Miyama Futon & Breakfast | A Glimpse of Rural Japan

On our latest trip to Japan, I was determined to get a glimpse of rural Japan.

We had very much enjoyed our previous insights into traditional Japan – staying in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns, often with quite an age and history to them) and visiting many century-old temples, shrines and castles.

But until this trip, we had not overnighted in a rural location, nor in a traditional village house.

Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture is probably the best known tourist destination for those wishing to see quaint villages of gasshou-zukuri (traditional thatched-roof houses), but I had read that the villages become very crowded in high season. And the limited options for overnighting – in a handful of guesthouses with small, low-ceilinged rooms and shared bathrooms – didn’t appeal.

Thanks to a suggestion on a travel discussion website, I started investigating a stay in Miyama instead. Located about an hour’s drive north of Kyoto – just 45 minutes on the train – Miyama is a rural mountainous region of forests and agricultural land. Within the area are over 200 kayabuki (traditional, thatched-roof farmhouses), the majority of which are still residential dwellings. These kayabuki are not quite the same as Gifu’s gasshou-zukuri ones in shape – Gifu roofs take the form of two huge rectangular panels meeting in a steep apex with a plain and squat ridge of thatch across the top, whereas the thatched roofs in Miyama are wider at the bottom than the top, pinching in about two thirds of the way up, and feature a decorative criss-crossed wooden cap atop the ridge.

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What really decided me on including Miyama in my itinerary was finding Miyama FUTON & Breakfast (a play on the European bed and breakfast label).

Built around 150 years ago and known as Hanabusa, the house is typical of rural Japanese architecture of the period, influenced by the local climate and lifestyle. Our hosts told us that they think the house was built by a local merchant who made his living as a repairman. It is now owned by Hario Nishio, one of only 50 traditional master thatchers in the entire country – thatching is a dying art as new homes are rarely built with thatched roofs and many owners of older properties choose to convert the thatched roofs to tile for ease of future maintenance.

The idea of offering this traditional home as a holiday rental is to encourage visitors (both Japanese and international) to experience and enjoy the local area and traditional crafts, and of course to admire the beautiful thatch and other features of the house. Guests are offered a range of activities such as walks in the local forest, guided bike rides, cookery lessons of various kinds and a bamboo craft workshop by an expert thatcher.

On arrival guests are met by one of the association’s concierge staff – at the nearest train station for those without a car, or at a local supermarket (more akin to a farmers market than the typical corporate store) for those who are driving. We made our way to the supermarket without difficulty and Taka greeted us before helping us to choose and buy ingredients for our evening meal – local deer meat and locally grown vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and rice.

Shopping done, we followed Taka’s car to the association’s reception office where we filled in the paperwork to check in, purchased some local beers and paid for the bamboo craft workshop we’d arranged for the next morning.

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Local area including a dilapidated thatched house undergoing renovation (not where we stayed), blossoming fruit trees and a Buddhist temple, just behind the house

Finally we were lead to Hanabusa house, sat in a tiny hamlet of dwellings nestled between the hills behind and rice paddy fields and a small river in front.

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The house is really striking. We’d spotted and admired it from the car on our way to the supermarket but hadn’t guessed it would be our home for the night!

A vivid lime-green moss covers most of the thatched roof and some of the tile canopy beneath it; the colour echoing the spring growth in the nearby field. Below the canopy are simple wooden walls and straw mat window coverings.

Already delighted when we pulled up outside, stepping through the sliding door is when my heart really started fluttering.

The door leads through to an earth flooring that extends right through to the back of the house where it opens out into a kitchen dining area. The kitchen is a modern western style with a western dining table provided. The rest of the ground floor is on a raised wooden platform; we remove our shoes before stepping up to reach the tatami-floored sleeping room and tea ceremony room plus the wooden floored living room with it’s large sand-filled irori (Japanese hearth) which we are invited to use for heat and cooking. There is also a lovely glass-walled corridor with views onto the small but pretty back garden.

On the other side of the earthen flooring, to the left of the main entrance is another raised wooden flooring area. A gorgeous wooden stair case leads up to the next level, and behind it on the ground floor are a small sink area, modern bathroom and toilet.

Upstairs is impressive – completely open plan, the flooring is a mix of wooden and tatami, furnished with a few chairs and lamps, the steep straw roof above is open, giving an impressive view of how the thatched roof is constructed. There’s a steep ladder to go up another level onto a small loft platform, also floored with tatami.

With so much space downstairs, we didn’t make much use of the upstairs living areas but they do mean the house is spacious enough to sleep up to 10 or even more.

