My only complaint about my visit to Kyoto is that it was too short.
The imperial capital of Japan for over a millennia (the capital was moved to Edo – modern-day Tokyo – in the second half of the 19th Century), Kyoto is full of history and culture. Thankfully, much of it is preserved for us to explore today. And forty-eight hours is hardly enough time to do so.
But my friend and guide, Tomo, helped maximize our hours there.
[This is the long-overdue second post in a series of posts about my trip to Japan in March. You can read the first post here.]
We took the bullet train to Kyoto from Tokyo Station.
Tokyo Station is immense. It’s like an underground city unto itself. Before boarding our train, Tomo took me to Matsuri, a shop that specializes in bento boxes, which are a popular “pastime” for commuters.
The selection, which represented regional cuisines of all of the prefectures of Japan, was overwhelming. There were, easily, over a hundred different boxes (perhaps even two hundred), including one featured bento box of the month (this display of plastic bento boxes near the door offered a quick survey). The variety was incredible: meat, fish, rice, noodles, dumplings, sushi – almost anything you could imagine or want. And the packaging varied in size and shape, each one ergonomically tailored to its contents. I chose a bento box from the island prefecture of Niigata. Inside the long, narrow box were about a half-dozen mackerel oshizushi neatly wrapped in persimmon leaves. The fish, which had been lightly marinated, was fresh, and the rice was perfectly seasoned and cooked. I washed it down with some chilled, black tea, and capped it with doriyaki (think two silver dollar pancakes filled with red bean paste). I marveled that I could eat so simply, and yet so well, while watching the Japanese countryside fly by me at warp speed.
I was told that Kyoto is so densely crowded with shrines and temples that the subway system, which is not allowed to tunnel beneath sacred ground, is not as comprehensive or accessible as it should be. In many cases, taking a bus is more practical, especially when visiting temples. (There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto.)
We devoted one day to visiting these historic, religious sites. To pack in as much sightseeing as possible, we hired a family friend of Tomo’s, who is a tour guide in Kyoto, to drive us from temple to temple. We hit three, major temples, in addition to many minor temples and shrines along the way. The Kiyomizu-dera temple, which is the most visited site in Kyoto (attracting more than 4 million visitors a year) was impressive in its scope and panoramic vistas. Perched on the side of the mountain, the temple’s hondo, or main hall, is also impressive for its network of wooden stilts and cross-beams constructed without nails. But the temple grounds were so choked with tourists that it was hard to enjoy my time there.
We found the grounds of the Kinkaku-Ji temple just as crowded, owing to its flamboyantly decked “Golden Pavilion,” which is literally covered in gold. It is breathtaking, especially when seen in double, mirrored on the pond before it. But as eye-catching as the pavilion was, I was particularly attracted to a tiny waterfall that we found along the path. Our guide explained that a tall, slender rock was positioned under the cascade to resemble a fish fighting its way up the fall. Known as the Toryumon (or the Dragon Gate Waterfall), it represents the Chinese legend that any fish that can swim up a waterfall will become a dragon.
I preferred the secluded calm of the Ginkaku-Ji, a former Zen temple known for its “Silver Pavillion.” Unlike the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion was never finished, and remains a modest, wooden structure (which probably explains why it receives far less foot traffic than the showier temples). I especially loved the moss-covered woods just beyond the temple gardens, veined with roots centuries old.
Likewise, our afternoon stroll through the immense Daitokuji Temple complex, and visit to the lovely Koto-in temple within it (an important landmark in the history of Japanese tea ceremony), was wonderfully peaceful. We practically had the place to ourselves.
Our day of touring ended among the thousands of vermillion torii at the colorful Fushimi Inari Shrine. Torii are wooden gates that are most often seen at the entrances to Shinto shrines, like this one. At Fushimi Inari, they stretch for kilometers up the side of a mountain, breaking only at minor shrines along the way.
In the middle of the day, we had stopped for a quick lunch at Yubasen. As its name suggests, this restaurant specializes in yuba – the elastic “skin” that is a byproduct of making tofu. Despite the rather casual appearance of the restaurant’s interior, the food was well-made. Some of the main course options for the set lunch menu were curiously out of synch with the rest of the menu (lamb chops with red wine sauce was an option, if I recall correctly). But, I really loved the milky, soybean broth we were served, with silky tofu suspended in it. There was also a hearty stack of yuba in a warm, clear, dashi, that was pretty unforgettable.
On another day, Tomo and I grazed our way through the Nishiki Market, Kyoto’s largest, and most well-known market. Unlike most markets, which occupy square blocks, this one runs linearly across multiple blocks along one street. Here, we found shops and stalls devoted to a wide range of goods and foods, like forged cutlery, pickled vegetables, rice, and fish cakes. We even stumbled upon a store that focused exclusively on a type of sesame known as “golden sesame.” Tomo and I couldn’t resist ordering a cone of sesame soft serve topped with toasted golden sesame.
Later, we walked through the great Arashiyama bamboo forest, marveling at the limber stalks that seemed to shoot out of a ground littered with red camellia blossoms. Their whispy tops, swaying in the wind, towered high above us.
Afterwards, we lingered a while on the banks of the Hozu River, enjoying the afternoon sun, before making our way back to the train station to return to the city for dinner with friends.
For lunch, we stopped at Souhonke Yudofu Okutan Kiyomizu (総本家ゆどうふ奥丹清水), a restaurant specializing in tofu. The restaurant, lined in tatami – the straw mats that require guests to leave their shoes at the door – was set among wooded gardens that were meticulously manicured and beautifully framed by floor-to-ceiling windows.
