Japan, Part 2: Kyoto

Kyoto is just a short train ride away from Osaka, approximately 24 minutes on the JR (governmental) train line. It does not seem like you’re in another big city as you just pass by neighborhoods of houses. What you do notice, however, is less skyscrapers and more traditional monuments and buildings. 

Walking through Kyoto, or driving by it in Taxi, you finally realize you are in a different city, with a different way of life. For over a millenium, it was the capital of Japan and has a reputation of being one of the most beautiful cities in Japan. Ignore the modern-glass and steel train station you arrive/leave in, if you look beyond that it is as if you step back into traditional times. Winding streets lead you to hidden beautiful temples, parks and shrines which ring around and within the city. 

Smaller in size, compared to other major cities, people come here due to its rich cultural heritage as it was the imperial capital. Recommended visits include the Nijō Castle (a former residence of the Tokugawa shōguns) in the city centre as well as the stately grounds of the Imperial Palace. In the North, you will find centuries-old shrines and temples, including several World Heritage Sites. One of Kyoto’s most famous attractions – the magnificent gilded pavilion of Kinkaku-ji – can be found here. In the South, also stretches famous shrines and temples such as the popular Fushimi Inari shrine (seen on a tourist map in orange). Finally, in the East, nestled between the Kamo River and the temple-studded mountains of Higashiyama, this area’s many attractions include the famed geisha district of Gion. 

All this walking through shrines and temples, makes one hungry and despite not being as famous for diverse food as Osaka is, it is a place where you can find very traditional meals. Having only 1 day and 1 night to spend here, I thought I’d make it worth while (food wise) and eat something very traditional and close to Kyoto’s heart.

Kyoto is the birth place of Japan’s haute kaiseki cuisine. Originally created to keep hunger during elaborate tea ceremonies during the 16th, (century), this version – called cha kaiseki – evolved over time into a fuller, more elaborate banquet. 

Kaiseki, seasonally-inspired tapas-style dishes – each encapsulating the mood of the season and evoking the terroir of the locale – is making a splash on foodies’ radar screen. Thanks to the Michelin Guide, Kyoto’s top kaiseki restaurants, previously known exclusively to chefs, restaurateurs and select groups of gastronomes, are in the limelight.

There are both small and large kaiseki restaurants and so I thought, why not try both kinds? They were indeed, very different from each other.

First came Kichisen (2-Michelin star since 2009) (Address: 京都府京都市左京区下鴨森本5番地), a small restaurant on a main road offering a combination of counter seats and private dining room.

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Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa (an Iron chef as well since 2001) is a master in seasonally-inspired yusoku ryori which is court-style cuisine following the tea ceremony tradition. 

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The room was quiet and I was facing the Chef and his assistants as they continuously explained, prepared and watched my every moment at eating the seasonal dishes of the winter. It was almost intimidating eating there, as they watched your every move, your every chew trying to discern whether you like it or not. 

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The food was spectacularly fresh and I was blown away by the sequence of dishes and the warm welcome that greeted me at the door (having being 35 minutes late – and I hate being late) having trouble finding the restaurant. This is a super traditional meal but very homey and nestled in a double-storey terrace next to one of the oldest Shinto Shrines in Japan (the Shumogamo-jinja) and the Tadasu no Mori forest.

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Aperitif of Sake, accompanied by the sakuzke, an appetizer before the meal

O-wan, clear soup to begin the meal, which imparts the joy of the season the moment you open the lid of the bowl

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Azuki beans for sweetness, looked like olives

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Fish cake soup
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Mukozuke, sashimi (raw fish) dish. Originally in the tea ceremony, the sashimi was placed on the far side (muko) of the rice and soup bowls

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So fresh and clean. They sliced it only when the order came in. Not before. You could smell the sea but not the fishyness. Perfect.

Also came along was toro (tuna belly fat) sashimi with fresh grated wasabi, served on a bed of ice. Waaaaah

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Nakazara (middle dish) comes in the form of sushi or steamed dish. Here it is steamed red bean rice with chestnut

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After this, the flow of dishes quickly builds toward the climax of the menu. 

Herring roe soup (Nimono, simmered dish)

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Smoked duck breast

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Served with kombu (seaweed)

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Finally for the savoury part, comes the “nimono” or boiled dish; here boiled fish with rice served with local picklings.

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The meal concludes with fruits, sweets and powdered tea.

Cointreau-laced orange jelly served in a depulped orange

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Fresh strawberries

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Green anko-stuffed nori mochi.

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The Chef’s tools

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Kyoto, and the nearby city of Uji, is also well known for its matcha (抹茶 maccha) or green tea, but visitors don’t just come to drink the tea; there are a wide variety of matcha-flavored treats.

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Matcha ice cream is particularly popular, and most places selling ice cream will have it as an option. It also shows up in a variety of snacks and gifts.

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The end of the meal could not have been better as I sat down with the Chef himself and he got to show me his knives, what he recommended to buy, where he recommended to buy it. Half an hour later, I found myself strolling Kyoto’s famed 400-year old Nishiki Market (“brocade market”). 

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Rich with history and tradition, the market is renowned as the place to obtain many of Kyoto’s famous foods and goods.

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The variety of foods found there was jaw-dropping. Here are some highlights:

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Raw fish (to go)

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Dried fish, seaweeds

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Preserved fish in paste

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Pickled vegetables

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You can purchase ready-made foods there, including:

Dried goods

Stringy squid (amazinggggg)

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Chili shrimp

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Dried fish

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Roasted chestnuts

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Baby Octopus

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Restaurants too…

Spicy beef

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Chicken cartilage

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Udon

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A quick note on Udon; Udon is a type of thick wheat-flour noodle usually served as a noodle soup. It’s simplest form is the make udon in a mildly flavoured broth made of dashi, soya sauce and mirin, topped with chopped scallions. 

