I’m conscious that nearly a year has passed since our last trip to Japan and I still have so much about the trip that I haven’t shared yet.

One of my favourite mornings was a visit to Kyoto’s Toji Temple for the monthly Kōbō-san flea market that’s held in the grounds on the 21st of each month. It was surprisingly busy, with a food-to-eat-now and produce market alongside the stalls selling both second hand goods and new products. I loved it! I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Click on any image to view a larger version.

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Approaching the entrance; entering; within the temple grounds

 

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An area of prayer by a statue of Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan and the head priest of the temple about 30 years after its establishment

 

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Random market wares

 

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Food vendors, to eat on site and to takeaway; I was surprised to recognise the man in the yellow apron and headgear from our trip the previous year, I remembered him being at Takayama Miyagawa morning market!

 

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There were peaceful corners even amid the bustle of flea market day

Find more of my Japan content, here.

 

During our two recent holidays to Japan, we discovered a real love for yakiniku.*

I was determined to recreate this indoor barbecue experience at home. But there were obstacles: no smokeless charcoal; no indoor barbecue container; no working extractor fan in the kitchen (it died and we’ve not had it fixed); and it can be tricky to find the kind of tender and beautifully marbled beef that is prevalent in Japan.

The first two, I decided to ignore. The third too, though we opened the large kitchen window as wide as it would go. And Provenance Butcher came to the rescue on the fourth.

Founded by a team of three Kiwis and a Brit, this Nottinghill-based butcher’s shop opened just eight months ago. None of the founders have a background in the butchery business – Erin, Guy and Tom grew up on farms in New Zealand and Brit Struan gave up a career in marketing to retrain as a butcher a few years ago – but all four are committed to sourcing and supplying top quality meat. The team have a deep love for 100% grass fed beef, which they currently source from New Zealand wagyu herds. These cattle spend their entire lives outdoors, eat a natural grass diet and are not given growth promoters, hormones or antibiotics. The meat is broken into sub-primal cuts at a New Zealand processing plant, vacuum-packed and transported to the UK by boat. It’s chilled rather than frozen, so further wet-ages during the six week journey. Here, it’s butchered into individual cuts, ready for the customer. Of course, Provenance also sell lamb, pork and chicken and this they source in the UK; the lamb comes from two British farms, one in North Yorkshire and the other in Wales; two fourth-generation farming brothers in Staffordshire supply free range pork and chicken.

When they asked if I’d like to try their New Zealand wagyu I figured it would be perfect for my yakiniku experiment.

One of the cuts they sent was Flat Iron. According to this 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, Flat Iron is filleted out of the chuck. Care must be taken to avoid a line of tough connective tissue running through the top blade of the shoulder area and, as there are only two such steaks in each cow, many butchers don’t bother, hence the cut is not that widely available. In the UK, it’s more traditionally known as Butler’s Steak or Feather Blade; the Aussies and Kiwis call it Oyster Blade.

Regardless of what name it goes by, it’s a very tender cut that is perfectly suited to being cooked rare or medium rare.

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When our Provenance wagyu Flat Iron arrived, we were hugely impressed at the deep colour and beautiful marbling of fat.

Pete sliced this 500 gram piece thinly across the grain. I arranged some of the slices on a plate and the rest I submerged in a bowl of miso yakiniku marinade (see recipe, below).

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As well as the marinade, we had three sauces in which to dip cooked meat – some beaten raw egg (with a few drops of soy mixed in), a goma (sesame) dipping sauce and another yakiniku sauce I made with dark soy sauce, sesame oil, shichimi (seven spice powder), sugar, fresh ginger and garlic.

The raw egg dip didn’t add much (I was way too stingy with the soy) and my yakiniku dipping sauce just wasn’t very balanced – way too much sesame oil and soy, not enough sugar, ginger and garlic. We quickly discarded these as failed experiments.

