Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Japan: Sora Kara

After we checked into our Airbnb apartment in the early afternoon, CK took a nap while I did a speedy walk-through of Nijo Castle.  Before that, however, I made a pit stop at Daiso to help my mother look for these garden hooks she wanted. 

There was no way I could describe the hooks in Japanese, so I just showed the clerk the photo that my mother had so kindly texted me beforehand.  The clerk was flummoxed by the hooks (at least that's the impression I got from her facial expression) and though I couldn't understand 98% of what she was saying, the 2% I could understand was all apologies. 

Which of course made me feel like I had to apologize for burdening her with my mother's crazy errand.  She bowed, I bowed, and then I escaped.  After that, I had to hoof it to the castle to get there before they stopped admission at 4:00pm.

For dinner that night, CK and I didn't have anything planned.  Instead, we walked around the neighborhood until we found something that caught our eye:

Sora Kara is about as hole-in-the-wall as a place can get.  There's just a window and take-out is your only option.  We were won over by the mouthwatering fragrance of fried chicken wafting through the night...and by the crowd of people waiting outside.

The menu was in Japanese, but we were able to make an educated guess thanks to my Chinese skills and the Google translate app.

We got one kobe beef croquette (100 yen or $1)

Our biggest regret was not buying more.  If I could go back in time, I would tell my stupid past self to trust my gut and order three per person.  So crisp!  So savory!  Why didn't we buy more than one?!

The A set was advertised as being enough for two people:

At 1000 yen or $10, it included around a dozen pieces of  delicious fried chicken wings smothered in some kind of sticky sweet sauce.  Japanese people must have smaller appetites than Americans, because we definitely could have eaten more than that.  I was tempted to walk back for more, but then laziness and self preservation prevailed. 

Next time, Sora Kara.  Next time.

+81 75-802-5277

Monday, June 27, 2016

Japan: Izuu

From what I can gather, the most popular place to try Kyoto-style sushi is Izuju.  We were prepared to brave the lines, but when we arrived at the front door, we found a sign that said they were closed that day.  As it wasn't Monday, their regularly scheduled day of rest, it threw us off for a little bit. 

But we quickly rallied, reversed directions, and headed to Izuu instead:

We had to wait a little bit when we first arrived, but by the time we sat down, the other tables had cleared:

We ordered the tai (sea bream) sushi (2916 yen or around $29.16 for six pieces):

And the sabasugata (mackerel) sushi (2430 yen or around $24.30 for six pieces):

Once you remove the thick, sticky outer seaweed layer, you get this:

Just gorgeous.  But if you don't like fishiness (the saba being much fishier than the tai, but I like it that way) or very vinegary rice, this is not for you.  Though we only had twelve pieces in total to share between the two of us, it became a real struggle toward the end.  There was just so...much...rice.

Also, can we just take a moment to reflect on how expensive that stuff is?  Damn. 

Apologies, Izuu.  I'm too much of a peasant to really appreciate you.  I would be just as happy with the sushi I can find at Nishiki market.

+81 75 561 0751

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!

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