Article
18 comments

Lunch in Kyoto: Confusion & Flavour in Equal Portions at Ujicha Gion Tsujiri

Street in Gion, across from the green tea shop, Kyoto

Street in Gion, across from the green tea shop, Kyoto

Sitting in a green tea café in Kyoto, I look at the menu and think, at least there are pictures. I had visited the shop below a couple of days earlier and the queue for the café had been insanely long, so when I idled past later, and saw none, I bolted up the stairs.

It is not uncommon to find that Japanese restaurants don’t have English menus, even very popular ones like this (although I was the only tourist).

Why should they?

This is part of the fun I think, even when there is no pictures, I communicate in whatever way I can using sign language and whatever else I can (pleading looks, clumsy pronunciations), that I would like whatever they think is good. It usually works.

Ujicha Gion Tsujiri is a green tea shop in Gion. The cafe upstairs is famous for matcha ice cream and crazy looking sundaes with ice cream, bits of cake, glutinous rice balls and sauce. I really wanted to try.

Menu

Menu

I was handed the menu and reviewed the pictures. I had yet to try the sweet local glutinous rice balls and also these squares of jelly covered in a powder of sorts (I now know they are warabimochi, a jelly made from bracken starch, and these were like a really toothsome tea jelly dusted with kinako, which is sweet toasted soybean flour).

So, I pointed and looked pleadingly at my waitress: this?

Waitress: No!

Me: Er, why not?

Waitress: This is a set menu.

Me: Ok, can I get the set menu?

Waitress: Yes! {always smiling}

Me: Oh, good! {relieved} I pointed again at the dish and said, pleadingly: this?

Waitress: No! {Still smiling}

This went on for a bit. A complicated dance of me, essentially trying to order the cover of the menu (even though it was about 5 pages in), I found out later through the wonders of twitter.

Waramibochi

Waramibochi

Eventually I got to order this crazy little but very delicious dessert of glutinous rice balls with warabimochi (that came with a liquid green tea sugar to pour on top), and a scoop of wonderful matcha ice cream. Because you just have to.

Fantastic matcha ice cream

Fantastic matcha ice cream

The room was starting to fill up. To my left, Kyoto’s very own Sex & the City seemed to be playing out. A guy dressed head to toe in bright pink (and really rocking it), a pink velvet blazer, light pink trousers and shirt, bright pink loafers, a pink man bag and pink phone was chatting enthusiastically with his girlfriend and to my right a couple sat down and ordered noodles.

Happiness is a green tea shop

Happiness is a green tea shop

NOODLES! I didn’t see them.

I finished my dessert and waited for the waitress. I ordered some noodles through my now established pointing enthusiastically routine. I had managed to find the noodles in the menu by now (this mental chaos is entirely supported by jet lag by the way, it is like oxygen to the flame of confusion).

Green tea noodles

Green tea noodles

The noodles arrived, green tea noodles in a cloudy broth with tofu. Light, lovely, flavourful. Dessert first, but who cares? It was all delicious.

Green tea noodles

Green tea noodles

Article
22 comments

Japan: The Anatomy of a Kyoto Breakfast

Japanese breakfast at Touzan in Kyoto

Japanese breakfast at Touzan in Kyoto

When I first came to Japan 6 years ago, I remember nervously spying the hotel buffet, wondering how on earth I could eat fish and miso soup for breakfast. Even rice at breakfast time seemed alien. Now I am thinking, maybe this should become my breakfast routine? It is so delicious, healthy and flavourful and leaves you full of chutzpah to get on with your day.

My first three days in Kyoto were marked by wonderful breakfasts (among other things). The Hyatt Regency, where I stayed, has a wonderful restaurant Touzan, that serves a gorgeous local breakfast, very much Japanese, but with local flavours. I was hooked. When I first dipped that semi dried barracuda into the seasoned egg, I sighed, then smiled. It was dreamy.

Japanese breakfast at Touzan, Kyoto

Japanese breakfast at Touzan, Kyoto

Japanese breakfasts, when you first have them, are overwhelming, in content and size. An enormous tray of food arrives with lots of fish, some fresh, some preserved, some tiny, a bowl of rice, pickles, tofu, tea, more fish, more pickles and lots of tea.

Japanese food is fiercely seasonal and also tied to its geography, so while there are common themes, there are variations wherever you go. The Touzan breakfast is one of the best breakfasts that I have had to date and it is all about Kyoto.

THE TOUZAN JAPANESE BREAKFAST

Home made soy milk – so rich, fresh and creamy

Fresh tofu – Kyoto is renowned for the quality of its tofu, as it has very soft water (see also: green tea and sake) with seasoning including small fry fish and sansho pepper, detailed below.

Fresh tofu at Touzan, Kyoto

Fresh tofu at Touzan, Kyoto

Fresh semi dried barracuda with a seasoned egg – this was caught near Kyoto, and is dried for two hours which reduces the water content in such a way that the fish dries a little but stays quite fresh, and the fish becomes a little sweeter. Dipped in the seasoned egg, which was rich and gorgeous (I could swim in it), this was the highlight of the meal along with the tofu.

Fresh semi dried barracuda with seasoned egg

Fresh semi dried barracuda with seasoned egg

Kyoto pickles – Kyoto is famous for its pickles, and deservedly so. Aubergine (which in this case was pickled with shiso which changed the colour), cucumber, radish and gobo (burdock?). Really beautifully done and provides a lovely piquancy while cleansing the palate in between intense bites of the other dishes.

Small fry, sansho, pickles

Small fry, sansho, pickles

Small fry, rice and sansho pepper – I think baby sardines, they translate roughly as small fry. Either way, tiny delicious fish used to garnish your rice and your tofu, peppered, literally, with sansho.

Nishin, aubergine, beans

Nishin, aubergine, beans

Nishin (herring) and aubergine – the herring is slightly sweet due to the way it has been marinated and cooked. Herring is intrinsic to Kyoto food and is also served with soba, among other things.

Miso Soup with a beautifully soft and fragrant sesame tofu & yuzu. A bowl of rice. Lots of tea.

Gorgeous. I miss it already.

Touzan is a restaurant at the Hyatt Regency in Kyoto, where I stayed as a guest.

Article
27 comments

A Postcard from Kyoto, Japan

IMG_6168-2

The Yasaka Shrine, overlooking Kyoto at sunset

Greetings from Kyoto! This is my second trip to Japan, but it is my first time outside of Tokyo and I am excited.

Kyoto, like Tokyo, is charming as you would expect, and a lot more intimate, with many more older buildings and a lot less buzz, but in a lovely way. The streets are gentle and calm and filled with the smells of great food.

IMG_5814

Gion, Kyoto, which you might recognise from Memoirs of a Geisha

I have been here for just 24 hours, and have already fallen head over heels for yatsuhashi, a floppy little triangular sweet that is a folded blanket of glutinous rice flour dumpling, filled with the likes of cinnamon or black sesame. I bought some to bring home, however, I doubt they will make it out of Kyoto. I tried it at Nishio, who have been making them for 324 years, so should know what they are doing.

IMG_5809

A wedding photograph I happened upon in Gion

Then the noodles. Lunch had to be noodle based and I opted for some terrific soba at Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya. I had cold soba with tempura. Simple but it hit every spot available. Perfect noodles, rich dipping sauce and light tempura with wasabi and fried shredded leek. My guide had a really intriguing dish that I must try: cold soba with grated raw yam, a raw quails egg and a very tiny bit of seaweed that seemed to be in oil.

IMG_5643

Shoes off for soba

IMG_5653-2

Soba with yam and raw quails egg

IMG_5659-2

All mixed up

IMG_5668-2

Tempura soba

No trip of mine would be complete without a thorough explore of the local food market and food shops so I made sure that I hit the Nishiki Market, a long sprawling market full of wonderful barrels of sharp pickles, all sorts of fish – dried, fresh, sashimi and pickled, a dreamy knife shop. There was also Daimaru department store food court which was terrific. A highlight was the obligation chocolates which I will tell you all about tomorrow.

IMG_5459-2

Nishiki Market

IMG_5437-2

Chopstick shop at Nishiki Market

IMG_5522

Amazing knife shop in Nishiki Market – Artisugu, who started making knives in 1560

IMG_5362

Candied sweet potatoes at Daimaru department store food court

IMG_5449

Tofu doughnuts at Nishiki Market

IMG_5478-2

Pickling fish at Nishiki Market

IMG_5491-2

Dried persimmons at Nishiki Market

IMG_5513-2

Octopus with quails eggs in the head at Nishiki Market

Kyoto has five geisha (or geiko as they are referred to locally) districts. The largest, Gion Kobu has 90 geiko, 30 maikos (trainee geiko) and 64 tea houses. A 90 year old geiko is rumoured to still be working there. It is impossible to access a tea house without a recommendation or invitation, but it is lovely to wander the old streets there with its plentiful restaurants and beautiful old buildings. A keen eye will spot a geiko boarding house and tea house, and luckily I was with one. I even spotted a maiko. Although, I was so engrossed with a green tea sweet shop at the time, I only managed to get a photo of her as she walked away.

IMG_5708

Maiko, just outside Gion, on a day off

IMG_5785

Two girls chatting outside a sweet shop in Gion. The board above their heads lists all activities for geiko and maiko training that week by individual.

IMG_6004

Curious cats

There are 1600 buddhist temples & 400 shinto shrines in Kyoto, not including the tiny ones on the streets. I visited a few. Some gorgeous, proud and bright, others more subtle and tucked among shops. The Yasaka shrine is bright and vast and very beautiful. With one of its pagodas dedicated to easy childbirth and a shrine dedicated to finding a great love match, it is a quirky place. It also seems appropriate given that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. When I got to the love match bit, it was closed, which tells you all you need to know about my love life!

IMG_5892-2

Forget your troubles – bad fortunes tied and abandoned for the deities to deal with at Yasaka Shrine

IMG_6054-2

Part of Yasaka Shrine

I had a wonderful guide, Meg, who brought me around today. She is freelance and can tailor a trip to your most random of requirements as she did mine. I found her through the Japan National Tourism Organization (who are so very helpful – be sure to contact them if you do visit), you can also email Meg to arrange.

IMG_6231

Angry cats – I want one for my doorway to scare away junk mailers