Japan – April 2013 – Day 6 (Tokyo and Kyoto)

Thursday April 18, 2013
 With the amount of restaurants and sights in Tokyo, we could have stayed for another month or two, but unfortunately it was time to see some more of Japan. The plan was to make Kyoto home for the next three days and then spend our last day back in Tokyo. We’re taking the JR Shinkansen train to Kyoto, which departs from Tokyo station. That means if our timing is ok, we can get in one more breakfast before making the trek.
Marunouchi 1-9-1
Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
 This morning we were hoping to get our first taste of Tsukemen, or dipping, ramen. Rokurinsha originally opened Osaki in 2005 and quickly rose to the top of the ramen totem pole. It was on the top of Ramen database and Tabelog causing lines to be an unbelievable two and three hours at peak times. Not wanting an amusement park in its neighborhood, local businesses had it closed. But rather than move to a place more remote than Osaki, it chose one the more central spots in all of Tokyo. It’s located in the basement of Tokyo station and once we got our train situated for the morning, we made a bee line to Rokurinsha.  There was barely a queue and we got in on the first wave just after 7:30AM.
 The menu is limited during breakfast, so we ended getting similar ramen, one with egg and one without. We were a little underwhelm by the ramen broth.  Not as deep a flavor as we were expecting.  It tasted more like the quality of good chain ramen, rather than one establishment striving to perfect his craft.  Regardless it was good and probably better than most food you can get in subway station.
01 Rokurinsha - Exterior

Rokurinsha, Tokyo, Japan

02 Rokurinsha - Interior

Dining area – Rokurinsha, Tokyo, Japan

03 Rokurinsha - Vending Machine

Vending machine to place order – Rokurinsha, Tokyo, Japan

04 Rokurinsha - Tsukemen Broth

Noodles and egg 6/10 – Rokurinsha, Tokyo, Japan

05 Rokurinsha -Tsukemen Broth

Tsukemen broth 6/10 – Rokurinsha, Tokyo, Japan

06 Rokurinsha

Tsukemen ramen 6/10 – Rokurinsha, Tokyo, Japan

This was our first time on a long distance train Japan. They are clean, comfortable and always on time. The stops are brief, about one minute, at each location, so don’t be late or you’ll be on the next train out of town.  There’s not a lot of space for luggage, room for about five piece of large luggage on each train car.  We didn’t have trouble storing our luggage; I would just get in line for the train about 15 minutes before the train departs to ensure there’s room.  There is however, luggage carrier service where you can check your luggage with your current hotel by 4PM and they will transfer your luggage to your next hotel by the time you check in the next day.  The fee ranges depending on distance.  We didn’t use this service, but when we arrived in Kyoto, we did check our baggage at Kyoto train station to transfer to our ryoken for a fee of $6 per bag.  We used the same service for same day transfer from the ryoken to another hotel within Kyoto.
01 Shinkansen BW

JR Shinkansen Train

02 Shinkansen

JR Shinkansen Train

The train ride gave us time to reflect on the trip so far.

Quality of ingredients
One thing that has stood out is the Japanese’s sourcing of food. I laughed when I saw Masaharu Morimoto argue Japanese versus French cuisine on an old episode of Iron Chef.  There’s no way. The French have the best food, wine, baked goods, etc. Anything you put in your mouth, the French do it better. We’ve eaten at numerous French restaurants in the US and in France.  We love Japanese cuisine, don’t get me wrong, but France is on another comfort and execution level.  That was until this trip to Japan.  Everything took us by surprise and not just the execution, but an obvious unprecedented focus on the best quality ingredients. From the beef, obviously the best beef in the world.  To the eggs, fruit, fish, chicken, rice, tofu, you name it. We spent $800 on three-star Michelin tempura, yet walked out raving about how good the plain raw strawberry was to end the meal. Rumor has it Japanese McDonald’s only uses grade six wagyu beef from Hyōgo prefecture.

Researching Restaurants
Tokyo is huge.  There are just too many restaurants in the city to really get a complete grasp of all the restaurants and all the cuisine. We mainly relied on Michelin (http://gm.gnavi.co.jp/home/), Chowhound, blogs and of course our new best friend Tabelog (http://tabelog.com/). I would just get a rough idea of the cuisines you want to try and there may be some restaurants you just know you want to visit. For us, we knew we want to try sushi, tempura, beef, kaiseki, yakitori and ramen and we had Jiro pegged. From there, go to the sources and get your top five in each cuisines and narrow it from there. Some fields in Tabelog translate to English better than others, but Jen was quick to figure out better ways to navigate the site. She was able to filter to the highest rated restaurants with each cuisine. Our experience found Tabelog to be the most reliable. Out of our top 15 ranked restaurants, six were decided by reviewing blogs, six were based on Michelin and three from Tabelog. Some of most useful blogs we used were:


Photo Policy
The hypocrisy that is Japan.  There are some restaurants that don’t allow you to dine there unless you speak Japanese or bring a Japanese translator.  There are some restaurants that you must first be invited by a friend in order to dine there. The reality is people travel and people want to eat great food, so open your doors and be accommodating.  If you don’t want people to book your restaurant, you shouldn’t engage in media relations. There are some restaurants that don’t allow photos.  Isn’t it ironic that they don’t allow photos in Japan? Wikipedia may not be recognized as a reliable source, but they actually list Asians as the inventors of food blogging. Kevineats confirmed it http://www.kevineats.com/2010/01/why-are-there-so-many-asian-food.htm

SARS mask
Based on our experience, we would say 5 to 10% of the population wears surgical masks. Whenever I see somebody in the U.S. wearing one, I just assume they are some sort of paranoid freak. I asked the hotel about this and was told that they are all doctors.  Even the kids?  The Japanese seem like an intelligent population, so I could see that. I later read that it’s also considered courteous to wear one if you are sick as not to infect others. You’re also talking about a community that has been affected by the SARS virus,  the 2007 bird flu and now the H1N1 virus.

Japanese health
It wasn’t until the third day that I saw somebody fatter than me. The Japanese don’t appear to put on a lot of weight. They don’t eat on the run, they don’t eat a lot of fast food and chopsticks tell you you’re full better than a fork. Oddly their life expectancy is only 4 years more than the U.S., 81 to 77.  Don’t worry, if you want fast food, they can accommodate it.

American Chains 01

All the great fast food options in Japan

American Chains 02

All the great fast food options in Japan

03 Shinkansen

Interior of JR Shinkansen Train

With our luggage situated, we just headed back into the train station and took the subway two stops to Shijo station. From there, there are signs that will lead to Nishiki market, which is a ten minute walk. Its first shop opened in the 1300’s and has expanded to five blocks. Everything under the sun can be found in this market with a central food focus. It’s a good idea to read some reviews and figure out what you want to try and mark them on a map.  You can print one from the following link: http://www.kyoto-nishiki.or.jp/english/. We just copied the map to Excel and put an arrow next to all the places we wanted to check out, alternatively, if you’re not OCD, you could just show up and walk up and down the hall, stopping as you please.  Our stops included Daiyasu (Stall 125) for oysters, Konnamonja Tofu (Stall 50) for tofu donuts and tofu ice creams, Kimura (Stall 43) for the oldest stall serving skewered sticks, Chuo Beikoku (Stall 107) for a bag of rice and desserts, Uchida (Stall 109) – for pickled vegetables, Yamasho (Stall 48) for seafood, Fuka (Stall 49) for wheat gluten, Marutsune Kamabok (Stall 39) for fish cakes, Mochitsukiya (Stall 99) for mochi, Yamadashiya (Stall 16) for tea, Kyotanba (Stall 74) for candied fruit and nuts, Yubakichi (Stall 9) for Yuba, Marui (Stall 69) for blowfish, Kai (Stall 68) for octopus with quail egg, Aritsugu (Stall 5) for kitchenware, Miki Keiran (Stall 31) for dashimaki tamago & umaki, Ajidontsuki (77 or 111) for tsukudani buns. A would plan to be there for an hour or two. After our visit, our must tries were the mochi at Mochitsukiya, candied fruits and pickled vegetables at Kyotanba, Uchida and fish cakes at Marutsune Kamabok.  But don’t forget to stop by Aritsugu.  They have all kinds tools for the kitchen, from a $20 fine grater to $500 cookware and knives, all that can be engraved on the spot with your name in Japanese. I thought the various skewers were average.  Same thing with the well-regarded tofu donuts, Jen wasn’tt as critical, so try for yourself. The wheat gluten was near inedible, I’m still chewing. Overall, thought, Nishiki Market is a must attraction if visiting Kyoto.
01 Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 01

(left to right from top; liquor shop, tofu store, plain tofu donuts at Konnamonja, sugared tofu donuts at Konnamonja, tofu ice cream at Konnamonja, wheat gluten at Fuka, tsukudani buns at Ajidontsuki, squid skewers, Fuku storefront, skewer stall, pea crackers) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 02

(left to right from top; tsukudani bun at Ajidontsuki, eggplant with peppers, employee at Uchida, pickled vegetables at Uchida, Uchida, skewered cuddlefish and salmon, Uchida, skewered fish, seafood stall) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 03

(left to right from top; Nishiki Market, rice at Chuo Beikoku, rice at Chuo Beikoku, fish cake at Marutsune Kamabok, fish cake at Marutsune Kamabok, fish cake at Marutsune Kamabok, Marutsune Kamabok storefront, fish cake at Marutsune Kamabok, fish cake at Marutsune Kamabok, fish cake at Marutsune Kamabok) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 04

