Owl always love you

Claire Brothers is a travel consultant in our Bristol office. As well as having spent seven years in Germany and three in California, Claire lived in Kyoto, Japan, for five years – where she especially enjoying eating street food, trawling antiques markets and visiting Osaka SpaWorld. Though she is now based in the UK, she recently returned to Japan to do some research for InsideJapan Tours – including a very important visit to a Fukuoka Owl Café… 

Who doesn’t love a good owl? With their appealing expressions and inherent charm it is hard to believe these feathery delights are in fact skilled predators and considered by many cultures to be a bad omen. Surely an omen of impending adorableness would be more reasonable? However, defence of the owl’s good name was far from my mind as I recently strolled through the streets of Fukuoka, one of Kyushu’s most vibrant cities. It was my first visit and I decided on an afternoon of exploring, by which of course, I mean shopping.

As I walked through a covered shopping street I found a shop selling butsudan, the shrines that Japanese families keep at home. Inside was a grandmother and two little girls dressed in stunning kimono. Obachan was too shy but the girls happily posed for a photo.

A special day indeed when this is not maximum cuteness.

A special day indeed when this is not maximum cuteness.

As I continued along the street I noticed a queue outside a café with an owl logo. Being both British and a fan of owls, I was compelled to join the queue. The curtains were closed but after a short wait the door opened and a member of staff stepped outside. It was in this moment that I saw them. Through the crack in the door I spied an oasis of owls. Large owls with pointy ears, tiny owls with teddy bear faces, owls as far as my far-too-excited eyes could see.

This guy.

This guy.

With my owl-loving heart beating wildly in my chest I approached the member of staff and asked if it would be possible for me to make a reservation. She explained that they only take reservation on the day and that the next available slot was in one hour. She also handed me a leaflet to read with prices and instructions.

Fukuro no Mise (Owl shop) is an owl café where you can pay either 1,000yen (about £5.50) for a soft drink or 1,200yen (about £7) for a beer. This includes an hour of time with the owls. About 15 people are allowed at the café at a time and both adults and children are allowed. The leaflet explained that we would have time to drink our drinks and hear instructions on how to handle the owls on the upper level of the café before we could interact with the owls on the lower level.

And so, I was in. Whilst the description of how to handle the owls was in rapid-fire Japanese, they provided a handout with instructions in English too. The most important point when handling owls is not to touch their face, chest or feet. You must also hold your arm at a right angle to your body and with one finger extended if the owl is small. This helps the owls to keep balance so they can relax. You stroke the owls gently with the back of your hand. Before stroking a small owl, you should make one of your fingers into a hook shape and show it to the owl. A human hand looks gigantic to a small owl so doing this convinces the owl you are only touching it with a small finger and you are not about to crush it with your human monster paw.

An owl the size of my hand. YES.

An owl the size of my hand. YES.

After drinking my iced coffee in record-breaking time I proceeded down to the owls. There were five owls, each being handled by a member of staff, and the other owls were
“holiday owls”. This meant they were hanging out and we could photograph them but were told strictly not to touch or disturb them otherwise. From there everyone patiently waited for whichever owl they wanted to interact with. You could hold the larger owls on your arm and the smaller ones could go on your arm, shoulder or head.

I met them all. Excited faces ahead….

owl1

This one was the daddy. Or mummy, it’s hard to sex an owl.

This one was the daddy. Or mummy, it’s hard to sex an owl.

This one knew I was too excited.

This one knew I was too excited.

I’m aware of the issues surrounding any kind of animal café and I can understand the objection some people may have to a café which houses wild animals. All I can say is that the owls seemed relaxed and at ease with the environment and did not display any typical signs of stress in captivity like pulling out feathers. The staff seemed to genuinely care for the owls and the emphasis was on always being respectful and considerate of them as animals. As it should be!

Sorry Machu Picchu, this is the best place I've ever been.

Sorry Machu Picchu, this is the best place I have ever been.

