Mt. Koya

Mt. Koya

Today marked our travel day from Osaka to Mt. Koya to stay in a Buddhist temple. We decided to visit Mt. Koya at the recommendation of one of my dearest, Japanese culture-loving friends, Lauren. Boy was she spot on with this recommendation!

We met my parents in the hotel lobby for breakfast and walked about a mile to find a place suitable for my mom for breakfast. After poo-pooing on 3 options, she finally settled on Tullys – again. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tully’s is good, but we need to add some diversity to our breakfast routine. We told my mom it was the last “Tully’s breakfast” of the trip and she said “we will see”. Of course, that means “no”. Haha! If mom’s not happy, no one is happy, right?

We grabbed some snacks for the 2 hour train ride to Mt. Koya and hit the train station. We ended up missing the express train but the extra 30-minutes on the regular train was not bad. We had great views, some snacks, and all got time to decompress.

Once we arrived at the station, we hopped onto the cable car which took us up this insanely steep slope to the top of the mountain. It was packed with people and I cannot even begin to fathom how they installed the cable car on just a steep incline.

It took about 10 minutes to get to the top and then we hopped on a short bus ride which dropped us off right in front of the Koyasan Onsen Fuchin. The lodging was part temple, part onsen (Japanese baths), with Japanese style rooms. We were not able to check in yet so layered up in jackets and scarves before heading out to explore. It was pretty darn cold in comparison to the 60 degree weather in Osaka!

We decided to find a spot for lunch and ended up in a traditional style table where you sit on a high platform, on a pillow, around a short table. Ryan almost wouldn’t fit!

My sister and I split some sushi and I had a delicious tempura udon. The food was so filling and warm on such a cold day!

After paying, we took off to find the temples and renowned cemetery. There is a grouping of temples on one side of town which were all different styles and pretty amazing to look at and explore.

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Photos are not allowed inside the temples but there are a ton of gold ornaments and sculptures very similar to those in Thailand. They were quite stunning.

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We then took off to the other side of the town for the Okunoin Cemetery. You can do cemetery tours at night but we opted to walk it during the day so we could see it more clearly, not freeze completely, and be back to the onsen in time for our 5:30 dinner.

The cemetery was awe inspiring. The faded light coming through the trees, slight fog in the air, moss that covered the monoliths and huge trees that went up 100’s of feet in the air gave the whole place such and ancient, eerie and scared feeling.

I could have stayed in there taking it all in for hours but my mom was on a mission. She was speed walking ahead of us so fast that we lost her for a good 20 minutes! When we finally caught up, we had arrived at the Okunoin temple. It has over ten thousand lanterns inside and is absolutely magical. We were able to go inside and take it all in and then we went to a side building that had even more yellow lighted, gold lanterns. It was well worth taking our shoes on and off to go inside.

The whole walk was well worth the hour or so trek. We spotted a sweets shop on the way back and grabbed a few to sample. A lot of the sweets in Japan have red bean inside and have a gluggy consistency with pastry on the outside. Super good and filling though.

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We got back to Fuchin and checked in. We had to leave our shoes at the door and wear special red shoes within the buildings. We were brought up to our small room that kind of smelt like straw. There was a small table in the middle and we settled in with some tea. We also had to wear robes around the building and to our meals!

Once 5:30 hit, we went to room 23 for our multi-course Royal dinner. The dinner we had was monks’ cuisine (shojin ryori) and completely vegetarian!

There were so many things to try and they kept bringing in more dishes. Quite a bit of the food had a gelatin consistency which we weren’t too keen on but, overall, the food was delicious. Ryan tried this one piece of spongy white tofu or something and bit into it and all of this liquid came out. He flipped and couldn’t stop laughing at how weird it was! The rest of us tried it but didn’t get very far into it… It barely touched my lips before going straight back into the bowl. Amazing how new food textures can create such a different dining experience.

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After dinner, my sister and I decided to try out the onsen. Japanese baths are separated by men and women because you get completely naked and are not allowed to wear swim suits. We walked down in our robes and took our shoes off to be pleasantly surprised that the floors were heated! Thank goodness because it was only 30 degrees or so in the temples halls!

