Friday, June 24, 2016

Japan: Fushimi Inari-Taisha

After checking out of the ryokan, we immediately made our way to Fushimi Inari-Taisha:

Known for its bright orange tori gates, Fushimi Inari-Taisha is very popular with tourists.  We arrived a little too late to truly escape the crowds, but early enough to avoid the worst of the crush.

We continued up the mountain where most others turned back and soon we were walking through tori gates with nary another person in sight:

Originally I thought we would come down the mountain and end up where we began.  Instead, we somehow ended up wandering through a seemingly residential area. 

Suddenly, CK slammed to a stop.  She spotted a sign for amazake pointing down a random alley and she needed to check it out now!:

I had never heard of amazake, but I was more than willing to follow CK down the rabbit hole.  The alley was a short one and ended in a cutest little building with seating areas set up outside:

Seeing nobody around, we rang the doorbell.  An elderly lady emerged from within the building wearing a sweet, welcoming smile.  She didn't speak much English, but we were able to convey to her that we would like to try a cup of amazake, cold, please.

The glass of amazake came with a small spoonful of grated ginger (to be stirred in) and two cups of matcha (you just can't escape the stuff in Kyoto):

Think sake but sweeter, thicker, and less alcoholic...with a tiny punch of ginger.  Slightly sweaty from our walk up and down the mountain, the amazake was the perfect refreshing conclusion to our pseudo-hike.

I can't tell you the exact directions to this charming amazake oasis, but keep your eyes peeled on your way down.  A cold amazake costs 400 yen ($4), while a hot one costs 350 yen ($3.50).  If I could go back in time, I would order one of each just to try them both.

Back at the main entrance of Fushimi Inari-Taisha, CK spotted a bunch of food vendors lining a side street:

She couldn't help but veer toward the yakidango stall:

I left her in line while I went to the bathroom.  By the time I got back, she'd already bought a stick and started munching on it:

I'm not a huge fan of the grilled rice flour balls, so I let CK enjoy her dango in peace.

There were a lot of other stalls, but we after our bountiful breakfast at the ryokan, we couldn't drum up much interest.  That is, until we came across this sweet potato fries man:

The fries, thick-cut and tossed in sugar, were so beautiful that we couldn't leave without a cup (400 yen or $4):

There's nothing better than freshly fried fries.  Oh wait, yes there is: freshly fried sweet potato fries covered in sugar.  Oooooh, yea.

If you can only go to one temple while in Kyoto, make it Fushimi Inari-Taisha.  You won't regret it.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Japan: Matsui Honkan Ryokan

Staying at a ryokan in Kyoto is strongly recommended, but we all know it ain't cheap.  To get the experience without breaking the bank, we only booked one night at Matsui Honkan Ryokan and spent the rest of our time in Kyoto at an Airbnb.

The train trip from Osaka to Kyoto took only about 30 minutes, so we arrived at Matsui Honkan way before our check in time:

Before going to Japan, I practiced all these lines in Japanese that I thought would be useful.  Such as, "Can we store our luggage here?" and "What time is breakfast?"  But before I could bust any of them out, the gentleman at the front desk greeted me in perfectly fluent...Mandarin.

Simultaneously disappointed and relieved, I directed my questions to the gentleman in Mandarin and translated everything into English for CK.  We had absolutely no desire to carry our luggage around with us until 4:00pm, so we were very thankful when Matsui Honkan was willing to store our bags for us.

We returned to the ryokan after our kaiseki dinner, around 10:00pm.  We were asked to sit in the lobby to wait for our room to be readied.  While we waited, we were brought small slices of Japanese cheesecake and candies:

Aaaand...a bowl of matcha:

As if I hadn't had enough matcha that day already.  Sigh.

A few minutes later, a young man came to lead us to our room.  Inside, we paused to take off our shoes and switch to slippers.  It seemed logical to put my shoes onto the shelf provided, but our guide acted so shocked that I asked him if I did something wrong.  He assured me that I hadn't and we both laughed awkwardly.  Meanwhile, CK was already inside the room oohing and aahing:

After a brief tour, our guide left us with a quiet good night.  Once the door closed behind him, we immediately started going through all the drawers and cabinets.  Because that's what you do when you check into a hotel room.

We found this complimentary bag of goodies:

And yukatas for us to wear:

And yatsuhashi (a local Kyoto dessert made from glutinous rice flour sheets, sugar, cinnamon, and red bean paste) for us to snack on:

We could have elected to use Matsui Honkan's communal bath, but I wasn't about that nekkid life.  I was perfectly content showering in our private bathroom and then flouncing around our room in my borrowed yukata.

