November 22, 2015

Beautiful Kyoto

I first traveled to Kyoto last year, but I haven't seen very much of it. There are so many temples and scenic locations within Japan's cultural capital, and each time I go, I just see a couple of things. Fine by me, because I can really enjoy the beauty of each place if I take my time there. This trip's standout was the bamboo forest in Arashiyama.

Though there were plenty of people strolling down the bamboo path, it still had an unusual air of serenity. The tall bamboo shades its admirers from the sun, creating a cool space where no one needs sunglasses.

Looking up at the tall bamboo reaching for the heavens, I felt comfortably surrounded.

Arashiyama, literally meaning "storm mountain," is truly a beautiful area of Kyoto. While the bamboo forest stands out, there is still more to see!

Tenryu-ji, "Temple of the Heavenly Dragon," was a beautiful, large temple located adjacent to the bamboo forest. The landscape garden behind the main hall is one of the oldest in Japan, and was remarkably pretty, especially with its fall foliage. Known as Sogenchi Garden, it is a United Nations designated World Cultural Heritage Site.

There were also various smaller shrines and temples outside of Tenryu-ji. The whole area was charming, with an array of colors in the foliage so beautiful, it was as if a rainbow had lovingly sprinkled seeds into green hills.

Earlier that day, I stopped by Kiyomizu-dera after my maiko photoshoot. I'd spent a few hours there last year, so I kept it short this time.

But I like the street leading up to Kiyomizu-dera, as it's lined with souvenir shopping, artisan crafts, and food! The food there can be a little pricey, but I treated myself to a couple of snacks.

(Pickled) cucumber on a stick from a pickle shop!
Yatsushashi cream puff with green tea cream!

I ate some other snacks in Arashiyama, too. Kyoto is known for boiled tofu, so I made sure to have some of that, but the one I bought wasn't anything special. I've had some really amazing tofu before...I miss it!

Finally, my "dinner": a warabimochi parfait and matcha green tea! This type of kinako (toasted soybean flour)-covered mochi is a Kyoto specialty, and it literally melts in your mouth. It was delicious! I bought sakuramochi for my family's omiyage (souvenir), but they didn't like it as much as I did. Story of my life.

Warabi mochi parfait and matcha set

And that was my wonderful day in Kyoto! I love how easy it is to take day trips to Kyoto from Osaka. But there's still so much to see over there! I guess I'll just have to visit again.

November 16, 2015

Maiko Transformation in Kyoto

In my quest to be a strong, independent woman, apparently there's nothing I can't do. I can even transform into a maiko on the streets of Kyoto. Actually, anyone can do this with a little money.

Katy, Kanae and I dressed up in yukata when we were in Kyoto last summer, but now that it's colder, people are dressing in kimono. I thought about renting one for fun, but it didn't really make sense to do it by myself. (Pay $30-40 and just take selfies? pass.) Last year, I saw girls walking around dressed as maiko, but I didn't picture myself doing it until my friend recommended Maiko-henshin Studio Shiki.

The appearance of a maiko is what many western people envision when they think of geisha, but the two play separate roles and dress differently. Becoming a maiko was one of the major steps on the way to becoming a full-fledged geisha, and they were easily recognizable in their striking makeup, elaborate kimono, and many hair accessories. When the streets of Gion were filled with geisha and that culture, maiko were generally aged 15-20 years old, but these days women of all ages come out for this cultural experience. Kyoto has a handful of places where people can achieve this authentic look, but Studio Shiki was probably the cheapest place to do it, especially with their current promotional pricing. Plus, they were very professional and offered a high-quality experience.

I opted for the basic studio plan (¥5900), which includes full makeup and dressing, with 6 photos taken in their studio. This is a business, so be warned that the staff will try to upsell you on everything. For example, the base price includes a regular full wig, but you have the option of paying ¥2100 more for a half-wig, with which the front of your own hair is styled to blend with the wig, resulting in a more natural look. I'm cheap, but after they put the regular wig on me and I thought it looked terrible, I realized it was worth it to go for the half-wig and asked if I could switch. The girl let me, but the rough way she styled my hair afterward suggested she wasn't too happy about it. Ouch! (Still worth it!)