Once disrobed, you have to wash yourself off in a shower station in the central bath room. There was a big shallow bath pool inside, which was too hot for us, and then a outdoor rock pool. We were the only ones there and chatted for a good 30 minutes before anyone else joined. It seemed like everyone finished their dinner and had the same idea as us around 7 because a huge group came and it was far too crowded to stay in the onsen so we headed back to the room. Totally refreshed, we hopped in our Japanese style beds and passed out.

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Osaka, Day 2

Osaka, Day 2

Since we did not go to the fish market in Tokyo, we decided to check out the one in Osaka. The Osaka Municipal Central Market is supposed to rival the one in Tokyo but is less touristy. The tuna auctions start at 4:15 AM and then the market is typically open until 2 in the afternoon. There are some famous sushi restaurants there that get the freshest fish, so we decided to hit one up for breakfast. We took a quick coffee and pancake break along the way for Ryan (sushi is not enough calories for a growing man), took a train and walked for around 30-minutes before arriving.

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Along our walk, we noticed a lot of shops and restaurants were closed and, unfortunately when we got the the market, it was closed as well. Apparently it was Vernal Equinox Day, a national holiday where most businesses, including markets, are closed. What a bummer! I was pretty upset since we had already had a few snafoos along our trip so far, but Ryan perked me up. On the way, out he noticed some stacks of fish and was like “Look! We saw fish at the fish market!”. It made me laugh. I am so lucky to have him. It really knows how to pick up my spirits.

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We walked back to the train station and found a grocery store to grab a bite to eat since the market sushi didn’t work out. We all got sushi and shared some goyza. It was pretty fresh and good but I don’t think sushi for breakfast is “my thing”. After checking multiple times that it was open, we headed towards the Osaka Aquarium. Apparently, half of Osaka also had the same idea and it was super packed! The line for tickets went quickly though and we were walking into the Power Ranger looking building in no time.

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The aquarium starts at the very top of the building and descends in a downward spiral along the main tank. You seeing 3-4 layers (top, middle, and bottom) of each tank to get the full experience and see as much of each animal as possible. It was pretty crowded in the entrance but we found that, if we walked to the end of each tank, there were fewer people than at the start and we could see better. There was a large exhibit with dolphins that I totally loved. They were racing around and jumping out of the water. So cute!

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We found ourselves at the top of the main tank and it was pretty cool with huge stingrays, hammerhead sharks, and a school of fish circulating in the middle. I was about to walk away when something caught my eye. A huge whale shark swam right in front of me! It was glorious! I had never seen one up close and it was awe inspiring. There were two of them in the main tank and we speculated that they were younger sharks as they were not as large as ones in the ocean.

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We continued down the spiral and were very impressed but the aquarium overall. There was even an area where you could pet stingrays and small sharks. Their skin felt like sandpaper.

After about 2 hours, we completed the journey and were ready for the next item on the agenda – SUMO! But first, lunch. Ryan and I broke off to find some Japanese curry and landed on a place a block from our hotel right on the water. We waited about 20 minutes for a table that overlooked the water and enjoyed some Japanese curry udon with pork and soba dipping noodles with tempura. The tempura was so delicious!

We met back up with my family and walked through the crowded streets, a mall, and down some alleyways to get to the Sumo arena. We knew were getting close when we saw a few sumo wrestlers walking sweatily away in their robes from the arena. It was packed with people out front as they lined up to watch the best wrestlers enter right before the 3:45 PM match.

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We found our seats on the second floor. There are a few ways to watch the tournament. While we were in actual seats, the rows in front of us were actually 4 person boxes with floor pillows. We would have had to buy 2 boxes for all of us to fit and they were pretty pricey so I got the actual seats instead. We still had a great view.

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I have to say, buying the tickets was a process! I had the seats were available on Feb 3rd at 10 AM and I set calendar reminders / alarms for that day and time in October when I began planning. I checked the day before and then the day they were released right as they went on sale and they sold out before I could get them on the official site. I then had to go to the licensed reseller and had to pay about $150 a person for the tickets. The tickets were then sent to our hotel in Osaka as the tickets were not released in time for them to ship to Texas. Thankfully, we got them and I am so glad we did. The tournament was awesome to watch.