Our favourites proved to be the miso yakiniku marinade (which we dunked beef into before cooking) and the goma sauce (which we dipped the non-marinaded strips of beef into once cooked). We bought our goma sauce back from Japan; it’s Mizkan brand, a Japanese vinegar and condiments producer and available online from Japan Centre.

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Vegetable wise, we had some thin spring onions, mild long peppers (from our local Turkish grocery store) and thinly sliced sweet potato. We’d meant to have mushrooms too, but forgot to buy them!

The sweet potato didn’t cook well, blackening on the outside before softening at all inside. It’s definitely a vegetable we’ve been served in Japanese yakiniku restaurants so I’m wondering if they par-cooked it first, though I hadn’t thought so at the time. Or perhaps some varieties of sweet potatoes are better suited than others? I am on the hunt for the answer!

The spring onions and peppers worked very well.

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We used a disposable barbecue, which Pete lit outside, and bought in once the worst of the initial smoke had died down. We placed it over some old cork boards on a folding garden table we’d set up in the kitchen. It worked well enough, and wasn’t as smoky as we’d feared (though the smell did linger in the house for several hours afterwards). But the main weakness was that the disposable barbecue didn’t generate the level of heat we needed for a sufficiently long time, which meant the last several items took too long to cook.

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Oops! It was only when Pete took the disposable barbecue back outside that we discovered this little scene underneath!

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All that said, I was utterly delighted with our first home yakiniku!

I was also hugely impressed with the New Zealand grass fed wagyu which was full of flavour and wonderfully melt-in-the-mouth because of its beautiful marbling.

 

For next time:

  • I want to find food-grade smokeless charcoal – the British brands I have found seem to be sold for use in fireplaces rather than barbeques. What I’d like to use is Japanese binchōtan, a white charcoal produced from Ubame oak steamed at high temperatures; it is prized for burning characteristics which include very little smoke, low temperatures and a long burning time. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty expensive.
  • I’ll need to source a small bucket barbecue that can safely be used indoors.
  • And perhaps a cast iron trivet or a concrete paving slab might fare better than our cork boards to protect our table from the heat of the barbecue; they did protect the table but didn’t survive themselves!
  • The miso yakiniku marinade was super but I need to find a better recipe for the yakiniku dipping sauce. I might investigate some other tasty dipping sauces too.
  • We definitely need more vegetables and I’ll need to think harder about which ones will work well and whether they need to be par-cooked ahead of time.

 

Miso Yakiniku Marinade

Ingredients
100 ml light soy sauce
1 tablespoon miso
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon garlic, grated or pureed
1 tablespoon ginger, grated or pureed
1-2 teaspoons shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix) or half to 1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 tablespoon cooking sake
1 tablespoon mirin (slightly sweet Japanese rice wine) or additional tablespoon of sake plus teaspoon of sugar

Method

  • Mix all ingredients together.
  • Either heat gently in a saucepan or for 10 to 20 seconds in a microwave. This helps all the ingredients to melt and combine more easily.
  • Add sliced beef to marinade about 30 minutes before cooking.

Note: As we were using this as a marinade, the slightly runny texture suited us well. However, if you’d like a thicker yakiniku sauce, continue to heat gently to reduce and thicken.

 

* Read more about the history of yakiniku in Japan and what to expect at a yakiniku restaurant.

Kavey Eats received samples of New Zealand grass fed wagyu from Provenance Butchers.

Mar 072014
 

In China, Taiwan and North America, yakinuku (literally “grilled meat” *) is often referred to as Japanese barbeque but in Japan itself, it’s very much considered a Korean import. In the UK, it’s not well known at all.

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Showa Taishu Horumon in Osaka

What is Yakiniku?

Yakiniku is DIY dining at its finest! Diners gather around a charcoal or wood burner, usually placed in the centre of the table, and cook their own meal, piece by piece and at their own pace.

Many specialist restaurants have yakiniku grills built right into the tables, with extractor systems to whip away smoke and smells. Others bring portable grills to the table, quickly switching them with a hotter replacement should the coals die down during your meal.

Most commonly, thin slivers of raw meat are ordered according to the cut. A variety of vegetable accompaniments is usually available, though the choice is sometimes limited, and the vegetables are clearly secondary to the meat! Most restaurants also offer a range of side dishes (such as rice, noodles and salads) which don’t need to be cooked on the grill. Again, these are simply a supporting act to the meat.

Yakiniku is perfect for 2 to 4 diners (any more than that and you’ll need multiple grills so everyone can reach). Sit down, check the menu, order your favourites and cook them just as you like them.

Some of the raw meat will come plain – thinly sliced and ready to grill; some will come marinated in a sticky tare (sauce); you may also be given raw egg or other sauces in which to dip pieces of meat once they have been cooked.

Beef and pork are the most common choices. Some yakiniku restaurants specialise in horuman (offal), their menus listing more different types of offal than I ever imagined existed! My first choice is the fattiest and most tender cuts of beef, which work well when flash grilled for mere moments until the fat starts to melt. I’m also addicted to thin slices of fatty belly pork, cooked a little longer until the fat starts to bubble and brown.

* Yaki most commonly refers to cooking on a grill, but can also mean frying or tempering.

The History of Yakiniku in Japan

According to most web resources, including Wikipedia, yakiniku originated in Korea.

The Meiji Restoration (the revival of Imperial rule) gave rise to a burgeoning interest in western culture, including foreign food. In 1872 The Emperor broke a 1,200 year ban on meat eating, though it took some time for long-ingrained cultural taboos to dissipate. ~

Korean food became popular in Japan during the 20th century, especially in the years following World War Two. Korean restaurants advertised themselves as offering chōsen cuisine; the term came from Joseon, the name of the old, individed Korea but when Korea split into two North and South nations following the Korean War, Joseon was appropriated by the North. Businesses in Japan, more sympathetic to the South, removed all chōsen references and instead labelled their food as kankoku (South Korean).

Restaurants serving bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) and galbi (grilled ribs) were known as horumonyaki (offal grills).

Although this is the history trotted out whenever the origins of yakiniku are discussed, isn’t it a little simplistic not to take into account the fact that grilling meat was already prevalent in Japan before the influx of Korean cooking, even though beef was not widely eaten until the late 19th Century?

Perhaps it is the use of the wonderfully-flavoured marinades that mark yakiniku as a Korean-influenced cuisine? But yakiniku, as it is enjoyed in Japan today, is not wholly Korean either – the prevalence of offal and the use of dipping sauces (in which the meat is dipped after cooking, rather than before) are, apparently not common in Korea.

Regardless of the exact origins, the association between yakiniku and Korean food is a strong one and many yakiniku restaurants in Japan commonly offer a range of Korean dishes including kimchi and spicy tofu.

I’m not sure when the general yakiniku (grilled meat) term came widely into use for this kind of cooking but the All Japan Yakiniku Association was established in 1992 and proclaimed August 29 as an annual Yakiniku Day in 1993. The date is described as goroawase (numerical wordplay) because the numbers 8, 2 and 9 can be read as ya-tsu-ni-ku, an approximation of yakiniku.

Yakiniku has seen its fortunes rise and fall according to a variety of influences. In the 1980s, the introduction of modern ventilated systems, which allowed restaurants to easily eliminate smoke and cooking smells, gave open grill restaurants a big boost. So too did the easing of beef import restrictions in 1991, which resulted in a drop in the price of beef. However, the 2001 occurrence of Mad Cow Disease (BSE) in Japan was a set back.

Today, yakiniku is hugely popular and that popularity is still growing. ^

~ This (PDF) article on The Meat Eating Culture of Japan gives a fascinating, detailed history of ancient meat-eating customs, the prohibition of meat and the lifting of restrictions.
^ Here’s an entertaining article from Japan Today with a theory on why and how diners may be forming an addition to meat!

Our Yakiniku Feasts

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The best beef we had in Japan was also our first yakiniku experience, at Maruaki, a Hida Beef restaurant in Takayama in 2012.