I was a bit wary about sleeping on the floor (with advancing age, my back and hips have started protesting whenever I sleep on the ground), but I shouldn't have worried.  The futon was super comfy and I woke up the next morning feeling completely refreshed.

Breakfast was included in our booking for an extra fee.  We requested breakfast to be served at 8:00am and we heard a knock on the door right at 8 on the dot.  Two people bustled in, one elderly lady and one young man, and started efficiently rolling up the bedding.

CK went to put her face on in the bathroom, leaving me alone in the main room with the ryokan staff members.  Not wanting to get in anyone's way and unsure whether I should offer to help, I ended up kneeling awkwardly in a corner like an idiot.

A flurry of movement later, the futons were put away and our breakfast table was set:

So much food!  There was a grilled fish fillet and salad in a cup:

I have no clue what this was:

The elderly lady tried to explain it to me, but I couldn't quite understand her.

The miso soup was pretty self-explanatory though:

As were the tamago (egg), fruit, and pickled veggies:

And the white rice:

We did need some help with the tofu though:

The lid of the pot (with fire underneath!) came in two halves.  One half revealed the tofu inside while the other had a little hole cut in it for the sauce container.  Put the two together and you get a light tofu appetizer:

So silky.

Besides the salad and the orange, the only other nod to "Western" breakfast traditions was the coffee: 

I'm not a coffee drinker, so I left mine alone.  CK, on the other hand, gratefully drank hers dry.

While everything looked very pretty, I have to be honest and say that the food wasn't exactly spectacular.  I appreciated how intricate everything was and I certainly enjoyed watching the staff set everything up, but I wouldn't choose to have it every morning...or ever again, actually.

I did get to use some of my rusty Japanese when I made the phone call to ask for the breakfast to be cleared away.  Of course, I probably should have come up with a better sentence than "We ate the breakfast", but they got what I was trying to say.  Booyah.

Since the check-in time for our Airbnb was later that afternoon, we again left our luggage at the front desk after checking out of Matsui Honkan.  The front desk staff was super sweet and gifted us with chopsticks to thank us for staying with them.

As we walked out the door, I was vaguely aware of someone following us out.  Turns out it was two someones.  CK and I must have jumped a foot into the air when out of nowhere, the two staff members who followed us out unfurled a giant banner and chirped something in Japanese from right behind us.  Realizing that they'd scared us, the two staff started laughing. 

Of course, CK and I were dying with laughter as well.

I started to explain that we would be back later for our luggage, but then figured it wasn't worth the effort.  When we came back later that afternoon, we didn't get the same farewell ceremony the second time around.

Ah, well.  Once was enough.  

One night at Matsui Honkan (plus breakfast) set us back $382 for two people.  Expensive?  Definitely.  Worth it?  Hell yes. 

There are ryokans that are even more lavish and even more expensive than Matsui Honkan.  There are also ryokans that are less fancy and cheaper.  Which one you should choose really depends on your budget. 

If you're looking for a mid-range ryokan, Matsui Honkan is perfect for you.  The rooms are elegant and comfortable.  The service is impeccable.  And on top of all that, just a two minute walk to Nishiki Market and a 20 minute walk to Gion, it's conveniently located.  I would definitely go back if I ever had the chance (and the funds).

I still wouldn't use the communal bath though.         

+81 75-221-3535

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Japan: Gion Nanba

The one thing we absolutely wanted to do in Kyoto was have a kaiseki meal (traditional multi-course dinner).  There are a lot of famous kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto, many of which are Michelin starred, and prices can range anywhere from $80 per person to $300.


We were willing to splurge a bit for a mid-range restaurant (we weren't quite baller enough for a really high-end one), but it turns out our willingness to pay wasn't the problem.  The obstacle was actually getting reservations.  Most of the well-known kaiseki restaurants on accepted reservations made by hotel concierges.  We didn't have a hotel concierge at our beck and call, so we were a bit at a loss.

That is, until we discovered Gion Nanba.  Located in a tiny alley across the street from Starbucks, Gion Nanba is a one-star Michelin restaurant with none of the fuss:

Reservations are easy to come by, even for foreigners.  Just go on their website (there's an English version too!) and a couple clicks later, you're all set.  You can opt for a seat at the counter for the kitchen experience, a tatami table for larger groups, or a Western dining room if you weren't quick enough to snag one of the other two alternatives.

We went with the counter seating: 

They were a little awkward to get into, but very comfortable once in.  The deep space under the counter meant plenty of leg room and no concerns about limbs falling asleep from kneeling.

For dinner, you can choose from different prix fixe options.  You can get eight courses for 8000 yen ($80), ten courses for 10000 yen ($100), eleven courses for 13000 yen ($130), or eleven courses with more expensive ingredients for 15000 yen ($150).

