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Michael Nusair

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Sengan-en

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, JapanAside from Sakurajima, Sengan-en is one of those things that comes up a bunch when you’re looking for things to do in Kagoshima.

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, Japan

It’s a former residence dating back to the 1600s that’s been turned into a pretty amazing garden.

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, Japan

It costs 1000 yen to get in (about 11 bucks Canadian), but it’s totally worth it.

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, Japan

Just getting there is pretty spectacular.  It’s about two kilometres from the city, and you could take a bus, but the walk is impressively scenic; it’s clearly the way to go.  I mean, I think this video speaks for itself.

Then you get there and it’s enormous and seriously impressive.

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, Japan

That’s not to mention the hiking trail that leads to a spectacular view of the surrounding area.

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, Japan

It’s pretty much just endless steps going up, so it’s crazy exhausting, but once you get up there it’s totally worth it.

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, Japan

That’s not a bad view at all.

Sengan-en in Kagoshima, Japan

Italy + Japan = Delicious

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, JapanThere’s a place in Kagoshima called Tmtrmnstr that sells tomato ramen, which is basically like a bizarre amalgam between a standard bowl of ramen, and spaghetti with tomato sauce.

I really did not have high hopes for this — I tried it more out of a morbid curiosity than anything else.  I just assumed it wasn’t going to be very good.

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

But surprisingly enough?  It was delicious.  It was creamy and rich like a standard bowl of ramen, but with a garlicky, tomato sauce flavour.  I guess it was essentially like a tomato soup — but way better than any tomato soup I’ve had before.

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

You choose from various add-ons; they recommend parmegiano regiano cheese.

Sure, parmesan on ramen — why not?

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

The cheese really enhances it, melting and merging with the noodles in a gooey, cheesy mess.  It’s shockingly great.

Volcano Walk

Sakurajima in Kagoshima, JapanOne of the things Kagoshima is best known for is its proximity to Sakurajima, an active volcano on a nearby island (or what used to be an island — the lava from a 1914 eruption actually connected it to the mainland).

There’s a ferry that goes from Kagoshima to the island every ten minutes or so.

Sakurajima in Kagoshima, Japan

It’s a quick, but scenic, boat ride.

Sakurajima in Kagoshima, Japan

Once you get to the island, there’s a path that goes along the shore where you can see some volcanic rocks, and a pretty great view of the volcano.

Sakurajima in Kagoshima, Japan

There’s also a surprising number of cats, for some reason.

Sakurajima in Kagoshima, Japan

But mostly, some amazing views.

Sakurajima in Kagoshima, Japan

I mean, come on.

Sakurajima in Kagoshima, Japan

A Face-Punch of Flavour

Hanamaruken in Osaka, JapanOne of the many (many many) things I love about ramen is how much variety you get from bowl to bowl.  There are so many different styles and types and varieties of ramen that what seems like it should be a simple dish (it’s just noodles and soup) has so much to offer.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

There are some bowls of ramen that are subtle and light; on the other end of the spectrum is the bowl of slow-cooked pork rib ramen I just had from Hanamaruken in Osaka.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

The broth here is unctuously, mouth-coatingly rich (though it thankfully never crosses the line into gravy soup territory).  It’s also intensely flavoured, with a seafoody punch rounding out the in-your-face porkiness.  There’s absolutely nothing subtle here; the flavour grabs you by the collar and screams in your face.  And yet it’s not overbearing or one-note.

But what really makes this ramen noteworthy is the slow-cooked pork rib on top, subbing in for the typical chashu.  It’s a big old hunk of deboned ribs that’s been slow-cooked until it’s so tender you can just pull chunks off with your chopsticks.  It’s also browned on the griddle to give it some additional flavour/texture.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

It’s so incredibly tender that even the cartilage has rendered down into a delicious, porky goo.  And yet the meat itself still has texture — it’s not mushy at all, which can sometimes happen with slow-cooked meat like this.

McDonald’s Around the World: Japan Edition

McDonald's in JapanAfter my shockingly great Korean McDonald’s experience — and considering how good all of the food in Japan is — I had high hopes for a similar experience here.

