Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Kyoto : City of the Geisha

I didn’t know what to expect from Kyoto, apart from some very fine food. I’d 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. As with all big cities it can take a while to find your hostel, which was the case with us, by the time we arrived we were cold, wet and miserable. So we headed back into town to potter around, do a bit of sightseeing and more importantly find something to eat.

We happened to find Nishiki Market with out actually looking for it. This market is a large 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 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. Well I am a heathen.

It is in this market that the famous Aritsugu Knife Shop which dates back to 1560. Their hand crafted knives are truly works of art. I have a slight obsession and I brought a sashimi knife a few days later, which the sharpening process is finished off in the shop. They even engrave your name onto it as well either in English or in Japanese. I opted for Japanese, and it does look cool.

Great pains are made 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. Over 3 years later I am still waiting for them to knock on my door and ask to see if I am treating it well. I am by the way, but I do not use it that much these days. Shame.
After wandering through the market with eyes a wide and bellies a rumbling, we were ready for some good heart warming food.

Literally stumbling upon Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya. This simple noodle shop has been making its own noodles for over 300 years. It still has me in awe that a noodle shop can be in business for so long. I can think of one or two restaurants and pubs in England that have the same heritage.
We were taken to our little table out back, looking onto a beautiful courtyard garden that had a more tranquil feeling to it due to the rain. Thankfully there was an English menu, so no shotgun noodles here.
Lina ordered a soba noodle soup with rolled herring Kyoto style. I had mine with chicken and an egg. Both had a really delicate flavored stock. 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 sightseeing. 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 uphill, 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. They really reminded us of our small piece of 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. We found a small unnamed friendly noodle shop. I think they looked at us and guessed we needed revitalizing.
With cold beers in hand, we looked at the pictures on the Japanese menu. In the state we were in, everything looked good. I choose from what the lady told me in broken English, was a miso soup with pork, it was quite thick and spicy, just how I like it. Lina had a thinner soup based on pork again. Both were equally delicious. I have to say that these noodles were the best we had up to this point in Japan.
Now this may or may have been because we were both completely knackered and starving, as we had had nothing to eat all day.
This may however have been 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 tis very day.
That nite, we were wandering around the Ponchoto area. This is a beautiful alley, how you would imagine Kyoto was a hundred or so years ago. Small alleys containing shops and restaurants with wooden fronts. It is really beautiful and atmospheric.
I had seen and looked in on a place the night before and all day it was playing on my mind.
So we popped in and sat at the bar in front of the sushi chef, and watched him perform his magic. They had a special on a new brand of sake, which came cold. With the cold sake working wonders on us from the first sip, we gandered at the 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, cuttlefish, 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.
I also found out what cuts of tuna we had been eating, and generally kept telling him how good it all was.
I made a vague comment on how fast he was making the sushi etc, and he showed us just how quick he was. He made a nigiri roll of tuna belly, this was 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. It ate well, and even left me amazed at how good some people are at doing the simple things in life.
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’d actually walked past this modern noodle shop a few times.
We sat ourselves at the counter, and found ourselves 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 bowl of the char-siu miso ramen soup and Lina ordered a pork soy ramen soup. I also ordered as a side order a poached egg that came still in its shell. (It has taken me several years to perfect this way of cooking eggs). 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.
That bowl of noodles was the best I have ever had, and all others are judged by this one bowl of heaven. The only bowl that has come close has been at Koya. I am still looking and hoping to find something better.
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 us 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 very 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.
3 years on we am still wanting to return. One day we will. I hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment