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Japan 2015 — Day 12: Okayama & Kurashiki

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I love Japan with the riot of mul­ti­colored neon lights illu­min­at­ing its major city centres — after all, it’s hard to love Osaka, without lov­ing the neon lights — but the parts of Japan that really stand out after vis­it­ing are the his­tor­ic areas. They’re the places pre­served to resemble the look of a pre­vi­ous era. So places like Takayama, Kawagoe, KanazawaShirakawa and now Kurashiki stick in my mind. Kurashiki is a his­tor­ic city loc­ated in west­ern Okayama Prefecture, sit­ting on the Takahashi River.

But before we make the 20 minute train trip west to Kurashiki, we head north-east for a tour of the Kirin Brewery in Mantomi, Okayama.

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Stepping out, we see work­ers cov­er­ing the exist­ing white lines of the two lane street with black tape, and then ‘draw­ing’ new lines using white tape to make it a one lane street. By the time we return at night and the event’s over, the tape has dis­ap­peared. The Japanese are metic­u­lous.

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Okayama Station is a short 6 minute walk from our hotel.

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We spot some fields en route to Mantomi.

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Mantomi Station is a very small sta­tion.

Kirin Brewery
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We’re picked up in a Kirin brew­ery com­pany car by a driver at the sta­tion, which is abso­lutely amaz­ing. They usu­ally have a shuttle bus ser­vice, but we were the only ones want­ing a lift at the time, so it was much like a per­son­al chauf­feur ser­vice (the driver opens the door for us and everything). It’s made more amaz­ing by the fact that the Kirin Brewery is actu­ally not too far from the sta­tion — a good five minute drive, but infin­itely closer to the sta­tion than the Toyota fact­ory was to the closest train sta­tion and we had to walk there.

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There is a pur­pose built hall for vis­it­ors, replete with a cafet­er­ia, a gift store, a cab­in­et show­cas­ing their cur­rent products, and vari­ous paraphenalia like this tiled work wel­com­ing you to the brew­ery with their sig­na­ture lion. The char­ac­ters for Kirin (キリン) can be found in the lion’s mane.

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We have some time before the tour starts, so we check out the gift store. They sell mini six packs of their Kirin Ichiban beer…

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…and mini Kirin Ichiban beer chocol­ates. Aren’t they cute?

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The first part of the tour takes place in their aud­it­or­i­um where we meet our tour guide and view a short film intro­du­cing us to the Kirin brand. The tour is con­duc­ted entirely in Japanese and we’re giv­en an English bro­chure to fol­low. The bro­chure is detailed yet easy to under­stand, and there’s English sig­nage of almost all the fact­ory facil­it­ies. Coupled with our super rudi­ment­ary know­ledge of Japanese, the exper­i­ence was very enjoy­able and inform­at­ive.

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After the film, we’re taken upstairs to a room to engage hands on with the fun­da­ment­al raw ingredi­ents of Kirin Ichiban beer. On the left are the hops (flowers of the hop plant that give a bit­ter and tangy fla­vour to beer) and on the right are the bar­ley grains.

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We’re encour­aged to touch, smell and eat the hops, which are rather grassy in fla­vour, as well as touch and smell the bar­ley. Amusingly, we thought we could also taste the bar­ley grains in the bowls in front of us, until the tour guide gives us some fresh grains from an air­tight con­tain­er. But it’s not that eat­ing those grains would’ve done us any harm — they were just stale — and I’m not sure being able to under­stand Japanese would’ve helped as all the Japanese were doing the same!

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Walking through a cor­ridor, we reach the pans used in vari­ous stages of the brew­ing pro­cess, includ­ing the wort pan and rice cook­er.

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After watch­ing a video about the extrac­tion of wort, we’re offered tast­ings of the first press (right) and second press (left) of the sweet wort. Kirin Ichiban beer is made with a single wort (or first press) brew­ing pro­cess that extracts only the purest, most fla­vor­ful por­tion of bar­ley. The first press has a dark­er col­our and a more del­ic­ate and less sweet malt fla­vour taste than the second. The hops are added to the sweet wort, which is then called ‘bit­ter wort’.

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These pans are quite huge…

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…as we dis­cov­er the door­way we walked through is in the shape of one of these pans.

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Walking back through the cor­ridor, we see pho­to­graphs of the wort and added yeast at vari­ous stages of fer­ment­a­tion before becom­ing beer.