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The sumo wrestlers were massive, averaging 366 lbs per, and the further in the day we got, the bigger and better the wrestlers were. It was pretty hot in the stadium, so we got some ice cream to cool us down as we watched. By the last 4 bouts, the crowd was cheering and the atmosphere rivaled any sports game in the US. It was definitely a fun experience and one I would do again and recommend!

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Leaving the stadium was so crowded. We walked back through the districts and tried to find a Tempura place for my mom. She is super picky about restaurants so it took some time to find one she wanted. Along the way, we decided to try Takoyaki, a fired octopus ball that is specific to Osaka. It was lava hot and was not the best thing we have had but still good to try the local favorites.

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We got closer to the hotel and I recommended our lunch spot to my parents since the tempura I had was delish. We dropped my parents and sister off there, set our game plan for the morning, and Ryan and I set off to explore. We went down the crowded roads and tried out Melon Pan bread with vanilla ice cream. It was delicious and we sat on the bridge looking a all of the city lights while enjoying it. Finally, some time to relax.

We continued walking and exploring and stumbled upon a shopping area with a Forever 21, Starbucks, and 2 massive H&M buildings. Looking down the street, all you could see was people in every direction. It was SO packed! We opted to walk down a side alley instead for some breathing room and found a tiny 9 person chicken skewer place to grab a bite and have some sake. The chicken was cooked right in front of us and we left a little memento of our time there on their picture wall. After that, we went back to the hotel for much needed sleep.

San Diego

San Diego

Between visiting my sister when she lived in La Jolla, dog sitting with my friend at her dad’s house in Rancho Santa Fe, and exploring the San Diego Zoo for a bachelorette party, I’ve done a few long weekends in San Diego! With that said, I’ve got a few favorite places to check out if your journey takes you there!

Beaches: 

  • Ocean Beach – Only a few minutes away from the airport, Ocean Beach is a really cute area with great shops and restaurants leading up to the beach. Don’t miss Hodad’s burgers for a huge burger and yummy shakes!
  • La Jolla – This beach is huge and has a beautiful park along side it as well. If you are into kayaking, snorkeling, or scuba diving, there are some amazing caves and reefs to explore right off the beach. You can rent the gear or go out in a kayak tour to check out the caves for a really cool experience!

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  • Black’s Beach – When I went to La Jolla with my parents and little sister, we decided to hike down from Torrey Pines to the beach and then walk all the way back down the beach to our hotel. Little did we know that Black’s Beach, a large nudist beach, was in between! Not only did we walk through the nudest beach with my semi-conservative parents making the funniest / embarrassing comments along the way, we did so during the 3rd largest gay pride weekend in America – the beach was PACKED! I tell you, it was the funniest hike I have ever been on! Just be aware that it is there and that there is no way out once you start walking since there are 100 foot cliffs on the land-side of the beach. Needless to say, I do not have any pictures of this particular beach!

Hikes:

  • Torrey Pines – Torrey Pines is a beautiful national park right on the coast line. The parking lost starts at sea level and then you have to walk up the side of the road to the top of the cliffs. The views from the trail are stunning! There are quite a few trail options of different lengths and intensities. Bring a hat, water bottle, and some sun screen and you will have a perfect day with Torrey Pines on the itinerary!
  • Annie’s Canyon Trail – Annie’s is a short hike across the highway from Torrey Pines. It has a really cool slot canyon that you can walk through and then climb up. If you are claustrophobic, you may want to skip this but if you can handle a narrow pass, this is a really cool hike to check out.

Things To Do:

  • San Diego Zoo – The San Diego Zoo is huge! It feels like you are walking through a jungle to get from exhibit to exhibit. There is even a huge bridge hundreds of feet above the road that feels like a canopy walk. The animals have huge areas to roam and all seemed very happy (especially the polar bear that was playing with a ball for a good hour). Outside of the Sydney Zoo , the San Diego Zoo was the best I’ve ever been to.
  • La Jolla Cove (Seals!) – Only a few miles up the road from La Jolla beach is the cove. There is a wonderful park and small beach. On the beach and rocks around the cove are hundreds of seals! Big ones, baby ones, brown ones, and black ones, you can get up close and personal. So personal that one started barking at my friend that got a little too close! On top of hanging with the seals, there are some great boutiques and sea-side restaurants right by the park if you have the time to walk around.