Learn How to Make Sushi the Right Way

Sushi is a class of Japanese dishes that contains vinegared rice and other ingredients such as dried seaweed and raw fish. Tourists who visit Japan can take a short class in making sushi, although the training for a professional sushi chef requires at least 10 years. The rising popularity of sushi has resulted in the development of sushi dishes that appeal to western palates. Find out more about making Japanese dishes in Japan by visiting Inside Japan Tours.

sushi lessons in tokyoLesson Plan

A typical sushi dish begins with gently heating sheets of dried seaweed (nori). Place a rolling mat on a flat surface and place the nori sheet on top of it. Spread cooked rice on top of the nori sheet and spread it evenly with your hand, leaving a space of about 1 inch from one end of the sheet. Add other ingredients to the rice such as wasabi and gather the sushi filling into a line at the center of the nori sheet. Roll the mat so that the nori sheet wraps around the filling and squeeze the mat to pack the sushi roll tightly. Open the mat and remove the sushi roll, then cut the roll into equal sections. Serve with condiments such as pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi.

Varieties

The California roll is one of the most popular forms of sushi in the western world. It contains imitation crab, avocado, and cucumber, although premium brands may contain real crab. A California roll is often served with the rice outside the nori, a presentation known as uramaki in Japanese.

Classes

The ABC cooking studio in the Midtown district of Tokyo is a popular place for tourists to learn how to make sushi in Japan. It offers a one-day class in preparing Japanese party plates, which includes sushi. The Nara Cookery School is located in Ikoma, which is 1 hour from the Kyoto station. These classes are offered in English and last about 3 hours. The classes may contain 1 to 4 people and the lesson times are flexible.

[photo via ABC cooking School]

Mad cows in Kobe

I am putting this blog post together just before lunch time and its not easy as it is making me incredibly hungry.

One of our fantastic Japan staff, Ayako Kiyono recently took it upon herself to visit a Kobe beef farm.  I am sure that you have heard of Kobe Beef, but these days the term ‘Kobe Beef’ seems to be linked to any meat where the animals have been reared slightly differently to the usual methods as I recently found on a trip to Cornwall. The landlord of a pub and farmer was feeding his cows and pigs on local beer and producing his own, “Kobe beef and pork”. It was nice, but it certainly wasn’t the real McCoy.

The real Kobe beef is produced in the Hyogo area of Japan and Kiyono san wanted to actually see what went into producing the finest beef in the world. She travelled to Takami Kobe Beef farm in the rural town of Ichijima to find out and here is what she discovered.

 

What is the Kobe Beef?

No cows are born to be “Kobe Beef” cow.

Only Tajima-gyu cows (special breed in Hyogo prefecture) that satisfy the specific quality criteria deserve the title “Kobe Beef”.

Roughly 3000 Tajima-gyu cows manage to pass the criteria and titled as Kobe Beef every year.

Takami san delivered this calf the previous night and is nursing it himself.

Who discovered Kobe Beef for the first time?

Surprisingly, it was an Englishman! Until 1868, Japanese were not accustomed to eating meat, but that year, Kobe opened its doors to foreign trade as an international port and Kobe Beef was eaten for the first time.

 How are the cows raised?

The mother and baby names are written next to each calf.

At the Takami Kobe Beef Farm, the following methods are use for their cows;

Cows drink Sakamizu water. Sakamizu refers to spring water that is used to brew fine Sake.

Cows take a shower twice a day. (Shampoo and treatment)

Cows are talked to by farmers. (Farmers check each cows health by talking to them)

Each cow has Japanese name and taken care very well by farmers.

Cows are watched 24h through security camera.

Cows do not do any exercise.

Calves relax. No moooving for these cows!

 Are there any problems with raising pure-blood Tajima-Gyu?

Pure-blood Tajima Cows are not as healthy as their half-blood counterpart.

Pure-blood cows tend to be born premature and grow slowly.

New calves are kept in their own shed.

 What is special about Kobe Takami Beef Farm?

Takami Kobe Beef Farm won the championship for Kobe Beef 2010 and the farm has an official license.

Normally, each process, such as breeding, raising, and fattening are done separately by different farmers who is specialized in each process. Visitors to Takami can observe all the processes that go into raising a ‘Kobe Beef Cow’.

The highest grade kobe beef.

Takami Beef Farm has restaurants where visitors are able to enjoy fresh Kobe beef for reasonable prices. Try a Kobe beef rice bowl (Gyudon) or  1260 yen or the best Takami Kobe beef course at lunch time for an incredible 3800 yen.

 

Takami Kobe Beef Farm is approximately a 2h 15 minute train ride from Kyoto by train. If you want to eat the best beef in the world and at a decent price…and see exactly what goes into producing it, then it might be worth a visit. Let us know and we can organise it for you!

 

10 Reasons why Japan is so great – No.5 – Food

As I have said before, this list is in no particular order, but food has got to be high on anyone’s list of reasons why Japan is so great.

