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 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.

 

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 piece was written for Good Things Magazine, a new food, travel and lifestyle magazine launching to consumers in Spring 2014. Content will be available via the website soon, or follow @GoodThingsUK for the latest news.

 

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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

 

After the amazing kaiseki dinner we had at Ryokan Kansako I was looking forward to dining at Ryokan Shiraume, our splurge choice in Kyoto for two nights (after which we switched to a hotel in Kyoto station for 3 nights).

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Shiraume is a stunning ryokan situated right in the heart of Kyoto’s well-preserved Gion district. It is built right on the bank of the Shirakawa Stream, amongst the old cherry, willow and plum trees and many rooms enjoy the view and sound of gentle running water. Access is across a small entrance bridge from the street along the other side of the stream and the two beautiful white plum trees for which the inn has been named flank each side.

The Gion district developed to serve the needs of visitors to the nearby Yasaka Shrine, many of whom travelled some distance to see it. Eventually, Gion evolved to become an exclusive and well known geisha district. Incidentally, Gion geisha refer to themselves as geiko, meaning women of the arts, rather than geisha or person of the arts.

Like many of the surviving traditional machiya (townhouses) in the area, Shiraume was once an ochaya – although ochaya translates as ‘tea house’, don’t confuse it with a chashitsu (tea room), where a traditional Japanese tea ceremony may be enjoyed. Geisha entertain their clients by performing the many traditional arts in which they have been trained. Ochaya provide entertainment spaces for such gatherings and Dairyu (Big Willow), as this one was called, was particularly popular with local novelists and poets, including Yoshii Isamu, whose ode to Gion is commemorated on a carved stone monument outside.

Dairyu was opened in 1855, towards the end of the Edo period, and has been passed down from mother to daughter through seven generations. In 1949 the fifth generation owner decided to convert her property into an elegant ryokan (inn) which she named Shiraume. Today, her granddaughter Tomoko Okuda owns the inn. She is a wonderful host and looked after us so warmly during our stay that we can’t wait to return.

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On arrival, we were greeted by Tomoko, checked in and shown to our room before a member of staff arrived with tea and sweets

We booked Umekoyomi, a beautiful ground floor room overlooking the stream. It’s a traditional Japanese style room with pretty antiques and artwork, an en suite bathroom with a beautiful hinoki (cypress wood) tub and has a small entrance hall leading into the main room and bathroom. Sound proofing must be good as we never heard other guests when in our room.

Before taking over Shiraume, Tomoko travelled all around the world and is no stranger to a traveller’s needs. She cleverly provides a traditional Japanese inn with modern facilities including underfloor heating, air conditioning, lovely large thick towels, a hair dryer, telephones in each room, a mini bar fridge (which you can put your own items into, if you prefer), tea and coffee facilities and even a TV and music system. Of course, yukata (traditional robes) and toiletries are also provided.

In the four other traditional inns in which we stayed, I found the futon mattresses quite thin, so asked for my bed to be made with 2 or even three stacked together. But at Shiraume, the futons are far thicker, and the most comfortable we slept on.

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In the afternoon, a selection of drinks and snacks are laid out in one of the public areas for guests to enjoy.

And Tomoko or one of her team are always available to help with local advice or anything you need.

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Once again, I wrote in advance to advise that I might struggle to sit comfortably on the floor for the traditional meal we booked for our first night. Tomoko invited us to dine in one the separate dining rooms, where we could lower our legs into the foot space provided. We sat facing out to the open window, listening to the running water of the stream and watching Gion walking past.

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The first course was a stunning array of appetisers. As you can see, presentation is just as important as taste.

Inside it’s casing, a grilled mountain chestnut; pink mountain potato; in a citrus bowl, teeny tiny fish in a soya sauce; in an intricate basket woven from seaweed, a “persimmon” that is actually a quail egg and two gingko chestnuts; potato topped with ikura (salmon roe); burdock root; anago (salt-water conger eel) nigiri sushi and a long stem of pickled ginger to refresh the mouth after the sushi.

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Course two was dobin mushi (a selection of seasonal ingredients cooked in a light broth).

Within the little tea pot was a light but flavoursome liquid containing prawns, matsutake mushrooms and a fish called hamo. Tomoko explained that hamo is also known as the emperor fish and related a story – the emperor loved ocean fish but, during the heat of summer, only one type could survive the one week journey from the coast . But this fish had so very many bones that he just couldn’t enjoy it. One day a clever chef found a way to sliced the bones out whilst leaving the skin in tact, to hold the fish pieces together. The emperor could enjoy ocean fish again!