The tables here were low, requiring us to kneel, or sit pan-legged on the tatami. Sunken into the middle of our table was a gas flame that was used to heat our clay pot of tofu.
The set lunch was simple, but good. It started with a few cold dishes, including a bowl of grated Japanese mountain yam. Slimy and mucousy, it had to be slurped from the bowl, helped along with chopsticks. There was a block of chargrilled tofu, glazed with a surprisingly sweet kinome and white miso paste.
The house-made tofu could be ordered in varying degrees of firmness. We ordered both the “firm” and “delicate” tofu, which came stacked in a clay pot around a small vase filled with dashi. All of it was bathed in a light broth, which kept the contents of the clay pot hot. With one hand holding my bowl, I used the other to fish out a block of tofu with a flat ladle that was perfectly designed for the job. While the texture of the two types of tofu were certainly distinguishable, I was pleasantly surprised by how soft the firm tofu was. I was also surprised by how sweet and milky the tofu tasted, reminding me of the natural sweetness of the freshly squeezed soybean milk I used to have for breakfast in Taiwan as a kid. It was incredibly fresh.
Despite being known for its tofu, Souhonke Yudofu Okutan Kyomizu makes pretty good tempura too. For our last course, we were presented with a small assortment of vegetables encased in gossamer shells, including a beautifully fried leaf of shiso. With these tempura vegetables came a bowl of warm rice with pickles. It was such a gratifying end that we waved off dessert.
Rich with history and culture, Kyoto seemed like an especially appropriate place to have a kaiseki meal, a traditional, multi-course dinner that celebrates seasonal ingredients with artistic, cultural, and philosophical references. Tomo arranged for us to have two.
The first night, we ate at Ifuki in the historic, Gion district of Kyoto. That meal deserves its own blog post, which follows this one.
The second night, we ate at the three Michelin-starred Kichisen, near the Shimogamo-jinja Shrine.
Our meal there was odd and exquisite all at once.
Our party of four was seated at a table in a private room. Tomo had requested this to spare our lazy American butts and knees from having to kneel on a tatami through dinner (I was especially thankful for this, since Tomo and I had knelt on a hard, tatami floor that afternoon for a traditional, Japanese tea ceremony). The room was vast – it could easily have seated fifty or more. But that, in itself, was generosity.
What was odd was some of the food, and the service, which, though well-meaning, at times was a bit clumsy and negligent. Especially odd was an inexplicable invasion of fruit flies, which plagued us the entire night.
For the most part, the food at Kichisen was well-made. At its best, it was great, like a meaty trunk of bamboo shoot, served with seaweed and garnished with kinome. There was also a comforting clay pot of rice paved with baby anchovies and decorated with rapeseed florets. And for dessert, we were all wowed by a passion fruit filled with passion fruit sorbet. The server gave us a flask of Suntory V.S.O.P. brandy and encouraged us to pour liberally into our frozen fruit cups. We had no problem following instructions. Though I’m tempted to admit that brandy probably pairs well with most fruit, it seemed to pair especially well with passion fruit.
As beautiful and stunning as some of the presentations at Kichisen were, the overall production came across as more glossy than sincere, perhaps pitched more towards a Western audience (Why wasn’t I surprised when they handed me a press packet with a DVD as I left the restaurant?). The sakura (cherry blossom) trout that arrived “sizzling” on a slice of pineapple atop a hot stone, with avocado and tomato sauce, was a good example of this. It was bit of a head-scratcher, and overcooked.
Nigiri were formed into cute, bite-sized balls, stacked on top of each other. These arrived under beautiful, bamboo cages. When one of our servers raised one of the cages to reveal the sushi, he knocked over the stack of nigiri, sending the balls rolling and some of the ikura spilling. Instead of offering to replace the dish, he simply apologized and left. We then realized that we had one plate of nigiri to share between two diners. This wasn’t a problem, except there were four types of nigiri, and only one of each kind on the plate. At a restaurant of this caliber and class, this seemed stingy (This happens a lot on petits fours plates, and it always irks me. Just stick another one on there so your guests don’t have to decide who gets which!).
Did the service seemed detached because we literally were detached, eating in a cavernous annex far from the warmth and glow of the kitchen? Was that our mistake?
Maybe, on a different night, with different servers, under different circumstances, Kichisen offers a three Michelin-starred experience. The night we went, it fell short of that standard.
By day, Kyoto bustled with business and tourists alike. But by night, Kyoto was magical, with its streams and bridges, and hauntingly stoic temples and shrines looming quietly in the dark. Geishas meted out a soft, steady click-clack, click-clack on their way home. And cyclist whirred past on boulevards glowing with cherry blossoms.
As I said, forty-eight hours was hardly enough. I’m not sure a lifetime would even be enough.
From Kyoto, we headed back towards Tokyo, stopping in Osaka for one night. When I have time, I’ll continue my report there.
Photos: A geisha in the night in the historic Gion District of Kyoto; tourists dress up in kimonos to visit the Golden Pavilion at the Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto; the Golden Pavilion at the Kinkaku-ji Temple; a peaceful scene at the Koto-in Temple in Kyoto; the bamboo forest at Arashiyama, littered with camellia blossoms; tofu in a clay pot at Souhonke Yudofu Okutan Kyomizu; the entrance to three Michelin-starred Kichisen in Kyoto; peas in a sweet broth at Kichisen; two maikos, arm-in-arm, on the streets of Kyoto.