisingly, the check out time is considered very early, at 9 am.
What you can do to maximize your stay at the guest house is that you come earlier to keep your luggage, then continue exploring Shirakawa-go as relax as you can. Between 5 pm to 6 pm when places of interests gradually close down, you return to the guest house to spend the rest of the evening and take a rest, as you need to leave early.
If you take the complete dining package, make sure you don’t check in too late, otherwise the host will wait for too long and finally won’t be able to cook your dinner.
Generally speaking, gassho-zukuri guesthouses are family business and and inherited from their predecessors, as many of the houses are older than 200 years old. The host who serve you during your stay is the owner, not employees, from cleaning, mending the room until preparing your breakfast and dinner. They even stay under one roof with you.
Therefore, it would be better to show some gratitude for their services and manage your manner. For example, keep the silence during night time when they and other guests are sleeping.
NO BIG SUITCASES
Although it’s still possible to accommodate a large suitcase in the guest house, it could be exhausting to drag it on streets for a long time. Moreover, Japanese buses have narrow corridors that only fit up to medium-sized suitcases and no extra space for large ones. Thus, learn to travel light will be very handy for you.
NOT FOR LARGE GROUPS
Usually, a gassho farmhouse has 4 to 5 rooms, with maximum capacity of 12 people. If you travel with a group of friends or family, make sure that the rooms at the guest house where you’re staying are still vacant to keep everyone together under one roof. Moreover, you’re allowed to stay there just for one day, not more.
Due to limited room capacity, staying overnight at gassho-zukuri guest houses will never be the part of tour operators’ itinerary for Japan tour packages. In other words, you need to plan and book your own trip if you really want to experience a unique stay at the heritage farmhouse.
So, are you physically and mentally ready to adapt with the local culture?
Bombarded by tons of marketing from many tour operators worldwide, Shirakawa-go has been one of the most visited villages in Japan. Yet Gokayama, the village next door, doesn’t really have that kind of exposure.
Moreover, the assumption that Gokayama is part of Shirakawa-go since both have a traditional house called gassho-zukuri and Shirakawa-go is easier to reach than Gokayama makes Gokayama is even less-known. Let me tell you what, they are just terribly wrong!
HOW TO GET TO GOKAYAMA
Gokayama, literally meaning 5 mountains, is situated in the southwest of Toyama Prefecture in Nanto city. The use of the name Gokayama has begun since 1513 to generalize a group of villages spreading in 5 different areas.
From 5 mountains that consist of 40 villages, Ainokura and Suganuma village are the most beautiful ones, that have been listed on UNESCO Heritage Site since 1995 together with Ogimachi village in Shirakawa-go.
To Gokayama, you can either start your journey from Takayama City, Toyama City or Kanazawa. In my experience, the closest way to get there is to take a bus from Takayama Station in Takayama City. Please note that the only public transportation to Gokayama is a bus. No bullet trains, no trams. You can rent a car, too, if you like.
At first, all buses will stop in Ogimachi Station, where Shirakawa-go is located, that takes an hour from Takayama Station. Then, you need to transfer to another bus going to both pretty villages in Gokayama. It takes 30 minutes to Suganuma and Ainokura for another 15 minutes.
So, going to Gokayama is not as hard as you think.
Nonetheless, I came to Gokayama twice. First in spring 2016 to visit Suganuma Village, which was accidental (check further in my previous post to know why) and second in autumn 2017 to visit Ainokura Village. Bad planning was the key problem here, that should not happen to you as both villages in Gokayama is more than easy to visit all at once, as I explained before.
Another misconception I heard is that Gokayama is situated in the same area as Shirakawa-go. All right, let me get this straight. Gokayama is in Toyama Prefecture, whereas Shirakawa-go is in Gifu Prefecture.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of Suganuma and Ainokura Village lies on the farm houses with thatched-roof almost touching the ground called gassho-zukuri. Gassho means to join one hand’s in prayer, referring to the construction shape of the roof. These unique farmhouses have been existing since Edo Period (1603-1867) when Lord Maeda was in reign.
The gassho-zukuri’s steep roof having 60 degrees angle, steeper than that in Shirakawa-go, is created that way to accelerate the snow to fall down from the roof quickly. Excessive snow creates burden and potentially collapse the roof. Apart from that, the roof is made of straw to maintain the warmth inside the house in winter time.
Surprisingly, they don’t use nails and metals to assemble all materials, that are only straw and wood from forests around the village, to build the farm house. The straw is replaced every 15 to 20 years manually by Gokayama Forest Owner’s Cooperative Association. This is indeed a time consuming kind of work. Yet, if it involves over 100 people, the process would take just a day.
The total amount of gassho-zukuri houses in Suganuma is not as many as that in Ainokura, which is only 9 left and nearly all are uninhabited.
One of the oldest farmhouses in Suganuma is already transformed into Gokayama Folklore Museum, where you can see the exhibits of indigenous people’s way of life in the past and how they produced potassium nitrate or ensho as the main ingredient of gunpowder, silk and handmade paper called washi.
Suppose you spot the one and only gassho-zukuri having a pond surrounded by fences, it’s a sign that you have arrived safely in Suganuma.
Besides, there are 3 non gassho-zukuri houses and some earthen wall and wooden wall storehouses protected by the government. The cafe I visited to shelter myself from pouring rain is one of the examples of a non gassho style house.
Traditional warm drink you should try is konbu tea, whose main ingredient is seaweed, served with rice crackers. The umami or savoury taste will somehow remind you of refreshing chicken soup, though not per se.
Ms. Shimizu, a guest house owner in Shirakawa-go, where I stayed back in 2016, admitted that Ainokura is her favourite village because of its breathtaking scenery and serenity. Having seen in my own naked eyes, it awakened my sense of sight and simultaneously I felt peace in my heart.
Ainokura is the largest village in Gokayama, yet not as busy as Suganuma. From 23 gassho zukuri farmhouses aged 100, 200 and the oldest 400 years, many of them are still in use.
As a visitor, you should respect the local’s privacy privacy by not trespassing their farm or backyard, picking plants or flowers and maintaining the silence. No worries, though. The good news is that you still can satisfy your curiosity about what’s inside by visiting some of the transformed heritage houses into cafes, restaurants and minshuku (family-owned traditional Japanese guest house)
Please beware that smoking is prohibited in the neighbourhood, as well as in Suganuma (and Shirakawa-go), and a very dangerous thing to do as the farmhouse straw roof is combustible!
Just like in Suganuma, inhabitants in Ainokura produced ensho, washi and silk for a living, where you can learn more in Ainokura Folk Village. Learning to craft washi, traditional Japanese handmade, could be a fun activity to do in Washi Workshop. To participate in the workshop, you need to register first and make sure to attend before 3.30 pm as it is the last admission.
SERENITY AND ORIGINALITY AT ITS BEST
Everything you see in Gokayama, from gassho style houses to surrounding crops, rice fields and shrine groves are still very-well preserved as it is until today because they are unaffected by World War II. Moreover, Gokayama is a perfect destination for those who embrace silence and dislike hustling and bustling crowds like Shirakawa-go.
