Thursday, March 5, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part VIII (Doing It On Your Own - Part B - Kyoto - Why You Can't Rely Only On Guidebooks or TripAdvisor!)

This article is dedicated to those (like you millennials and "I can do it cheaper" folks) who honestly believe by reading things on the internet you can do it all yourself.  You most certainly can do a decent job after countless hours of scouring obscure websites and getting conflicting and/or inaccurate information off of Cruise Critic, TripAdvisor and other message boards, but if you want to raise your experience to a higher, more enriching, more personal level...rather than using your trip to prove you can do it (whatever "it" is), read on!

I departed the Azamara Quest at 9:00 a.m. to meet my guide, Kenzo Sato for a tour of Kyoto.  He as a real gem.  His manner was reserved, but in control of everything.  His English was very good.  His knowledge was excellent…and he adeptly measured how much information he gave me based upon my level of interest.  And, most importantly, he understood what I wanted and delivered it exceptionally well.

Kenzo Sato - A guide who gets it! (Kyoto, Japan)
My requests were:  Meet me at the ship in Osaka.  No more than two temples.  Focus on food.  Show me what happens on the back streets and where the locals go.  Use public transportation and walk as much as possible.  Let's see how he did.

Kenzo arrived promptly at 9:00 a.m. We then immediately left the Azamara Quest and headed to the subway to Kyoto and after a change of trains (both of which were very, very, crowded - so much so that starting earlier would have been a real challenge), it was time to try out the bullet train (the Shinkansen).  

The Shinkansen Bullet Train at Osaka Station
And, per my desires, he didn’t purchase seats, but rather the less expensive standing room for our 15 minute ride. 

Note:  It is possible to manage the Japanese train systems, but it is not easy.  Yes, you can find some…that is “some”…English signs so you can figure out train stops (as the train is stopping as most trains do not have announcements in English and the onboard signage is not in English), but the local knowledge as to which level and track of which huge train station you need to be at, and then coordinate the times so you are being time-efficient, makes it less than the most attractive method of transportation (other than cost).   And when the trains get full, it gets a bit rough so if you have any frailties and plan on traveling during rush hours be careful.  It can be done, but how much of your valuable time will be lost figuring it out and more so if you make a mistake?

We arrive in Kyoto and grab a taxi to the first of my two temples:  Tofukuji.  I am not a big temple/church/mosque kinda guy, so I felt I was fulfilling my obligation, but I did really like the dragon painted on the ceiling!




Kenzo, rather than driving me here and there, had us walk through residential areas so I could get a better feel of day-to-day, if not upscale, Kyoto life.

A small Buddhist Temple for the neighborhood
It was then to a beautiful Zen rock garden/tea ceremony area





And then to the famous Shinto Shrine for business:  Fushimi Inari Taisha.  While the striking orange arches are everywhere (where Kenzo explained each is filled with advertising as this is a business shrine), the color actually becomes somewhat peaceful against all of the greenery.




This is where Kenzo Sato “got me” for the first time!  Off the path there is a small bamboo forest which was beautiful and peaceful.  As we walked the trees started to sway in the wind and you could hear the stems bump against each other.  But as we walked back the wind was very strong and the sounds of the leaves and the thumping of the bamboo stems was just enchanting!  Awesome.


And you were going to find this little gem on your own?  Probably not!  (OK, now that I have posted this article, if you find it, you kind of know where it is...and now how long roaming the grounds will be spent trying to set foot in this forest?)

It was then time for another subway ride and we reappeared at the Kamagawa (Duck River) that cuts through Kyoto, then down some streets near where Kenzo lives and to one of the simplest but most wonderful meals I have ever had.  (I just wish I had someone to share it with!).

Down a little side street is Kamagawa Takashi which specializes in Ohmi beef (considered the Rolls Royce of Wagu and supposedly what was served to the Imperial family).  

Restaurant Kamagawa Takashi
I did not know what I had in store for me, but it was an incredible meal in every possible way prepared right in front of me by its owner, aptly named Takashi Kamagawa.


After ordering our three sake tasting


we started with a Savory Custard with Beef Shank, radish and ginger 


followed by a salad with onion sauce (I usually don't take pictures of salad, but it was so attractive).


And then Lightly Boiled Sliced Beef on Ice (which was incredible)


This was followed by very lightly Barbecued Beef with Grilled Sweet Potatoes, Squash, Onion and Cabbage


Then a Rice Ball, basted in a light, sweet, soy and filled with beef


Miso Soup  With a Beef Fat Broth was next (indescribably wonderful)…and, as I was told, miso soup is best served at the end of the meal to settle one’s stomach


Then a simple traditional dusted Apple Jelly 


The cost of this incredible meal was about $50 for the two of us.  In New York this would cost well over $200…if you could get a reservation! 

(And I have to mention this:  TripAdvisor has Kamagawa Takashi rated as the 1,008th best restaurant in Kyoto.  Seriously?  It should be rated as one of the best!  This is not the first time I have seen TripAdvisor just get it so wrong because it is not based upon what is really good, but by how many people say it is.  Trust me on this:  Forget TripAdvisor and go to this place!)

While lunch was over, Kenzo Sato’s day for me was just getting started! 

After lunch we took a walk to a local green tea shop; and this was not just some ordinary tea shop.  Here I had a brief lesson (in Japanese, of course, with translation) from a tea master who explained a lot about green tea like you don’t use hot water, but warm water and you don’t let the tea steep, but you pour it rather quickly, and you don’t just use the tea once, but high quality tea brewed in very small amounts can be used for up to eight times.  When I get home I am throwing out my supposed green tea!  (And I am not saying where this gem is located!  Ask me or Kenzo!)


Ancient soy sauce craftsman making some of the finest soy sauce?  Kenzo's next stop!


It was then off to a tiny, run down, tofu shop whose family has owned and operated the shop for eight generations.  Very cool, even if tofu isn’t my favorite thing.


Next up, my son wanted a pair of Japanese slippers.  The problem is that he is size 11 and you simply cannot find slippers that size in Japan nor the type he wanted in Kyoto or Osaka.  But Kenzo found them for me (albeit they are from the best hotel in Kyoto…so he better like them!)

It was then a culinary adventure in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market sampling lots of different things

Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan




Tofu Donuts with Caramel.  I'm giving up real donuts for these!
Those ubiquitous dried fish flakes
are made from a machine like this
and with Kenzo explaining what might otherwise seem unexplainable and getting me into the back of one of the fish stalls, patiently waiting as I try braised octopus with a cooked quail egg in its head, fish cakes (from the best stall) and more. 



And, of course, Kenzo knew exactly where for me to get a couple of pairs of really nice chopsticks for my children.

Was Kenzo done?  No way.  It was then off for a stroll by the river, tasting a rice flour ball filled with fresh strawberries

And then the mandatory (and touristic) “Spot the Geisha”…which I did (and Kenzo always does).

Geisha, Gion, Kyoto, Japan
Now was Kenzo done?  Nope.  I had mentioned my son wanted some unique Japanese candy…and he did one better.  It is an incredible green tea cookie surrounding fantastic white chocolate found in a high end shop at the Kyoto train station.  (Hope they make it home!)

Finally, it was time to head back to the bullet train, the subways and the Azamara Quest…to pack.  It was my last day of the cruise. 

And what a last day!

Don't want to do it all on your own?  Want to do part of it on your own?  Let me know how Goldring Travel can assist.  Drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY