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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.

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Valentine’s Day in Japan: a totally different experience

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Valentine’s Day Chocolate in Kyoto, Japan – Honmei Choco, I think!

Japan is wonderful for so many reasons. I feel totally out of my water here and at once, also, at home.

It takes a few days to adjust, as it does to anywhere. I am taking my shoes off in the wrong places, and very clumsily, much to the amusement of the locals. Sitting for the tea ceremony results in a speedy dead leg and limping out, and drinking the tea with all of the particular traditions (and with the fear of offending everyone) will hopefully become easier soon.

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A chocolate teapot :)

Sometimes things appear inverted. Japanese people are so polite and softly spoken, I feel so bolshy by comparison. It takes care and attention to pick up on important details at times, so, I am quieter than normal (mostly!), listening, observing and learning, and taking a much in as possible.

Take Valentine’s Day, for example. On Valentine’s Day it is the woman’s responsibility to buy chocolates – and only chocolates – for the men in her life. There are two types of chocolates, giri choco and honmei choco, and in between is a potential nightmare, from what I can see.

Giri choco, obligation chocolates are given to the men that you work with etc. and honmei choco, true love chocolates, to the man that you would like affections returned from. The only difference between these is the price of the chocolate, and they aren’t divided into sections in the shops, they are all just chocolate. So you must be clear with your intentions by choosing a chocolate that is not too cheap but also not expensive enough to be considered a honmei choco.

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Solar system chocolates

Then you wait exactly a month until White Day, the day when men return a gift to the women / woman who gave them giri or honmei choco. The gift returned, if returned, will indicate his intentions.

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Very popular animal chocolates :)

I spoke to a lovely Kyoto lady about this, in detail. I wondered if it was as enormously stressful as it seemed? She told me that she had given her honmei choco to a man that she had an enormous crush on, but it wasn’t returned, and she was devestated. But, one of the men that she gave her giri choco to, interpreted it as an honmei choco (eeek!), but it all worked out brilliantly. He gave her a lovely gift in return on White Day (a ring but not an engagement ring or anything), they started dating, and then she married him.

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Adore this chocolate dinosaur dig, uncover a white chocolate dinosaur

The shops are full of wonderful chocolates for this tradition, I visited the Daimaru department store food court and also a wonderful green tea shop (Ujicha Gion Tsujiri), which even during the week had a very long queue for its café. They have a wonderful range of green teas and products incl fabulous chocolates and ice creams.

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My matcha honmei choco, gifted to myself :)

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…. and a matcha truffle :)

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A Postcard from Kyoto, Japan

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Shoes off for soba

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Soba with yam and raw quails egg

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All mixed up

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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.

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Nishiki Market

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Chopstick shop at Nishiki Market

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

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Candied sweet potatoes at Daimaru department store food court

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Tofu doughnuts at Nishiki Market

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Pickling fish at Nishiki Market

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Dried persimmons at Nishiki Market

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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.

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Maiko, just outside Gion, on a day off

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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.

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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!

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

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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.

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