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This set of images are by Miyama Futon & Breakfast, collage by Kavey Eats

Outside, there’s a round chicken house and small garden, and a modern storehouse.

Keen to settle into the house after our quick tour of it we were surprised when Taka lead us outside to visit the storehouse, until we saw inside. Here, he introduced us to the beautiful suikinkutsu – a traditional Japanese musical garden ornament made by burying a bucket or large jar in the ground. As he poured water slowly into it, we listened using a long bamboo pole, until we heard beautiful bell-like music as the water splashed off the shaped tiles lining the suikinkutsu. Beautiful!

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The only negative about our gorgeous rental was that it was cold! I don’t think anyone had been staying there for a few days before us, so it hadn’t been heated at all. We put all the electric heaters on full blast, but it did take quite a long time for the chill to recede enough to relax.

I particularly loved cooking our meal of local ingredients in the kitchen and over the irori.

We had chosen our local produce at the farmers market style shop where we’d met Taka – deer meat, mushrooms, leeks, some aburaage (deep fried tofu slices) and rice.

I browned the meat briefly on the stove top, then added a simple stock I made with soy sauce, mirin and brown sugar mixed into water. Taka had already helped Pete to light the charcoal earlier, so by this point they were good and hot. Pete transferred the pot to the hook over the irori and we left the meat and stock to cook slowly. After a while he added chopped mushrooms and leeks. Once everything was cooked, he brought the pan to the table and I stirred in the aburaage just before we ate. Once we’d fished out and eaten all the meat and tofu, I poured some rice into the stock and Pete rehung the pot over the hearth until the rice was cooked through.

All in all a delicious dinner, enjoyed with a local sparkling plum drink for me and some local beers for Pete.

Having made up our futons earlier, using three mattresses and two duvets each, we had a good night’s sleep in our peaceful and beautiful house.

The next morning, we woke up early to use the bathroom and get dressed before the breakfast team arrived. It took them quite a long time to make, bustling away in the kitchen while we chilled and read our books at the dining table, but our breakfast of locally made sausages, eggs, salad, fresh bread, yoghurt, juice, milk and coffee was delicious and a great start to the day.

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After breakfast, we came outside to do our pre-arranged bamboo workshop.

Our teacher, professional bamboo thatcher Fumio Kanaya learned his trade from master thatcher Hario Nishio, the owner of our lovely rental house and president of the association through which we booked it. Before we came outside, he had already set out lots of tools for us and several poles of bamboo in varying shades of black, brown and green. These were arranged within the open garage next to Hanabusa house.

On a simple bamboo table were some small items also made from bamboo, for us to look at and decide what to make . We agreed to make little helicopter toys and toy whistles, and quickly set to work.

Taka and another colleague from the association were there to translate, and take a few photos, though we persuaded them to join us and have a go at the projects too. I am pretty sure they had as much fun as we did!

Protective gloves were provided as the knives to carve the bamboo were super sharp, though we quickly got the hang of it and to my surprise, there were no injuries!

It was hugely absorbing and surprisingly relaxing working with the bamboo; so much softer than the wood I remember carving and chiselling in my high school woodwork class three decades ago. Once the helicopter blades were carved to shape, we sanded them smooth, drilled a hole in the centre and shaped a slim rod to provide a handle. Testing them outside we were thrilled when they caught the air and spun slowly to the ground!

For the whistles, we also used saws, chisels, and hole cutting tools, though Fumio advised us not to glue the two pieces together until we got home.

Lastly, with offcuts from one of the largest diameter bamboos, we made some very simple sake cups, the natural segmented shape of the bamboo doing most of the work for us.

As we worked, we learned a little more about the association.

Where once thatched houses were prevalent across rural Japan, they have increasingly fallen out of favour since the mid-20th century. Mr Nishio had travelled to Europe and noticed how Europeans tend to  attach a strong value to the remaining thatched houses, often sold for a premium because of their beautiful appearance (though only to those willing to take on the maintenance). But in Japan, we were told, most people have not yet come to appreciate the beauty of thatched roofs. So one of the core aims of the association is to share the beauty of traditional Japanese thatched roof homes and the skills of the craftsmen who make them.

The other side of the project is to counter the migration of young people from the area to large towns and cities. Many younger Japanese do not want to follow the traditional rural life of their parents and grandparents, and non-agricultural job opportunities here are few and far between. By bringing tourism into the area, the association hopes to encourage young people to live and work in the area, both locals and those from farther afield.

A few hours later, our workshop was done and we carefully packed up our efforts and said our goodbyes.