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  • Seaport Village & The Gaslamp  – Seaport Village is a really cute little shopping area right by the wharfs with great shops and restaurants with water front views. You can walk from their down the coastline and there are cute little parks and bars along the path to sit at, enjoy the view, and soak up the sun! Once the sun sets, head over to the Gaslamp district for great restaurants and bars for some night life.

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Osaka, Day 1

Osaka, Day 1

Today was our trek from Tokyo to Osaka. We checked out of our hotel in Tokyo hotel and walked to the train station to hop a few lines over to Tokyo Station and grab a bite to eat at a market. I had this delicious sandwich with cheese and a coffee. Once we filled up, we headed to the train. We had spent a little too much time at the station and were in quite a rush to get to the correct platform. Thankfully, we reserved seats on the JR Line to Osaka in advance to ensure we were able to sit together, so that reduced some of the stress, but navigating the thousands of people in the station  with our luggage during rush hour to catch a train was crazy!

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Finally, we made it to the platform with a few minutes to spare. Ryan decided to grab “train beers” for the 9:03 AM train ride to to relax and my sister and I had one as well. It definitely did the relax-trick! We were able to see Mt. Fuji from the other side of the train’s windows for about 15 minutes as we sped by at 200+ MPH! I spent the rest of the 2 hour ride journaling. I have to say, the train rides in Japan seem to go by quickly!

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Once we hit Osaka, we hopped off the train and navigated the streets to the Candeo Hotel. It was centrally located in the Namba District which was filled with restaurants and bars. We could not check upon arrival, so we dropped of our luggage and took of to head towards to Castle Park. There were some restaurants at the park entrance and we stopped for lunch at R Baker Osaka-jo. It had a bunch of baked goods and Ryan and I shared 4 pastries: a potato pizza, Japanese curry fried pocket, sweet rolls, and a hot dog looking thing. They were delicious and it was so nice to sit in some green space while enjoying lunch after being in the busy cities for so long.

After lunch, we continued our walk through the park. It was a beautiful day and the first one warm enough to leave our jackets at home. Once we got through the giant stone walls to the center of the park, the main castle was visible and totally stunning. It was totally massive and we sat for a while taking in the view on some jade looking rocks. There was a Spanish performer playing loud music starting his act right in front of the palace and we were so curious how his life could have led him to performing street art in Osaka.

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We continued our walk through the gardens, passing some shrines and statues of Shogun and then it was back to the hotel to check in. The room was small and view was lousy, but the hotel was so central to the main areas it worked perfectly. The Dotonbori district with tons of shopping and restaurants was only a few blocks from us and we took of to explore and find something to eat.

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Being so close to Kobe, Yakiniku is very popular in Osaka so we found a restaurant with good reviews to try it out. We sat at a table with a grill pot in the middle of us and, for $29 per person, we had 1 hour and 30 minutes to cook and eat as much as we wanted.

The meat quality was excellent and we used a table next to the table to order plate upon plate of different meats, seafood, and veggies. It was delicious, though picking who was going to cook what was a little stressful as people like different cooks of meat. We opted to each cook our own food to our desired doneness which helped with the stress. The clock countdown also made out meal tricky. If you had too much food left over, you would get charged extra for wasting. Ryan was super hungry and took down at least a pound of steak and pork belly within the last 7 minutes to finish everything off.

My parents never really understood why Ryan thought sushi was not enough food until tonight when they saw how much he can eat! What can I say, he is a growing boy (man haha).

After dinner, we walked through the crowded streets of Namba, checking out all of the food vendors and shops along the way. The number of lights and signs were overwhelming but so cool; nothing like we have seen before. There were all of these fake food displays outside of the restaurants too that looks so realistic! It was pretty incredible but we were so stuffed we couldn’t even think about more food!  After about an hour walking off all of the meat we had eaten, we headed back to the hotel for much needed sleep.

