Living in a Traditional Japanese Home is very Interesting…


We’ve been Air BnB-ing around Japan now for 5 weeks, but our place in Nara easily wins first prize in the interesting lodging category. It’s a traditional home, lived in for over 40 years by the current owners, Tadahiro and his wife.

Tadahiro’s English is creative, his wife is even less fluent – but language aside – this stay clearly ranks as one of my most extraordinary adventures.

As always – I used my check-list – but even so – things are never quite what they seem in the pictures. But first steps first – Finding Tadahiro’s home was easy – he picked us up at the tiny train station just 200 meters away – and insisted on driving us to his house. This is not the center of Nara – but then Nara is relatively small – and our location turned out to be absolutely perfect.

As a traditional home, you enter thru a tiny garden space (barely room for the empty tulip planters Tadahiro was working on) going directly into the entrance hall where you take off your shoes and put on slippers. There is only room in the entrance hall for one person at a time – and no where to sit – which caused the Intrepid Traveler a bit of trouble. She much prefers to sit down to take off her lace up sneakers. I went with easy to remove sandals- so for me – not a problem.

Once properly slippered – you are in the kitchen. Shoji screens on our left blocked access to the living space of our hosts – but they kept that door firmly closed most days. I admit to getting a peak in – and like the rest of this tiny house – it was cluttered with the remains of living in a place for over 40 years. Even Japanese accumulate stuff after a while – and there were at least two formal Kimono hanging up on a wall. Plus a lot of intermingled other clutter. But that’s their space!

The layout is typical of older style homes in the Nara region – kitchens were fire hazards – and as such were separated from the main house, and well used. This kitchen was no exception – not the designer granite kitchens of the west – this was a functional space with teeny appliances and virtually no space!

How tiny? The refrigerator (packed full, full, full) was in the entrance hall – as was the toaster oven placed awkwardly on a stool. The stove top had only 3 burners, and there was no oven. And no dishwasher. And no storage space. Everything was on display – all the family’s assorted and well used dishware next to the sink, and food stuff stored on shelves above the wooden dining table on the other wall. Crowded, tiny, clean but not new. Well used is the best description.

To deal with the lack of refrigerator space, our hosts were using a stack of strafoam ice boxes as spare fridges – those were kept in what they refered to as the fire escape – a 2nd set of stairs that lead upstairs. We never used that staircase, and in fact was told it was off limits. But several days later one of the other guests used it to carry up their suitcases. So maybe my lack of Japanese led to confusion on this point.

Our hosts (who admitted to being in our age bracket of 70+ (I’m guessing more like 80+)) have turned the upper floor of their rather large, but very traditional home into a interconnected series of 5 rooms separated only by sliding shoji screens. There are 4 obvious bedrooms, one common space with a sink and a table and a kettle for making hot water – and a toilet room. The bathroom (which has a bath and a shower – no toilet) is down stairs off the kitchen.

We were shown to our ‘room’ – a large tatami mat area with one window, one bed, one futon on the floor, and a lovely library space that provided just a bit of storage – first and only storage space we’ve seen in all the places we’ve stayedI We even had two hanging racks, and at least one shelf that we could use for our stuff. Unfortunately, the rest of the space was filled with Tadahiro’s father’s books – so it was a bit dusty. And there were stacks of scrolls as well. As I mentioned – clutter happens after 40+ years.. as I well know.

We snuck a peek into the other rooms. The largest room had a lovely space with two western chairs and it overlooked the traditional interior garden. That room was used mostly by family groups, and was priced a bit higher than our space. Adjoining the larger room was a smaller room with a window towards the street. Because the two rooms were only divided by shoji screens – if both spaces were ‘rented’, the guests in the smaller part of the larger room had to enter thru another set of screens. We decided that this must have been awkward, and of course anything said in either room was clearly audible everywhere on the upper level.

The 4th room almost appeared to be a later add-on. It adjoined the fire escape staircase and was an odd shape with many windows. We thought this was the prettiest room – but it offered only futons for sleeping, and while we were in Nara – was mainly rented to single men traveling on their own. We liked this room because it was closest to the toilet – but nothing was really that far – so despite our concerns, we never had an issue.

As mentioned, there was the fire escape (off limits?) staircase – and then the proper wooden staircase to this upper level. The proper staircase was very steep – and led down onto the glassed in narrow porch that overlooked the garden. From there you could turn right into the kitchen, or if you turned left – you were in the private quarters of our hosts. We always turned right of course.

Our hosts couldn’t carry our tiny carry-ons up the stairs, and neither could we – so we were instructed to take what we wanted out of our bags and leave them in a space beside the staircase. There are lots of nooks and crannies in the home – this was one of them! But we don’t have much – so it was easy to get ourselves organized, even without our suitcases in our quite comfy space. Our window overlooked the street outside – which turned out to be a bit noisy at night, even with the windows shut. I’m going to guess that there was absolutely no insulation in the home at all – and the shoji windows were single pane glass.

We were actually glad that it was warm (hot even) during our stay in Nara – the AC worked a treat. Each sleeping space had it’s own AC unit – and we turned on them all at one point to cool down the common room. It went well over 95 degrees for 3 days running. It was hot. But the AC definitely did the trick. We were extremely comfortable.

One of the reasons that Tadahiro’s home is so frequently booked is the quality of the breakfast they provide. Meat, Eggs, Home-made omelet, Bread slices, Jam, Ginger, Salad, and noodles (twice more like Italian spaghetti with meat sauce, once more Japanese style) – it was easily the nicest breakfast we were offered outside of the huge buffet at the APA hotel our first morning in Japan.

Since the kitchen is tiny, and the table in the kitchen could only seat 4 – we ate breakfast in shifts when the rooms were all occupied. And during our 5 nights in Nara – guests came and went with alarming frequency. Many folks only stay one night in Nara – they come, see the Deer Park and the Big Buddha and go. We’d barely have time to say hi before they would be gone. The most interesting of our fellow travellers arrived the day before we left unfortunately – but more on them later.