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The top is the first stage while the bot­tom is the last stage.

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Looking out from the win­dows along the cor­ridor, we see the fer­ment­a­tion tanks.

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We hop onto the Kirin bus, which takes us around the fact­ory to the bot­tling facil­ity.

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I’m pretty sure these are pal­lets of empty bottles wait­ing to be filled.

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We head upstairs to the view­ing area. This is the rinser. It’s a week­end, so it’s not run­ning.

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And this is where beer gets filled into those bottles.

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The above assemblage of car­tons is a phys­ic­al illus­tra­tion of how many bottles the filler can pump out in one minute. The answer? 2,016 cans!

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2,016 cans is 84 car­tons filled with 24 cans of beer.

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We see a super­sized car­ton (about 1.8 m high).

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Returning to the bus, the driver’s reversed the bus so that we can walk from the path straight onto the bus. It helps him drive back to the visitor’s centre too. That con­cludes the form­al part of the tour.

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Back at the visitor’s centre, we take a look at the cab­in­et full of the cur­rent alco­holic/pseudo-alco­hol­ic drinks they man­u­fac­ture.

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All tour par­ti­cipants are offered to sample up to three Kirin drinks at the cafet­er­ia area.

We’re strongly encour­aged to sample their Kirin Ichiban beer — after all, it’s their sig­na­ture product that we just learnt all about. D and I aren’t big beer drinks, so he gets one to share between us while I get a spark­ling apple chu hi. We find the beer more pal­at­able than we expec­ted — it has a very dry fla­vour that’s drink­able, but still not enjoy­able. We much prefer my apple chu hi, which tastes like alco­hol­ic apple juice — that’s our sort of alco­hol!

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D fol­lows his beer up with an spark­ling red grape and berry (left) and a strong lem­on chu hi (right). The spark­ling red grape and berry is our favour­ite of the five drinks we try. It’s fruity, sweet and pleas­ant, without a strong alco­hol­ic fla­vour. The lem­on fla­vour in the strong lem­on chu hi accen­tu­ates the bit­ter­ness of the alco­hol, which explains why D and I usu­ally avoid them.

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As my second and last drink, I try the grapefruit zero hi. When it comes to alco­hol oth­er than sake, I’m ridicu­lously light weight, and between my chu hi and sips of D’s drinks I’m really quite tipsy at this point (past the point of giddy and get­ting a bit dizzy). Not tipsy enough to know I should stop drink­ing, though! The nat­ur­al bit­ter­ness of grapefruit lends itself well to mas­quer­ad­ing as a non-alco­hol­ic drink.

Everyone is giv­en some tasty beer snacks to go with their bever­ages.

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The group of ojis­ans on our tour dili­gently go back for their three free beers.

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Towards the end of our time, our tour guide shows us how to pour a beer from a can to get foam stiff it enough that it rises from the lip of the glass.

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Kirin sends us (and a hand­ful of oth­er vis­it­ors) back to the sta­tion on their cour­tesy bus.

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See what I mean about the huge num­ber of fer­ment­a­tion plants on site?

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Kirin brand­ing is vis­ible from the sta­tion. There’s no mis­tak­ing what sta­tion to get alight from.

Kurashiki

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Being tipsy isn’t all that fun. Thankfully, we feel bet­ter after the forty minute train trip to Kurashiki.

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First thing we do before we head to the Bikan (Merchant) dis­trict, is to find food and drink to help us recov­er some more. We head into Tenmaya, a depart­ment store next to the train sta­tion and find Sugi Chaya.

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Sugi Chaya is a res­taur­ant serving in bukkake udon, a spe­cialty to Kurashiki. Bukkake udon is udon served in thick dashi broth and can be served hot or cold. We’re head­ing towards the end of our trip and we’ve yet to eat udon, which we love!

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I try the ten­zaru (heav­enly) udon set. I love the addict­ive chew­iness and refresh­ing slurp of cold udon. The thick dashi broth for dip­ping the udon is fla­vour­ful, and the tem­pura — isn’t it pretty? The shiso leaf was sur­pris­ingly tasty — sort of like baked kale chips — and the bat­ter was beau­ti­fully thin and crispy.