I would recommend a stay here to anyone wanting to experience the more rural side of Japan. Two nights will give you more time to explore the area and book more of the activities offered by the Miyama FUTON & Breakfast team – I’d have loved to do the mochi making workshop and one of the cookery classes too. There are also nature walks in the nearby forest and bike tours of the area. Make sure you visit nearby Kayabuki no Sato, a cultural heritage site featuring a large cluster of over 30 well-maintained traditional thatched roof houses, one of which is a Folk Museum open to the public.

You can visit Miyama via public transport, especially if you’re happy to hike or bike once you get here. For us, having a rental car was perfect and allowed us to enjoy the area at our own pace before heading onwards to Kyoto for the next part of our itinerary.

With thanks to all at the association, especially Taka and Fumio, for making our stay so special.

Click here for more posts about our experiences in Japan.

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Miyama Kyoto Cottage (Tall Pin)








Captivating Kaiseki Cuisine at Hoshinoya Kyoto

Is there anything more charming than a restaurant to which one travels by small boat along a serene stretch of river in one of Japan’s most beautiful cities? One that also serves the highest quality Japanese cuisine, each dish a perfect balance between traditional classic and inventive modern?

If there is, I am yet to find it but it certainly has a hard act to follow in Hoshinoya Kyoto, a top-level kaiseki ryōri restaurant within the luxury inn of the same name.

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Kaiseki cuisine is a traditional multi-course meal consisting of a succession of seasonal, local and beautifully presented little dishes. Although its origins are in the simple food served as part of a traditional tea ceremony, it has evolved over centuries into a far more elaborate dining style now served in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and specialised restaurants.

Such meals usually have a prescribed order to what is served, though each chef takes pride in designing and presenting their own menus based on local delicacies, seasonal ingredients and their personal style.

A typical meal may include a small drink or amuse-bouche to start, a selection of stunningly presented small appetisers, a sashimi (raw seafood) course, takiawase (which translates as ‘a little something’ and is most commonly vegetables with meat or fish alongside), futamono (a ‘lidded dish’, often a soup but sometimes combined into the takiawase course in the form of a broth with simmered ingredients served within it), sometimes there is a small tempura item (battered and deep fried) or some grilled fish, all this to be followed by a more substantial dish such as a meat hot pot or grilled steak with local seasonal vegetables, then rice served with miso soup and pickles, and finally fresh fruit or another dessert.

If that sounds like a lot, it is! That said, most of the dishes are small enough that most diners are able to enjoy the full meal comfortably, albeit with very little room left by the time the rice arrives! And most kaiseki menus don’t include every single one of the courses above, though they usually cover the majority.

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Views of Hoshinoya Kyoto; the hotel grounds later in the evening

Hoshino Resorts is a family business launched over 100 years ago when Kuniji Hoshino founded a forestry business in Karuizawa. The area, nicknamed the Japanese Alps, became increasingly popular as a location for holiday villas and in 1914 Kuniji opened a ryokan there which is still one of the company’s flagship properties today, albeit hugely updated since Kuniji’s era. Today, fourth-generation family member Yoshiharu Hoshino is CEO of the company and has lead the business through two decades of transformation and expansion, modernising existing properties and purchasing several new ones that are marketed under the brands Hoshinoya, Kai and Risonare.

A few years ago Hoshino Resorts purchased a beautiful historical Kyoto property originally constructed in the 16th century as the home of Ryoi Suminokura, a wealthy merchant and trusted advisor to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Suminokura played a major role in the construction of Kyoto’s canals and river systems, earning him extended shipping rights within the city. He built his beautiful home in the bamboo forests of Arashimaya, on the banks of the Katsura River. In the centuries following, his home was turned into a traditional ryokan.

In 2012 the ryokan closed for two years while the company completely refurbished the property, retaining and enhancing its historical treasures.They hired Japan’s most skilled architects and designers to repair the existing property and to design and construct extensions in keeping with the original yet offering a more modern luxury and comfort. The best artisans in their fields were invited to repair original pieces and to create new furniture and artworks throughout.

The newly completed resort opened in 2014 and has been another flagship for the brand ever since.