THE PRICE FAVOURITE’S DESTINATION
In a nutshell, it deserves to be part of your itinerary to Japan once in a life time. To be honest, I didn’t regret to return to Gokayama after the screwed up plan I had made the year before.
Prince Akishino, who stayed in Ainokura twice in 1983 and 1992, once said that he has 3 favourite destinations in the world, and Gokayama is one of it.
If a Japanese prince left his heart in Gokayama, why shouldn’t you?
The covid-19 outbreak, although won’t last forever, change the way we live. Travel bloggers and avid travellers are no exception. They, like everyone else, are not allowed to leave their hometown and globe-trotting as they should be, not even their own house except going to pharmacy and supermarket.
So what I can do, as a travel blogger, is to improve my discipline in writing more articles regularly on my travel journeys. During the process, I found something interesting on my Japan trip file. It’s about Porto Europa I visited back in 2017.
Just to be sure, this is not about Porto in Portugal and not Europa in Europe.
Porto Europa is a theme park inspired by streets and houses in Italy, Spain and France located in Wakayama City Marina, Japan. Wakayama City Marina itself is a man-made island of 49 hectares that takes about 30 minutes by bus from the city center, Wakayama City.
I was hoping to ride the merry go round and roller coaster after visiting Kuroshio Ichiba Market, a seafood market next door. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen because the park was under renovation. But it didn’t close either. Instead, everyone could go in and wander for free, nothing else. Usually, the admission fee is 3800 Yen (#35) per person.
Oh well, why not? And I didn’t regret it at all. Honestly, it was a wonderful place to be, as the European “feel” was pretty intense, in one condition: when it locks down.
I took pictures as many as I could without disturbance from the crowds and so happy that I did it!
Situated in mountainous Hida region in Gifu Prefecture, Takayama is best known for the main access and the closest city to Shirakawago and Gokayama, UNESCO Heritage Site listed villages known for their gassho-zukurihouses. Don’t make Takayama just a transit city, however. Spend a day or two instead, strolling around the morning markets and Sanmachi Suji, a quaint old town with beautifully preserved shop and private houses over 300 years old, made of high quality cypress and cedar wood. Everything you’re looking for is literally there along the way, from souvenirs, traditional handicrafts, jewelry stores, snack shops until a must to try signature food which is “inevitable” anywhere in Takayama: Hida beef.
What’s so particular about it?
Hida Beef comes from a black-haired cow breed grown in Gifu Prefecture for at least 14 months. It’s one of the highest quality meat, specifically the marbling. Marbling fat texture is responsible for great taste, as it protects the aroma, tenderness and juiciness of the meat from escaping.
You actually can get Hida beef anywhere in Takayama, not just the old town, but it’s an ideal way for those who don’t have much time to travel too far from the main attractions to chase the beef.
Nonetheless, if you only relate Hida beef to beef steak, you got it all wrong. Since I didn’t specialize my visit on trying all types of Hida beef dishes, I was happy enough that I managed to try 1 beef steak and 4 non-steak menus. Mostly, I had them to go to save time and money, therefore I didn’t have to sit down and get tempted with all the additional menus like sweets, shakes and fries.
a. Hida Beef Bun
At a glance, it looks like a Chinese bun or ba pao, which is true. The differences lie on the Japanese inscription on the surface of the bun and the Hida minced beef inside, not just any kind of meat. The meat sauce is probably shoyu-based, which is very common in Japan. But the juiciness of the meat is top notch, while the role of the savoury sauce is neither dominate nor conceal its real taste, except to enhance the already good quality meat.
At Kihachiro Beef Bun, you can get Kihachiro’s Beef Bun, using no other than Hida beef labelled as “premium” for ¥ 500 ($ 4.50) and it’s totally worth it. Other options are matcha and red bean bun, black sesame and red bean bun and sweet pudding.
Beef Bun and Cafe Kihachiro. 29 Kamisannomachi, Takayama, Gifu Prefecture 506-0846. +81 577-62-8811
b. Hida Beef Burger
It’s indeed an American style burger with beef patty made of Hida beef. So what’s so special about it, as you may ask, and I don’t blame you for that. But still, I recommend you to give some spare capacity of your tummy for this one. The size of the burger is rather smaller than usual, yet the taste of the patty is fresher and more juicy than those of McDonald’s, plus additional caramelized flavor because of the home made barbecue sauce coating its surface. Apparently, Hida beef makes ordinary food extraordinary. For ¥ 800 ($ 7.20), it’s a bit pricey because of the size, but it’s worth it.
My curiosity arose when I saw someone bringing sushi on a cracker plate. When I realized that it’s Hida beef sushi, I sacrificed my impatience by being in (long) line with the crowds. I ordered the basic menu, Hida Beef Nigiri ¥ 500 ($ 4.50) , as seen on the picture on hanging board.
I got 2 pieces of the Hida beef nigiri sushi placed on the rice cracker or senbei, whose sushi rice is nearly invisible (except from the sides) since each of them is covered with Hida beef slices brushed with sweet sauce on top. It’s moist, juicy with hints of blood taste since I have it medium. I love the taste although it’s a bit chewy for me. In my opinion, it’s medium rare. May be when it’s medium, it could be less chewy but still juicy. Nothing really particular about the taste of the crackers other than light savored, as it’s not expected to overpower the sushi taste. Nonetheless, it’s a unique experience to have crunchiness collides with firm and sticky sushi, which is probably not obtainable anywhere else.
You can have it with additional Hida beef maki or sushi roll besides the nigiri ones on the cracker place since its maximum capacity is 3 pieces of sushi, but of course it costs more than ¥ 500 ($ 4.50). More premium grade options could be around ¥ 700 ($ 6.30) to over ¥ 1000 ($ 9).
When I was staring at clippings attached on an announcement board at Guest House Ouka, one of the guest house employees greeted me, asking me if he could help me with anything. Indeed, I was looking for a recommended Hida beef restaurant and everything written on those clippings sounded tempting. Finally, he advised me to visit Suzuya Restaurant. A lot of tourists visit it and they love it. Additionally, one of his friends work there. Okay, this could be a subjective opinion, but there was no harm to try.
I ordered its best selling menu, Hoba Miso Beef Steak Rice set. It’s the 65 gram sliced Hida beef steak grilled on hoba leaf with miso paste, mixed vegetables (shimeji, shiitake mushroom and spring onion) that comes with rice and tea for ¥ 1944 ($ 17.50). I admit, it’s an affordable rice set with quality taste. It takes 6 to 10 minutes until the meat reaches the medium level of rareness. When the tender and juicy meat blends with the lightly fermented and savory taste of miso paste, it’s fantastic!
In fact, Suzuya was the only restaurant where I dined in a complete relaxation and cozy atmosphere, without eating while walking and snapping pictures here and there. I mean, who could enjoy eat hot and sizzling grilled meat on the move? The service was excellent as the waiter, the guest house employee’s friend, was super friendly. Surprisingly, he understands a few words of Indonesian language!