Tokyo and the Kansai region including Kyoto, Osaka and Nara have ensured that Japan has got the most Michelin rated restaurants in the world and the most top-rated three star restaurants than any other country. It is truly the culinary capital in terms of ‘posh nosh’, but there is a huge range of very delicious, good quality food all over Japan.

If there is one thing the Japanese take seriously, it is their food. Everyone knows about sushi and sashimi as a Japanese dish, but many people (from the UK anyway) are often surprised how sushi can melt in your mouth, taste so good and not cost very much at all (many conveyor belt sushi shops sell a plate of sushi from approx 80 pence). Many cities across the country will have areas that are covered in a huge range of eateries providing reasonably low cost, good quality food such as Okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), Ramen noodles, Rice bowls and more. Tokyo’s Yurakucho district is full of salrayman favourites such as Yakitori shops (grilled chicken on skewers) and Osaka’s Dotonburi district is renowned for its Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) stands and Okonomiyaki shops. Traditional Japanese pubs known as Izakaya are found all over the country in most towns and serve a great range of food covering a range of Japanese delights and western snacks.

If you don’t want to eat out, you wouldn’t go too far wrong by heading to the convenience store and buying a Bento box consisting of noodles, meat, vegetables and more, costing approximately £3. Convenience stores are the way to go if you are travelling on a budget, but there are also very reasonably priced chain restaurants selling combination set meals for approximately £4. The food looks and taste good and the price is nice too. In Japan, even the plastic display food looks delicious!

There are so many food choices in Japan. A meal in a ryokan guest house is a must and I suggest you try and taste the local speciality (meibutsu) of a city or region, whether it be a particular type of fish, fruit, vegetable or style of cooking. You will definitely not go hungry in Japan and even if you go there with the mindset that you are not really keen on Japanese food, I recommend that you give it a go and you will probably like it. After all, if you don’t like Japanese food, you could try the western food in Japan as it is probably better than the western food in the west.

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Food is a very good reason as to why Japan is so great.

A guide to drinking in Japan

InsideJapan Tours (IJT) is lucky to have a talented bunch of staff in Japan with our office staff in Nagoya, our tour leaders across Japan and our private guides. Ayako Kiyono san is one of IJT’s professional guides in the Kyoto area who has a great knowledge of the Kansai region, the country, its history, religion and culture in general. If you have any interest at all IJT can just about guarantee that Kiyono san will be able to give you the most interesting and fulfilling day of guiding during your time in Japan.

Kiyono san has just been doing some ‘personal’ research on in the Kansai area. In fact, Kiyono san has developed a little tour of the regions beer and whisky producers squeezing three breweries into one day….along with free drinks and snacks on the way. So for the thirsty traveller, here’s Kiyono sans ‘Beer and Whiskey sampling tour of Kansai’.

What better way to begin the day, than with a 0930am stop at the Asahi beer factory. Asahi is one of Japan’s most famous beers and the factory is found in the Osaka district of Suita, a short train ride from Osaka station. A 90 minute tour is followed by three complimentary glasses of Asahi Superdry and snacks (Otsumami).

After a lunch brake, why not opt for a change in palate and a 60 minute tour of the Suntory Yamazaki whisky distillery. It is only a 25 minute train ride from Suita, but you will probably be quite thirsty by the end of the informative tour. Don’t worry; you have approximately three complimentary glasses of Suntory single malt whisky to quench your thirst at the end of the tour with a few snacks to keep you ticking over.

Just a few minutes on the train and a short shuttle bus trip away, brings you to the Suntory beer factory in Nagaoka-kyo. You can take part in the 60 minute tour before enjoying complimentary Suntory Premium Malts beer along with some more snack food.

Having finished your brewery tour for the day, you can find yourself back at your hotel in Kyoto or Osaka by 5pm. You can freshen up before heading out to experience a fantastic food in a Japanese Izakaya (traditional pub) or perhaps head to one of hundreds of excellent restaurants for some wonderful food or even to a Tachi-nomi (standing and drinking bar) to continue as the day began.

All of the brewery tours are in Japanese and require advanced reservation.