At the helm of Hoshinoya Kyoto’s kitchen is Head Chef Ichiro Kubota. Kubota’s father was the head chef at one of Kyoto’s top restaurants and instilled in his son an appreciation of culinary excellence and Japanese traditions. Initially intending to become an artist, Kubota studied art as well as English language; indeed it was a two year stint studying in America that helped him better appreciate the beauty of Kyoto’s culture and cuisine, and to change his focus and career plans. Kubota went on to train as a chef under his father and in many of the region’s top kaiseki restaurants before heading to Europe. There he apprenticed at Paris’ three-star Michelin restaurant Georges Blanc where he perfected classic French techniques, also taking advantage of days off to eat his way around Europe. He was poached from Paris in 2004 to head up the kitchen of Umu, London’s first Kyoto-style banquet restaurant. After seven years (and a Michelin star of his own, awarded within a few months of Umu’s launch) Kubota accepted the invitation to head up Hoshinoya Kyoto’s new restaurant – keen to return with all the expertise and knowledge he had gained and receive recognition in the home of the cuisine.

Since then, Kubota has developed a truly incredible offering that brings many innovative touches to this most traditional of formats.

So often, when chefs try to modernise classic dishes and methods, it just doesn’t work – it’s either so far from the original so as to be virtually unrecognisable (in which case naming it as such seems a travesty) or it simply isn’t as good and is therefore a rather pointless change. But Kubota achieves what very few do, retaining all that is glorious about the best traditional kaiseki ryōri whilst also applying European influences and modern techniques, flavours and presentations to each dish he serves – and these innovations not only work, they positively shine!

A meal at Kubota’s table is one to keenly anticipate; his reputation – and Hoshinoya’s – have already earned him high praise and the restaurant has a consistently busy reservations book. Most of the diners are, of course, residents of the resort but others, like us, book in for dinner only. The kaiseki menu is priced at 20,000 yen per person plus taxes and service, very much in line with Kyoto’s high end restaurants.

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Arashimaya at dusk: tourists in kimonos, tourists on the river bank, a bride under the cherry blossom, our boat at the Hoshinoya Kyoto landing dock

The journey to Hoshinoya Kyoto starts at the Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashimaya, a famous West Kyoto district that is popular with locals and tourists alike. If you’ve not visited, a stroll through the famous bamboo groves followed by a visit to Tenryuji Temple are both umissable activities; Tenryuji’s garden is amongst my favourite of the Japanese temple gardens we have visited. There are many other attractions in this area too – more temples, a scenic railway line, tourist boat trips (including trips to observe cormorant fishing in season) and even a monkey park, if you are so inclined.

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On the boat to Hoshinoya Kyoto; views from the boat

The Hoshinoya dock is close to Togetsukyo Bridge and easy to find. We are lead onto a small boat with large windows around the passenger area to enjoy the view. The boat slowly putt-putts its way up the river taking about 15 minutes to reach the hotel’s landing dock, where we are greeted by guest relations manager, Tomoko Tsuchida.

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Arriving at the hotel by boat; the path up to the restaurant and hotel

After taking a few photos in the darkening dusk outside, Tomoko takes us into the restaurant and shows us to our counter seats, of which there are 8. The other 30 covers are at regular tables. Tomoko settles us in, gives us the menu for the meal to come (which lists each course in both Japanese and English) and serves our meal assisted by an army of polite, well-trained and quick-footed waiting staff. Each dish is carefully explained and any questions patiently answered; sometimes the origins or patterns of the artisanal tableware are explained too – traditional lacquerware with painted gold flowers and fish, sake cups from Shigaraki (a pottery town we visited just two days earlier), and other beautiful handmade plates, bowls and cups.

Throughout the meal we watch the two chefs stationed in front of us create the first three courses again and again. Other chefs work on other courses in other kitchen spaces and their dishes appear in front of us as finished master pieces, from the fourth course onwards.

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Before the first morsel arrives, we are served a glass of Kasegi Gashira, a junmai sake with a light, lemony flavour that is accentuated by the mugwort pudding that arrives shortly afterwards.

I’ve been learning in recent years, and shared my beginner’s guide to sake last year, but am still a novice when it comes to selecting sake from a list. Luckily Tomoko gave us some suggestions for the two sakes we choose to accompany the rest of the meal.

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The amuse bouche is listed as Mugwort pudding with white shrimp, chopped fern root, horse tail bud, lily root petal and umami jelly. Tomoko explains that Mugwort is a sign of spring, and the dish is the introduction to their very seasonal menu. Near the property is a field of greens and yellows with a lone cherry blossom tree within it; the construction of the dish has been designed to represent this scene. The dish as a whole is light and refreshing, though I’m still not sure I could describe mugwort to you – I’d say slightly bitter with a hint of floral.