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On that same trip, we came across this restaurant in department store restaurant floor. A sign outside invited overseas customers to tell the restaurant manager he was handsome in return for a free beer. We did, he giggled, we received our free beers!

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Gyu-Kaku is a large Korean yakiniku chain with several hundred branches across Japan (and quite a few internationally too). Many of the meats come marinated and there are various dipping sauces, including raw egg ones, to dip the cooked meat into before eating. We really liked the spicy tofu with mince meat side dish as well.

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Another visit to a different branch of Gyu-Kaku, on our second trip.

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We chose Showa Taishu Horumon in Osaka’s Dotonbori district for a number of reasons – specialising in horuman (offal), but with regular cuts also on the menu, it gave me the opportunity to try cuts I’d never normally try; I found the retro ‘50s vibe to the decor rather appealing; I liked the bucket barbecue grills; everyone inside looked happy; staff were welcoming. By the way, Showa Taishu Horumon has a a few branches in the area, this one is located at Dotonbori 1-5-9 1F, on the area’s main street. We had a great meal – I discovered that oesophagus is definitely not for me but confirmed I’m happy to eat cheek and tongue. I chose not to explore the extensive tripe menu! And the regular beef and pork cuts were delicious!

 

Next, Pete and I bring yakiniku into our kitchen for a home made Korean-Japanese BBQ. Coming soon!

 

Although we always chose Japanese breakfasts when our morning meals were included in our ryokan or hotel stays, our Kyoto accommodation was room only, so we headed out for breakfast every day.

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On the first morning, we headed out to Toji Temple (for the monthly flea market) and decided to find breakfast once we reached Toji Station. Just as I was starting to despair of finding anywhere, we came across a lovely little coffee shop called Kissa Ippongi. We were warmly welcomed and took two seats at the large communal table to one side. We noticed most of the Japanese customers eating a Western breakfast set and followed suit. This was our first encounter with the fabulously light and thick-cut Japanese sliced bread and we both really liked it. We also appreciated the crunchy dressed cabbage salad and the fresh oranges that came as part of the plate. The bill, including coffees, was just ¥880.

We enjoyed our coffee shop breakfast so much that we sought out other Kyoto cafes for more egg and toast breakfasts throughout the week. Don’t worry – we made sure to eat lots and lots and lots of wonderful Japanese food during our trip!

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Coffee Smart on Teramachi Dori clearly belongs to a true coffee lover, judging from the careful attention given to roasting beans using an impressive Probat roasting machine just inside the entrance. I couldn’t help but be charmed by its retro interior and I suspect it’s original rather than a modern-day replica. For breakfast, Pete ordered toast and egg, which turned out to be a very generously stuffed omelette sandwich. My French Toast, made with that same thick-cut fluffy sliced bread, was superbly light and served with a pot of maple syrup. A little more pricey than our Toji breakfast, the bill came to ¥2000.

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Between the nearest bus stop and Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) we stopped at this “Morning Cafe Evening Bar” called Bear. Indeed, there were a number of soft bears inside including a large one perched on a bar stool wearing a Halloween outfit, who was our only fellow customer. Breakfast was ok but the coffee was too bitter for us here. The bill was ¥960.

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It was the resident cat that first drew us to Shiroi Hana (“white flower”), a coffee shop we passed several times during our stay, walking back and forth along Aneyakoji Dori as we made our way to and from Teramachi Dori (and its neighbouring covered shopping streets). Inside, we were charmed by the bright, polished interior and the row of fancy glass coffee syphons at the counter. Breakfast, with a particularly fine iced coffee for me, came to ¥1000.

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As we were leaving Shiroi Hana the waitress saw me taking a photo of the exterior and came running out to take our photo in front of the entrance; just another example of the proactive kindness we encountered so often in Japan.

We also tried similar Western sets in a couple of coffee chains, but they were not worthy of sharing.

 

You can read more about this and our previous Japan trip under my Japan tag. More to come soon!

Thanks to Michael for help identifying the names of a couple of these coffee shops and to Ish and Chloe for the coffee syphon know-how.

Feb 272014
 

A random set of images from Japan:

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A friend of bread is a friend of mine

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Cupola Sanjo, the covered segment of Sanjo Dori (and its delightful chicken logo)

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Waiting at a tram stop, Osaka

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Details, Pontocho, Kyoto

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Children’s book, Kyoto Coffee Shop – rather surreal to try and understand it from the pictures alone

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Osaka Marathon support crew; Peeking into an Osaka games parlour

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Takoyaki stall octopus dressed for Halloween, Osaka

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Ice cream twins, Kyoto

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Fortune slips and berries, Kyoto

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My sweet and malty near-namesake

Feb 242014
 

More images from our last trip to Japan – these ones have a shopping theme.

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Cat and dog purses

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Trouser mannequins; Hello Kitty Pez dispenser

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Giant wasp or bee in honey; Mentaiko

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Kumamon charms; Maneki-neko (beckoning cat) ornaments

Feb 152014
 

A few more images from Japan:

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Cats of Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

 

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Pampered Dogs, Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto

 

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Model of a biting dog outside a restaurant in Gion, Kyoto

 

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Cat in a hat, Sumiyoshitaisha Shrine, Osaka

 

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Cuddly Dominion, Kyushu

 

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A photo album of Pete and I enjoying Japan.

 

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Pete loved his vending machine coffee and got antsy if he couldn’t find his favourite brands; Pete buying ramen

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Pete feasting on gyoza, katsu don, beef don and yakinuku

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Us enjoying okonimiyaki in Kyoto

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Us, feasting again

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Pete with coffee and beer

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Pete on the bus, local train, tram and shinkansen

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Pete enjoying ice cream; Pete buying doughnuts

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Kavey in the tower; Kavey with Kumamoto Castle

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Kavey with Hello Kitty, zebra and giraffe, Tanuki-san, Snoopy, Daruma-san and as a Samurai

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Pete as a Samurai (with amused schoolboys) at Kumamoto Castle; Pete with tiger bag, in a Tokyo shop

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Pete with Kumamon, with his hand up a pink sheep, behind a stone pagoda and with another Kumamon

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Pete trying (and failing) to win chocolate in an arcade; Pete in front of street art shutters

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Pete at various temples and shrines

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Pete placing a stone on a torii, throwing a coin and admiring lilies at Umi Jigoku

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Us at Umi Jigoku

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Pete ringing the large bell at a temple in Usuki; Pete admiring Takachiho Gorge

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Views of Kyushu, as Pete drives

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Pete outside the entrance and Kavey in our private outdoor onsen at Sanga ryokan

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Us at Mount Aso

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Pete being a chicken, Us outside a Kyoto coffee shop

Feb 112014
 

I was really happy with our Kyoto hotel choice for last October’s stay. The previous year, we’d split our 5 nights in Kyoto between the gorgeous Shiraume ryokan in Gion and Hotel Granvia, located in the large and modern Kyoto Station building. That worked wonderfully for our first visit to Kyoto.

This time, I wanted a location near Nishiki Market, Teramachi Dori, Shijo Dori, Pontocho… I booked us into the Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa, near the corner of Kawaramachi and Oike, chuffed to nab a rate of less than ¥ 10,000 per night for a clean, comfortable and spacious double room. We didn’t take any meals in the hotel – instead we enjoyed breakfast in several different nearby coffee shops, lunch at whatever site we were near during the day and dinner at a variety of restaurants in the vicinity of the hotel.

This little ramen-ya (ramen shop) was very close to our hotel and we stopped in twice during our 6 night stay. Friends have helped me identify the restaurant from my photos – it’s part of a chain called Kairikiya Ramen and this is the Kitashirakawa branch, located on the corner of Ebisucho and Kawaramachi.

The menu includes English translations, one member of the staff had (limited) English and I had a translator app on my S4 so ordering was very simple.