The ‘bath’ room – which contained the only shower – was located off the kitchen – so getting a shower in the morning was a bit awkward. You needed to time your bathing to avoid cooking time in the very narrow, very small kitchen. It actually ended up sounding worse than it was – you just waited your turn – and everyone got the shower they needed!.

As previously mentioned, privacy, in the North American context of that term, is seriously lacking. Yes you can ‘shut’ your shoji screens – but everything you do is clearly audible to all other guests.

This isn’t a bad thing if everyone is being polite, but the first night our fellow travellers were a family – husband, wife, and 6 year old daughter who apparently were having issues. Frequently it definitely sounded like they were fighting. Our host came up stairs to tell them to quiet down – and after that things were fine.

Speaking of our hosts – they are amazing. The breakfast they fixed us each morning has been lovely – although I find the wife’s habit of covering the plates with plastic wrap, and then serving the food (I’m guessing it saves on washing up) very strange. But she was consistent – there was always plastic wrap protecting the dishes from the food. And anything fried had a piece of foil decoratively placed under it – purpose unknown.

Tadahiro absolutely loves to explain how you should do things in their city – and we’ve been happy to follow most of his advice. While his English is limited – he clearly strives to be completely clear. Important note here – don’t disagree with him. Just nod politely and agree to do as he suggests. He justifiably feels that he’s lived here long enough to know what’s what. I checked out his suggestions with the wonderful local tourist offices – and not surprisingly – got different and sometimes better advice. We learned to pick and choose which advice to follow quite carefully.

We also had another issue. Despite the description in Air BnB that implies guests can use the kitchen, it’s clearly their kitchen – and while they said it was ok if we used it, when we tried to cook our dinner the first night, Tadahiro decided we weren’t doing it quite right. He pushed the Intrepid Traveler out of the way – and cooked our dinner for us. Since then, we’ve been very careful to only buy things that don’t need cooking. It’s easier.

Despite advertising that suggested they had a clothes washer – when we asked to do laundry, they directed us down the street to a coil operated laundry. It worked just fine. Next door is an Onsen – a public bath – but I think we’ll skip it this time.

But quibbles aside – my futon is comfy, and Jill has a bed – which makes her happy. We have a bit more storage kind of space here which is nice. Once we realized that the kitchen was off limits in fact, if not in principle, we shopped accordingly and had lovely dinners upstairs in the common space.

We are walking distance from some of the most interesting sites in Nara – yet clearly off the well beaten, overly touristy, path. There’s a bus stop nearby, and a huge grocery store. There’s even two places to pick up my morning Latte’s for just 150 Yen.

There was one couple in particular, that we totally enjoyed sharing the space with. They arrived the day before we left – but they were charming. The wife is Chinese, the husband American, and they are living in China. We spent a lovely evening laughing and chatting over wine (ours) and beer (theirs). I was truly sorry we were checking out in the morning. They were very interesting – and I wish them luck and health in their lives. They will need it. By all accounts, life in China is not particularly easy these days!

This blog has gone on long enough – we loved Nara – heat wave and all – and are heading to Narita in the morning. Right now it’s bedtime – tomorrow is another very hot day to look forward to enjoying.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Herds and Hordes – That sums up Nara


In my pre-trip reading – Nara sounded really cool. It was the capital of Japan for about 70 years – starting in 710 – and a backwater of the country every since. But my reading made it seem lovely – several interesting museums, traditional homes to visit (for free – we love that price point), a very intriguing guest host we could stay in at our price level, and it was the birth place of Japanese Buddhism in 703 or so.

What I didn’t know was that despite the fact that it’s a small town, it’s a small town with an agenda. It wants to compete with it’s bigger, more famous, and much more important neighbors – Osaka and Kyoto – and the city fathers are doing the best they can to make it so!

Some things are being doing very well too. Since it’s the original home of Buddhism in Japan – it’s famous among the tour group set – particularly the student tour groups. We’ve seen more student groups on tour than we’ve seen anywhere in Japan. And interestingly enough – some of them still do the ‘Hello’ thing to us as they walk by.

In case you don’t know what the ‘Hello’ thing is – every kid in a long group of students walks by and says – ‘Hello’. One after the other. Some of the kids branch out and say ‘How are you’ or ‘Where do you come from’ or other catch phases. They are clearly very proud that they finally have a chance to practice their English on real live tourists. It’s adorable.

When we were in Japan 20 years ago – all school groups did this. Today it’s one in 10 or so – and we’ve been told that those are the groups from well outside the major cities. Which figures – city kids see tourists constantly – the country kids don’t. So for them – we a treat.

Nara also has one of the best (and basically cheapest) bus systems we’ve run into. For 500 Yen you can get an unlimited day pass that is a small cedar plank. You wear this around your neck and just flash the drivers! Basically all the buses a tourist would care to ride are now free. Even if you aren’t prepared to cough up that much – a single ride is 210 Yen provided you stick to the city limits. But in addition to that – on the weekends Nara runs 3 ‘low cost’ bus lines on the heavily touristed routes. These smaller buses only cost 100 Yen – and they will do the trick if your desire is to arrive by train, visit the critical sites (The Big Buddha and the Deer Park) and then high tail it back to where you came from!

There is one obvious tourist confusing aspect of the bus system here in Nara – some of the bus lines require you to enter from the rear and pay as you exit, other lines work the other way – enter and pay immediately, exit when you want. Locals know which is which, and of course the bus drivers do – but us tourists? Forget about it! We are constantly trying to get on while everyone is getting off! It’s a mess. But I’m nit-picking – it’s still a really great way to get around the city.

Another thing that Nara has definitely gotten right is the Deer Park. This is a total hoot and a half. I didn’t want to enjoy it – but honestly – it’s beyond funny to watch tourists interact with Deer that know perfectly well that a) Tourists have Deer Crackers to feed them and b) Those Deer Crackers leaving the park! So while the deer are willing to bow to get a cracker – and they are even willing to pose for pictures, basically they know they have an easy life of it – and they put up with the constant petting, touching, and teasing with amazing grace.