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When our next sake is served, we are offered a box of sake cups to choose from, each one a very different design. I recognise the distinctive look of an unglazed Shigaraki piece and of course, I select that one. This sake, in the very pretty blue bottle, is a junmai daiginjo made by Eikun, a sake brewery located in Kyoto’s Fushimi district, an area known for sake production. It has a rich, deep flavour, strong and punchy, not at all like the lighter one we started with. It’s unlike any sake I’ve tried before, and I like it.

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The selection of appetisers served next are beautifully presented; each item listed separately on the menu.

From left to right: bamboo shoot and cuttlefish marinated with cod roe dressing, lady fish sushi, simmered hamaguri clam and river lettuce with umami jelly, deep fried Japanese dace, broad bean stuffed with shrimp dumpling, simmered baby octopus with sweet soy sauce with simmered sea bream roe with ginger

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The dace fish, Tomoko explains, is threaded onto the skewer in an Ƨ shape so that it looks as though it is swimming!

I don’t pay much attention to the little leaf sat on the octopus and sea bream, and don’t realise until later that one of the intense flavours I detect on eating this is from the leaf rather than the braising spices used to cook the seafood.

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The next course is one that the chefs at our counter are responsible for, and throughout our meal we watch them make it again and again; their intense focus and attention to detail as they construct each plate is a pleasingly practised choreography.

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Described on the menu simply as Seasonal sashimi Hoshinoya style, Tomoko is on hand to give us all the details. When she tells us the plate itself is a design known as ‘blossom falling in the wind’, I realise I’m so focused on the beautiful food that I didn’t even glance at the plate. A good reminder to observe all the wonderful details.

The two pieces at the edges are the same; the one in the centre is different. The two pieces are both baby melon on fresh seaweed, wrapped in sea bream with diced wasabi and sea urchin on top. The ‘crystal jelly’ spooned onto the plate at the two corners is made from konbu stock and the white foam ball is sakura flavoured. A home made soy sauce dressing is provided for the outer two pieces.

The centre sushi is a piece of fresh sea bream roe which has been briefly boiled and then grilled. On top is a tiny layer of pureed leek topped with a circle of Japanese tangerine jelly (the citrus fruit chosen for its exact balance between sweet and sour) melted over the top, and a single Japanese red peppercorn sat on the jelly. The plate is garnished with crisp sugar snap peas and edible leaves and flowers.

The entire plate is altogether stunning, especially the sea bream roe which melt-pops in the mouth as though it’s filled with a mild and creamy liquid center. This dish is about beauty, freshness, seasonality, texture and flavours and it’s delightful!

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As we open the poached greenling coated with Domyoji sweet rice crumbs in a clear soup with yuba cake and fern root Tomoko tells us to check for the fish artwork under the lid before explaining how best to enjoy the soup. First, on lifting the lid, bend over the dish and inhale the aromas released, especially of the fragrant sansho leaf sat on top. Move the leaf into the broth so it can impart a little flavour, then use your chopsticks to hold back the other ingredients as you sip the broth. Finally, enjoy the other ingredients in the bowl.

This time, when I eat the leaf it’s a knockout punch to the taste buds! Not only is the flavour intense, it comes with a tingling numbing sensation akin to eating Sichuan peppercorns – I wonder if the two plants are related? The numbness lasts for a good few minutes, so you may prefer to nibble just a tiny bit of leaf for a hint of the flavour, and set the rest aside.

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Next comes charcoal grilled king fish glazed with rapeseed sauce. The fish is rich and meaty, and the seasonal topping of spring onions with rapeseed greenery is delicious. To visually represent the yellow of rapeseed flowers, bright yellow karasumi (salt-preserved mullet fish roe) is grated over the top – it contributes to the flavour too, of course. Also on the plate are baby ginger, shiitake mushroom and udo, a mountain vegetable.

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Shiraki Brewery in Gifu are the makers of this unusual Daruma Masamune sake that has been aged at room temperature for 15 years. The flavour is incredible, reminiscent of mushrooms though that makes it sound unpleasant when it’s actually very delicious!

Although aged sake is nothing new, today’s market is predominantly focused on new sake, released every spring – to the extent that Shiraki faced both bemusement and confusion when they first started to sell their 3, 5 and 10 year old aged sakes in the 1970s. Aged sake is still not very common, but these days there are enough aficionados to make this a premium drink.

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The next course arrives in a very unusual dish, unlike any I’ve seen before. If you’re starting to feel full just reading about this multi-course meal, I can assure you, it’s exactly how we feel as the containers are placed before us and we wonder if we can do justice to the contents.