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Across our two visits we ordered soya ramen, chicken kaarage (fried chicken), gyoza, cheese crisps and fried rice. (The dishes we had the first time were so tasty, we chose mostly the same ones on our second visit).

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For one visit, we got the last table. The other time it seemed quiet as we entered but the seats filled up within minutes. The majority of diners were eating alone but we never felt rushed. That said, we didn’t linger for ages, as it’s clear that this kind of business relies on a fast turnaround.

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Prices can be even lower than the menus above show, as there is also a page of Sets combining a bowl of ramen with one or more of the side dishes, for a discounted total.

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It so hard to beat a steaming bowl of rich broth, tangled noodles, soft fatty chashu pork, brightly oozing ni-tamago egg and crunchy menma fermented bamboo shoot. When you add in hot, freshly fried chicken, steamed and fried gyoza, intensely savoury fried rice and those marvellous deep fried cheese crisps, it’s virtually impossible to resist; it was only my determination to also enjoy sushi, tonkatsu, yakiniku … that stopped us visiting another few times… more of which coming soon!

More posts on Japan.

 

Suizenji Joju-en Park

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Suizenji Joju-en is a beautiful park in Kumamoto. When we visited at the end of October last year, it was still lush and green; the autumn colours still to descend.

Daimyo (feudal lord) Hosokawa Tadatoshi originally built a temple, Suizenji, on the site in 1632 but just four years later he replaced it with a tea house, designating the new surrounding gardens a tea retreat; he believed the natural spring-fed water (from nearby Mount Aso) made excellent tea. Tadatoshi named the garden Joju-en for a character in a poem by 4th century Chinese poet Tao Yuanming. Both titles form part of the full name of the park today.

The garden took subsequent generations of the family a further 80 years to develop and represents, in miniature form, the 53 post stations of Tokaido, the road that connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo Period. The largest of the many rounded tsukiyama (artificial hills) represents Mount Fuji.

It is typical of the Momoyama period of garden design – a central lake is bordered by artfully arranged boulders and pebbles and there are stepping stones within. Paths wind through the gardens, showcasing landscapes designed to be admired from a distance; they are connected by low stone bridges over the lake.

The Izumi (Inari) Shinto Shrine was built in 1878 as a memorial to the Hosokawa rulers and the garden became a public park in 1879. The impressively thatched tea room, Kokin-Denju-no-Ma, was originally in Kyoto’s Imperial Palace but was moved to the park in 1912.

With the sun shining, we took our time to walk around, pausing to admire the view along the route and resting on benches beneath the trees. I was particularly mesmerised by the park gardeners, mowing the tsukiyama in ever-ascending circles, around and around and around…

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Inside the park, there were also a few souvenir and produce shops, including one selling “Kumamoto Banpeiyu” fruit. As far as I can tell, it’s a Japanese cross between a yellow-fleshed pomelo and a red-fleshed grapefruit.

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Sweet Potato Dumplings

Sweet potatoes – both yellow and purple varieties – are very popular in Japan. In Kumamoto, the purple kind feature in a variety of local sweets.

One type, is imokoi; imo means potato and koi can mean either love or a dark colour, so it’s either “dark colour potato” or “potato love”, I’m not sure which! And I love that the local name is ikinari dango which means “all of a sudden sweet round dumpling”, so-called because it’s said to be a treat one can make very quickly for unexpected visitors. Inside a glutinous rice wrapper is a layer of sweet potato and another of sweet azuki (red bean) paste.

Another plainer dumpling contains a sweet potato filling within a glutinous rice wrapper.

This stall outside the entrance to Suizenji Joju-en Park was selling the simpler dumplings for just ¥ 85 (56 pence) each. There were also whole sweet potatoes available, but no ikinari dango on sale, though they were shown on a laminated picture list of products. When I asked if I could take some photographs, the owner nodded, pointing out the large poster portraits hanging behind her and her colleagues; I gather her shop had been featured in a documentary or magazine.

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Entrance to Suizenji Joju-en Park is ¥ 400.

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