The best part of the visit, for me, was to Aritsugu Knife shop (and highly recommended by Kichisen‘s Yoshimi Tanigawa), founded by Aritsugu Fujiwara, a master swordsmith in 1560 and famous for hand-crafted knives. The amount and variety of knives and other particular kitchen tools they sell made me feel like a kid in a candy store.

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The helpful staff (who speak English as well) show you different knives according to wants, needs, for the professional, for the home-cook, for everyone really.

(Below, knives for the left-handed person…ie me!)

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They were very professional and are able to “open” and engrave your knife as well as teach you the RIGHT way to sharpen your knife with stone. Very cool stuff.

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Last October, a total of 189 stars were bestowed upon restaurants and hotels in Kyoto and Osaka, of which 6 kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto were awarded 3 stars. The most iconic among them, a ryotei (upscale dining establishment) named Honten Kikunoi (in a dark alley in Kyoto),  is where Yoshihiro Murata, third generation owner-chef and Chairman of the Japanese Culinary Institute, plies his contemporary take on classic kaiseki – one that evolves swiftly with the season (Address: 京都府京都市東山区下河原通八坂鳥居前下ル下河原町459)

En route to the restaurant, I passed by temples and shrines

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What seemed to be a trek at night, I finally stumbled upon Honten Kikunoi

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Yoshihiro Murata, third generation owner and chef of the Kikunoi chain of restaurants, has 7 Michelin stars to his name – 3 from Kikunoi Hoten, 2 from Roan Kikunoi in Kyoto and another 2 from Akasaka Kikunoi in Tokyo. His flagship restaurant, Honten Kikunoi, was  established in 1912. Tucked away in a near century-old villa in the balmy residential enclave of Gion-Maruyama, just a stone’s throw from Kodaiji Temple, the restaurant proffers top notch kyo-kaiseki cuisine that is contemporary yet classic. 

A private room with a view:

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Each table had their own room and I did not pass by one another client

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 In a ryotei, you partake in a prescribed succession of dishes in silverware and ceramics that reflect the passing of season, served gracefully by kimono-clad maids.

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 Sake? Oh why not…

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The dining room setting – the tatami floor, the ikebana (flower arrangement), the scrolls that adorn the wall, the antiques that line the tokonoma (alcove) – all mingle together to enhance your culinary-sensorial experience. Indeed, some say that you haven’t experienced kaiseki until you have dined in a ryotei.

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To start…

Assortment of appetizers

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Roulade of tilefish, Kintoki Carrot and ginger; roulade of smoked salmon, Shogoin turnip and yuzu; Grey mullet roe wrapped in squid and pickled in sake; kuwai (arrowhead root); green chisha steam; herring roe layered with kombu; glazed dried sardines and sweet black beans
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The mullet roe wrapped in squid was amazing

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So were the famous black beans

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I was also able to look through the chef’s book about the art of kaiseki

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Azuku beans steamed with glutinous rice and yuba (soymilk skin), fresh sea urchi, uguisu lead, wasabi – wow….

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Sashimi of fugu (pufferfish/blowfish), fugu skin, grated radish with red pepper, chives and ponzu. I have always wanted to try but my mother always warned me about the dangers of eating it, if not cut right; it is deadly. 

But, hey, here we are…it was definitely chewy

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A quick note on fugu…

Fugu (ふぐ) or puffer fish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricy due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death by it as chefs are assessed very stringently every year to ensure their preparation skills are up to the mark, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of apprenticeship under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Because of the skill required, fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋).

 Sashimi of buri (yellowtail), grated mustard radish, soy sauce. Again, it was cut a la minute and very fresh.

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Yurine (lily bulb) dumpling stuffed with quail and foie gras, baby daikon radish tied with Kintoki carrot, black truffle sauce. Very interesting, a bit western but the lily bulb was tender.

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Grilled cod milt tofu, fugu milt, Kujo onion in san-po-kan citrus skin, ponzu

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One of my favorites of the evening, silky and smooth, very creamy on the hot grill.

Kumquat-wasabi sorbet

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Definitely an interesting taste with a little kick to it at the end, loved it.

Salad of crab and crab miso, sea cucumber, and konowata (salted sea cucumber entrails), mustard-dressed rapine, turnip, yuzu, carrot and daikon radish (wow, that was a mouth-ful)

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Simmering pot of soft shell turtle, grilled white onion, sesame tofu and ginger

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I must admit I was a bit hesitant in eating this turtle dish. In Hong Kong, it is also a delicacy but I never wanted to try it. Here it was on the menu, so I decided to take a chance. Kind of taste like chicken but I just kept on picturing a cute little turtle so I only had one bite. The shark fin that accompanied the soup though was cooked to perfection.

Kyoto-style hot sushi with grilled eel, shiitake mushroom, egg threads, nori, rapine, daikon radish, carrot and yuzu; served with miso soup with mach and mustard

It was a bit cold for my taste and the eel dry.

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Finally, custard of almond and apricot kernels, strawberry sauce, kiwi sauce. Great and simple way to finish the meal…


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I thought this day in Kyoto was the most food-packed but everything was surprisingly light, small-portioned and I really appreciated the depth and thought that went into every dish (some of them using 8-9 ingredients just for one dish).

Out of both kaisekis, I guess Honten Kikunoi was more adventurous with the fugu, turtle and what not, but more traditional and straightforward was Kichisen. I appreciated it both and I want to thank both chefs for their dedication and superb food.

That night, I slept like a baby, only dreaming about what was to come in Tokyo (Part 3, to come shortly).

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