Since we'd already committed to splurging, we went for the 15000 yen set.

Our reservation was for 7:00pm.  We killed some time at the Starbucks across the street.  We probably shouldn't have eaten anything right before dinner, but we couldn't resist the earl grey and peach pie.  I wanted to try the seasonal cantaloupe frappuccino, but that particular Starbucks had run out.  Deeply saddened, I didn't read the menu carefully before I ordered my go-to chai latte.  It was only after I was seated with my cup that I realized my colossal mistake. 

How in the world could I have ordered a chai latte, when I could have had a HOJICHA latte instead?  Ugh.  I'm such an idiot! 

I wasn't going to let my disappointment ruin my kaiseki experience though.  By the time we were greeted at the door of Gion Nanba and had taken our shoes off, the hojicha latte was forgotten.

We were the only people in the small restaurant at first, so we had the undivided attention of the hostess and the chefs.  The sous chef was the one who presented most of the dishes on our side of the counter.  Luckily, he spoke enough English for us to understand the gist of what we were eating. 

Unfortunately, now almost two months later, I've forgotten most of the details from our meal.  So this post may quickly devolve into a slideshow of photos.  I apologize in advance.

Our kaiseki journey began with uni and pickled veggies:

Followed by a very light, clear fish broth:

Then sashimi:

Which came with two dipping sauces:

Taking a break from the seafood, the next course was some thinly sliced beef, perfectly grilled:

Then it was right back to seafood:

CK asked the sous chef how we were supposed to eat this course.  Being Korean, she assumed we had to wrap the shrimp with the assortment of leaves on the plate.  But the sous chef immediately nixed that idea with his horrified, "No!  No eat!  Decoration!"

His reaction was so abrupt in that quiet space that all three of us dissolved into muffled giggles.  Needless to say, we left the decorative leaves uneaten.

The next course was definitely more straightforward.  No questions necessary regarding how to eat the fried shishamo (smelt):

The shishamo head was so surprisingly bitter that I couldn't bring myself to eat the head of the second one.

More seafood followed: 

The chawanmushi (steamed egg) was light and lovely:

As was the veggie and mushroom rice, which was the last savory course:

I don't really remember what this was, but it was icy and refreshing:

And maybe slightly alcoholic.

The last dessert course was brought to us by the chef himself:

As he set it down, he very gravely pointed at the leaf and said, "No eat."

We couldn't contain our laughter that time.

We dutifully removed the leaf and bit into the pink ball to find red bean paste inside:

Just when we thought the meal was over, we were each brought a bowl of matcha:

A bowl of really, really concentrated matcha.  Matcha.  My nemesis.  Not wanting to offend the chefs, I drank every single drop.

After settling our bill and putting on our shoes, we left the restaurant.  Just as we turned to each other in that dark alley to squee about the awesome culinary experience we'd just had, the chef himself popped out of some mysterious side door and scared a couple years off of our lives.  We thanked him profusely for the meal and made some very, very small talk.

He bowed to us, we bowed to him.  He bowed again, then we bowed again.  Realizing we'd somehow found ourselves in a bowing war, we made our escape by half-bowing while backing out of the alley.  Back on the main street, something made me look back.  Thank goodness I did because the chef was still standing there.  We bowed one final time and quickly scurried out of sight to let that poor man finally return inside.

If you're visiting Kyoto and looking for a kaiseki experience, I highly recommend Gion Nanba.  Easy reservation process, super affordable, and very attentive staff.  And the food!  Everything was gorgeously presented, the ingredients were fresh, and the flavors so subtle and perfect.

Thank you, Chef Nanba and staff for a meal we will definitely never forget!


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Japan: Miki Keiran

Though we walked through Nishiki Market, we didn't buy much to eat because we were so full from lunch at Kyoto Gogyo.  Instead, we browsed around for souvenirs:

We did, however, make it a point to stop by Miki Keiran:

We had to buy some dashimaki tamago even if it meant carrying it with us as we explored temples in Gion:

We finally sat down to taste it later in the day, after finding a hidden little cherry blossom trove. 

Unlike its sweeter counterpart in Tokyo (the more traditional tamagoyaki), the Kansai-style rolled omelet is made with more concentrated dashi stock, which gives it a more umami flavor. 

Though it seems like a simple dish, the execution takes lots of skill.  Miki Keiran has definitely mastered the art of dashimaki tamago.  I mean, look at it.  You can't even tell that it's a rolled omelet.  It just looks like a block of pure egg.  The texture was soft and smooth and the flavor!  No condiments necessary.

If you ever find yourself at Nishiki Market, stop by Miki Keiran and buy yourself a dashimaki tamago.  Just make sure to share with someone because even the small is a lot of egg.  You'll want to save space in your stomach for other tasty things. 

