Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Japan Trip - Kyoto, days 1-2

The next stop on our trip was Kyoto, another former capitol and home to the Japanese imperial family from 794-1868. Aside from its religious and military importance, Kyoto is also famous for Gion, the geisha district. Geisha were and are entertainers, not prostitutes. Though there aren't many geisha remaining (it's estimated that there are 100 practicing geish and 100 geisha apprentices in Kyoto, and only 1000 in the country), it is still an honored and respected trade. This young girl probably isn't a real apprentice (there are many places in Kyoto where you can pay to be dressed and make-uped like a geisha for the sake of taking nice photos), but it was still exciting to see her on the street.
On our first day in Kyoto, we took a long walk to orientate ourselves with the city. Our first stop was lunch. We headed to the Nishiki Market, were you can find amazing things, both edible and non-edible. We bought a container of fried items: diakon radish, onions, lotus root, some other vegetables, and (pictured here) whole little fish. It was pretty tasty!
The Nishiki Market is famous for representing the old way of selling food in Japan. Similar to France, you find small vendors selling just a few specialized items. This store specialized in pickled vegetables.
This vendor only sold chopsticks. There were a few pairs that were over $100!
Next to the Nishiki Market is the Teramachi Shopping arcade. This place was huge, loud, and packed. We passed by several 'arcades', which were filled with school children spending their allowance. There are also a lot of clothing stores, where we bough some Japanese socks for me (the one where there is a slit between the big toe and the rest of the toes for easy sandal wearing) and some weird panda-bear pantaloons for little Iris.
There were a few places of calm, though. Throughout the arcade, you could find little shrines tucked into alleys and corners. In a way, Japan is quite similar to Portugal in the sheer number and prevalence of religious shrines.
After the loud noises and interesting smells of the Nishiki Market and the Teramachi Shopping arcade, we headed towards the peaceful Imperial Palace park. The park is huge and was mostly deserted at 4 pm.
First built in 794 and replace many times due to fire, the current Palace was constructed in 1855. We didn't go into it, since it requires that you apply for permission to visit it several months in advance.
Before I go any further, I must take a moment to share this photo with you. Have you ever seen the movie Lost in Translation? In the movie, an American actor is in Tokyo to film some commercials. He talks about how a lot of Western actors and actresses make odd commercials in Japan because it's easy money and no one in the West finds out about it. Well, we are on to you, Tommy Lee Jones! It seems as though Tommy Lee Jones is the face of 'Boss Coffee', a really terrible sweetened coffee drink that you buy from the ubiquitous vending machines. We tried many of the vending machine coffee and tea drinks, and all I'll say is that I was dying for a proper cup of Earl Grey upon my return home.
Ok, moving on. Day 2 in Kyoto was our first full day, and we started at the Kiyomizu-dera temple. One of the most famous landmarks in the city, Kiyomizu-dera was first built in 798. However (and I'm sure you're noticing a trend here), it was reconstructed a few times and the present buildings date from 1633.
The main hall has a huge veranda and provides a great view of the city.
Dotted around the hillside are many subtemples and pagodas, like this one.
And this one (the pagoda is the red structure in the distance).
In front of many of the large Buddhist temples are fountains like this one, where you can wash your hands and drink water out of communal cups. Don't worry Dad, I didn't actually put my mouth on the cup (my Dad thinks Bobby and I take a lot of risks when it comes to food and traveling, but even I have my limits... I wouldn't drink out of a communal - or communion- cup in any country).
To the side of the main temple in Kiyomizu-dera is Jishu-jinja, where you can buy all sorts of prayers and other religious goods. There are even fortune tellers!
As we were leaving the temple, we came a cross a lot of women dressed in kimonos. I have no idea what they were doing, but they certainly looked pretty.
Our next stop was another temple, Chion-in. This temple is the headquarters of the Jodo sect of Buddhism and dates to 1234. Legend has it that Honen, one of the most famous figures in Japanese Buddhism, taught and eventually fasted to death on this site.
Since the temple is the headquarters of Jodo Buddhism, Chion-in is a popular site for pilgrims. This group of people were on a pilgrimage.
While walking to lunch, we came across this wedding couple. They were walking around this quiet area of Kyoto accompanied only by a guide. The couple seemed quite happy and excited, and they greeted us with warm smiles. They were kind enough to let me take their photo. Many congratulations and warm wishes to them, wherever they are now!
We also came across the young girl dressed as a geisha in the top photo. In this photo, taken from a distance, she is posing in a park for her parents, who were also taking photos of her.
We finally arrived at our lunch destination. This was a very special lunch. Bobby and I were actually celebrating our 10 year anniversary (10 years of together-ness) during our Japan trip, and I suppose this was our anniversary meal. The restaurant, Kikunoi, has been awarded 3 Michelin stars (the most one can obtain) and we knew we were in for a treat. And yes, I am wearing tennis shoes to a fancy meal. It didn't really matter since we had to take our shoes off at the entrance.