(left to right from top; fermented fish, sandels, dried cranberries at Kyotanba, mochi at Mochitsukiya, Miki Keiran storefront, tea at Yamadashiya, seafood stall, making tamago at Miki Keiran, liquor store) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 05

(left to right from top; Aritsugu storefront, seaweed, peanut cake vendor, Kyotanba storefront, seafood stall, marinated fish, knives at Aritsugu, octopus with quail egg at Kai, cookware at Aritsugu) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 06

(left to right from top; our Japanese names at Aritsugu, names being engraved at Aritsugu, end of Nishiki Market, engraving names at Aritsugu, hand fan storefront, japanese graters at Aritsugu, pickled vegetables, eel, cookware at Aritsugu, dried peaches at Kyotanba) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 07

(left to right from top; dried ginger at Kyotanba , rice cake at Chuo Beikoku, Fuji apples for sale, seafood vendor, flower shop, mochi at Mochitsukiya, store selling chopsticks, peanut cakes, jellies, Fumiya storefront) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market 08

(left to right from top; dashimaki tamago & umaki, at Miki Keiran, red bean mochi at Mochitsukiya, seafood stall, bean stall, general store, strawberry red bean mochi at Mochitsukiya, vegetable chips, mochi at Mochitsukiya, wheat gluten at Fuka) – Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

76 Nishiki Market

Waleed and Jen at the Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan

Sanjūsangen-dō is a Buddhist temple known for its 1,000 Kannon statues. They don’t allow pictures or video inside, so we were unable to snap a photo of the sight, but I will say it was well worth the visit. I guess we’ll just have to add this to the places we’ll revisit once I get my Google glasses.
01 Sanjūsangen-dō

Sanjusangen-do, Kyoto, Japan

02 Sanjūsangen-dō

Sanjusangen-do, Kyoto, Japan

Contrary to popular belief, a geisha is not a hooker, but she still has talent. Geishas are traditional entertainers specializing in dance, song, offer bottle service, playing the shamisen, And a maiko is an apprentice geisha. One of the cool experiences in Kyoto is to dress up like one of these and take some pictures. Don’t worry guys you too can dress like a fool, they have a Karate Kid outfit with your name on it. There are several Maiko studios to chose from. We went with Aya because we liked the quality of their make-up artists and clothing, we were impressed by the available settings for the photo shoot and they had options for men and women. Our package came out to a little over $200 and included Jen’s shoot, we got some pictures together, we were allowed to take additional photos with our camera and we got a CD with all the photos they took. The whole thing takes about two hours for women and an hour for guys. Based on our experience I would highly recommend the Aya and the cheesy tourist experience in general.
01 Maiko Session

Jen’s Maiko Session, Kyoto, Japan

02 Maiko Session

Bruce Lee and Jen’s Maiko Session, Kyoto, Japan

03 Maiko Session

Bruce Lee and Jen’s Maiko Session, Kyoto, Japan

04 Maiko Session

Jen’s Maiko Session, Kyoto, Japan

(Jen shooting her Maiko Session in Kyoto, Japan)

05 Maiko Session

Jen’s Maiko Session, Kyoto, Japan

Another required Kyoto experience is staying at a traditional ryoken. You have breakfast at the ryoken, go sightsee for a while, have a three hour kaiseki dinner and trade your bed for tatami mats and a comforter. There are some great ryokens in Kyoto, but the problem is all this comes at a cost. A $1,000 and up is commonplace. We are usually gone all day sightseeing and obviously we’re particular about where we eat, so it was hard to justify the price.  Our compromise was to stay at a modest ryoken that doesn’t include meals and had a central location. We chose the Gion Maifukan Hotel, which looks like a modern hotel from the outside, but has the traditional beds and bath. But you get what you pay for. This really was just a slightly modified hotel. We should have known better. Next time a traditional ryoken will definitely be on our list list, Hoshinoya in Arashiyama caught our eye while researching for this trip.
01 Gion Maifukan

Lobby – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

02 Gion Maifukan

Hallway – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

03 Gion Maifukan

Elevator – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

04 Gion Maifukan

Room – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

05 Gion Maifukan

Luxurious beds – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

06 Gion Maifukan

Bathroom – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

07 Gion Maifukan

Shower – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

08 Gion Maifukan

Toilet – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

09 Gion Maifukan

Closet – Gion Maifukan Hotel, Kyoto, Japan

Tominokoji Oike Sagaru
Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto

We would end the night with another Kyoto must, kaiseki. Going into this trip, I considered any Japanese tasting menu to be a kaiseki meal. I wasn’t that far off, but a kaiseki meal differs in tradition and format. It’s rooted in ceremonial tea.  When you would have guests for tea, a traditional meal surrounding seasonal ingredients with a focus on fish would be served. A basic meal would start with an appetizer, then progress to sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed course.  The meal would end with matcha tea. Pickled vegetables and fresh fruit are also common additions.The meal is also used to display serving pieces of high cost and seasonal and historical significance.

