Japan 2016 Part 3: Kyoto, Hakone & Home

Day 7 (cont): The Pickle Market and An Excellent Pork Schnitty

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It was time to leave Hiroshima and get back onto the train to head north to our next stop: Kyoto. A 7-11 at Hiroshima Station provided us with sustenance: a karaage chicken noodle lunchbox, onigiri, and a Calpis soda – gosh I miss the stuff now.

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We were staying in Kyoto at an AirBnB near Karasuma-Oike Station, and after making the appropriate transfers and trundling down the street with our luggage, we met with our host outside the local Starbucks where she walked us to our accomodation and chattered to us in fluent English about local sights and where to go for good food. I’ve been told by all the foodies (and David Chang) to visit Nishiki Markets, and so once we settle into our new lodgings and change, we head on out.

Nishiki Markets is a 400 year old iconic market studded with stalls offering all manner of Japanese edibles: from hand-ground sesame paste to preserved seafood, pickles, to a person patiently making tamagoyaki (rolled omelette) from scratch. There’s picture-perfect boxes of wrapped sweets like bento boxes, seafood I’ve never seen before in my life, and tables with pickle samples. I pick up a few packets of freshly-made rice crackers, lured by the smell of soy-brushed over roasted rice, and we also get two soft serves: one Hokkaido milk and the other matcha green tea.

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With no particular destination in mind, we wander around the city for the rest of the afternoon and visit the local Chugen-ji Temple, and down the dark street of the Pontocho area, where restaurants were starting to set up for the evening’s service. We were getting tired and attempting to find a bar so that we could have a seat and a beer before searching for dinner, when an actual maiko swept past us down the alley; obviously either on her way to or from an appointment. She passed by too quickly to snap a photo; but there have been complaints of tourists chasing geisha and maiko down the street lately. Spend a couple of days in Japan and you will be able to tell the difference between actual geisha/maiko and the tourists who play dress-up; usually it’s the shoes and the makeup which will give them away – real geisha/maiko wear wooden clogs (geta).

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With not much luck in finding a bar, we decide to just head for dinner and try one of our host’s recommendations: Katsukura, which was also recommended by the many people who had written in our apartment’s guestbook. When we managed to successfully find the restaurant we initially hesitated as it looked more formal than we had been expecting, but once we sat down and saw the prices we were surprised that the dishes were not as expensive as the decor seemed to imply.

Katsu is a crumbed, deep-fried meat or vegetable cutlet one to two centimetres thick that is then sliced into bite-size pieces. While I had already previously had it in a very delicious sandwich, it was time to experience katsu on another scale.

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We start with two beers and choose our meals. All katsus come with rice, miso and shredded cabbage – and it’s unlimited. You will find in Japan there isn’t really much in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables (unless it’s gift-wrapped and heinously expensive), and so for the past week we had been generously helping ourselves to the hotel buffet salad selection. I actually requested cabbage salad refills twice! The cabbage in Japan does not have the slightly sour flavour of cabbage in Australia, and it’s cut so finely that it’s exactly like eating shredded lettuce.

If you ask for the English menu you will also get a card which sets out what all the pots of sauces on your table are: there’s a yuzu dressing for the salad, and various strengths of sauce to go with the katsu, to be added to the bowl of sesame seeds once you crushed them with your own little pestle. Our katsus, when they arrive, are deliciously crisp and come on a little raised grille so the base does not get soggy. Night Owl has the single tonkatsu meal (pork fillet), while I have a tonkatsu (pork) and vegetable yam croquette which is amazingly creamy inside.

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Our satisfying meal finished, we hustle back to the comfort of our home for two nights for tea and some Netflix before bed.

Day 8: “That” Orange Shrine and Fire Ramen

I’m fairly certain that there has been a noticeable spike in Kyoto’s tourism ever since the movie Memoirs of a Geisha hit the cinemas in 2005, and it was evident when we got off at the Fushimi-Inari train stop to a sea of people at 10am in the morning. It’s a famous shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, and you will see many statues of foxes across the grounds. The shrine is also famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings all the way to the top of the mountain. The Fushimi Inari shrine has ancient origins actually pre-dating the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794.

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The sea of tourists tend to congregate around the front of the tunnel of gates, taking photos and selfies, but the crowd dissipates a couple of hundred metres up the hill. It gets eerily quiet at times and you notice the occasional missing gate from the cluster, its foundations still embedded in the clay-like earth, and the little nooks where there are stacks of smaller, new torii gates waiting for donors.