Once we arrived, we were ushered into our very own dining room. This is actually the norm when eating at a ryotei (an especially elegant style of traditional Japanese restaurants). Kikunoi specializes in Kaiseki, which is referred to as the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. Kaiseki originates from the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Many years ago, it was determined that the strong green tea consumed at tea ceremonies was too strong for an empty stomach, so food entered the scene. The whole affair evolved into modern Kaiseki, which features seasonal ingredients, superb preparation, and beautiful presentation.
In addition to the private dining room, we also had a private garden to look upon during our 8-course meal.
We started the meal with this dish. After untying the bamboo twine, we discovered...
this amazing assortment of appetizers. It included poached anglerfish liver (surprisingly delicious, like the finest fois gras), mibuna (Kyoto arugla), shimeji mushrooms (the last three were in the little yellow container), karasumi (dried mullet roe, not my favorite, it's the long orange thing in the front), kuwai chips (arrowhead root, it's the flaky thing in the middle), duck liver paté with white poppy seeds (the brownish thing in middle right), maple leaf-shaped cuttlefish coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake-glazed gingko nuts (the green ball in the top right), and an edible konbu basket (you can see a bit of it under the green ball). This was a delicious start and ended up being my favorite dish of the meal.
The second dish was sashimi (raw fish) of tai (red sea bream) and koshibi (young bluefin tuna), served with wasabi (the green glob), vinegared chrysanthemum petals (the yellow glob), mixed sprouts (hidden under the fish), curled udo stalk, and carrot. The fish was so fresh and firm; it was lovely.
Our 3rd dish was a soup. It included deep-fried hamo (pike eel) coated with toasted rice, matsutake (pine mushroom, a speciality of early November), mibuna (Kyoto arugula), and a crescent egg custard with yuzu (a Japanese citrus, more tart than orange but sweeter than grapefruit). Our favorite part was the custard.
The 4th dish was my second favorite of the meal (my first being the appetizer). This dish was a salad of lightly pickled yumminess: persimmon, daikon radish, carrot, chrysanthemum petals, mitsuba herb, and yuzu with a sesame dressing. Sorry for the color of the photo... we really need to buy a better camera.
The 5th dish was simmered in a light broth. It included Densuke anago eel (the white thing that kind of looks like corn), poached turnip (above the eel), ebi taro (tastes a bit like yam, it's in the top left), kintoki carrot (much less sweet than a 'normal' carrot, it really tastes like a root vegetable, in a good and hearty way), baby field greens, and ginger (the grated white item on top of the turnip and taro).
The 6th dish came in 3 separate dishes. To the left is rice with matsutake mushrooms and mitsuba herb. In the middle is pickled turnip and turnip greens (on the left of the plate) and konbu seaweed (on the right of the plate). The bowl on the right was a napa cabbage soup with black pepper, lightly pickled napa cabbage, and pickled thistle root.
The rice and mushroom dish was really lovely. However, truth be told, I think a lot of subtleties of Kaiseki cooking are lost on me. For example, I am sure that the rice used for this dish is of extremely high quality and is quite costly, but I just couldn't taste a big difference between it and the rice I'd get elsewhere. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the meal... I just know that I didn't fully appreciate it. But moving on...
Our 7th and second to last dish was a Daishiro persimmon splashed with brandy. Let me tell you, this dish was a revelation to me. I may not be able to distinguish between the finest Japanese rice and the rice I buy at home, but I do know a thing or two about alcohol and desserts. This persimmon was simply amazing. In fact, now that we're back in Copenhagen and persimmons are at the market, I have been eating one for dessert, splashed with a bit of cognac. Truly, it's heaven in your mouth.
We ended our meal with a final dessert, which was eaten with a very, very strong cup of green tea. Stemming from the original tea ceremony, our waitress explained to us that the head chef's wife makes the tea in a traditional manner. The tea (not pictured) was lovely, and Bobby and I eventually bought some that was similar and have been enjoying it since returning home. This final dessert was meant to be eaten before drinking the tea. Made of red bean (a sweet-tasting bean commonly used for desserts), it is meant to invoke the image of the surrounding mountains.
At the end of our wonderful meal, our waitress informed us that we should use the phone in the corner of the room to call for our bill when we were ready. This was a bit odd, but also a nice gesture, since it meant we were welcome to stay in the room longer to relax and digest. As you can probably guess this meal was a bit of a long affair. We didn't leave the restaurant until close to three (we arrived at 11:45). Since most of the temples and shrines close between 3 and 4, we spend the rest of the day strolling in the neighborhood and reliving our delicious meal.

No comments:

Post a Comment