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Inside the custom-crafted clay container (with one clay lid and one made from wood) are pieces of beef fillet and simmered spring vegetables. Wasabi and salt crystals sit in the condiment spaces, though for me the beef is perfectly seasoned as it comes and it’s absolutely superb – full of beefy flavour, meltingly soft without being pappy and cooked to just the right point. Hard to beat beef (and cooking) of this quality!

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Lest you think the savoury courses are over because the ‘main’ dish has been served, as with any Japanese meal, the rice course is still to come. Tomoko brings out a black lidded dish of seasoned rice with bamboo shoot topped with charcoal grilled conger eel which is served with red miso soup, assorted Japanese pickles and green tea.

We ask for small portions to be served, and the eel is delicious, so we do dig in even though we manage just a few mouthfuls each.

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Next comes an elegant strawberry and mint financier, strawberry sauce and rich milk ice cream served on a chilled metal block. The flavours are vivid, and brought to life by the tiny fragments of mint on the top.

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But lest we think that a more traditional Japanese dessert has been dropped in favour of the French-style patisserie, a second dessert arrives of melon and papaya with mint, served with a cup of hojicha (roasted black tea).

The papaya is nice enough but the melon, oh my goodness, this is the most delicious melon I’ve ever tasted! I ask for more information and learn that it’s a green melon from the musk melon family and grown in Shizuoka Prefecture. It’s so perfectly ripe that the perfume is heady and the flavour intense, with a texture that is almost liquid in the mouth. It’s glorious and a genuinely revelationary experience!

Full to bursting, yet a little sad that such an incredible meal has come to an end, we are walked to the reception area to settle our drinks bill before one of the resort’s private cars drives us back to Togetsukyo Bridge for our onward journey back to our hotel.

On this trip, we experienced several high end kaiseki meals and this one was our clear favourite (though others were certainly excellent, more of which soon). Kubota’s delightful weaving together of traditional Japanese techniques, ingredients and dishes with global influences from his exploration of world cuisine, along with his whimsical, artistic, delightful presentation lifted this meal to another level.

Kavey Eats dined at Hoshinoya Kyoto as guests of Hoshino Resorts.

Images from Toji Temple Flea Market, Kyoto

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!


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

Find more of my Japan content, here.

Enjoying Yakiniku in Japan

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.

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!

Kyoto’s Western Breakfast Sets

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.


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.

Ramen, At The Corner

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.


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.

Kyoto: City of Temples & My Ema Tree

How to bring a little Kyoto spirituality home from your travels…

With a staggering two thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, City of Temples is an apt epithet for Japan’s former imperial capital. One of the delights of a trip to Kyoto is not only visiting the famous ones in all the tourist guides but stumbling unexpectedly across so many others as you explore the city and surrounding prefecture.

But don’t worry about becoming “templed out” – not only are these places of worship and prayer compellingly beautiful, they are also hugely varied, endlessly fascinating and an excellent way to gain an insight into Japanese culture. For many Japanese, religious practices are as much about tradition and custom as they are about worship. It’s not uncommon for Japanese people to practice both Buddhism and Shintoism, for which they visit both temples and shrines on special occasions, to remember their ancestors, and to ask for help in specific matters. For a first-time visitor, it takes a little knowledge to distinguish the temples from the shrines.

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Shinto shrines are sacred places in which to pray to one or more of thousands of different kami (spirits). Created as sanctuaries for the kami, the shrines are designed to blend in with their natural surroundings. Many are associated with specific spirits; worshippers often seek out kami that can help with particular issues they are experiencing. There are shrines for pregnant women wanting a safe delivery, shrines where one can pray for a good harvest, shrines for requesting success and wealth in business, shrines to ward off evil spirits and even shrines dedicated to relationships and sexual gratification. A particular highlight of our first visit to Kyoto was a visit to Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine, where we watched a long line of young girls pass through a hole in an enormous paper-covered boulder known as The Stone of Breaking and Bonding. Wriggling through in one direction breaks bad relationships and crawling back in the other direction creates new, positive ones.

Simple thatched wooden buildings echo the design of storehouses and prehistoric dwellings and are usually surrounded by a sacred grove of trees. Thick ropes hung with shimenawa (tassles) and gohei (white paper) cordon off sacred corners – they are often tied around a sacred sakaki tree known as the heart post. Entrances to Shinto shrines is usually through a torii (gate) which marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. They are often guarded by statues of lions or dogs, though at Fushimi Inari-taisha, you will find messenger foxes. This shrine is also famous for its senbon torii, paths of hundreds of torii gates snaking up the hillside, one after another. Painted bright red, they are individually paid for and donated by worshippers praying to Inari, the kami of fertility, rice and industry. Visit at sunset for the most spectacular play of light and shadow between the gates’ red pillars. The first stop for worshippers is the chozuya (water basin) to purify hands and mouths, using the long-handled ladles provided, before proceeding to the haiden (main shrine). There, a front porch features a rope, a bell and a collection box; visitors usually clap, ring the bell and make their prayers.