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It’s a long traipse back down the mountain and vendors have set up outside the shrine. I’m lured by a vendor selling roasted mochi, having seen a blogger on Instagram post about this a few months back. It’s similar to the ones made in Nara with their green, mugwort colour, except these were roasted over charcoal before being brushed with a soy glaze. It was crunchy on the outside, and incredibly sticky and chewy in the middle (no filling) and not quite what I had been expecting. I was not an epic fan of it but the matcha soft serve Night Owl bought me later made it better.

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It was starting to become a ridiculously hot day and getting lost, we somehow stumbled upon the streets of Sannenzaka and Nicenzaka, the two most iconic and atmospheric streets in Kyoto, paved with flagstones and crowded with traditional tea houses and restaurants. It’s a good opportunity to pick up souvineers for friends and family.

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The heat got too much for us (I actually got sunburn on my shoulders) and we made our way home for lunch, stopping off at a – you guessed it – local 7-11, for sushi, gyoza, and beer before an afternoon nap.

Dinner that night was to be at Menbakaichidai – a ramen place well known for its “fire ramen”; I had seen the videos and it looked downright terrifying and exciting. It’s not situated in a particularly lively area of Kyoto (i.e. it was in the middle of nowhere), and had I not been certain as to the near complete lack of crime in Japan I probably would not have walked all the way there. But its popularity is evident immediately by the iPad standing sentry outside the restaurant which spits out a number for the queue; unfortunately due to the unlively nature of the area there is nothing to help in passing the time (not even the vending machines nearby had beer).

But finally after a long wait we make it in! And there is beer.

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This is the owner of the joint. He doles out paper aprons for you to tie around your neck and lay across your lap to catch the oil splatter, makes us girls with fringes tie them up with a fluoro hair tie from a big box of fluoro hair ties, and proceeds to give us a long talk (with an English flip-book) about safety – to lean back when they come around and to keep our hands on the backs of our stools. They take your phone and will attach it to the variety of selfie-sticks hanging from the ceiling across from the bar – as you can’t film yourself while the action is happening. I only took these photos when the second group came in after us and we were finishing our meal.

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And up she goes!

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I was so absorbed in the theatrics of it all that I completely forgot to take a photo of our ramen, hilariously enough. The ramen was covered with a layer of spring onions and it was a very unremarkable soy broth; probably one of the most “meh” ramens I have ever tasted – but then again, it’s not like you really come here for the flavour?

Not yet in the mood to finish the evening, we do some searching on Google maps and decide to hit up Bar Fishbowl where we are the only customers for most of the evening and become friendly with the lone bartender and owner, Jesse. He has an impressive collection of whiskies crowded so that they are almost spilling over the bar, and we can’t help but sample a couple of the precious limited editions he managed to get his lucky hands on. The sherry cask Yamazaki is everything I could have ever dreamed about, and more.

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Day 9: Treat Yo’Self

After over a week spent in tiny Airbnb apartments and even smaller hotel rooms, we had decided to treat ourselves by staying at a Manatei Hakone in the quiet surroundings of Hakone prior to returning to Tokyo and home. Hakone is one of the areas surrounding the base of Mt Fuji, and while we didn’t venture out of the hotel to go look at Mt Fuji, we certainly got to experience the benefits of the region, being beautiful organic food produce and steaming hot spring water of the volcanic area. Surrounded by the forest, all that you can hear is the gurgle of water from the waterfall below your window, and the occasional car from the street leading up to the station.

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The luxury rooms have an onsen bath on the balcony of the room, but I had read ahead on TripAdvisor by some reviewers not to bother as there were private onsen rooms downstairs, as well as the usual public male/female onsens. The private onsen rooms are a relief for those who can’t enter into public onsens due to tattoos (having tattoos associates you with criminal behaviour in Japan), and they are also extraordinarily sumptuous, stocked with huge fluffy towels, a hairdryer, cleansers, moisturisers, combs, toothbrushes and other toiletries. Go into the onsen area where you scrub and rinse yourself down first before stepping into the very hot onsen water; it’s just hot enough that you don’t fall asleep, but it is intensely bone-deep relaxing.

After a relaxing bathe, we dress in our yucatas (robes – but they are designed to be so comfortable that they can be pyjamas!) and head downstairs to the in-house restaurant for dinner, where we are shown to our private dining room before being served one of the most amazing seven-course degustations I have ever had in my life. Everything explodes with freshness and flavour and the presentation is immaculate. After over a week on the road with 7-11 sushi, ramen, and fried food, I could feel the quiet gratitude of my body.

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After dinner, it was time to sneak off for another turn in the onsen before heading upstairs and turning in for the evening.

Day 10: The End is Nigh

We wake up nice and early for yet another bathe (the onsen life is very addictive) and we can already feel our skin is softer. Accompanied with the amazing breakfast bento brought out to our private dining room by the chef himself, it was not hard to believe that living like this every day would be the stuff of dreams. Both of us have a wail that our trip is nearing the end.

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Eating so well meant that we were not hungry for a very long time after breakfast and our check out, and back to the station it was to get on for our last shinkansen ride into the city of Tokyo once again. Once we had checked into our hotel and deposited our things we made our way to Akihabara, the technology district of Tokyo and splurged our remaining yen on souvenirs, matcha Kit Kats, and Japanese whiskey and vintage umeshu (plum wine) at the duty free shops. If you see Japanese whiskey, buy it when you can as there is a worldwide shortage at the moment and we were shocked to discover the airport was not well-stocked – I had been given the heads up by a handy Japan advice Facebook group.

Depositing our stock at our hotel Tokyu Stay, we were delighted when we discovered that a couple we are friends with had not yet left Tokyo for the next leg of their trip, and we made arrangements to take them out to Sushi Zan Mai. It was unfortunate that it was after they sat down that they told us they “didn’t really eat sushi”, and Night Owl and I were mortified to hear that for the week they had spent in Tokyo so far, they had only ventured as far as their hotel restaurant for sustenance. Four bottles of sake and a few plates of sushi after, we found another bar to while away the evening among good company.

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Night Owl and I finish the evening on the tiny balcony of our tiny hotel room, sharing a miniature bottle of Hibiki 12, looking out at the lights of Tokyo.

Day 11: Homeward Bound

There isn’t much you can really get up to on the morning of a flight home 😦 After our hotel buffet breakfast we pack (being particularly tender with our bottles of precious whiskey), and roll our luggage downstairs to check out. Leaving our luggage with them, we traipse back to Shibuya for yet another feed of “shinakensen sushi” at Uobei Sushi.

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Pineapple? I can see you thinking – the pineapple in Japan is incredible, as are all their fruits. It was so sweet it tasted like tinned pineapple!

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And we wandered around the department store food halls, where I oogled the freshly-packed seafood and picked up some bottled yuzu juice for future recipe creations.

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The afternoon comes to an end and we collect our luggage and jump on the train headed towards Haneda Airport. It’s Tokyo’s second airport which is closer to the city centre than Narita, but Haneda only started taking international flights a couple of years ago. Once we were past customs I eagerly headed for the nearest duty free shop and stocked up on Royce chocolates. Priced at about $25 a box in Australia, it was a stunning $7 a box here! I bought 10 boxes and scurried to the counter, where my purchases rewarded me with a $20 voucher. Back for more Royce it was!

I had been told (by my ramen food blogging friends again and David Chang) to try Rokurinsha here past the gates rather than queuing at their infamous store in Tokyo station. They are infamous for their tsukemen, or ramen dipping noodles. The broth is thicker and served in a small bowl on the side to the noodles, and you dip the noodles in the broth before slurping it up. Rokurinsha’s broth is heavier, gravy-like and strong with bonito, and while it was amazing the first few bites, the flavour became too strong for me and the soup went cold extremely quickly with the cold noodles being continuously dunked into it.

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Still – we tried something new and our whole trip was a plethora of amazing new experiences. From getting lost in the pouring rain in Hiroshima, laughing at how tired we were after not being able to sleep on a futon, arguing over the horrible directions Google Maps provided, to our wordless bliss as we unwound in the onsen at Hakone. It was an incredible trip and my three posts of photos and words can barely sum up my wonder at the immaculate manners of the Japanese people, the first amazing taste of each and every beer, and the joy of being able to share these experiences together with the person I care the most for.

Nishiki Markets
Japan, 〒604-8054 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, 富小路通四条上る西大文字町609

Katsukura
Japan, 〒604-8143 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, 東洞院通四条上ル

Fushimi-Inari Shrine
68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 612-0882, Japan

Menbakaichidai Ramen
Japan, 〒602-8153 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, 上京区丸太町通日暮西入南伊勢屋町757−2 ササキビル 1F

Fishbowl
Kiyamachi Sanjo agaru Osaka-cho Nakagyo-ku | Empire Building 7Floor,Kyoto 604-8001, Kyoto Prefecture

Sushi Zan Mai
Japan, 〒104-0045 Tokyo, 中央区Tsukiji, 4−11−9

Uobei Sushi
2 Chome-29-11 Dogenzaka, 渋谷区 Tokyo 150-0043, Japan

Rokurinsha Ramen
3F, Gates 112-114 Haneda Airport
Hanedakuko, Ota, Tokyo 144-0041, Japan

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