Yeah, no.  This was a pretty standard McDonald’s experience, sadly.  Not the best, and not the worst.

First up is the Mature Gracoro Beef Stew Burger, which is a crispy fried croquette with cheese and chili on top.  Oh, and the croquette is filled with macaroni and shrimp.

McDonald's in Japan

There’s a lot going on here — between the chili, the cheese, the mayonnaisey sauce, the shrimp, the soft macaroni, the crispy exterior of the croquette, and the creamy interior, it’s a very random hodge-podge of tastes and textures.  It’s not bad, but it never quite coheres.

McDonald's in Japan

I also tried the Teriyaki McBurger, which was very similar to the Bulgogi Burger that I tried in South Korea.  In fact, I think the pork patty is identical — but when I had it in Korea, it was fresh and tasty.  This one had clearly been sitting out for a while, and had a much dryer texture and a vaguely leftovery flavour.  The teriyaki sauce was about what you’d expect, and it wasn’t quite strong enough to wipe out that patty’s iffy flavour.

McDonald's in Japan

Finally, there’s the Sankaku pie — a triangular chocolate pie with a puff pastry exterior.  This wasn’t bad.  The chocolate filling was nice and gooey, but the pastry shell was a bit tough and chewy.

Deering it up at Nara Park

Nara Park in Nara, JapanThere’s a city called Nara that’s about an hour away from Osaka by train; its claim to fame is Nara Park, an absolutely enormous park that’s populated by over a thousand exceptionally friendly deer.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

These deer have been co-existing with people in this park for hundreds of years, so they’re not afraid of people at all.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

I sort of figured they’d be in one small area of the park, but nope — everywhere you go, hey, there’s a deer.

Some of them are just wandering around.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

Other’s are just chillin’.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

A lot of them are hoping for food.  There are several vendors throughout the park that sell a bundle of special deer crackers for 150 yen.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

There’s pretty much always a deer hanging out nearby, hoping for a quick snack.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

Once you’ve got these crackers, hungry deer will come right up to you.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

What’s this?  A cracker?

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

One please.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

Nom.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

This never gets old.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

Just stick a cracker out and within seconds, here comes a deer.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

I have a video of this, too.  Note: these deer are so Japanese, they’ll sometimes bow to you before or after you give them a cracker.  You can see it a couple of times in the video.

You also occasionally see deer getting into fights.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

These guys butted their heads together until one of them gave up, bowed to the other, and backed off.

There’s also a couple of temples in the park.

Nara Park in Nara, Japan

And yeah, of course there are deer hanging out there, too.

It’s a pretty amazing place.

Worth the Wait

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, JapanWhen I’m searching for the best food in a particular area, I’m always hoping for a clear consensus.  If you come across recommendations for the same restaurant over and over again, then you can be reasonably assured that it’s going to be good.

Well, there’s very little doubt about it: Ramen Yashichi serves what everyone seems to agree is the best ramen in Osaka.  And holy crap, the place draws the crowds to prove it.

I showed up at around noon on a Friday; they have a system where they hand you a ticket that tells you when to come back, and I figured it’d be a half hour later.  Maybe an hour.

It told me to come back at 3:56 — almost four hours later.

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, Japan

Well, okay.  At least I won’t have to line up.

Except I absolutely did have to line up — I showed up at the allotted time to find about a dozen people waiting outside, so I spent about half an hour waiting to get in.  Then I got in and there was another line.  It took about ten more minutes.

But then I sat down and got to try the ramen, and it was like, yep.  I get it.  It’s a chicken-based shoyu ramen, and it was absurdly good.  It was a bit more oniony than normal — I’m not a fan of raw onion, so that was unfortunate — but other than that it was one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve had since coming to Japan (which means it was one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had).

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, Japan

I mentioned that the mediocre bowl of ramen I had in Dotonbori was just one-note salty; the thing I love about the best bowls of ramen is that they seem simple, but there’s so much depth and complexity to their flavour.  That’s absolutely the case here.  With every mouthful, you discover something new.  It’s magical.