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It is also common to write prayers or messages for the kami. Originally, horses were given as votives, to represent the divine steed, but over time, boxes painted with their image were given instead. Nowadays, these have been replaced with wooden plaques called ema, on which personal messages are written before they are hung onto hooks provided. Ema come in different shapes – though rectangular ones are most common, we also spotted octagon, heart, rice-paddle, torii and ruler shaped plaques – the designs are varied; often colourful, intriguing and occasionally even startling! Sales of ema help support the shrines financially, so staff are very happy for visitors to buy ema as souvenirs to take home with them. They cost from 300-1000 Yen each (£2-7) and each shrine has its own designs to choose from. Shrine visitors also make small payments in exchange for o-mikuji – paper slips revealing their fortune. These can either be tied to walls of strings provided, for the resident kami to influence, or taken home.

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Buddhist temples are devoted to worshipping Buddha and the many gods within the Buddhist pantheon. As well as a main hall, where one or more statues of Buddha are located, some temples feature impressive multi-storied pagodas, a few of which – such as Yasaka Pagoda – permit public entry to the upper levels. Temples may also have kodo halls, where monks study and chant, and kyozo depositories, where sacred texts are stored. In the grounds, the many groupings of Jizo statues are impossible to ignore. Jizo is the patron of travellers and children and is most strongly associated with helping the souls of babies ­who were aborted, died during birth or as young children. Depicting a short, round, bald man the simplistically styled statues are often decorated with bibs and woolly hats in red and white. Some temples have a dedicated graveyard with family gravestones, many in the traditional gorinto (five ringed tower) form. You may also spot an enormous bell, rung to mark the New Year and other occasions. Outer and inner gates to the temple are usually guarded by an array of fierce animals, warriors or gods who ward off evil spirits. Some Buddhist temples also have torii, but these are usually smaller and less prevalent than in Shinto shrines. Visitors pray by making monetary offerings (thrown into a saisen-bako box), lighting incense and candles and leaving food and drink offerings. Like Shinto shrines, ema and o-mikuji are often on sale for leaving messages and discerning one’s fortune.

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During my two trips to Kyoto, I have amassed a beautiful collection of ema from many different temples and shrines. The pale wood, red and white cords and colourful images (also featuring lots of red) make unusual and memory-laden tree ornaments, and look lovely shown off against the green branches of a traditional tree or hung onto a more modern metal spiral one.  I’m delighted at how well they have helped me bring a little Kyoto magic into my home this winter.


This post was previously published in Good Things Magazine.

Japanese Specialities: Amazake & Warabi-Mochi at Bunnosuke-jaya

Not much can beat a sunny day spent wandering from temple to temple in Kyoto’s beautiful Gion and Higashimaya districts. Although we’d recently paused to enjoy freshly made yuba, that didn’t reduce our enthusiasm to find Bunnosuke-jaya, an amazake specialist listed in Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto book.

She explains that amazake is a sweet drink that was traditionally made from sake lees and served to weary travellers as they walked between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Although it smells like sake Durston credits its invention to Buddhist nuns and says it contains no alcohol.

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Taking a seat on the benches in the pretty garden, we are handed a laminated menu sheet.

At Bunnosuke-jaya, the menu describes amazake as low (rather than no) alcohol and tells us it’s made “the old-fashioned way, using only rice and not a single granule of sugar”. In this method, kōji (a fungal mould) is added to cooked rice, causing the carbohydrates to break down into sugars. Water is added to serve amazake as a drink.


We are given a choice of enjoying our amazake hot or cold and decide to have one of each, adding a portion of warabi-mochi dumplings to share.

When our order arrives, we are told that the ginger on top of the lid is to mix in (to taste) with the thick hot amazake within. The cold version is served with ice and has a thinner consistency. The flavour is sweet and milky with a lovely almost fruity flavour. The ginger works well with the warm one.

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Warabi-mochi are sweet dumplings made from warabiko (bracken fern starch). In this region of Japan, they are generously coated with kinako (roasted soybean flour, known locally as yellow flour). Elsewhere, they are served warm with hot sugar syrup. Just like the more familiar glutinous rice mochi, warabi-mochi are sweet, soft and chewy, and the kinako gives them a wonderfully nutty taste.