IJT are proud of the commitment shown by Kiyono san in researching this trip and can guarantee that she will give you 100 percent when guiding you, wherever your interests lay. Kiyono san will be able to show you some of the popular tourist sights in the region, take you to secret local spots of interest and give you valuable cultural insights into life in Japan. A days itinerary is not fixed, but if you have anything in particular in mind that you would like to see or do, or maybe you have a specialist interest, let us know before you arrive and Kiyono san will help you get the most out your time in the Kansai region.
KANPAI!!

Matsumoto Restaurant Review: Kurekino

Matsumoto has lots to offer its visitors: sake breweries, wasabi farms, the world’s largest private collection of ukiyoe (woodblock prints) and not forgetting one of Japan’s best preserved and visually striking castles. But, unfortunately, many visitors are here just for one day. With the time constrained punter in mind, here is a restaurant which offers Matsumoto’s culinary specialities: soba noodles, wasabi, raw horse meat and sake, located next to the train station’s East Exit (Castle Exit).

Kurekino’s is easily found, with its sake barrels to the right of the entrance and an immured (but visible) soba noodle chef to the left. Inside there are a number of 2 or 4 person tables and also a big wooden counter where one can sit and engage with the other customers.

The most popular dishes are the soba noodle sets. The noodles will either be in hot broth or cold with a dipping sauce, larger sets come with tempura. Raw horse is also on offer on the à la carte menu.

The soba and tempura sets were well presented and large. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the soba is handmade: you passed the soba chef on your way in. But the irregular width of the noodles is also a sign of noodles not processed by machine. The texture of the soba was satisfying (a little denser than wheat noodles) and they had the characteristically nutty buckwheat taste. I opted for the soba in duck broth which was excellent. Duck meat is not very common in Japan so this was an occasional treat.

The cold noodle dishes are also served with a red lacquer jug which contains the hot water in which the soba noodles were cooked (called sobayu, the Japanese word for it sounds a lot better than my English description). This starchy liquid is used to dilute the soy sauce based dip and is drunk at the end of the meal. I’ve come to use the sobayu as a kind of soba restaurant quality yardstick, as I’ve only enjoyed it in better establishments and I enjoyed the sobayu here enough to drink by itself (a habit I’ve never observed anyone else do so don’t necessarily follow my example).

The horse meat here was tender and of good quality. But because raw horse is quite a lean meat don’t expect the delicious fatty flavour associated with good Japanese raw beef. This dish is often served with a little grated ginger, crushed garlic, shredded onions and soy sauce which are added to the thin slices of meat to taste. An ideal accompaniment to the horse is a bottle of cold sake and the staff were more than happy to recommend one from their range of local brews.

Kurekino Ekishaten 榑木野駅舎店 (next to the Matsumoto East Exit (Castle Exit), Shimadachi 859, 390-0852, Click here for location)
Tel: 0263-38-0803
www.kurekino.co.jp

Sets under ¥2000 and the raw horse is ¥870. Sake from ¥400.
Open Daily
Last Order 20:40.

Japanish Food

I`m pretty sure I like Japanese food, I`m just not really certain what it is. Nobody has given me a list, and I know there`s far more to it than just soba noodles and sushi.

Last week, wandering around tourist-free Tokyo, I tried a couple of dishes that are not traditional Japanese, but they are unique to Japan. I have called them Japanish.

Omuraisu, a classic Japanish dish, in Asakusa.

My first Japanish dish was in Asakusa at Yoshikami Yoshokudo. Yoshokudo means western diner, but the name is just a cunning disguise. The chefs and patrons are all Japanese, as are their main dishes – like omuraisu.

Omuraisu was first served in Osaka in the 1920s. Now you can get it anywhere in Japan. It consists of sticky rice, mixed with fried pork, wrapped in a fried egg and hosed with tomato ketchup.

It`s kids food in adult portions. Eating it, I felt nine years old, but the sweet tomato ketchup was worth all the shame.

A couple of days later, near Shinjuku, I went to a restaurant for some French curry. French curry sounds like a dreadful idea, as appealing as English sushi, but the small counter-seating only restaurant is always full.

The enthusiastic head chef told me he had studied French cuisine for several years. Adding red wine to curry sauce seemed to be his specialisation.

The meal came as a pleasant surprise. Smooth sweet and satisfying, it was the only best French curry I have ever had.

French Curry

Japanish food does stretch credibility at times. You sometimes wonder if they are jokes, like the pineapple chunk sandwiches, horseradish flavoured Kit-Kats and ice burger buns on sale at conbini stores. I don`t recommend all of those, not in one sitting anyway, but trust me, Japanish food is here to stay.

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