Learn from our mistake.  Never enter a market full.  Or even partly full.

+81 075 221 1585

Monday, June 13, 2016

Japan: Saryo Tsujiri

Kyoto is all about matcha (powdered green tea) and for those of you who don't know me, I have a very contentious relationship with matcha.  I don't like it.  At all.  It's just so bitter and unpalatable and I don't understand why people like it so much.

Even so, I knew I couldn't leave Kyoto without hitting up one of its matcha dessert shops.  So of my own volition, I brought CK to Saryo Tsujiri:

Stick downstairs if you're just looking for a matcha ice cream cone or some sweets to buy as gifts.  But if you're looking for the full café experience, head upstairs.

Everything on the menu was basically matcha, matcha, matcha.  Or at least that's what all the pictures seemed to suggest.  All the text was in Japanese, so we made our decisions based on what looked visually appealing. 

The Tsujiri parfait seemed most basic:

At 1178 yen (around $11.78), this monster included matcha whipped cream, matcha jelly, and matcha ice cream, as well as candied chestnuts, red beans, vanilla ice cream, and hojicha (roasted green tea) jelly.  And other stuff that I couldn't read in Japanese. 

As if that wasn't enough matcha, we also got a cup of straight matcha (540 yen or around $5.40) and the Tsujiri anmitsu (1080 yen or around $10.80):

Anmitsu is a Japanese dessert that's essentially agar jelly served with fruit, red beans, and a sugar syrup.  The one at Tsujiri also comes with matcha jelly, candied chestnut, and a scoop of ice cream.  We went with hojicha ice cream, which was the best decision we made in that place.  I gave everything a try, but I ultimately focused on just the ice cream, red bean, and fruit. 

That cup of super strong matcha?  Pass.  That's the kind of stuff that'll make hair grow on your chest.

Saryo Tsujiri isn't the cheapest place for a sweet fix, but it's worth it for matcha lovers...and probably for Instagrammers as well.  It was matcha heaven for CK, and matcha hell for me.  A very photogenic hell, but hell all the same.

茶寮 都路里 祇園本店
京都府東山区四条通祇園町南側573-3 祇園辻利本店 2F・3F
+81 75 561 2257

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Japan: Kyoto Gogyo

CK and I left Osaka for Kyoto early in the morning.  But apparently not early enough.  We completely forgot that traveling on a weekday meant facing rush hour on public transportation.  Which is how we ended up on a subway train with our luggage and a little old lady's forearm digging into my back.  Said little old lady used said forearm as a battering ram to shove me further into the train every time the doors opened and more people poured in.

I knew that we'd made a mistake the moment the doors to our train opened and three quarters of the passengers drained out while the remaining standing passengers (all salarymen) moved to the far side of the train, then turned to face the opposite door.  Before I could even take a step forward onto the train, that little old lady took it upon herself to make sure I got aaaaaaall the way in.

I can only imagine how much worse rush hour is in Tokyo.  Holy moly.  Thank goodness we never had to experience that.

While the subway was bad, the actual train to Kyoto was full, but not uncomfortably so.  We even managed to snag seats.

Once in Kyoto, we hopped on a taxi, dropped off our luggage at our ryokan (it was too early to check in), and then immediately headed out for lunch.

As usual, our lodging was chosen based on its proximity to food options.  A short walk and we were at Kyoto Gogyo:

We just managed to miss the daily lunch squeeze.  We were ushered directly to a counter seat when we arrived, but by the time we left, there was a bunch of salarymen congregated outside the door.

I wasn't brave enough to take a photo of the interior because that would mean getting a real close up shot of the people sitting right next to us along the counter.  But trust me when I say it was pretty posh for a ramen joint.  Those were some really comfortable counter seats. 

We couldn't really see into the kitchen because of the high counter, but we could definitely see leaping flames and plumes of smoke.  This didn't come as a surprise, because Kyoto Gogyo is known for their burnt miso ramen:

This was the first ramen of our Japan trip and probably the most interesting (and the most photogenic).  The basic kogashi miso-men was 880 yen ($8.80).  With char siu or braised pork, it was 1130 yen ($11.30).  Bean sprouts and cabbage are also extra.

Get the char siu.  It's worth it.  It's so fatty that it just seems to melt away in your mouth, like magic. 

The broth itself was rich and very, very salty.  I finished all the noodles (so Q!), but I couldn't bring myself to actually drink the leftover soup.  Maybe if I had a bowl of rice to go with it...

And that egg!  What perfection!

If you don't mind more than a little richness in your ramen, I highly recommend checking out Kyoto Gogyo.  You definitely can't find something like that it in the States.   

+81 75 254 5567
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