Some deer have figured out that camping by the ladies selling the deer crackers is a winning strategy. Other deer have staked out their spots, and hang tough in that location. During one of our rest breaks, we watched a deer stand in one spot for at least 30 minutes – bowing repeatedly if needed to get a cracker. We also spotted deer that are just bored by the proceedings or have eaten their full for the day. They gather in the off-limits sections so the tourists can’t get to them.

And there are deer that clearly get off by playing with the tourists. They hang in the center of the pathways, shamelessly begging for crackers – and willing to what ever is needed to get them.

We are not talking deer in the hundreds by the way, we’re talking thousands of deer. And probably about an equal number of tourists. Not surprisingly – one of the big festivals here in Nara is the Spring Fawning.

Given the popularity of the deer park, and the historical significance of the city, and the marketing efforts that the city fathers have made to put Nara on the lists of all tourists – there are a lot of tourists!

Fortunately, they are clustered in the area near the Deer Park – making the Temple of the Big Buddha a tad crowded, and the buses heading to and from the Deer Park area packed. But outside of that space – and a couple of roads leading in and out of the area – the rest of Nara goes on with it’s business without interference.

And it gets worse – a lot worse – on the weekends. I’ve literally never seen this many tourists in one small space in my life.

On the good news side – Nara can handle crowds. In addition to the doubled up bus system on the weekends, the main attraction – The Big Buddha – is in a huge Temple. Plenty of room for everyone. And we arrived in the middle of a ‘classical’ concert! There was a wonderful Soprano with a glorious voice, accompanied by about 4 dozen kindergarten students who gave it all they had. Recognizable pieces included an hair raising version of Ave Maria – and an adorable ‘Take me out to the Ball Game’ – sung with tons of energy by the kids. For the music there was a piano, a violin and a cello. The acoustics were amazing.

Tourist bottle necks included the ‘crawl thru the nose of Buddha’ exhibit – which folks were lining up to do with great enthusiasm, and of course the bus stops. There was plenty of deer to go around however.

Once off the tourist track – the museums were lovely. Quiet, beautiful and generally free. We lucked into a tour of the section of the original Imperial Palace (703- 789 or so) that is being rebuilt in the traditional manner. But first they built a giant outer shell of steel beams, harnessed against earthquakes and Typhoons. Inside the outer shell is the area being used to hand carve using traditional equipment all the wood pieces needed to make the Main Gate of the Palace. Normally this area is closed to tourists – but when we were there it was open for visitors to go in and climb all the way to the top to gaze down from what will be the final height of the gate.

It was wonderful. There were craftsmen there showing us how to carve out the huge cedar columns and beams that will be used to make the Gate. We were told that all the Cedar comes from the Nara area. I was amazed. They are using only trees over 250 years old (the columns are huge), so there has to be a giant forest not too far away.

My other favourite site was the renown Gangoji Temple. While the Temple is beautiful, the highlight for me was the museum space where they had displaced some of the columns and beams they had found during the excavations. These wood pieces have been dated back to 700 AD! That makes them 1400 years old. Incredible.

For a garden walk, we opted for the free Yoshikien Garden rather than paying 900 Yen to visit it’s neighbor, the much better advertised Isuien Garden. We loved our tour of the Yoshikien Garden – we were alone on the paths, able to sit quietly on the deck of the tea house to admire the pond, and generally cool down from the heat and the hordes.

Speaking of heat – it’s been really really hot here in Japan. Over 30 degrees C (that’s over 90 degrees F) every single day. That kind of heat has taken a toll on our ability to get around – so that bus pass was a god-send.

One time we got on the AC bus, and it felt so good, we just rode around twice. The driver got really worried that we didn’t know we had to get off! He even found someone to explain that to us. But we re-assured him we were fine, and got off on the right stop the 2nd time around!

One final note – because of the heat – we’ve been visiting the local convenience stores in search of ice cream. And trying all the different options! I had a fabulous watermelon looking ice thing that actually had bits of chocolate placed into the red part looking like seeds. And the Intrepid Travellers favourite was a mint ice cream version covered in chocolate with crunchy pieces.

We are living the highlife here in Nara.

Signing off to check out a difference Convenience store (maybe their selection of Ice Cream is different) – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

We lo

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

War – What is it Good For?


Absolutely Nothing!

And why am I muttering about war? We visited two very interesting museums today – the Osaka Museum of Human Rights, and the Osaka International Peace Memorial Museum.

Both dealt harshly with man’s inhumanity to man – and both reminded us that we really need to be a little more open in our attitudes towards folks that are different from us..

To get to the Osaka Museum of Human Rights was not an easy task, and the museum itself actually tried hard to make it a challenge to find! This is not a museum for folks who do museums for the highlights. Honestly – we don’t think there were any real highlights here. Human Rights is a tough topic – and not one it’s easy to make light hearted. And they didn’t even try. It’s a serious museum on a very serious subject.

Lack of highlights aside, often a museum is more about what you put into it than what the designers put into it – and such was the case with this one. Once we found the entrance (thank goodness for the Japanese habit of trying to direct visitors.- even if they aren’t asking for directions), we were charged admittance and then instead of an English Audio Guide, they gave us a printed plastic notebook with photographs of different sections of the museum along with English text.

I figured that the audio guide system was broken – I didn’t realize how lucky we were to get the printed guide until we saw two other English language visitors trying to navigate the museum with the audio guides. Our printed guide was much much much more informative.

Also highly informative were the movies – offered with English subtitles if you pressed exactly the right sequence of buttons. We discovered these the hard way – pressing random buttons until we figured out how to get it working.

A museum on Human Rights is unlikely to be uplifting – and so we were not amazed to discover that the topics covered include Mercury Poisonings in Japan, the Japan treatment of Koreans living in Japan, and the Japanese treatment of two of their main indigenous tribes. Not very good sums it up.

Which is pretty interesting since Canadians have been beating up their government about our treatment of the First Nations – at least we now know that we aren’t the first – or probably the last – country to try to get rid of folks that just don’t seem to live the way we think they should.

Other topics covered included Gay Rights, the rights of Disabled Citizens, and the rights of Women. Human Rights is a broad topic, and the museum designers did their level best to hit a lot of different aspects of it.

We can’t recommend this museum to anyone else – I know the Intrepid Traveler and I are more willing than most to put effort into figuring out what the museum designers were trying to accomplish, but we did find this museum very interesting.

The 2nd museum of the day – the ‘Osaka International Peace Memorial Museum’ is very new, very well done – and frankly – very oddly named. It traces the history of Japan, Osaka, and the rest of the world from 1890 to just after WWII ended (say 1948 or so). The first two sections painstakingly attempted to give an historical overview of what Japan was doing during the period leading up to WWII. And the quick answer was trying to conquer as much of Asia as they could. These are the days of the Sino-Japanese war, the invasion of Korea by the Japanese, and the occupation of much of China. Give that – it’s interesting that from the Western point of view – we were ignoring Japan.

Instead we were focusing on what was happening in Germany, Britian and France – with some concern about what Russia was doing. It really wasn’t until Pearl Harbour – which most Americans felt was an uncalled for invasion of US territory that the ‘problem’ of Japan became apparent.

From the Museum’s view point, the events leading up to the American’s bombing of mainland Japan were covered quickly – with most of the museum focusing on what was happening in Osaka particularly, and Japan in general during the bombing.

The two most dramatic sections were devoted to a family home being prepared for a bombing raid, and a simulated bombing raid! This section was noisy, exciting, dramatic, eye-catching – and ultimately horrifying. And it was complete with an under ground home-made bomb shelter that featured bombing alert alarms ringing, fire raging around the shelter, and folks screaming. Not very light hearted.

Pictures of sections of Osaka before and after the fire bombing were displayed as well.

And then there were Pictures of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan to complete the journey thru time.

War – What is it Good For – Absolutely nothing.

An interesting way to end our visit to Osaka. After we left the museum, we had to walk in a park – just to get our heads back out of the negative think of the day

Back at our castle we have new guests – lovely young ladies from Calgary. Thank goodness we were able to spend a pleasant evening chatting – then head off to bed. Tomorrow we must move on to Nara.

We are hoping for wonderful things in Nara – Osaka has definitely exceeded expectations. Despite the negative aspects of the two hard hitting museums today, we must admit to absolutely loving several of the museums we visited. The Osaka Museum of History was excellent, the Osaka Castle is not to be missed, the Osaka Museum of housing was great, and we had a lovely time at the Aquarium – that’s another must see. And we really enjoyed our stay with Ken & Mark. It was very pleasant, despite being unable to do more than microwave and toast..

Quick update for those who might be wondering – we are still on our budget – running under $25 a day per person for travel, museums and food. And yes – that includes wine.. (or Saki – this being Japan and all). We’ve managed this by becoming very very good at shopping the grocery stores and convenience stores for food for lunch and dinner. We’ve scored Sushi at 200 Yen off, bread on discount because it’s the end of the day (after 4:00 PM apparently), and done some very yummy tasting. I’ve also tasted some things that honestly – I don’t know what they were, I don’t care to know what they were, and I’d be happy if I never tasted them again!

But Bottom line – there’s lots to see and do in Osaka – we would recommend including it on your next trip to Japan. Great Museums, really nifty neighbourhoods to walk around, including one where houses are a door plus about a foot on each side wide. That’s it – but they are long, at least as far as we could see on the inside. I’m guessing these are housing that were put up quickly after the war, and have survived because they are inexpensive for a single person to occupy. And there are some very classy neighbourhoods as well – so something for everyone.

Signing off on a more upbeat note than we started this blog report – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

There’s a a first time for everything – we have a drunk in the house


We pick our lodging so carefully – private room, good location, right (low) price point, common space, a kitchen, non-smoking – I have a check list and I’m very cautious.

And yet – sometimes things just work out oddly.

Tonight was weird.

While doing Air BnB here in Japan and indeed all around the world, we’ve met some lovely fellow travelers and some amazing hosts. Folks from all over Europe – gals from Moscow when we were in St. Petersburg, Australians everywhere we travel, a smattering of Americans, South Koreans, South Africans – you name it, we chat them up!

And tonight’s group seemed lovely. A mother and daughter from Australia, by way of the Philippines – enjoying a long holiday during a school break. The daughter is 14 and a charmer. Smart, cute, and very well spoken. It’s her mom that’s the surprise.

We arrived back at our lodging in Osaka around 6:00 PM – tired and wanting nothing more than a glass of wine and dinner. We were the only folks there – our charming hosts live elsewhere but visit daily – so we toasted our bread, microwaved our pork chop, and opened our bottle of wine. We’d basically finished eating when the other couple arrived home. The daughter made up her own dinner, and the mom announced that she wasn’t hungry – she’d just join us for a moment.

Her conversation was very garbled – and she was telling us a lot more than we wanted to know about her life, including how she felt about her parents – who she hadn’t visited for years.

I thought she was drinking tea. It was in a coffee mug, and we’d been enjoying our tea and hot water. It wasn’t until I walked into the kitchen that I realized she had been drinking her own bottle of wine – and it was 3/4 finished!

Now her confusing and very personal dialogue made a lot more sense. She was drunk. You can’t drink 3/4 of a bottle of wine, weigh maybe 100 lbs and have no food without feeling the effects – and clearly her daughter was used to this.

Her daughter announced about midway thru one of the mother’s rants that she’d heard this before and was going to bed. She got up, washed her dish, and left.

The Intrepid Traveler and I were a bit stuck. Our room is Japanese style – so futons on the floor and no chairs. So we couldn’t really sit and read in our room. The only western chairs in our lovely Air BnB were in the common space, and so was the mom!