Only the A5 grade, the highest grade of Hida beef, does Rokujuban use in all the menus, from skewers to stewed beef. I took the Standard Hida Beef Stew for ¥ 800 ($ 7.20). It turns out that the soup reminds me of Hungarian goulash soup that I love so much. The only thing that disappoints me is that about 50% of its content is the fat that I dislike the texture, although it is undoubtedly contributes a lot to its rich taste. Other than that, it’s a great choice. Suppose you like poached egg in your stewed beef, just add another ¥ 100 ($ 0.90). Or, if budget is not the issue, you can try the most expensive menu, Hida Beef Stew in a sealed pouch for ¥ 1300 ($ 11.70).
If I knew that there would be a lot of fat in the stewed beef, I would rather get the skewers instead, such as Hida Beef Meatball Salt for ¥ 500 ($ 4.50), Standard A5 Loin for ¥ 600 ($ 5.40) and Special A5 Loin for ¥ 1000 ($ 9).
Perhaps, you’d like to conclude your dining experience with local sake, why not? Rokujuban offers it for ¥ 500 ($ 4.50).
In addition to those I mentioned above, other Hida beef dishes that deserve to be on your bucket list are the deep fried versions, such as Hida beef croquette and Hida beef katsu. However, I didn’t try those because I’m allergic to any kind of fried food.
Make sure you don’t leave Takayama without trying Hida beef unless you’re a vegetarian, a vegan, a pesceterian or simply not a meat lover.
The early settlement in Shibuya began when Shibuya family built a castle in the area during the Edo Period in the 11th century. Its transformation from a wealthy family residential site to the busiest railway station was marked by the establishment of JR (Japan Railway) Yamanote Line, previously known as Shinagawa Line, in 1885. Nowadays, Shibuya Station consists of over 8 lines and to be honest, it is more than easy to get lost in between.
Fear not, though. What you need to remember when you get off in Shibuya Station is to find the most notable exit of the station, which is exit no. 8 called Hachiko Exit, to reach the city center. My friend and I did that the whole time and it worked.
Known as one of the most hectic districts in Tokyo with skyscrapers and their flashing advertisement and video screens, Shibuya is a melting pot of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. And don’t forget about the crowds too, it’s incredibly insane!
Nonetheless, if you’re not so much into shopping, taking some booze and clubbing (I purposely exclude the “dining” thing because you may need some fuel to explore the city although you’re not a foodie), what other things you can do in Shibuya?
Indeed, the movie is inspired by an Akita dog named Hachiko, owned by Professor Ueno in 1920s. The dog always followed him every time he came to Shibuya Station to commute to his workplace, as well as waited for him there until he returned before heading home. One day, the professor passed away because he suffered from brain hemorrhage and did not return. But, Hachiko’s loyalty to his master didn’t stop there. Instead, he kept waiting for him at the same spot, same time every day for the next 9 years. The story became viral after a professor’s former student told about it to the public, then Hachiko statue was erected in 1934 exactly on the spot where he always waited for the professor. One year after later, Hachiko died from cancer at the age of 11.
Once you leave the station through Hachiko Exit, you’ll find a bunch of crowds on your left side waiting for their turn to pose with the bronze dog statue of Hachiko. The line is always long, especially in high season, yet fortunately the queue usually runs smoothly as they don’t cut each other’s line.
We both are dog lovers, so taking a picture with the legendary dog is a must despite the long queue.
CROSS THE STREET THROUGH SHIBUYA CROSSING
I love the vibrant atmosphere in Shibuya, especially in the evening when all interchanging advertisement images and videos decorating the skyscrapers brightening the entire district, as if they wanted to replace the role of sunlight after it goes down. Both local and international brands are competing each other to get the most attention from the crowds below them.
Guess what, the ones that got mine are those with anime characters regardless what the inscriptions say. It’s all written in Japanese and I understand none of it.
When the traffic lights from all directions turn red, that’s when a magical moment actually happens. In locals’ and expatriates’ perspective, crossing the street in Shibuya Crossing is just a small part of a daily routine. But for us, being around those pedestrians from various nationalities and races, apart from Japanese, feels like getting lost in translation. We could be either part of the famous movie scene or nothing more than just isolated strangers.
Anyways, we really enjoyed mingling with other strangers crossing the busiest pedestrian lanes in the world. Blushing one’s shoulder is inevitable, but cases of pickpocket hardly happen despite the packed situation on street. And hell yes, Japanese people are used to walking straight, fast and being alone among the crowds.
WATCH PEOPLE CROSSING SHIBUYA CROSSING FROM STARBUCKS COFFEE
One of the best places to get bird’s eye view of the crowds in Shibuya Crossing is Starbucks Coffee Shibuya Tsutaya, which is probably the highest traffic Starbucks branch I’ve ever seen in my life. I only can imagine how much they earn per day only from selling coffee. There are other options, too, where L’Occitane Cafe across the street could be your choice, yet Starbucks was the first thing to cross our minds.
If you only want to get some coffee to go, you can get it from the counter situated outside the outlet. But, if viewing Shibuya and its surroundings from the upper floor is your number one priority, you should be willing to be in line with the rest inside the outlet on ground floor, so-called first floor in Japan.
Coffee, tea and snacks are treated as entrance tickets to the upper floor to get great spots for photos and video recording. We found our favourite dish, which is not available in our hometown Jakarta: spring vegetables with sour cream sauce. The best thing about it that it’s healthy and suitable for vegetarians.
Once we reached the second floor, all the seats facing the window were full for the reason everybody knows. In fact, about 50 percent of visitors were actually standing, just like us, behind those “lucky” people sitting by the window, pointing their smartphones and cameras attentively to the busiest pedestrian lanes in the world right before their eyes. It doesn’t mean that other seats not facing the window were less preferred, though, as they were completely full as well.
The question when you’ll have your turn truly depends on how much time and patience you have. There are many places of interest in Tokyo and a lot of things you can do in Shibuya, so there’s no way that tourists only spend their time during the stay just to stare pedestrians from above. In other words, they will leave their strategic spot, eventually.
About 20 minutes later, the couple in front of us left. We hurriedly occupied the empty seats and became the “lucky” ones. I was so glad that I could make a video recording of those crowds below me. It surprises me somehow when I watched it back home, I just realized that the Japanese walked so fast, even faster than I felt when I crossed the street together with them, that I thought I edited this video. But I didn’t.
WATCH STREET PERFORMANCES
Performances are held best in places where crowds becoming potential spectators are around, and Shibuya totally fulfills the requirement. Street artists makes Shibuya a stepping stone to fame, hoping that one day they will be on air on famous TV stations. Somehow it’s entertaining to watch them after reaching the other end of the street.
Shibuya is also a popular place for TV show or movie shooting location, like the goat man for example. I’m not sure what the show is all about, apart from the man behind the goat mask showed off his muscular body while walking on the street and later on did some silly dancing moves. All the pedestrians around him smiled and cheered him up, anyways. If attention is the main goal of the show, he got it already.