Studio Shiki had maybe 30 or 40 kimono for me to choose from. It had to be red, I thought, because I wanted to emulate the bold, strong and powerful qualities of that color. The staff offered me three choices of matching obi, and I chose white and gold. After adding a few hair pieces and a cricket (wait, that didn't happen), I was ready!

They also had options in addition to the six basic studio photos. I thought this garden shot looked beautiful, so I coughed up another ¥1000 for my own. And that's how they get you. But really, if I was going to undertake all these steps - the thick makeup, the heavy wig, the multilayered kimono - I would make this once-in-a-lifetime experience count. I'm never going to do it again, so why not go all out?

After the studio photos, I had ten minutes of free time to take pictures with my own camera. They actually had a staff member come and take pictures for me since I was by myself! Excellent service. They also have staff who speak English, so foreigners can feel comfortable coming here.

When I washed off my makeup, I couldn't help but wash half my face first, mimicking Mulan. My only regret is that I couldn't take a picture to capture the moment! Pictures weren't allowed in the dressing room, and I would have snuck off to the bathroom to take one if there wasn't a staff member there helping me clean white makeup off of my back. Sigh.

In the end, my total came out to about $100. You must expect to pay more than the base price, because some of the upselling is necessary! For example, I like digital copies, so I purchased a CD with my images. It felt weird carrying around only 7 photos of myself that were essentially worth that much, but I was happy. This was definitely a unique cultural experience that could only be achieved in Kyoto, Japan's cultural capital.

November 11, 2015

Osaka Getaway

There might be a problem if I need to take getaways every other month. A friend shared the thought, "My goal is to build a life I don't need a vacation from," and I thought that was a great way to look at life. At the same time, I feel like it shouldn't apply to flight attendants. Or single people. Honestly, I want my life to be one long vacation.

I first went to Osaka last year, I was just in Sendai in September, and I have plans in Tokyo for Christmas. "Why Japan again?" my parents asked. "Why don't you go to Korea or something? Is this because we didn't want to eat all-you-can-eat sushi with you?"

No mom, even though no one should ever turn down AYCE sushi (so disappointing!), I just wanted to relax somewhere. I do need to have a good look at Seoul, and I was deciding between there and Osaka for this getaway, but after coming to Japan, I knew I'd made the right decision. I loved not having the pressure to go sightseeing, and knowing it was absolutely fine to do whatever made me happy for the next few days.

When I arrived, I checked into my hotel. I had a single room, with space for a single futon, a small table, and little else, but I loved it. It was cute, cozy, and cheap, at $42 for three nights. I enjoy sleeping on futons, though this one was a little thin. I definitely felt the floor beneath my butt, but still slept well.

The first night, I had okonomiyaki and a beer for dinner, and relaxed for the rest of the evening at Spa World. Indulgent and rejuvenating, just what I needed.

Pork okonomiyaki!

My second day I literally focused on me. I wanted to eat everything! But sushi looked and sounded delicious, so I went with that. Then I took my first purikura, and sang karaoke by myself for an hour and a half before going to eat kushikatsu. In this alley by Shin-sekai, there was one particular kushikatsu restaurant with a very long line - so I figured it had to be good!

A two-step process. After taking your photos, you move to another booth to edit them. 
So Japanese...

I usually like ordering set meals, because you get a variety of items and I don't have to struggle with ordering in my gets-me-around Japanese. Unfortunately, this place didn't have any sets, and I wasn't sure what to order. When I looked lost, the shop worker asked if I wanted him to pick for me. Yes please!

Super long line!
Top: kushikatsu from alley restaurant
Bottom: kushikatsu from well-known Kushikatsu Daruma restaurant

When I exited the restaurant, I realized I hadn't eaten at the one with the crazy long line. I went to the one next to it. Typical Victoria-like mistake, but oh well, still good! Shin-sekai might be the "bad" area of Osaka, but they sure have a lot of tasty food.