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D can nev­er res­ist kar­age (and I can nev­er res­ist steal­ing pieces of it!), so gets the fried chick­en set. The chick­en is super juicy and tender on the inside and crispy on the out­side, and his bowl of udon comes with slices of fish cake and half an egg. The orange slice was par­tic­u­larly refresh­ing.

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Having eaten, we’re com­pletely recovered from drink­ing too early in the day, and on our way through the covered shop­ping streets towards the Bikan area.

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The shops aren’t too inter­est­ing, although we notice an inor­din­ate num­ber of hairdress­ers.

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One of the stores did sell cup sim­il­ar than the ones we saw in Loft, but we decide to buy the Loft ones instead as these are less well made and designed.

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Kurashiki are covered in weep­ing wil­lows, which line the bank of the canal.

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Just out­side the shop­ping dis­trict, we come across the first ramen store that actu­ally makes us want to eat ramen. Ordinarily, we don’t crave ramen and there are always so many oth­er food options to choose from. But apart from their jeans con­ver­ted seats, what makes us want to eat here?

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Because of their amaz­ingly beau­ti­ful menu!

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The illus­tra­tions decon­struct all the com­pon­ents of the dish. Unfortunately, we’re still full from our tasty udon lunch so we end up only admir­ing their menu.

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Jeans and bags and toys and clothes made from the fab­ric fea­ture reg­u­larly in the town.

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Finally, we reach the Bikan Historical area, which is the old mer­chant quarter of the city and con­tains many well pre­served examples of 17th cen­tury wooden ware­houses (kura).

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This is one of Kurashiki’s former town halls, a European style build­ing con­struc­ted in 1917.

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A map shows what Kurashiki used to look like dur­ing the Meiji era.

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The ware­houses are painted white with tra­di­tion­al black tiles.

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Some of the ware­houses have more inter­est­ing front­ages than oth­ers.

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There are no elec­tric poles in the Bikan area to pre­serve the appear­ance of the quarter dur­ing the Meiji era.

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The street lead­ing to the Ivy Square is busy with tour­ists check­ing out the souven­ir and food stops lin­ing either side…

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…while oth­er side streets are rather empty.

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Ivy Square is an area filled with art gal­ler­ies and museums.

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These giant hedges line the length left side of the wall from the entrance to Ivy Square.

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The first shop behind the gate spe­cial­ises in using wax to cre­ate candles. You can pay Y1,800 for a 30 – 60 minute course to make your own par­fait anim­als like the ones shown.

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Or you can buy a col­oured wax egg, and then buy the col­oured wax sheets to cre­ate eyes and mouths and vari­ous oth­er body parts for your anim­al candle.

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This cute panda sign on the bitu­men tells you to look both ways when cross­ing the road.

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Various museums exhib­it­ing things like tra­di­tion­al toys occupy some of the big­ger build­ings along the canal.

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But mostly, they’re full of shops, which are what D and I are inter­ested in.

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Sometimes it’s nice to see autum­nal foliage that isn’t from a maple tree.

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We find mochi that resembles a yuzu, and a lively chair hold­ing a cute panda illus­tra­tion.

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Along the bank of the river, there’s a cafe that serves bis­cuits. And not fancy bis­cuits either! But bis­cuits one Jatz with dips and jams!

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This tree is bent over back­wards try­ing to get a dip in the canal.

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The canal is filled with koi and weep­ing wil­lows line the banks.

On the oth­er side of the canal, we find a shop we’ve been want­ing to exist among all the red bean desserts: Gomafuku-do, a shop that spe­cial­ises in ses­ame foods!

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They sell everything from black and white ses­ame jel­lies, to salad dress­ings, sauces, bis­cuits.

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But one thing cap­tures out atten­tion: black ses­ame man­ju. The Japanese don’t seem to under­stand the concept of buy more, save more. The unit pri­cing does not decrease if you buy 6 instead of 1.

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But these black ses­ame man­ju? They are deli­cious! They’re unex­pec­tedly crispy on the out­side from being baked not steamed and filled with black soy bean filling. We buy one, but go back for anoth­er because they’re just so tasty.

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Reflections in the clear water are always so pretty.

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We see people offer­ing tour­ists rides on their row­ing boats down the canal.

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Along with rick­shaws, some tour­ists are quite taken with a canal ride.

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This is view of the oth­er side of the canal from the bridge at the centre of Kurashiki.