Harry Potter and the Delicious Creme Brulee

Universal Studios in Osaka, JapanUniversal Studios has a location in Osaka, and I figured that since I quite enjoyed my visit to Disneyland and DisneySea in Tokyo, I’d give it a shot.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

The only wrinkle was that the big draw here is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and I hadn’t seen a single Harry Potter movie.  So I watched them all over the last couple of weeks — that’s just the way I roll.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

The Harry Potter area was pretty amazing, including an impressively detailed recreation of Hogwarts.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

And, of course, there’s the famous Butterbeer, which I obviously had to try.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

It’s basically a cream soda float, only with melted ice cream.  It was fine, I guess?  It cost a whopping 600 yen (almost seven bucks Canadian) for a tiny cup, so it’s not cheap.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

The centrepiece here is the ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which was easily one of the best rides I’ve ever experienced.  It also made me feel like I was moments away from vomiting everywhere, so that was unfortunate.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

Otherwise, the park was enjoyable but not quite up to the standards of the two Disney parks in Tokyo, especially DisneySea.

It was also insanely crowded, as you can see from this board with a listing of all of the various wait times across the park.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

Yes, that’s a 170 minute wait (!) for the Harry Potter and Despicable Me rides.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

As for the food, it was mostly nothing special, though there was one thing called a croissant brulee that was shockingly amazing.

Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

It’s creme brulee with a croissant base; the custard soaks into the croissant, and it basically becomes the best bread pudding that you’ve ever had (only with a crispy, sugary top to make things all the more delightful).  It was so much better than I was expecting it to be.

Feels Like the Very First Time

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, JapanThis is actually my second time in Osaka — the first time was about ten years ago.

While walking around Dotonbori, I came across a ramen joint with a giant cartoon dragon on the outside, and I suddenly got hit by a freight train of nostalgia.

Not only had I eaten here on my previous trip, but — and I’m not 100% sure about this, but I’m fairly confident — this is where I had my first bowl of real, non-instant ramen (you have to remember that the explosion of ramen joints in Toronto has only been in the last few years — rewind to a decade ago, and ramen was much more of a rarity in the GTA).

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

Though ramen is one of my favourite dishes now, it certainly wasn’t at the time, and this restaurant failed to ignite any sort of love for the dish.  Did I just not know how to appreciate a good bowl of ramen?

Nope, it’s pretty lousy (as you’d expect from a place with a big cartoon dragon mascot in the most touristy part of town).  The noodles were actually pretty good, but the broth was just one-note salty, and the pork was dry.

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

Still, the nostalgia!  Plus, how often to you get to revisit the place where you first tried one of your favourite meals?  Totally worth it.

Pancakes: Japanese Style

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, JapanPretty much every country has their version of a pancake (everybody loves pancakes).  Japan’s is called okonomiyaki — a savoury pancake that’s filled with various meats and veggies.  It’s an Osaka specialty, so yeah, obviously I had to try it while I was here.

And I clearly picked the right place to do it; I’ve had okonomiyaki a few times, and I’ve always liked it, though it’s never particularly stood out.  The one they served at Okonomiyaki Chitose definitely stood out.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

They have a few different versions on the menu.  I went with the one that’s filled with shrimp, squid, pork belly, and noodles.

The chef cooks it on a griddle right in front of you, and just watching it get made is  entertaining on its own.

It starts with a mixture of the veggies and the batter.  He also cooks the seafood on the griddle off to the side.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

Then he adds the cooked seafood to the pancake, followed by the noodles, and finally the pork (which is still raw at this point).

He adds more batter to each pancake…

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

…then deftly flips them over.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

Finally, he slathers on some mayo, adds a couple of other sauces, some seasoning, and it’s ready to eat.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

It was incredibly delicious.  The texture was perfect — previous okonomiyakis that I’ve tried have been a little bit doughy, but this featured an amazing balance of crispy exterior, fluffy interior, and chewy noodles, not to mention the perfectly cooked seafood.  The combo of the creamy mayonnaise and the slightly sweet, slightly tangy sauces compliments it perfectly.  It was ridiculous how much better it was than any okonomiyaki I’ve had before.