We tried to send our new best friend a message telling her we wanted quiet – I started using my iPad, the Intrepid Traveler started editing the pictures on her iphone. But the mom didn’t take the hint. Instead she started on a rant about folks using computers, iPhones and the like when they came to her house to visit.

I’m guessing they were tying to let her know she was going off the deep end like we were – but what can you do.

Eventually – we excused ourselves to go to bed. She continue to rattle around in the common room for a while – before she too went off the bed.

First time for everything… In the morning there was an empty bottle and 1/2 of wine in the trash. I guess her drinking didn’t stop when we left.

There’s a first time for everything..

Signing off – The weirded out Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Osaka Castle and the Museum of History – Must See Sights in Osaka


Our research had showed us that there were lots of interesting things to do in Osaka – and our first task was to decided what to do on what days. As seniors – shopping wasn’t on the list, and we were pretty Shrine’d, Garden’d and Temple’s out after Kyoto. It’s a good think that Osaka is best known for it’s museums, eh? (After the bars and nightlife – but that’s for other travellers – we are museum buffs!)

The list of must see museums here was long and intriguing, but two major Art Museums were closed during our entire visit. Something about having to put in new exhibits. But that left lots of other choices – and we made a list, considered closing days to avoid, and limiting ourselves to just 2 a day. At our speed, more stops would never happen.

Bottom line – Sunday our plan was to hit the two biggest hits in Osaka – the not to be ignored Osaka Castle, and the outstanding Osaka Museum of History nearby. Then Monday, when most museums are closed, we decided to go for the Largest Aquarium in Japan, Tuesday would be the Science Museum and the Museum of Housing, and then on Wednesday we’d do the serious stuff – the Osaka Museum of Human Rights, and the Osaka International Peace Memorial.

Nice solid planning – always an excellent way to start.

After spending some time deciphering the subway map, and deciding if the 600 Yen all day pass was a good investment (it wasn’t) – we headed out for the Osaka Museum of History.

This museum is huge, excellent, informative, has an English Language Guide, and was completely enchanting. I’d rate it an absolute must see.

For kids there were stamp desks positioned around the museum, the idea being to keep the kids interested by keeping them searching for specific items and being rewarded with the appropriate stamp. And this so worked! We were entranced to see how keen even the youngest were to get their books properly stamped.

The first floor of the museum is actually the 10th floor of this huge modern building. It is devoted to a full sized recreation of the oldest Ceremonial Hall in Japan – dating from around 800 AD. The space is very dark, filled with mannequins dressed in traditional robes, and with a movie projected on the dark screens. Then the movie ends, and the windows are automatically opened to reveal the view of Osaka. And right below us is the actual location of the Ceremonial Hall – identified only in 1959 and saved by community action from development. So stunning.

The route spirals downward from floor to floor – past full sized street views of Osaka, animated by a Noh character that moves from screen to screen, explaining as he goes what you should be looking for. Many of the images are 3D cut-outs of scenes from Art of the time period portrayed, other images were intensely accurate scale miniatures with amazing detail. Cats and Kids chasing rats (apparently this was reported in visitor notes from the time), housewives putting out wash on roof terraces designed for the purpose, Imperial messengers on important business, shopkeepers selling their wares – the stunning detail is definitely a characteristic of Japanese model building, and it was bewitching.

The bottom floor of the museum is a full scale replica of Osaka shortly before WWII, and was offering a free ‘wear a Kimono’ event that day. So we dressed up – and gleefully took pictures of ourselves looking lovely.

Once out of the History Museum, we headed over to the Osaka Castle – and were immediately plunged into mob central. Where the Museum of History had a pleasant vibe, the Osaka Castle is a must see on everyone’s agenda – and it was crowded. We had to wait our turn to see each section of the exhibits, and this was a problem because it entailed a great deal of standing and waiting.

Old knees aren’t fond of standing and waiting.

But the exhibits themselves were utterly fascinating. They tell, in intense detail, the history of the original builder of Osaka Castle – and the 2nd great unifier of Japan – Toyotomi Hideyoshi of the Osaka Castle, and of his fights with the man most consider the primary Shogun of Japan – Tokugawa Ieyasu. One entire floor is devoted to a detailed analysis of the famous Screen Painting – The Summer Battle of Osaka Castle. If you are interested in the Edo Era, or find information about the Shogunate period from 1600 to 1868, this is the place.

We are not incredibly interested in this period, but the intensity of the displays made it impossible to ignore them. I’d rate Osaka Castle a Must See.

We dragged ourselves out of the castle, overwhelmed and completely exhausted – and a long subway ride from home. To make matters worse – while the streets were deserted, the subway was packed! Rush hour in Osaka – oh that’s perfect timing.

But we managed to not get lost, and still stay friends. Dinner, a quick chat with our fellow travellers, and bed. Tomorrow is bound to be another long long day.

Signing off to dream of Samurai Soldiers – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Moving on – we hit Osaka


I admit to being emotionally hard hit by leaving Kyoto. I definitely didn’t want to go – and yet we had to move on. I shall miss our lovely lodgings, the wonderful kitchen and common area, the ease of getting around, and the sheer abundance of Shrines and Temples to admire.

But all good things have an end – it’s the way of the universe – so move on we did.

Our trip from Kyoto to Osaka was about the price of a long subway ride – and just about as easy to organize. These cities are really sister cities, and it’s hard to say from the train where one ends, and the other begins. All of which means that we were in Osaka before we really had a chance to say we’d been travelling.

But while Osaka may be only minutes away from Kyoto – it’s a world away in feel! This isn’t our cozy upscale residential neighbourhood with it’s lovely grocery shops, fancy and not so fancy restaurants, and ladies out cleaning their door steps. This is a working class place – and it shows.

Our new lodgings are a shared ‘home’ – literally one room wide, and 4 stories tall with a super narrow, super steep staircase running thru the center.