Overall, Japan has been a bit stressful so far. I think it is a combination of the sheer number of people in the city, unlimited number of options for things to do, and how many opinions there are with the 5 of us. It makes it tough to make everyone happy for everything unfortunately. I think getting out of the hustle and bustle of the cities for a few days will do us some good. I am just very glad we have the technology we do because trying to navigate Japan without GPS and our phones would be next to impossible.

Continue on this adventure….

 

Tokyo, Day 3

Tokyo, Day 3

Another Tully’s breakfast morning in the books. We have loved eating all of the traditional Japanese food for lunch and dinner but it is kind of nice to have some more “Americanized” food in the mix too. After we loaded up on our regular toasted ham and egg sandwich, pancakes with a butter patty that looked like banana, coffee, and toffee almond cookie, we were off to start our day.

The plan for today was to see the Imperial Palace in the morning and then we would split off so my parents and sister could check out the Edo Museum (while it was open) and Ryan and I could see the Tsukiji Market and Harajuku areas. The train ride to get to the Imperial Palace was quite easy and we emerged from the station into this beautifully modern office building for Mitsui. Mitsui is a retail store that started selling Kimonos in the 1673. Before then, rich families would have the kimono makers come to their houses to make custom kimonos that were not very affordable. Mitsui opened the kimono market to be accessible for the everyday buyer but opening a department store for one-stop shopping and bulk creation.

We exited the Mitsui building to this massive park in the middle of a modern city. Sitting on 1.15 square kilometers and surrounded by trees, the Imperial Palace is almost impossible to see from the outside. The Place is only officially open 2 days a year and can only be seen by limited numbers in tours during the rest of the year. We did not have an official tour scheduled so we opted for the free version to go tour the East Garden. While we could not see the main palace, the gates, walls, and guard towers were pretty amazing to see.

Apparently, the gardens used to be filled with houses and various buildings. The buildings were mainly made of paper and wood and had a tendency to burn down due to cooking fires. The buildings were always rebuild after time and time again of fires until the 1800’s when they decided not to continue the restoration. You can still see some guard houses and structures made from rock, but the rest of the view is mainly of the garden and cherry blossoms that started to pop while we were there.

Ryan downloaded a tour app and talked us through the different points of interest while we wandered. We were there for about 1.5 hours before heading to Tokyo station to try and find Ramen Street for launch. The malls / shops / restaurants in the subway and train stations are insane. They are all clean and look just like any nice place you would go in the States, only they are underground at the station! We entered this long row filled with shops that had all kinds of cartoon characters and cherry blossom decantations adorning the store fronts. Eventually, we found the Ramen area and opted for one restaurant with a little smaller of a line. We ordered at the machine and were quickly sat at the bar area. Ryan and I both got versions of “dipping” noodles where you dip the noodles into the broth cup. It was insanely good and Ryan declared it was the best thing he has eaten in Japan so far hands down! While the slurping and noodle to chopstick experience was a bit messy, it was delicious.

After lunch, we agreed to meet back at the hotel once we were done with our activities and split off. Ryan and I excited the station and headed to the fish market. While the main part of the market that did the famous Tuna actions was closed, the outer ring of the market is still a highly recommended tourist spot filled with different vendors and food types. Along our walk, we saw a drip coffee place and decided to get some coffee for the long day ahead. While we sat, I Googled the market and, to our chagrin, it said the that market hours went until 2ish and it was already 1:30. With that in mind, the 20 minute walk definitely didn’t seem worth it. I was pretty disappointed but we decided to pivot to Harajuku instead.

The train station at Harajuku was packed. The main road for Harajuku, Takeshita Street, was also packed. It was a mob scene and the people-watching was amazing. There are so many people in Japan that wear brown trench coats and super thick (like 3-4 inches) platform shoes or boots. We also saw some traditional Harajuku outfits which were so weird (in a great way) and colorful. The shops were full with crazy colors, patterns, and kitchy cartoon animals. There were also crepe places that smelt amazing along with other weird food vendors like rainbow cheese sticks, fried potato unicorn horns, and 2 foot tall cotton candy rainbow pyramids.