About a month out from departing for our trip, we still had one open dinner in Kyoto.  We only had one kaiseki meal planned and I made a push for a second kaiseki dinner.  I’m still apologizing for the push. Nakamura has garnered three Michelin stars and at the helm is chef Motokazu Nakamura. The pictures looked decent, so we decided to give it a try. It’s a mix bag when it comes to people’s view on this cuisine.  We weren’t expecting much and we weren’t disappointed.

We ordered some sake to start the evening. Our first appetizer was a dish of Japanese sweet peas, tofu, crab, uni and wasabi. It was fairly bland and a dismal start to the meal. We moved on to a miso based soup with mochi and mustard. It was equally bland, but also a bit slimy. It was time for sashimi course and we served a set that included squid, bonito and sea bream. We enjoyed this collection with the squid being the favorite. It was nice to get a break with an enjoyable course, but we knew the inevitable was soon to come. Our steamed dish was on deck.  Tonight we were fortunate enough to have sea bream steamed in sake with bamboo, mushroom and grass.  Although it wasn’t bad, it was just plain boring. Next was a dish of cod fish tempura and tofu tempura.  It could best be described as again bad and also slimly. It seems to be a specialty of the chef. We the were served a non-meat dish of bamboo with vegetables and Shirako sauce.  This one was fine and bamboo was one of the ingredients new to us that we quite enjoyed. The last meat dish of the night was a simple grilled tilefish.  It was ok, very light, but at least it wasn’t slimy. We finished off the savory portion of the meal with some rice, bamboo and pickled vegetables.  Finally we got to the tea, but it was just regular green tea, not matcha tea. At this point, I think both of us were just happy to be close to the end. The finale was a dessert of vanilla cream, strawberries and white wine jelly mint. Not the worst dessert we’ve had. Aside from that everything else was pretty enjoyable.

You can argue all you want whether you like or dislike kaiseki and that we had trouble appreciating the nuances of kaiseki cuisine.  You may enjoy it, but there’s just no way you’ll ever crave those dishes. It was one of the worst meals of our trip and I couldn’t discourage enough people to skip this restaurant. I wouldn’t even give it a quarter of a Michelin star. When we returned home, I got a copy of Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant from my local library. The preparations were very simple with minimal ingredients, further adding to the argument that it’s very difficult to justify kaiseki on the same level as the world’s best restaurants.

01 Nakamura

Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

02 Nakamura

Our private dining room – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

03 Nakamura

Room decor – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

04 Nakamura

Room decor – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

05 Nakamura

Window – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

06 Nakamura

Garden – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

07 Nakamura- Sake

Sake – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

08 Nakamura - Sake

Sake 7/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

09 Nakamura - Japanese sweet peas, tofu, crab, Uni  and wasabi

Japanese sweet peas, tofu, crab, uni and wasabi 5/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

10 Nakamura - miso with mochi and mustard BW

Miso with mochi and mustard 2/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

11 Nakamura - miso with mochi and mustard

decor – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

12 Nakamura - Squid, Bonito, Daikon, Sea Bream, Shisho Leaf and Edible FLowers

Squid, bonito, sea bream, grass, shisho leaf and edible flowers 8/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

13 Nakamura - DIsh

Plate – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

14 Nakamura - Sea bream steamed in sake with bamboo, mushroom and grass as a garnish

Sea bream steamed in sake with bamboo, mushroom and grass 4/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

15 Nakamura - Cod fish tempura & Tofu tempura

Cod fish tempura and tofu tempura 1/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

16 Nakamura - Bamboo with vegetables and Shirako sauce

Bamboo with vegetables and Shirako sauce 5/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

17 Nakamura- Vegetables

Vegetables – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

18 Nakamura - Dish for Tilefish

Bowl – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

19 Nakamura - Grilled Tilefish

Grilled Tilefish 5/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

20 Nakamura - Toothpicks

Toothpicks – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

21 Nakamura - Broth over Tilefish

Broth for remaining tilefish 3/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

22 Nakamura - Rice, bamboo and pickled vegetables served with hot tea

Rice, bamboo and pickled vegetables 4/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

23 Nakamura - Green Tea

Dessert – Vanilla cream, strawberry, white wine jelly mint 4/10 – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

24 Nakamura - Vanilla cream, strawberry, white wine jelly mint

decor – Nakamura, Kyoto, Japan

(Driving through Kyoto, Japan at night)

One final stop by Yasaka pagoda before we called it a night.
01 Yasaka Pagoda

Yasaka Pagoda, Kyoto, Japan

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