The tiny mugs of black tea served alongside the rest of the order are a nice touch to round off our first taste of two Japanese specialities.

I pop inside to settle the bill and enjoy peering around the shop – Durston describes this “eclectic spot” as “one of the most bizarre collections of art and trivia in Japan”. She’s probably right, but I don’t linger long to examine it, drawn once again to exploring the bustle outside the gates.


More posts from our trip to Japan.

Yuba: A Traditional Japanese Delight

Diane Durston, in her beautiful book, Old Kyoto, describes her chance discovery of a small yuba shop a couple of blocks from Kyoto City Hall. On that first visit, she had never heard of yuba and thought she’d stumbled into a paper maker’s, as she watched the proprietor lift thin white sheets from rectangular vats of hot liquid and hang them to dry on wooden rods above.

On that and subsequent visits, the owner introduced her to what he was actually making. Soybeans are first soaked overnight and then ground before being boiled for several hours. The boiled mass is then pressed between heavy stones to extract the rich soy “milk”. This is heated in shallow wooden vats so that a skin forms on the surface. That skin, lifted off in sheets, is yuba.

Of course, many customers buy the yuba fresh but the sheets are also dried, to be reconstituted in hot stocks and soups. I’ve even had it dried and smoked, chopped small and scattered over a salad like bacon bits or cheese.

But in our five days in Kyoto, our plans didn’t take us anywhere near the shop Durston discovered, and with so much else to see, I decided reluctantly to set aside my wish to see yuba being made.


On a sunny Kyoto day filled with one beautiful temple after another, we ambled slowly from Kennin-ji Temple and Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine to Yasaka-no-to Pagoda. As we turned into a narrow street, the pagoda looming skywards in the distance, I peered into an open shop front and my heart skipped a beat. Unlike Durston, but thanks to her book, I knew exactly what the shallow vats of steaming white liquid meant and we quickly stopped for an impromptu snack.

This little store had certainly modernised beyond the one Durston visited – the vats were made from strong white plastic held in a metal tray, heated with modern plumbing rather than open fires. But the process and product was clearly as she had described.


Dried yuba was on sale in packets and a giant plastic ice cream cone made me wonder if they sold yuba ice cream. But it was the fresh tofu skin I was after. On a black laminated sheet, I pointed to the picture of a little dish of fresh yuba and took a seat on one of the wooden stools to watch as the shop keeper walked around the vats, checking on the thickness of the skins forming in each, and then quickly but carefully lifted a sheet into a small waiting dish.

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After adding a dash of soy sauce, she passed it to me with a shy but encouraging smile and I happily tucked in. Still warm, the skin had a soft, silky yet chewy texture and a rich, fresh creaminess – the flavour held a subtle gentle savouriness.


I was tempted to order another portion immediately, but given that we were headed towards an amazake specialist near the pagoda, where we would enjoy more delicious snacks, I resisted.

Our visit lasted only a few minutes, but remains a strong and wonderful food memory from our first trip to Japan.

A Meander Through Kyoto’s Nishiki Market

Like our fascinating walk through Takayama’s Miyagawa Morning Market, Nishiki in Kyoto is full of wonder.

Stall after stall of fresh and processed produce, kitchen cookware and tableware line a long and narrow glass-covered arcade that runs parallel to Shijō Street, a main commercial artery running east to west through the city. With Teramachi and Shin-kyogoku Streets and the department stores on Shijō nearby, this is a great destination for browsing or shopping.

Some of the produce is familiar but much is not, and without a guide or translation tool, it’s hard to identify. Some stall holders are clearly not very interested in tourists, and that’s fair enough – I doubt they get many sales from us. But others are happy to share a smile or try and help explain their products.

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Passing through Teramachi and into Nishiki; Vegetables that seem to be preserved in sand; fish


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Dried fish; Chestnut salesman


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This strange decorative fruit is known as Fox Face in Japan, and as Nipplefruit, Titty Fruit and Cow’s Udder elsewhere!


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Persimmon; dried snacks; a dried tofu specialist


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Preserved vegetable; fresh mushrooms; apples; beautiful fresh seafood


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Eggs; seafood; fried snacks to takeaway; unidentified preserved produce


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Browsing; pumpkins; ceramics


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Singing pickle salesmen; live clams; sweets


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Buying vegetable; Pete checking out the chop sticks shop; restaurant front on Teramachi Street


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After exploring the market, delicious cakes and iced coffee in a tiny cafe in a nearby side street


Catch up on previous posts about our trip to Japan.