If crowds and flashy ads on skyscrapers are not your thing but you don’t wanna go too far, probably isolating yourself to Meiji Shrine could be a great choice. Other than that, try to go outside those gigantic department stores and mingle with people from all over the world. It truly feels like being in a big party without the need to have an invitation and to pay some amount of money for cover charge! The only building you should get in is the one with a strategic location for a fantastic bird’s eye view of the legendary Shibuya Crossing.
So, how about you? Do you have some other great advise about what to do in Shibuya besides shopping? Let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Shirakawa-go lies in the mountains of the north western part of Gifu Prefecture, central Japan, that takes one hour from Takayama city. Ogimachi Village, the largest village in Shirakawa-go, is known for the thatched roof farmhouses resembling a Buddhist monk hand in prayer called gassho-zukuri. Since 1995, Shirakawa-go has been listed in UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once secluded and unknown among foreigners, Shirakawa-go has become one of the most popular attractions in Japan. The gassho-zukuri farmhouses, mostly built in 1800, are not only nice to see from the outside, but also function as souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, and even guesthouses. However, Shirakawa-go is still a residential area, since other farmhouses remain a place to stay for local people. Therefore, it is very necessary for visitors to respect the tranquility of the area and no trespassing in private houses.
WHAT’S IN A LOVELY FARMHOUSE WITH CUCUMBER VINES
There are over 25 restaurants and cafes listed on the map of Shirakawa-go if you have enough patience to find which one suits your taste. How I chose Ochudo Cafe Restaurant, that I only found out its name in the end of my visit, as a place to eat was truly by coincidence.
I spotted another gassho style farmhouse that got my attention because of the lovely terrace and hanging cucumber vines on the thatched roof like a necklace on someone’s neck. I really thought that it’s a private resident until I saw a tourist sitting on the long chair in front of the house.
Moreover, there were frames placed under the roof mentioning “Coffee”, “Tea”, the menu written in both Japanese and English, an “Open” wall hanging wooden sign and some Japanese inscriptions I couldn’t read.
To be honest, it didn’t offer many choices of meal I expected, most probably because the main concept is a cafe rather than a restaurant. It offers coffee, tea, cafe latte, citron juice, orange juice, toast bread, curry rice and sweet red bean soup or zenzai. Wait! Curry rice sounded like a great choice. I’ve tried Japanese curry before, yet I hadn’t tasted it in Japan during my visit, so why not?
Entering the farmhouse, I noticed that it has experienced some modifications. The shoe rack spot is replaced by stairs to go down to the main dining room, so there’s no need to take off your shoes to enter the restaurant. I was happy that I didn’t have to untie my shoes to get in.
The traditional sunken hearth kitchen or an open fireplace called irori is transformed into a table, surrounded by benches instead of sitting on the flat pillows on the floor, where customers still can witness the traditional way of boiling water and cooking food in more comfortable way.
I looked up to the ceiling and it’s surprisingly see-through, inner side of the construction was visible, including that of the thatched roof.
The pantry is dominated by collections of (English style) tea cups and their matching saucers kept neatly arranged in the shelves, where the rest of the cups were hung on the wooden lease of the pantry together with the lanterns. What’s so cool about the hanging cups is that customers who order tea and coffee can choose one of them for their drinks. Creating a memorable customer experience doesn’t have to be complicated.
Another thing I like about the interior is how they use leftover spaces and personal belongings to deliver homey atmosphere inside a commercial place by displaying children’s drawings, family pictures, a table lamp, toys and again, tea cups. Functioning unused chairs into tables by placing tablecloths on the seats is also a great idea.
Was I entering my relative’s home or a restaurant? Good question.
SERVICE EXCELLENCE: WHEN SPEED, QUALITY AND HOSPITALITY MERGE HARMONIOUSLY
Accommodating about 20 to 30 people maximum, the dining area is not that big. No wonder why it quickly became full, especially at lunch time. Only 20 minutes later did I get my seat after two Caucasian ladies left their spot. But it doesn’t mean that it was not busy any longer.
A couple in their 50’s ran all the operational activities, that I assume the owners (let’s call them uncle and auntie), who kept going back and forth serving customers, from taking orders until bringing food and drinks to them. I was curious whether there was any chef helping them in the kitchen, but I didn’t see anyone appearing from there. Honestly, I admit that the uncle and auntie had a quick response, amazing speed and agility for their age.
The uncle greeted me, passing me the artsy handmade menu on the table. Having a shape like a palette paint made of thick cardboard, it was covered with pumpkin orange colour recycled paper and the menu list was written by hand on both sides. Lovely!
I instantly ordered curry with rice (¥ 900 or about $ 8), but not the set menu that comes with sweet red bean soup (¥ 1300 or about $ 12) because red bean is not really my favorite, although it’s one of the best sellers in Ochudo.
My curry rice came with a sliced pumpkin and some beans, red ginger as a side dish and a glass of water, that usually served for free in any restaurants in Japan. I previously thought that I would get a chicken curry rice, therefore I didn’t expect that it would be a vegetarian dish, but that’s okay.
Even though I’m more a fan of Indian and Thai curry, I also like a Japanese version of curry with a tendency of sweet taste rather than emphasizing strong spices. Compared to the one I once had in a big restaurant chain, my sense of taste could tell that the curry sauce at Ochudo was purely home cooking with fresher ingredients, so it was just tasted better and nothing fabricated. Or perhaps I was just I carried away with the homey surroundings inside the heritage house.
What makes it more special was the rice, gosh I loved it lots! Instead of using regular steamed rice, the curry was served with zakkokumai, rice with mixed seeds and grains, giving purplish colour on the rice. It had al dente texture, subtle sweetness with earthy taste, that completely blended well with the curry. The only thing I didn’t touch was the red ginger, simply because I don’t like ginger at all.
The uncle started a small talk with me when he cleared up my table, asking how the food was. I frankly said it was great and really liked the rice. I wanted to know what he put in the rice besides azuki or red bean, but he only said, “It’s made with many beans.” Most probably because either he didn’t have much time to explain or his English was too limited to elaborate the answer.
I said to myself that it could have been better if there was more content in the curry sauce itself. But it wasn’t a big deal at all.
“Where do you come from?” He asked me again.
I replied, “Indonesia.”
“Oww… Indonesia. They also come from Indonesia.” He pointed a group of six sitting across my table, who originally came from Surabaya, East Java.
Knowing that I was travelling alone, he passed me a book to read about Shirakawa-go to accompany me. On top right of the book, I saw hand-written Japanese characters with Latin letters right below it mentioning, “Ochudo.” It was the moment I realized that the cafe restaurant name was Ochudo since I didn’t look at the map at all.
I was touched by the uncle’s hospitality and sensitivity despite language barrier and limited time in peak hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to communicate with the auntie since she was at the pantry all the time, but I believe she was a nice woman, too.
Overall, I had a great time and great meal, giving me more energy to continue strolling around the village. Anytime you visit Shirakawa-go, make sure you take your time dining at Ochudo Cafe Restaurant when hunger strike.