There is a common kitchen, a common ‘bath’ room for bathing and showering, and two toilets for 3 bedrooms. In many ways, it closely resembles our lodgings in Tokyo in that our hosts do not actually live here. However, unlike our host in Tokyo who frankly ignored us during the 9 days we stayed in her place, Ken and Mark have gone over the top to make us feel welcome.

Our adventure here started upon arriving at Exit 3 of the Hanazoncho Station. We’d gotten delayed leaving Kyoto- more traffic then we’d thought there would be, we’d missed the earlier train, and then we’d gotten turned around on the Osaka Subway. All of which meant that our 12:00 estimated time of arrival became more like 1:00 PM.

This would not have been an issue, except that again I had no internet. So I had no way to let Mark (who was patiently waiting for us outside of exit 3) know that we’d been delayed. Every time I thought I got a WIFI signal – I’d madly try to email him – and I’d check for messages from him. But were our messages getting thru? I couldn’t tell for sure!

Finally I received one that said – use the WIFI at MacDonalds. So when we finally got to exit 3 – we left the station and found the MacDonalds. Unfortunately, my iphone and their internet security features didn’t jib – I couldn’t get on line! Panic.

I decide to leave the Intrepid Traveler to watch our suitcases in MacDonalds, while I left to search the surrounding area. Up and down staircases, in and out of the subway station – I could find neither hide nor hair of a single gentleman looking like he was looking for 2 lost tourists. And since we were the only Westerners in sight – I know if Mark were here – he’d spot us.

What to do?

What to do?

Looking above street level, I spotted a sign for ‘World Gym’. Hmm, wouldn’t a gym offer WIFI? I climb the narrow staircase (is this a pattern in Osaka?) and sure enough – there’s a gym – looks and smells like gyms everywhere. So I put on my best lost lady look, and a big smile – and beg for WIFI. The kind young clerk immediately understands what I’m gesturing about – but he doesn’t know the password. Two very quick phone calls later – and his friend must have told him to look on the wall of the gym. Sure enough – there’s a sign – in English – with the password!

Success! I reach Mark, he comes to find us – and we’re in our new digs.

What follows then is a first for us. Mark gives us a detailed and incredibly rule oriented tour of his place. We are not allowed to cook, but we can microwave and toast. We can use the fridge, but we must label everything ‘Nara’ – our room name. Our room is a Japanese style space on the third floor, so we must make our own futon beds. The front door has 2 locks – we must turn them the right ways. Windows must be shut when we leave, AC must be off, lights must be off.

After the house rules have been shared, Mark becomes much friendlier. We chat for over 2 hours on a host of different topics, including the new Emperor and the future of his dynasty. Mark spent several years in London studying and his English is impeccable. Clearly being a host is his retirement job – and he takes it seriously.

We decide to shop for a cheap dinner from the nearby grocery store – forgetting that this is a working class neighbourhood and like most working class areas – the grocery stores are more focused on cheap rather than good food. The options aren’t wonderful.

We do try a Takoyaki – a very traditional and very well known Osaka delicacy. It’s done in a dry fried cooking manner on a specially shaped grill. The balls are puffy, made from octopus bits and flour, and served topped with mayonnaise and Bonita flakes. I ate two and thought that’s enough of that, but the Intrepid traveler is made of sterner stuff and finished the portion!

So back to Ken & Mark’s for dinner and bed. Tomorrow is another day!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Mob Scene or Personal Journey? Choose your own path in Kyoto!


Quick – have there ever been any religious arguments in Japan between Shinto and Buddhist’s? Answer… No!

Our awesome guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum explained that the religions get along so well because they have different mandates. Shinto – the original religion of Japan is about living – births, wedding, celebrations of life – these are all Shinto related experiences. And when you visit a Shinto shrine to pray – you are praying for the continued health and happiness of those you love. Or perhaps you are praying for their speedy recovery. But it’s about living!

Buddhism on the other hand, at least according to our guide’s quick explanation, is about what happens after death, and more importantly perhaps, how you prepare for that. So Buddhist priest have no issues with their congregants going to a Shinto Shrine – and the opposite is also true. In fact, most Buddhist Temples include a Shinto Shrine on the grounds – even the massive training facility at Koyasan had a Shinto Shrine. It was designed as part of the original design in 803 or so and dedicated to the Shinto Gods that protect that area of the world. How cool is that?

All this said and observed, the two religions do have different traditions that dictate how you worship at the shrines or Temples, and one could even comment that they march to the beat of a different drummer.

Shinto Shrines all have Tori Gates — in the case of Fushimari – over 2000 of them. Upon entering or leaving a Shrine, one washes ones hands and mouth, and bows at the gate – upon entering to focus your mind, on leaving to say thank you for letting me visit, and for listening to my prayer.

Shinto traditions place a lot of importance on fortune telling – and there are plenty of options available. Shaking a container with sticks and then picking the fortune that the stick directs you to by number or symbol is very popular. And if you don’t like that fortune – no problem. Just tie that fortune to a nearby tree or post, and then pay again to pick again. Our guide told us that the fortunes are about 70% good, 30% not so good – and it’s considered excellent fortune to get a bad one first – the gods are going to be very happy when you pay a 2nd time for a better fortune.

More costly fortune telling involves a more personal touch – but the idea is the same. Good fortunes go home with you, Bad fortunes stay at the Shrine.

There are also prayer plaques. These are thin wooden objects that you put your personal design on or prayer or both and then hang on boards near the shrines. I loved the ones at the Fushimari Shrine – they were shaped like fox faces, and folks who knew how had decorated them Manga Style.

The Buddhist do it very differently. They chant sutras, meditate, and sound gongs during specific parts of the service. In Shinto, you do your own gong/bell ringing – it’s a more personal approach.

Buddhist monks, like monks the world over, dedicate themselves to their religion, never marrying, and denying their past existence in the hope of reaching nirvana. Shinto priests (men or women) can marry and have children – and choose to live at the Shrine, or just be a day visitor. It’s a much more flexible religion.

