Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Kyoto : City of the Geisha

I didn’t know what to expect from Kyoto, apart from some fine food. I had heard that the food was slightly more refined than in Tokyo, and they were not wrong.
We arrived by train from Nara in the pouring rain. Took us a while to find our hostel, which by the time we arrived we were cold, wet and miserable. So we headed back into town to potter around, do a bit of sight seeing, find something to eat.
We happened upon Nishiki Market, a sprawling undercover (thankfully, as it was still raining) Aladdin’s cave of everything that Kyoto eats. Stall upon stall of the freshest fish, Tastiest looking vegetables. Although it was annoying to see every piece of veg individually wrapped in plastic. But they still looked darn good. All the condiments for a good meal were being sold as well, from pickled foods to a shop selling 8 different types of Sushi rice. Never realized there were so many. We are heathens.
It is in this market that the famous Aritsugu knife shop which dates back to 1560, and the hand-crafted knives here are truly works of art. I did buy a sashimi knife a few days later, which they finish the sharpening process off in the shop and even will engrave your name onto it, in English or in Japanese. I opted for Japanese, and does look cool. They also goes through great pains to make you understand how to use, clean and sharpen their knives. Even though you have brought it, and going to take away from them, they still believe it is their knife.
By this time of sight seeing, we were ready for some good heart warming food. We managed to find a place called Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya. This simple noodle shop has been making its own noodles for over 300 years. We were taken to our little table out back, looking out onto a beautiful courtyard garden that looked even more tranquil in the rain. Thankfully there was an English menu, so no shotgun noodles here.
Lina ordered some soba noodle soup with rolled herring Kyoto style. I had mine with chicken and an egg. Both had a really delicate flavored stock for the soup. The noodles were cooked to perfection. The rolled herring, was similar to how it is back in England and to have in a noodle soup was a great idea. We lingered in this place for quite a while, as it was so good. A couple came and sat at the table next to us and had the house specialty which is a one pot meal called Hokoro. It is a bubbling stock filled with noodles, chicken, tofu, yuba mushrooms and vegetables. A feast for two indeed. We sadly left and went back into the cold and wet looking forward to more delights that Kyoto had to offer.
The following day, Lina tormented me by making me do more sight seeing. She planned for us to visit the Ginkakuji Temple, which is at the top of The Philosophers Path. It’s only a short 1.5km stroll up hill, but for some reason it took us 2 hours. Don’t ask me why. The Temple itself was ok but the gardens were a place of serenity. Really did remind us of our land in Colombia.
The walk down was a real pain, as we got lost a few times (we came back a different route) but eventually we made it down. By this time we were absolutely famished, knackered and in need of some instant refreshment. When in a condition like this, there is only one thing that can fill you up. Yes you’ve guessed it Noodles, and a cold glass of beer. This small unnamed friendly noodle shop was a welcome sight. I think they looked at us and guessed we needed revitalizing.
With cold beers in hand, we looked at the pictures in the Japanese menu. All looked good. I choose from what the lady told me in broken English, was a miso soup with pork, the soup was quite thick and spicy, just how I like it. Lina had a thinner soup based with pork again. Both were equally delicious. I have to say that these noodles were the best we had in Japan. Now this may or may not be because we were both completely knackered and starving hungry, as we had had nothing to eat all day. This may be why they were so good. When things like this happen, I prefer to think that it was the restaurant itself that had all the virtues of producing a damn fine meal for two weary travelers. Of course I would never return there, just in case it was the first reason. A legend was born.
That nite, we were wandering around the Ponchoto area. This is a beautiful alley, how you would imagine Kyoto was a hundred years ago. Small alleys, all shops and restaurants with wooden fronts. Really beautiful and atmospheric.
I had seen and looked in on a place the night before and all day I had been thinking about this place. After the noodles we were not starving hungry, so we went in sat at the bar in front of the sushi chef performing his magic. Ordered a small bottle of dry cold sake and gendered at the English menu.
I ordered one of the Sashimi sets and Lina went for one of the Sushi sets. Mine came on a bed of ice in a bowl. Fatty tuna, squid, cuttlefish, white fish and some wasabi. Lina’s Sushi was made in front of us in quick time. With white fish, tuna, salmon, cuttle fish, octopus, scorched mackerel and an inventive rice in egg roll. All were fabulous and went well with the sake. At the end of the meal, I tried to ask the Chef a few questions. His English was very limited, but basically found out that he has been a chef for 20 years, a Sushi Chef for 10 years. Also found out what cuts of tuna we had been eating. And genrally kept telling him how good ot all was. I made some comment on how fast he was making the sushi etc, and he showed us just how quick he was. He made us a nigiri roll of tuna belly. He made it in less than 10 seconds flat from beginning to end. Amazing. He had cut the seaweed to size so never had to roll it that much, kinda just rolled it once then tightened it. It was a truly memorable night.
So if you want some free sushi, remember to complement the chef on his work. Chefs are all suckas for some ass licking.
For our final night in Kyoto, there was nothing else we could have but an excellent bowl of Noodles. I had been looking for this place for a few days but for some reason I could never find it. So on the last nite I was determined to eat there. We sat at the counter. It was quite a modern joint, a world away from the calmness of Ponchoto. Lots of slurping going on, which is always a good sign of a good Ramen joint. I ordered a char-siu miso ramen soup and Lina ordered a pork soy ramen soup. I also ordered as a side order a boiled egg. I have gotten used to eating eggs with noodles now, and I find it an excellent addition to any noodle dish. Both came at the same time and both were equally delicious in their own way.
With beer in hand, chopstix in the other it was a good way to end our short trip to Japan. I really hope one day we will be able to return here, but Colombia is as far away from Japan as you can get. So maybe not.
Japan surprised me a lot, I was not expecting such diversity and complex dishes that we found. The people are really friendly and hospitable and made us feel welcome, even in times when we could not communicate. A smile is an easy way to make anyone feel welcome and at ease. I will take some very good memories of Japan away with me, and if any of you are thinking of going there. GO.
Next stop Hong Kong. 

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