We ventured through this wild costume store and I wanted to buy pretty much everything inside. It was so cool!

We also happened upon a owl café and, to the recommendation of at least 4 people I’ve talked to, we went down the steps to check it out. It was about $10 a person to walk through this room lined with fake trees and cherry blossoms. Each turn took you to a different owl breed. They were chained up which was sad, but they were beautiful. There are animal cafes of all types in Japan. You can see everything from cats and puppies to hedgehogs, owls, capybaras, otters, and meerkats. While I would have loved to see more, I don’t feel great about supporting places like that financially since most of them  do not provide adequate environments for the animals. Buyer beware if you decide to go.

Once we dogged through the crowd to the end of Takeshita street, we decided to go find one of Harajuku’s weirdest cafes – the Monster Café. It was one the 4th floor of a high-rise and we were immediately excited about the strangeness to come when we were greeted by a giant moving eyeball at the front door.

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The waitstaff were dressed in doll-like costumes and we were lead past a cake-themed carousel, through the mushroom table forest, into the “milk bar” for our table. I got a strawberry milkshake and Ryan got this weird red and blue sugar mixture to put in his gin base. The milkshake was good but everything else we got was just pure sugar! Ryan got this cute Pikachu looking lemon tart and I got a bunny doughnut topped with a strawberry jam centered white cream ball. I couldn’t eat even close to all of it.

About half way through our time there, the lights shut off and all of a sudden a rave broke out by the cake carousel. This big purple monster started dancing with the waitresses and it was a mix of chaos and high pitched yelling. This was exactly the side of Japan we were looking for haha!

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We left pretty quickly after that and couldn’t put into words how to describe the experience overall. About 5 minutes into the walk back to the train, Ryan realized he left his backpack at the table. We hurried back and it was right where we had left it. Phew! I have to say, Japan feels very safe and is so respectful. People don’t even use bike locks here for their bikes because people don’t steal them. It is a very trusting and nice environment to be a part of.

The trek back to the hotel was easy and it felt great to take our shoes off and relax for an hour. We met my parents back at the rooftop bar for another drink around 6. Ryan wasn’t too hungry so he opted to stay at the hotel while we went to find a place for dinner. My dad wanted Sukiyaki for dinner – kind of like a hot put but slightly different. My sister found a tiny place only a few blocks from the hotel. It had 3 tables and 3 private rooms and we were welcomed in by a English speaking owner. His father opened the restaurant 20 years ago and now this kind gentleman owns it. He sat us down, gave us an English menu, and walked through the options. There were two flights of courses and 3 grades of meat. Since I was already pretty full, we went for the smaller course option, the medium grade meat, and sake all around. The sake was much better than the $1 sake I had with sake bombs in college!

We all got a bowl with a cracked egg in it and were instructed to scramble the egg. Our waitress started to cook the food on the grill in front of us, using a chunk of pork fat as the grease for the pan. Boy did it make things flavorful!

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She started cooking the meat with sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce, and, once browned, put it into our raw egg bowl. The egg was so fresh and added this intense flavor to the meat. I am not usually an egg gal, but this was eggsalent! (Excuse my pun haha).

She then added the veggies to the pot and, once cooked, in they went to the egg mix. This meat then veggie pattern went on for like 4 courses and we were getting so full! It was all so delicious! After the final round of veggies, the cooked noodles for us as the last main dish. We were stuffed, but still had slight room for the cherry blossom ice cream and strawberries for desert. What an amazing meal!

We asked about the price on the menu when initially ordering to make sure it was a group and not individual. The owner confirmed the price but, we got lost in translation. What we thought was going to be a 4K Yen dinner ($40 USD) ended up being 37K Yen or roughly $340. OOPS! It was so worth it though.

We walked back to the hotel and told Ryan the story of our dinner. We were going to check out the Golden Gia district for bar hopping and drinks, but it was already 9 PM (on jet-lag time) and we had an early morning so we called it a night and fell quickly to sleep.

Continue on our journey through Japan…