Ochudo Cafe Restaurant
792 Ogimachi, Shirakawa, Ono District, Gifu Prefecture, Japan
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist God of Mercy, situated in the mid-slope of Mt. Otawa in east Kyoto, on the site where Otawa Waterfall produces pure and clean water ceaselessly everyday. It has been listed on UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1994.
The foundation of Kiyomizu-dera Temple began in 778 when monk Enchin discovered Otowa Waterfall after he had a vision of meeting an old man in white who asked him to find pure water. Near the waterfall, he met Gyoei-koji, the priest who was the incarnation of Kannon. He gave monk Enchin the sacred tree and asked him to carve the thousand-armed Kannon to guard Kannon’s sacred place.
In 780, a warrior named Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro came to Mt. Otowa to hunt deer. Nonetheless, monk Enchin forbid him to take lives in a sacred land of Kannon and taught about Kannon’s virtuous deeds instead. Deeply moved by his teachings, Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro built a temple called Kiyomizu, literally means pure water, to worship Kannon.
In the beginning, the temple adopted Hosso sect doctrine until 1965 when it formed its own Kita Hosso sect, a reformed Buddhism with more contribution to the society, founded by Onishi Ryokei Wajo.
Repeatedly burned over the centuries, the buildings you see today at the temple complex were mostly built in 1633.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE MAIN TEMPLE
The day after my dining experience in Gion, I continued exploring Kyoto by visiting one of the most-visited temples Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera Temple. From Kyoto Station, I took bus no. 110 (other options are no. 86, 100, 106, 206, depending on which one comes first) going directly to the temple.
Getting off the bus, it was not directly visible right before my eyes. But I believe I was on the right track after seeing bunch of other visitors going to the same direction, Chawan Zaka or Teapot Lane as part of Higashiyama District, the slope surrounded by souvenir, pottery shops, and kimono rental center. I tried not to get easily distracted by those charming shops since it would take approximately 45 minutes to reach the main temple. Not to mention that I had other destinations to catch in the city apart from Kiyomizu-dera.
The red gate or pagoda, was the first sign that you are already at the temple complex. It was also the starting point where the crowds from various nationalities started to gather for selfie, wefie, or just to save some energy before climbing up more stairs to the famous wooden stage at the main temple.
Probably, the only “weakness” (if you wanna call it that way) of a popular destination is the inevitable crowds everywhere you go, no matter whether it’s high or low season. I came in low season and the crowds were still like crazy.
Moreover, it was on the same day as a study tour from some local schools. Despite the crowds, I got neither emotional nor impatient while queuing up. Especially, Japanese people are usually very discipline and cutting each other’s line didn’t happen at all.
Although Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple, the influence of Shinto remains, distinguishing Buddhism in Japan from that in other countries. For instance, the attributes of Omairi (the ritual of entering Shinto shrine) are available outside the main temple, such as communal basin for temizu (self-cleansing ritual by washing mouth and hands with a wooden scoop) and the prayer to kami (gods) by dropping a coin as an offering, pulling the rope to ring a bell and clapping hands twice.
The ultimate destination of visiting Kiyomizu-dera Temple is the most photographed object of the temple, the wooden stage of the main temple that was built without nails. The thousand armed Kannon statue, the main object of worship carved by the monk Enchin, is kept there. Again, be prepared for the crowds!
I was a bit disappointed when I saw the roof of the main stage covered in black cloth for renovation. The bad news is that it stays that way from February 2017 until March 2020. The good news is that thanks to the renovation, the next generation will be able to witness the well-maintained invaluable cultural property in the long run.
Fortunately, the roof renovation didn’t disturb its function as an observation deck, where I could see Otowa Waterfall and its surroundings from above.
Stretching over 130,000 square meter, Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex also houses Buddhist buildings and other important cultural properties. Among others Okunoin Hall and halls dedicated to Shaka Buddha and Amida Buddha.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS AT THE TEMPLE COMPLEX
Since Otowa Waterfall’s discovery by Monk Enchin in 778 and how it became an inspiration of the temple name “Kiyomizu-dera”, meaning pure water, the fame of the waterfall continues until these days. The waterfall consists of 3 separate streams, where each of them is believed to bring success, longevity and love. The sacred water is drinkable, but you only can pick 1 stream, since drinking from all of them defines greed. I didn’t have much patience to line up, though, but I believe it should be fun to “catch” the water using the glass attached with a long pole.
The main temple itself is already a magnificent place to visit. Nonetheless, of all the attractions at Kiyomozi-dera Temple complex, Jishu Shrine is definitely my favourite. Rebuilt in 1633 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, Jishu Shrine is a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking situated behind the main temple.
The main God is Okuninushi no-Mikoto, assisted by his messenger, the rabbit whom he once helped when his skin was being peeled off. The three generations of Okuninushi no-Mikoto family are enshrined here, that includes his parents and grandparents.
The main hall of the shrine is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen because of the multiple colourful small shrines inside the complex. People come to the shrine to pray for finding a true love, long-lasting marriage, getting pregnant easily and save delivery. No wonder why most visitors I saw were young females, some young couples and a very few elderly people.
Love stones or Koiuranai no Ishi become the object that draws attention when you enter the shrine because it is believed that if you can walk from one stone to the other one with eyes closed without bumping into someone else means you’ll find a true love. If you need assistance along the way, it means that you need somebody else’s help to find the love of your life.
I spotted a local schoolgirl walking blindfolded with both hands raising to the front, starting from one love stone to the other one about 10 meters ahead. Her schoolmates cheered her while giving some directions to guide her to the right track. I don’t know how long she could reach the other side, but overall it was fun to see people having fun, or truly believe, with the philosophy behind the challenge.
At Jishu Shrine, there are several ways to say your prayer and wishes. Trust me, doing some of them (if not all) could be a lot of fun whether you’re a believer or not.
You can write your prayer, wishes and gratitude on an ema votive tablet, obtainable at the souvenir shop, and hang it on the designated “tree”. The price starts from ¥300 to ¥800 depending on the design. For those who have a talent in drawing and calligraphy, it’s time to shine. You can express your creativity whatever you like on the table. Isn’t it cool?
Another way to make a wish is to play Omikuji, a fortune telling game. Shake the provided box while making a wish until the stick comes out, defining a drawer number you need to open. Inside the drawer, there’s a piece of paper telling about your future. If says good things, keep the paper. Otherwise, you can fold and hang it on the “hanger” close to the drawer.
Also, there’s a spot where you can write all the troubles and problems in your life on a piece of paper available inside the box. After that, put it in the wooden bucket filled with water to wash away all your troubles. I wish life could be that simple and easy!
It is believed that patting Nade-Daikoku-San (Daikoku to be patted), a bronze statue of a man carrying a Santa Claus lookalike sack, can make any kind of wishes and prayers come true.
After leaving Kiyomizu-dera complex, make sure you spend more time in Higashiyama District, a long street sloping down to the main street where public buses stop, as there are many tempting stores selling souvenirs, artisan jewelry designs, pottery, sweets (from ice cream to mochi), pickles and restaurants.
If you don’t like crowds that much, sorry to say that it’s always very very crowded, even in low season. But still, I suggest you to explore this area slowly.
