Kyoto to Osaka (with a stop at Yamazaki)
Kiyomizudera Temple at Sunrise: So worth getting up early this morning. Get there before the shops open at the crack of dawn. The shops might not be open, but you'll have the whole place (mostly) to yourself. We were there so early that the gardeners showed up about 30 mins into the visit.
Ninenzaka, Sanenzaka-- pretty, but like Gion, if you're from Kyoto you probably don't go here. Lots of smaller temples along these streets, along with shops and restaurants.
Nishiki Market-- food was ok, it's really more touristy than local at this point (unfortunate). Takashimaya's basement food court was more interesting!
Oh, and a friend told me (a bit too late) that the matcha ice cream from Tsujiri is quite famous. There's a store in Kyoto Station but it was hard to find and I gave up because I was more paranoid I wouldn't get to Yamazaki in time. But... they have stores all around the world (and they aren't even based in Kyoto anymore). Verdict: any matcha ice cream in Japan is probably going to be good no matter who made it.
Yamazaki: Awesome. The smells are overpowering. They still have a cask from 1923. If I remember correctly there are 100s of casks, and they have about 6 types of cask (though they usually use the larger casks). Totally worth the 1000 yen, because there's a great selection of whiskey at the end. Met some nice Australians, Chris and Nancy, who (strangely enough) had relatives in LA (from Walnut and Rowland Heights). Small world. Quirks we talked about: the lack of trash cans (bins) in Japan, and how no one talks on the subway/train. Which made us wonder what would happen when the world comes to Japan and is just their noisy, rowdy, rude (relative to Japanese culture) self.
Yamazaki's whisky library.
The aging room is amazing.
One thing I will say is the folks here had excellent service. The senior supervisor on tour had an assistant take my bags to the tasting room so that I wouldn't have to carry them around the plant. Also, he tried very hard to answer questions I had (even questions I didn't say out loud). He was extremely apologetic that he couldn't answer one of my questions (I was curious about what they did with the casks after a batch was "done"). Anyway, I'm impressed. (And, the tour is just that much more memorable.)
Impressions of Osaka:
Feels a lot like LA, probably because it seemed like there were less pedestrians walking around everywhere, and the freeway runs over the chunk I'm staying in. And in LA fashion, it seems like there are so many restaurants that it's very competitive. Oh, and since it's competitive, food is cheap(er) here than most other places....
Dotonbori feels like times square with all the lights and the tourists. Really, it's much nicer to walk the canal, but it didn't feel like a big deal to me. And there are lots of shopping streets around the whole area. Not really impressed. There are some places (looked like Izakayas) that seemed authentic but the language barrier convinced me not to go.
In true Japanese tourist fashion I went to an Owl Cafe (Lucky Owl Cafe). It was alright. We were allowed to pet almost all the owls on their beaks. Mostly cool to be so close to so many varieties of owls, but the owls seemed stressed since they were tethered to their perches all day. A lot of good restaurants seemed to be in that general area.
In my adventurous spirit I found a BBQ place (mostly by accident) that specialized in beef. Beef stomach is good (though don't get the one with fat because of grease fires + fat overload), and the special fatty beef cut they have is definitely excellent. Worth it? Yeah, I love the fact that I don't smell like meat because the exhaust was right over the portable ceramic grill.
Mmmm marbled beef. Each of those pieces was a little over $2.
Turns out having giant flames from beef belly is poor form. They give you ice cubes to put out the grease fire.
The outside of the restaurant, in case you're interested.