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Stone lan­terns, weep­ing wil­lows and tra­di­tion­al mer­chant houses are a great com­bin­a­tion.

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At a shop near the bridge, we try these mouth-puck­er­ing grape fla­voured nuts.

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We double back so that I can buy the umbrella on the left and a green scarf. It’s so pretty!

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The store has all sorts of mon­key themed chiri­men goods; 2016 is the Year of the Monkey.

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A tsur­ushi-bina (hanging hina dolls) dis­play hangs from the ceil­ing.

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D and I love shops that sell fruit-fla­voured syr­ups for drinks. This is Gohobi.

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We leave with kiwifruit cor­di­al (1 part cor­di­al to 4 parts water)…

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…and nash pear jelly sticks that you put in the freez­er before eat­ing. The shop assist­ant lured us with samples of the peach ones, and we love nashi pear.

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At the edge of the Bikan area, we find very few shops so we head back.

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We’d read good reviews of the Cafe Mugi, so on the way back to the train sta­tion we check it out.

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It’s a bakery on the bot­tom floor with the cafe occupy­ing the second storey. You leave your shoes at the bot­tom floor and wear the provided slip­pers upstairs. Both floors are beau­ti­fully fit­ted out with wood.

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The menu’s all in Japanese, so we do our best to trans­late the katakana. We man­age!

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We get the green tea chif­fon cake, with whipped cream, red beans, almond brittle and car­a­mel sauce. You can nev­er have a green tea dessert without red bean, and that’s because they go so well togeth­er, while the almond brittle gives a deli­ciously con­trast­ing crunch. I usu­ally prefer my chif­fon cakes to be more light and airy, but I’m won­der­ing if the matcha weighs the bat­ter down?

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I go for the mango juice and D goes for his usu­al iced cof­fee. The mango juice is very ordin­ary, but D’s cof­fee is as good as the reviews claim, although he opts to add the gum syr­up. Generally, while we liked the food, we thought they weren’t worth their prices, and the usu­al Japanese cus­tom­er ser­vice was lack­ing at a quiet time (there was one oth­er couple) from the single gen­tle­man who man­aged the entire cafe.

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It’s quite dark by the time we head back to Kurashiki Station.

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These col­or­ful cab­bage-like plants fill flower bed out­side the sta­tion.

Okayama

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Back in Okayama we have about 90 minutes before our shinkansen to Osaka, so we take our time.

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So we stop by the Snoopy store in Aeon Mall. They have a glasses rack, which we try out with D’s glasses, and some SnooTea.

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We find a brand of fash­ion accessor­ies called Smelly. Later at the train sta­tion we find this train-themed vit­am­in laden fluro yel­low drink.

Osaka

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At Shin-Osaka, we change to the sub­way for Nippombashi. This time, we dis­reg­ard the closest exit to our accom­mod­a­tion and instead find one with a lift, so we don’t have to lug a heavy suit­case up and down 3 flights of stairs. It’s much easi­er to move on flat ground!

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This time, our airb­nb accom­mod­a­tion (booked through the same host as the earli­er one) is much more man­age­able — there’s a double bed with floor space, a stor­age rack, and even space on the win­dow sill. After drop­ping off our lug­gage, we head back out for din­ner.

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The man­hole cov­ers in Osaka fea­ture Osaka Castle dur­ing spring.

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We hadn’t had sushi since the start of our trip, so we head back to Isono Ryoutarou, the kait­en­zushi where all the plates are ¥100. The plates are cheap and tasty.

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Clockwise from top left, the corn may­on­naise is sweet and juicy; the panko crumbed prawns are crispy tender; the extra tuna (I man­aged to take a photo before eat­ing it this time) is fresh as is the king­fish.

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We try some sal­mon that’s so deli­ciously melt-in-your-mouth that we want more. We end up try­ing the nor­mal sal­mon (bot­tom left), only to find the mouth­feel not rep­lic­ated, before we try the big toro sal­mon (bot­tom right). Once we find it, D orders plates of it! And then, hav­ing tried baked con­ger eel on Miyajima Island, we try it in nigiri form (top right) — this one lacked the tasti­ness from the glaze.

And with that, we’re back where we star­ted — quite lit­er­ally, we began the first leg of our trip in Osaka with Isono Ryoutarou and we’re begin­ning the last leg of our trip here.