I was so happy that I finally found my favourite snack at Yatsu Hashi Chou. The choux tasted like nowhere else in the world, with lightly-tasted cinnamon bun with green tea filling. Suppose you wonder how green tea and cinnamon can match perfectly, don’t think too much. For the price of ¥400, it was worth it.
And don’t forget to try the bottled green tea as well. It is a bit expensive though, ¥400 for 250 ml, compared to those from the vending machine, but the quality of the tea is so much better. There are 2 options, sweetened and unsweetened. I tried the sweetened one, and all I can say is that I’d rather have the unsweetened one, although the sweetened one tasted just fine.
The mural of a beautiful woman in flowers was the farewell sign of my visit to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. There’s nothing more I can say that it’s one of the best attractions I visited in Kyoto, thanks to its variety of interests combining fun and holiness simultaneously.
I was happy that I decided to revisit Kyoto the year after and finally could make it to Kiyomizu-dera Temple!
Returning to Gion brought me back to a wonderful memory I spent last spring 2016 with blossoming sakura. Last October, I strolled around the same streets and alleys just to see some colour changes of the autumn leaves in the neighborhood, that I finally failed to find. Nonetheless, Gion remains impressive with rows of preserved machiya houses as if I was in a Japanese movie scene, despite the absence of autumn leaves and sakura.
I wanted to return to the hotel when it started to rain, until I spotted a bunch of tourists and locals entering one of the alleys situated right behind Kamo river, that I hadn’t noticed its appearance in my previous visit.
Don’t get fooled by the tranquility of the street. I peeped some restaurants and bars from their window, glass door, sometimes from an accidentally opened door by visitors leaving the place, and there was where most of the crowds gathered. Seconds later, something popped up my mind. I’d like to I join the crowds for one reason: to have a dining experience in Gion, one of the most expensive areas in Kyoto, despite it could break my bank account.
It felt like leaving a comfort zone as a budget traveler. And for sure, it was something I had not done in my first visit to Gion. But simultaneously, it was challenging.
Nikuya Ginjiro facade
I passed by the most “transparent” restaurant along the alley, Nikuya Ginjiro Steak & Wine, where I could see the whole interior and its crowds only by looking from the see-through sliding door. I had a good impression at first sight because it seems like a hip and cool place for hanging out, so my choice finally went to Nikuya Ginjiro.
Emphasizing Kobe Beef as their best-selling menus, that costs around ¥ 15,000 to ¥ 18,000 per portion, it is quite a pricey place to eat for budget travellers. For sure, there are other non-Kobe beef menu with price range around ¥ 1500, ¥ 3000, ¥ 8000, depending on parts of the beef they offer. Fortunately, hunger didn’t strike me at all, since I was still in a full stomach from the spaghetti I ate earlier at Kyoto Station.
So, I paid more attention to some appetizer and light snacks, whose lowest price is about ¥ 580 ($ 5.30) excluding tax (about ¥ 620, or $ 5.66, after tax). As a comparison, you can get 1 portion of a small beef bowl for the same price in budget restaurants. By adding another ¥ 200 (from ¥ 580), you can get a regular portion of ramen and another ¥ 500 to ¥ 700 for a large one at common ramen shops.
There’s only a little, or no hope, to dine on the cheap in Gion. Apart from that, steak menus are usually not offered on a shoestring rate.
Nikuya Ginjiro’s contemporary look is more like a bar rather than a steak house. All seats use bar chairs and tall tables, that makes it unsuitable for family with small kids. It’s not a spacious place, yet it is efficiently designed to accommodate more guests.
As soon as I got a seat, a Caucasian blonde woman in pony-tailed hair passed me the A3 size of laminated menu and greeted me in native level of English, “Good evening, Ma’am. What do you want to have for tonight?”.
The woman who served me is an American nationality who has been living in Japan for the last 3 years. Besides, she also speaks fluent Japanese, which is a compulsory requirement to work anywhere in Japan.
There’s no doubt that having a native English speaker staff is one of the company’s assets to compete in a touristic area, which is one of the reasons why nearly all visitors at the steak house were foreigners.
Of all the ¥ 580 lite bites listed on the menu, Wagyu Sushi sounded interesting and unconventional in my perspective. Apparently, wagyu beef is not always related to steak. Moreover, she mentioned that there would be a nice burning show to watch when it comes to the table.
So yeah, why not?
I finally chose wagyu sushi. My dining experience started with a complimentary dish, the 3 slices of wagyu carpaccio served on a rectangle-shaped plate, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and black pepper. The thin-sliced meat was very juicy, especially it was cooked with butter, giving additional creamy and savoury taste of the meat.
Later on, the wagyu sushi arrived, whose appearance wasn’t like what I expected. It was a large and thin slice of beef with sushi rice underneath, served with chopped garlic in a separate single dish. The plate (probably) made of cast iron was almost as big as the dining table and as flat as a cardboard.
Knowing that lately a lot of people love capturing their food and post it on social media, she gave me some time to prepare my camera before the burning show began. When I was ready, the torch burner in her hand started firing the surface of the beef in certain distance, slowly moving back and forth to ensure it was evenly burned, that lasted for about 15 seconds. I found it a creative idea to demonstrate the torch burning process in front of the guests, that usually done only in the kitchen.
Assuming that there would be 2 pieces of sushi in one portion of Wagyu Sushi, I was surprised with a tendency of disappointment, after realizing that I only got one instead. I should have asked beforehand how many pieces of sushi they served on the menu. Moreover, it wasn’t meant for heavy dishes anyways and I shouldn’t blame them for that.
However, putting aside the misconception, I truly enjoyed the juiciness of the medium-cooked sliced meat, just like what I’ve always had in my steak. Adding the chopped garlic served with poured shoyu, or soy sauce, it spiced up the taste of the sushi itself.
Overall, I had a fantastic dining experience in Gion. Nikuya Ginjiro Steak & Wine is a tourist-friendly restaurant with English speaking staff and English-translated menu, without being a tourist trap and leaving their Japanese customers behind. They served great quality of food and service with impressive presentation, although I only took the lowest rate on the menu. But I believe even the simplest dish could be a representative of other menus offered.
Furthermore, they know how to cater what the guests would like to do with their food, like taking pictures, shoot and post it on Facebook and Instagram for instance, by reminding and giving guests a chance to prepare their mobile phone or camera before the “show” starts. There’s no doubt that (high quality) posts from the guests on social media is a great opportunity for their advertising without spending a dime and boost their sales in the future.
Next time you visit Gion, make sure you spare some time to spend the evening at Nikuya Ginjiro Steak & Wine!
The most beautiful stairs I’ve ever seen is in Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, Japan, last spring 2016, when most steps were covered with fallen sakura or cherry blossom petals. It was just like bed of roses cherry blossoms! I’ll never forget the moment I stepped on the stairs and feel like a queen!
Suppose you read the first part of this post, you will find out that we came to this ramen shop by mistake. In brief, we were initially advised to go to Honke Daiichiasahi. Nonetheless, since none of us could read Japanese, we didn’t realize that the store where we queued up, the one with a red canopy, was Shinpuku Saikan. On the other hand, Honke Daiichiasahi had a yellow canopy, according to the image shown on Google Map.