But all of this aside – I want to describe my favorite Shrines and Temples!

We happen to adore Zen gardens, particularly the dry stone gardens. So many of our favourite Buddhist places – like Ginkaku-ji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) or Eikando Zenrin-Ji had magnificent stone gardens. Ginkaku-ji actually had both a pond to walk around while meditating, and a double stone garden. The stone gardens were quite small, but very dramatic – and of course hand done.

But Eikando Zenrin-Ji was the favorite of all the Temples we’ve seen. For starters – there were few other tourists – so the experience was a very private one. And the buildings were varied in shape, and we were able to walk inside them to admire the magnificent sliding panels. But the real prize were the varied gardens for meditating. One had a wonderful pond with a waterfall, and places for folks who couldn’t quite do the on the floor kneel to sit and enjoy the place. They even had free hot tea – so you can imagine that the Intrepid Traveler and I took full advantage of the opportunity to just enjoy the space. On the other side of the main mediation hall was a stone garden that along with the curved stone outline, had a water feature. So the sound of moving water was everywhere to be enjoyed.

On the other hand, we have little positive to say about the Nanzenji Temple. It was crowded and unpleasant.

The same thing could be said about the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-Ji. It is not much of a religious experience when you are sharing it with a thousand other folks all snapping pictures and shoving you out of their way. I saw it, but we can’t recommend the experience.

We also tried to visit some of the other Shrines in Kyoto – but in almost every case the sheer popularity of the sites ruined the experience for us. Of those we popped into – the Heian Shrine, the Yaskaka Shrine (formally the Gion Shrine) and even the generally outstanding Fushimari Shrine were just plain mobbed – and not in a nice way. I found the abundance of faux geisha interesting from a photographic point of view, but the giggling, the posing for pictures, the lack of any kind of religious intent just felt wrong. Even the Meiji Shrine that we visited in Tokyo suffered from an overwhelming popularity. Much nicer were several smaller Shrines that we spotted as we walked, and just went inside to pay our respects. Quiet, serene, and peaceful – our kind of religious experience.

Bottom line – do include the Eikando-Ji on your list of must visits when in Kyoto – and spend time looking for smaller, less visited temples and shrines in Japan. You will be glad you did.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

BHAG* Achieved!


Back when I started this blog – back when my husband suggested calling myself Montreal Madame… I set myself a BHAG.

In MBA terms – a BHAG is a *Big Hairy Assed Goal – and it represents something that you really would like to achieve – but think is well outside the realm of possibility.

So I decided getting 500 followers would be my BHAG – And I wanted to get it done by January 2020.

Well guess what – I made it MONTHS early! i actually have officially 504 followers – so the follower that put me over could be one of 4 champions – and I love them all!

So Thank you follower #1 – and #100 and #201 and #350 and #500 to #504… Thank you all in fact!

Couldn’t have done it without you.

For my next BHAG – I’m thinking 1000 Followers by January 2022. That’s a lot in a very short time considering how long it’s taken to make 500 – but I’ve got my fingers crossed and my ‘Muttering’ Boots on!

Signing off – Content for the moment – and celebrating in Japan with a glass of very lousy but I don’t care red wine… The Soup Lady

Kimonos in Kyoto


If you are coming to Japan to see ladies (and men) in Kimono – then let me recommend Kyoto. We’ve seen hundreds of folks wearing Kimono – not all of whom are geisha – or for that matter – normally wearing Kimono!

It turns out that there is a very large industry here in Kyoto in Kimono Rental. For anywhere from $15 to $30 a day, you too can be dressed in Kimono, complete with hair ornaments and proper sandals. They even provide tabi socks and proper hand bags. These places advertise madly – and not just in the Gion area where you might expect it. We spotted Kimono Rentals near the train station and near several of the major shrines. There was even one near Nijo Castle.

So how to tell a ‘faux’ kimono wearing young woman or man, from the real McCoy?

Dead give-always include speaking Chinese not Japanese. Or wearing sneakers. Sometimes you can spot leggings or pants under the kimono – that’s another sure sign it’s a faux Geisha.

Hairstyle is often another sign that the gal wearing a kimono is actually a tourist, although many orientals have long hair, and the kimono rental places do a good job of getting the hair up, and the hair ornaments in place. So that’s not probably the best sign.

If you spot an iphone – particularly one being used to snap ‘selfies’ – it’s a faux.

Overly bright colours are also a give-away – the gals that we’ve deemed as real tend to the more conservative styles and colours – those fluorescent reds, pinks, violets and oranges are often the choice of young ladies who want to look flashy – not necessarily like wearing a kimono is natural to them.

As for the men – we’ve spotted men in Kimono that look incredibly dapper and well dressed. They hold themselves erect, and walk with purpose. Often they are older gentleman – who we’re guessing either are extremely conservative, or feel that wearing a Kimono sets them apart. Whatever – they do look very smart!

The ‘faux’ male atire is often cotton, wrapped poorly around the guy – and almost certainly on a guy accompanied by a female faux geisha. I’m guessing there was some arm twisting involved. In any case, very few of these guys look like they are comfortable – and certainly one wouldn’t describe them as dapper. Often they look like they are wearing bathrobes – not even nice ones either.

There is another dead giveaway – but this required looking at the way the Obi is tied in the back. There is a cheap trick to getting that fancy knot on the back of the Obi – it is a separate piece of fabric, tied in a bow, and then fastened to a metal hook. The hook slides in the obi folds, creating what appears to be a bow tied in the sash. But it’s a fake. And if you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot.

The older the person wearing the kimono, the more likely it is that the kimono is real. I spotted older women gossiping on a street corner – and I’ll bet those kimono were real. On the other hand 3 young ladies giggling madly over ice cream are not serious about their kimono.

Last but not least – look for folks wearing Kimono that are doing things that a tourist wouldn’t be doing. For example, I saw one gal pushing a bicycle. I’m pretty sure her kimono was real, just because what tourist would even think of pushing a bike wearing one!