One of many Billiken in Shin-sekai

I figured I should explore a different area of Osaka, so I got on the train to look for this market called Kuromon Ichiba. My sense of direction is terrible, so I ended up wandering the lively Namba area, home of famous Dotonburi. Leisurely, I went shopping and ate takoyaki and kitsune udon for dinner.

Glico Man!
Takoyaki in progress
The finished product! I love takoyaki!
Kitsune udon, a casual Osaka specialty. I'd rather have tempura or curry udon, I think...
But I did like that this was only ¥260. So cheap!

I went back early and used my free ticket for a nearby bathhouse. At this point, getting naked in front of other women is as natural as squatting over a floor toilet. In Japan, I don't think about either one! So I bathed and relaxed in this awesome massage chair there before retreating to my hotel, as I wanted to get up early the next morning for a day in Kyoto. Suffice to say, I drank a lot during my vacation. Draft beer with the meal, then a beer while relaxing in my room before bed, why not? It's so easy to drink when beer comes out of vending machines.

No IDs, no questions.

I'm so glad I'm at a point in my life where I can be this selfish, and have this much fun by myself. There are probably only two other people I'd travel with at this point: Katy and Jen. Otherwise, I don't want to run the risk of drama- of trying to be myself and not getting along with people, or trying so hard to not be myself that I don't have fun. It's so much easier to just go by myself, without having to worry about what other people think. But I definitely feel like a strong, independent woman can enjoy being on her own.

November 7, 2015

State #1: Daly City, CA

When I got back from Vietnam, the last thing I wanted to eat was Asian food. I wanted pizza, burgers, and chicken wings. Jen and I went to happy hour at a place called Hot Pot Garden, and I thought I might die if I ate hot pot because I ate it six times in Vietnam! But a week later, my friend Corey invited me to get pho, and he took me to Pho Huynh Hiep 3, also known as Kevin's Noodle House.

I used to live in Daly City, but I'd never been to Pho Huynh Hiep 3, so Corey was pretty excited about taking the Pho Queen to a new place. Certainly, the most notable thing about this restaurant is that there's almost always a wait. I hadn't waited to get into a pho restaurant since Turtle Tower, but we only waited about six minutes before getting a table. As you can imagine, it was bustling on the inside.

This popular restaurant serves all the usual Vietnamese foods you'd expect, plus an extensive list of shakes. Pho was generally $6.50 for a small, $7.25 for a medium, and $8.25 for a large. Pretty cheap prices for this area, especially since the portions looked big. I was hungry, so I ordered a medium pho tai nam. Surprisingly, the servers used tablets to input our orders - how advanced!

Corey ordered a small and Walter a large.

I hate to say it, but I'm not sure why this place is so popular when their pho is pretty average. Maybe I only felt that way because I had just come back from Vietnam, the motherland of delicious pho. The broth was flavorful, but lacking the depth I always look for. The noodles were a little on the hard side, and the meat was good but unremarkable. All in all, an unmemorable bowl of pho, but I'd have to say better than Pho Saigon in South San Francisco. (Over there they serve memorable pho- in the bad way.)

Pho tai nam

At the end of the meal, I ordered a durian shake, or sinh tố sầu riêng. I had recently seen this video where BuzzFeed's Keith hosted a live show and had people try durian...and they overwhelmingly hated it. As a Vietnamese person, it's hard to watch people express disgust at something you grew up with. Wanting to see a different reaction, I had Corey and Walter try my shake, but they didn't like it either! Apparently "gasoline" is something that some people actually think of when they're around durian. It's kind of heartbreaking...but I guess every culture has something that other cultures can't immediately embrace. But dammit Keith!

I guess I would come back to "Kevin's Noodle House" for the convenience of it - I definitely want to avoid Pho Saigon - but the search for great local pho still continues.

Rating Breakdown:

Taste (9/14)
  • Broth flavor- 3/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 3/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (13/16)
  • Service- 4/5
  • Cleanliness- 4/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 22/30

Pho Huynh Hiep 3, 85 Southgate Ave, Daly City, CA 94015