Despite the wrong line, we decided to stick to it because the queue at Honke Daiichiasahi was unbearable to wait with an empty stomach.
On that day, the last order was at 10.30 pm. So at 10.15 pm, we were the last guests to be in line. The waiter passed their menu to us and everyone else queuing up outside the outlet. About 20 minutes later, we officially entered the eatery. Even so, our patience was once again put to the test when we still had to stand until the existing guests left their seats.
DAY 1: THE ORIGINAL KYOTO STYLE RAMEN
Established in 1938, it is claimed to be the original style of Kyotoramen. Its neighbour and rival, Honke Daiichiasahi, on the other hand, was opened about 15 years later. The dining room had a minimalist and clean-cut style, dominated with white-tiled wall surrounding that gave an impression of nothing flashy and pretentious about this eatery. The white atmosphere was also reflected at the bar section, including the menu list on top of it printed on white background. There was no particular decoration to beautify the interior except “basic necessities”, such as calendar and clock.
When we finally managed to get our turn, the waiter passed us the menu once more. My choice mostly goes to the original menu every time I come to a new restaurant and I would not change my mind ever since we took the queue outside. So I made up my mind, I would have the tonkotsu ramen. Large portion. I wasn’t hungry. I was starving!
The intense black colour soup somehow still shocked me, although I had previously seen the picture on the menu. I had never seen such a dark sauce from a Japanese noodle dish. The abundant sliced pork, scallion and the poached egg looked very tantalizing, that’s for sure, apart from the very generous portion of the noodle. Remember, I ordered the large one. So it just had to be that way! Since Japanese people seem to love shoyu (soy sauce) so much, I really hoped that the salty taste of the soy sauce would not stand alone.
Once I sipped the soup, I realized my first impression of the black ramen was not exactly right. The soup was actually somewhere between savoury and saltybecause the pork broth taste was able to balance the strong taste of the shoyu itself, even though I still hope that the broth taste could have come out a bit more. But, it’s just my opinion and should not be taken seriously. The noodle was satisfying in terms of its al dente texture and I was happy about it.
DAY TWO: THE YAKIMESHI
Since we saw a lot of people ordered the fried rice, or yakimeshi, the night before, we returned to Shinpuku Saikan to fulfill our curiosity. It was around 3 pm and nobody was in line. We got our seats in seconds. Yeaaay!!
Unfortunately, I was allergic to any (deep) fried food. Therefore, my friend was the one who ordered the yakimeshi and I only allowed myself to have 2 to 3 spoonful of the rice maximum to avoid itchy throat and agonizing cough that may last the whole day.
The appearance of the yakimeshi was slightly darker than Indonesian fried rice, which was not really common for a Japanese style fried rice in my point of view. Unlike the ramen, there was only one type of yakimeshi offered, which was with scrambled egg and diced chicken. Despite its basic ingredients, it was actually fantastic. Another particular thing about the fried rice was that it was served with a small bowl of black soup; the same soup as that of the ramen. To be honest, I found it a bit funny to eat fried rice and sipping the soup simultaneously and I would rather enjoy the yakimeshi alone without the soup.
For us, Shinpuku Saikan delivered a new perspective and experience of eating ramen, as we just knew that it doesn’t always come with clear or thick white soup. Apart from that, it came to our surprise as well that the soup could take part as a condiment for fried rice. Although I was not very accustomed with the soup taste at first, I think it was pretty delicious in its own way.
We considered ourselves lucky to be at the wrong place as it unexpectedly spiced up our culinary adventure.
It had been 9 days since we arrived in Japan, visiting great places and tasting a lot of fantastic food, from onigiri, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, mochi, Hida beef to sushi. But there was something missing. How come we couldn’t find any ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodle) during the journey?
As soon as we checked in at Lower East Nine Hostel in Kyoto in the evening, we asked the receptionist’s recommendation of great ramen worth to try and how to find it. In response to our question, he quickly said, “Honke Daiichiasahi. About 5 minutes walking distance from Kyoto Station.”
Wow! How convenient was it! Our hostel was situated just 1 stop from Kyoto Station by subway. The hunger struck us and without further much ado, we immediately went to the recommended ramen shop.
THE DAY BEFORE IN THE EVENING
With a help from Google Map, we finally arrived at a modest shop house complex. There were actually 2 shop houses selling ramen and at almost 10 pm, the queues of both places were unbelievable. Everyone was standing outside the entrance door and patience seemed the only way to succeed getting some seats. Nonetheless, hunger made it difficult. We automatically queued at the one with less people in line.
Still opening Google Map on my phone, I suddenly noticed something was not right. Honke Daiichiasahi façade was pictured as the shop house having a yellow canopy and a giant yellow menu attached on the window. On the other hand, we lined up at the one having a red canopy and 2 vending machines outside the outlet. The characters written on the red canopy didn’t match the one on Google Map either.
So, once more, I asked a local guy passing by which one Honke Daiichiasahi was. He pointed the shop house behind us, with the yellow canopy whose line was much more crazy than where were at. I told my friend about it. Our conclusion was to have a dinner at the “wrong” ramen shop (which was also great, stay tuned for the next post!) that night and returned to Honke Daiichiasahi the day after.
THE DAY AFTER IN THE AFTERNOON
After visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine the next day, we revisited Honke Daiichiasahi for lunch. Surprisingly, there was no one lined up outside the store like yesterday, although we still needed to wait inside for an empty seat that took less than 10 minutes.
The dining area was modest and not too spacious, where the distance between chairs and tables looked a bit too cramped, but it’s just how it is and nothing to complain about. The bar section, a long table attached on the wall near the food out window, maximized way to accommodate more customers. I admit the cleanliness was pretty good despite the crowds and heavy (customer) traffic. I spotted some parts of the wall need to be repainted near the air conditioner, though, but I think people just didn’t sweat about it.
Needless to say that the key success of the eatery that has been operating since 1947 lies on the excellent quality of the ramen itself, which is originally a Chinese style soba known as “Takabashi Ramen” or just “Takabashi”.
I only can understand why raving fans are willing to stand for hours just for a bowl of noodle after trying their signature “Special Ramen”, the tonkotsu ramen with shouyu (soy sauce) and abundant thin-sliced pork. Although the soup had light texture, it was actually savoury because of the high intensity of broth taste. The well-selected domestic pork meat called chutaikan enriched the soup taste in the right proportion and the generous amount of scallions added up some freshness to the entire dish.
To be honest, it’s the best ramen I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Starting from approximately ¥700, you can get a bowl of delicious ramen. The price of Special Ramen is slightly higher, ¥850 per portion and ¥550 for a smaller portion, but still affordable. The only regret I had was that I ordered the small portion (I mean, look at the price compared to the normal one!) because I ate too much street food around the neighbourhood of Fushimi Inari Shrine prior to the visit.
