Friday April 19, 2013
Nara is only an hour from Kyoto, so not a bad idea to get an early morning train and check it out. Within a few hours you can be back in Kyoto and you still have the full day to sight see. The big attraction in Nara is Tōdai-ji Temple and Nara Park. Inside Tōdai-ji Temple is the Great Buddha, the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha.
Tōdai-ji Temple has beeen rebuilt twice with the current structure complete in the 1700’s, It was the world’s largest wooden building until 1998. Close to the Tōdai-ji Temple entrance is a statue of Binzuru, one of the disciples of the buddha. It is believed to that if a person rubs a body part on Binzuzru and then rubs the same part on their own body, his ailment there will disappear. You wouldn’t believe what part on Binzuru had the most wood rubbed down.
Nearby Nara Park is flooded with friendly deer and worth a quick stroll. The deer keep to themselves for the most part. If you have any expensive food gifts in sight or smell, they will become more aggressive. Jen found this out the hard way when a deer made quick work of our Sembikiya fruit bag to get the apple inside. She was freaking out, but I showed her how to interact with these gentle creatures on the way back to the train station.
Follow the rules
The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, so the saying goes in Japan. There are signs, rules and etiquette that we observed. The same could be said for the U.S. The only difference here is they actually follow the rules. They walk on the left, they only smoke in designated areas and they don’t eat while walking. Shinjuku is excluded from most of these rules and they follow that rule as well.
If you only had time for one attraction in Kyoto, it would have to be a visit to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It’s one of the 17 sights that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site. In 1950 the temple was burned down by a young apprentice monk that was attempting suicide at the temple. It was rebuilt in 1955. In 1984 the gold leaf coating was brushed to a thicker layer of 5/10,000 mm. The temple is three stories, but no access is granted to the interior. To say it is beautiful would be an understatement. It’s near perfection.
On our visit, we were approached by a group of school kids practicing their English. They asked some weird questions from a prepared list and we tried to answer them as best we could. I’m not sure what type of country the U.S. is. We took a picture with them after we got through their questionnaire.
Ryoan-ji is regarded as Japan’s most famous rock garden. The date of construction and designer are unknown. The meaning of the garden is also a mystery. Some believe it is symbolic to tigers carrying cubs across a pond. Others speculate it is islands in the sea. Perhaps it’s an abstract piece of work. After viewing it firsthand I think it’s clear that it’s commercial in nature. There are five main rocks formations. The three smaller ones near the right represent shoppers, shoppers at a Labor Day sale in Ginza. The sales manager of a Hermes store is represented by the largest rock at the left. The rock in the middle is the prized Birkin Bag. And all the little pebbles represent a maze of clearance items that the shoppers must negotiate to get to this rare piece. What makes the artist’s vision so ingenious is the Hermes Ginza location doesn’t have a Labor Day sale. Jen’s take is that it’s a garden and not one to write home about. The grounds are large, so it will take you about an hour to get through the rock garden and the surrounding walking trails.
Tofu has a long and complex history that dates back to the B.C. era. Without getting into the details, or may I say in “soybean” shell, tofu is the result of grinding and cooking soybeans, then pressing the resulting soy curd into blocks. There are a vast array of types of tofu; fresh, fermented, stinky, flavored, processed silken, etc. And each country has its own variations and uses. Tofu may not sound like the most appetizing ingredient to indulge in while on vacation, but it is a specialty of Kyoto and there are dozens of restaurants that specialize in it. If you research Chowhound and various blogs, Shoraian appears to be a step above the rest. It’s located 25 minute by taxi from the city center. And once you’re dropped off, you still have to earn your way to the entrance. Hidden within the mountains of Arashiyama, you need to walk along the Hozu River to a dead end, then walk up the stairs to the restaurant sign and turn left for a final few steps. But once you arrive, you’ll be graciously welcomed inside to dining room offers great views overlooking the region. We had to sit on the floor for a majority of the meal, but after the staff noticed I was visible uncomfortable, some hybrid chairs were offered.
There are two tasting menus available, a shorter one and a lengthier one. You advise the reservation of your order when you book. We went with the lengthier menu. The meal consisted of 10 courses; the beef was the sole dish absent of tofu. Although it did incorporate have soy sauce. It was a lot of food, but from beginning to end it was a memorial meal. Who knew tofu could be so good. All preparations when soft, silky and dare I say sexy. It’s difficult to pick the standout dishes here, they have really mastered their menu. Nonetheless, our favorites were the tofu with Japanese keko salt, the dish of various vegetables and seafood, steamed abalone on tofu, the gratin, beef with wasabi and the ice cream. It was our best meal in Kyoto and a must if you’re visiting. It’s so ironic and refreshing that a restaurant can limit the amount of meat and shine so bright. It was the same case at Ubuntu in Napa; it just blew the other restaurants away.