In the 6 days we’ve been in Kyoto – and the countless times we’ve ridden a bus thru the streets of Gion, I’ve only spotted one gal that I am pretty certain actually was a Geisha. Why? Because her hair was in the traditional style, her kimono was a very conservative cut and design, her posture was comfortable but not silly and she looked like she knew how to walk in her shoes.

Desperate to see more true Geisha, I went at twilight to Pontocho Alley – and found my self face to face with three different Apprentice Geisha – looking for all the world as if they had stepped out of a history book! I was so shocked – I didn’t take pictures! Silly me. But they were very cool, and very in a hurry to get where they were going.

Overall, I’ve spotted lots of woman that I’m sure were wearing Kimono because it was comfortable and attractive – some of them were attending a festival at one of the shrines we visited, and were invited into the inner sanctum, others were in the stands at the Aoi Festival, but looked comfortable, not stilly, and still others were just riding the bus or visiting a museum or a garden with us.

So while you are far more likely to spot faux kimono wearing tourist than real kimono wearing ladies and gentleman, if you know what to look for – at least you can be sure when you are lucky enough to see the real thing.

And a lovely thing it is!

Signing off the visit more temples and shrines – there appearing to be no end to these in Kyoto – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Nijo Castle – Negative Reviews aside – it’s totally worth a visit


Sometimes I wonder if folks who write those negative reviews have even been to the same places I’ve been. It’s a puzzlement, for sure.

For example – Nijo Castle, one of the most important historical buildings in Japan, got beaten up pretty badly by 2 different reviewers on Trip Advisor. And I can’t even begin to understand why.

The first reviewer belly ached about having to take off their shoes, and how horrid it was to walk barefoot where other folks have been putting their smelly feet. Hello dear reviewer – did you not read up at all about Japan before you came for a visit? Taking off your shoes is the absolutely in thing here. Everyone takes off their shoes to enter most important places – whether they are shrines, temples, historical momuments, or even folks homes. So get over it! And if you really don’t want to put your bare feet on their floors – carry socks! Seriously. How can you tell folks a place as important as Nijo Castle isn’t worth visiting because you didn’t carry socks with you.

The other complaint was about the use of restorations instead of the original painted sliding doors. Again – what was this reviewer thinking. This place is 400 years old – and it’s completely open to the environment. Why would they ever leave 400 year old painted wood sliding doors up in such a location. Be glad that they replaced them with the most gloriously painted panels – using exactly the same techniques and following the same exact patterns. You can really feel how incredible it must have been to be admitted to such a glorious room while you waited on knees and knuckles for the Shogun to hear your petition. And if you want to see the originals – they are housed in a specially designed building – temperature and humidity controlled – right on the grounds of Nijo Castle.

But my annoyance with lousy reviewers aside – Nijo Castle is well worth paying whatever it costs to visit. It’s amazing. And surprisingly open to visitors. Since it’s no longer in use by the Imperial family, except for very special occasions, tourists are allowed inside the castle itself, not just inside the gardens.

And it’s the inside of the castle that is special. From the famous Nightingale floor that sounds like a thousand birds singing as folks walk around to the marvellously painted shoji screens that divide the space into rooms, this is an amazingly beautiful space.

We particularly loved the thick (over 1 foot thick in fact) carved wooden transoms that created an early form of AC for the rooms. One side was carved with Birds, the other with flowers, and between the carvings, holes allowed air to flow from room to room.

The painted shoji screens are stunning, made even more impressive by the fact that the paintings extended above the doors, almost to the ceilings of each room. The effect was both dramatic, and intimidating. And apparently the intimidation factor was an important component. The Shogun didn’t want anyone getting uppity on him, and there were subtle, and not so subtle ways to keep the powerful lords in their place.

Like the Emperor, the Shogun always sat on a higher floor. And the ceiling above him was also raised to make sure everyone knew who was the most important person in the room. Even the paintings were done to focus eyes on him, and him alone. I loved the sheer audacity of the men who commissioned such work. No wondering about who they thought was boss.

Nijo Castle is not only beautiful, it’s of historic importance. It is here that the first Shogun of the Tokugawa family accepted his commission from the Emperor, and it is here that the 15th and last of that line announced that after 266 years of rule, he was returning authority to the Emperor. It gives me the shivers to think I walked on those same floors.

Just a heads-up on the time required to tour Nijo. It took us at least 3 hours to see the entire castle and all of the gardens. It is a vast area, and you really don’t want to rush through it. We wisely paid a bit extra for the audio tour in English, which combined with the well placed English language explanations provided an excellent and informative view of the entire place. And it’s well worth it to take your time. It’s hard to appreciate how magnificent and detailed the paintings are if you just glance into the rooms.

Folks with a different attitude towards touring rushed past us, hardly spending a moment to glance quickly into the rooms. Given the details on the paintings, birds singing, tigers glaring up and down or nursing their young, we can not fathom how they saw anything – let alone appreciated the incredibly detailed work. Well each to their own I guess.

We finished our day at The Museum of Kyoto, which was having a special exhibit on Ukiyo-e paintings of ‘Beauty’. While the collection in the regular part of the museum is nothing exceptional, the special exhibit was outstanding. We were very intrigued by the 111 painted scrolls – all dating from 1700 – 1850. It’s hard to believe that paper that old can still be in such excellent condition, the colours so vibrant, the details so intricately executed. Of particular interest was the wig collection. Over 70 wigs were used to show the different hairstyles – and labeled in both Japanese and English so that we could see what kind of women were being portrayed. Just an FYI – most of the women were Courtesans, Geisha, or similar. After all, the wife of a nobleman, or even a woman of the middle class would hardly pose for an artist.

This was a very interesting, if very long day. We finally dragged our tired feet home for a well earned dinner and relaxing evening.

Tomorrow is the Aoi Festival – a once a year event that I’m greatly looking forward to seeing.

Signing off to nurse our tired feet back into health, The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.