Practically, you can visit Honke Daiichiasahi almost anytime you want (except Thursdays), because of the long operational hours, from 5 am until 2 am. Moreover, the location is very strategic and easy to find, just 5 minutes on foot from Kyoto Station. If you are a noodle lover, it’s a must to try.
I hope that I’ll have time to visit this ramen shop once again when I return to Kyoto and perhaps, I can try the gyoza (dumpling), too.
TIPS BEFORE YOU GO
If you ask for the name of a place you’re not familiar with and you neither speak nor read Japanese, ask for the written form of that name in Japanese characters. Since not all Japanese people understand Latin letters, the Japanese characters helps a lot when you get lost and need ask someone for a road direction to a certain place you can’t pronounce well.
To avoid long queue, come at the non-peak hours. In my experience, in the afternoon, especially after lunch time, the traffic is slower and you can get a seat more easily.
Being one of the most crowded areas in Tokyo, Shibuya is mostly known for its legendary Shibuya Crossing (that reminds me of Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift), Hachiko statue outside Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station and tall buildings with flashy LED lighting.
Nonetheless, despite the crowds, finding tranquility and peace of mind in Shibuya area is much easier than you thought. Meiji Shrine is the closest getaway to stay away from crowds a little while. From Shibuya Station, take a JR Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station, which is only 1 stop, and walk a few minutes from Harajuku Station.
Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine built in 1920 as a dedication to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, located in the inner side of Yoyogi Park near the iris garden that they loved to visit during their lives.
The shrine was destroyed in 1945 during the World War II and rebuilt with donations from various sources all over the country in 1958.
Once we found the Torii gates made of 1500-year-old cypress wood among the greens, I knew I was in the right place. Hustling and bustling in the city seemed to be a distant memory, replaced by the 247-acre garden offering tranquility and some fresh air.
Bear in mind that tranquility doesn’t make Meiji Shrine off-the-beaten path place at all, since it holds many religious ceremonies and festivals. Also, there are many traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies taking place at the memorial hall.
EMPEROR MEIJI AND EMPRESS SHOKEN: HIGHLY RESPECTED ROYAL COUPLES
Emperor Meiji was known for Meiji Restoration (1867 – 1912), when Japan transformed into a modern country, opening itself to the outside world, catching up with the western knowledge and technology, and industrial period started to rise. It also marked the end of feudalism by Tokugawa Shogunateafter 250 years of ruling.
On the other hand, Empress Shoken involved in numerous royal visits, meetings and was active in charity funds, including the Japanese Red Cross society. She donated ¥100,000 (now worth ¥3.5 billion) to International Red Cross in Geneva in 1912, inspiring the establishment of Empress Shoken Fund in the same year. The fund supports disaster preparedness, healthcare, sanitation, and social welfare activities in developing countries.
More than 100 years after the royal couple’s passing, they are still highly respected nationwide. Every year, the ceremony of Emperor Meiji’s birthday is held on November 3. The commemoration of Empress Shoken is on April 11, which is the anniversary of her death, to remember her virtues.
Before passing the 12-meter Otorii or Grand Shrine Gate, the largest gate at Meiji Shrine, there’s a giant rack stacked with sake barrels that are probably the only colourful property on site.
Meiji Jingu Nationwide Sake Brewers Association and other sake brewers from different parts of Japan make sake offerings to honor the soul of the royal couple, as well as a gratitude to Emperor Meiji who encouraged the growth of industrialization during Meiji Period.
Another dedication to Emperor Meiji is French wine barrels situated across the sake barrels, donated by notable wineries of Bourgogne in France initiated by Yasuhiko Sata, the House of Burgundy Representative in Tokyo. Drinking wine was part of the Emperor’s ways to embrace and promote western culture, although he didn’t leave traditional values and spirit behind.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO AT THE MAIN SHRINE
Forget about red, gold and other vibrant colours like any other temples once you arrived at the main shrine. In fact, it tends to have a “low profile” look with earth colour domination, mostly dark chestnut brown. Having passed all the gates, we dragged ourselves to the most sacred place in Shibuya area.
Since we only targeted our visit on the main shrine to save our time (and free of charge), let me share what you mainly can do at the main shrine area besides walking along the large square.
1. DOING SHINTO RITUALS
For those who are non-Shinto believers, doing omairi, the basic rituals for entering the shrine, is a stepping stone to feel more “local”. Simultaneously, it’s a sign of respect to a religion you’re probably not familiar with.
Omairi basically includes bowing slightly before passing all the gates, temizu or self-cleansing ritual at the communal basin by washing mouth and hands with a wooden scoop and the prayer to kami (gods) by dropping a coin as an offering, pulling the rope to ring a bell and clapping hands twice.
I noticed that some visitors are interested in doing temizu, especially the step by step guide is stated very clearly on the board right before the basin itself. Apart from that, they do the prayer part by dropping coins and clapping hands twice mainly for gaining more experience and fun.
2. HUNTING AMULETS AND CHARMS AT THE SOUVENIR SHOP
Suppose souvenir hunting is one of the main goals of your visit, no worries. There are lovely and cute design charms, amulets, key chains at the souvenir shop. The price range starts from ¥ 300 ($ 3) to over ¥ 1000 ($ 9), depending on material, size and design. There are some modest amulets that cost ¥ 100 (S 1), too, but I think I found it not that attractive.
It is tempting to have some of them, but I try not to spend too much on them since we would visit more temples in our next journey and they usually sell similar stuffs.
3. MAKE A WISH AND A DONATION
There are several ways to make a wish and donation at the temple. One of them is to donate for a roof reparation. Write your name and wishes on a sheet of copper and pay ¥ 3000 ($ 27).
If ¥ 3000 seems too much, get an ema votive tablet for ¥ 500 and write your prayer, wishes and gratitude on it. After that, hang it on the “tree” that looks more like a hanging rack rather than an actual tree. The priests will present your wishes to the gods in the morning ceremony the day after.
Alternatively, you can write your prayer and wishes in a piece of paper and put it in the envelope provided inside the organizer on the table. Then, you can drop it inside wooden container on the left side behind the table. FYI, the paper and the envelope are free of charge.
4. ATTENDING A SHINTO WEDDING PROCESSION
Meiji Shrine is a popular place for a Shinto traditional wedding ceremony that usually takes place at Meiji Memorial Hall, followed by blessings outside the hall when family members march behind the couple and the priests. It doesn’t happen everyday, though, but if you’re lucky enough, you will find it.
To be honest, it’s the best activity of all because there’s no way that I will have that chance to see that in my hometown. It doesn’t take a genius to love watching happy couple with beautiful traditional costume and head piece (for the bride).
We hunted the couple and their troops with our camera until they returned to their car in the other end of the shrine.
OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST OTHER THAN THE SHRINE
If you have all the time in the world, the inner garden of Yoyogi Park has something else to offer apart from the main shrine. Jingū Naienor the iris garden, Treasure House and Treasure Museum Annex entrance fee is ¥ 500 ($ 5) each. When that’s not enough, you may want to visit the outer garden, where Meiji Memorial Art Gallery and Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium are located.
In our case, we skipped those places and headed to Asakusa for our next destination.