While in Arashiyama, there are numerous attractions to visit; you could walk along the Togetsukyo Bridge, stop by the Monkey Park Iwatayama, take in the 1.200 statues at Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple, or cruise in a boat down the Hozu River or rail along the river in a train. We chose the walk through the bamboo groves, which is a five minute walk from the restaurant. The walkway is scenic and a way of life for many locals as the bamboo is used in various products from food baskets.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1868 when it was reluctantly moved to Tokyo. As is the case with most of these moves, emotions can get involved. Take the confusion it has caused in Bolivia, Parisians never got over their loss in 1419 and Jerusalem is still struggling to get international acknowledgement. Reeling from defeat, the people of Kyoto, whatever they are called, united to build a better city to be rivaled by no other. It was during these strong emotional times that the Heian Shrine was built. What’s with the Japanese obsession with fires? In 1976, the shrine was set ablaze and subsequently rebuilt to include one of Japan’s largest torii. It’s worth it to stop by for a few minutes and it was a just cherry blossom’s throw away from our next snack.
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto Okazakiminamigosho town 34
Udon is the thicker of the variety of wheat based noodles offered by the Japanese and Yamamoto Menzou is one of the better places to try this in Kyoto. It’s a popular place and there can be long lines at peak hours. Fortunately for us, we stopped by in the afternoon and only had to wait about 10 minutes for seats as the bar. The service was very welcoming. As we sat down we planned on ordering one hot udon dish and one cold udon, but as we perused the menu we ended up zeroing in on the Kyoto style udon to replace the cold udon. We also decided to add a side of the burdock tempura. When you see the chef in the kitchen excessively rinsing the noodles it doesn’t take long to realize how seriously he takes his craft. The original hot udon was a great dish. Aside from the broth and the other ingredients that were all respectable, what stood out for us was the noodles. They were the best udon noodles we’ve ever had. They were silky smooth with a slight bowl. The only things missing was a little spice to give the dish a kick. On the other hand, the Kyoto style curry was underwhelming. If you’re expecting a thicker version of a curry, you’ll be disappointed. What came out was the flavor of a curry, but with the consistency of a broth. Thinning out the sauce wasn’t to our liking. As we got up to go the staff sat us back down and served us the complimentary, and apparently mandatory, dessert of Chinese milk custard. We’re glad we did. It was soft and creamy with a hint of sweetness. The chef was even kind enough to escort us outside as we left. If you’re a noodle fan I would definitely recommend this place, but I would order the hot original or the cold udon.
(Kitchen at Yamamoto Menzou in Kyoto, Japan)
(Driving By Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, Japan)
The New Miyako Hotel is a westernized, middle of road hotel and for $120 a night it was reasonably priced. The standard rooms are very small, but it’s centrally located just across the street from Kyoto station. Overall we were pleased with the choice.
51 Motoyoshicho, Shinbashi-dori, Gion, Higashiyama-ku
Given the reputation of Japanese beef we were worried that we wouldn’t be trying enough on our trip, therefore we decided to add a beef specialist in Kyoto. Chef Hideichi Katagiri opened Isshin, a restaurant specializing in beef in 2003. His expertise was recognized by Michlin when he was awarded two stars. In an ideal setting we would have preferred to try 10 small portions of varying grades of the best beef from different regions in Japan. We wanted to try Kobe, Matsuzaka, Omi and Mishima among others. We would have also liked to see the difference between an A5 and an A10 cut in the same seating. I wouldn’t even have minded a couple US breeds for comparison. Unfortunately we couldn’t find a restaurant to accommodate this, but seeing that Isshin was one of the most well regarded beef restaurants in the city we decided to give it a try. We were able to try a variety of cuts that we weren’t expecting including high and low tongue, shoulder and oxtail. All in all the beef was superb quality and we were able to experience a range of different dishes. Our favorites were the trio of beef presented in a sushi format, steak served with horseradish and soy sauce foam and the tongue with bamboo soup. Isshin delivered and gave us a pleasant break from the local Kaiseki cuisine. All of the beef in one sitting was a lot of calories and I can see now why tasting menus are progressive.
(Chef Hideichi Katagiri Plating Beef Dish at Isshin Wagyu Steak in Kyoto, Japan)