It’s said to take 16 years of training to learn the technique…

The English language name for hamo is daggertooth pike conger eel.

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On the next plate was a grilled scallop with sea urchin sauce, a boiled egg with black sesame seeds and a seaweed and wasabi condiment. Decorating the plate, but also edible, was a sprig of new harvest rice from Siga prefecture which had been popped (like corn) on the stem.

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When we booked, we were given a choice between the Kobe beef or the standard kaiseki menu and opted for one of each. Tomoko kindly brought the different courses from each menu separately so both of us could share each one.

First up was the Kobe beef, simply served with Japanese black vinegar. Delicious and tender, though it suffered a little in comparison with that unbelievably silky Hida beef we’d had a few days earlier!

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From the kaiseki menu, we were served a selection of sashimi – fatty tuna, snapper and squid.

After that came sushi with grilled preserved mackerel, a speciality of Kyoto where fish often had to be preserved during the hotter months.

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For our seventh course, we were back to the shared items from both menus again. The star of this dish for me was the yuba (bean curd skin) served with soya and bonitobut the grilled guji (Japanese tilefish), shitake mushroom and spinach were also fresh and delicious.

Guji is also known as amadai in some parts of Japan.

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Diamond crab came topped with tobiko (flying fish roe) and was served with grilled aubergine, soya beans and 2 different vinegars. It was so fresh it was almost sweet!

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Next came rice, pickles and miso soup.

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And we finished with hojicha (roasted green tea) and black sesame ice cream with fresh fruit.

The next morning, we were offered a choice of a Western or Japanese breakfast, and this time we opted for Western.

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First came tea and fruit juice followed by a basket of top quality croissants, walnut and raisin bread (some of the best I’ve had), chocolate brioche (which was amazingly light), bacon pastries and toast plus omelette, fresh fruit and jams. Enjoyed from the private dining room again, with the window open to the light and sounds coming from outside, it was a wonderful start to the day.

Well fortified, we set off to explore Gion and Higashiyama – areas of Kyoto known for traditional architecture, shops and restaurants as well as many temples and shrines. I’ve shared several posts about these temples and shrines in recent weeks.

Unfortunately, the second half of this day turned into quite an unpleasant one. I was hit with one of the worst headaches I’ve ever experienced – it seemed to be both a neck and shoulder tension headache and a migraine combined, more severe than either, and it wouldn’t respond to my normal prescription drugs or to sleep. Eventually, I asked Pete to see if a doctor might be available. Instead, to ensure we were seen as quickly as possible, Tomoko quickly called a taxi and personally escorted us to the local hospital where she helped translate my symptoms, medical history and drugs to the medical staff and waited with us for quite some time. My assigned doctor decided to give me a CAT scan, just to be safe, and pronounced it clear a little later. Indeed, the symptoms finally started clearing of their own accord an hour or two after that. Typical! Before she left to return to the ryokan, Tomoko left instructions with the hospital reception to organise our taxi back and when we returned home, we discovered a simple but very delicious midnight meal left in our room, as she realised we had missed dinner. Being in so much pain is never pleasant, but it’s much more distressing when you’re away from home and I can’t begin to tell you how much easier it was for both Pete and I to have the practical and emotional support of Tomoko. The next day, we had breakfast in our room and Tomoko kindly allowed us to stay late in the room for me to rest, before we transferred to our next hotel.

Of course, just to make it clear, we loved Shiraume even before my illness and had already been impressed by the warmth and welcome of Tomoko and her team, not to mention the clever way that modern comfort has been brought to a very traditional ryokan experience. And the marvellous cuisine! For anyone nervous about staying in a ryokan (although there’s no reason to be), Shiraume is a perfect choice. And of course, it’s just as appealing for ryokan old hands looking for somewhere special.

 

With huge thanks and friendship to Tomoko-san for her kindness during our visit.

 

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 & Part 5.

 

Daisho-in, Miyajima

Founded by a Shingon Buddhist monk in 806, Daisho-in is located at the base of Mount Misen, and just steps away from our ryokan for the night, Watanabe.

Access to the temple is via steep stone stairs. In the middle of each are spinning metal cylinders, each inscribed with sutra (Buddhist scriptures). Turning the scriptures as one walks up and down the stairs is believed to be as effective as reading them, allowing those who don’t read Japanese, or know the sutra to benefit from the blessings.

Adjacent to the main stairs are a second set, bordered by 500 statues of rakan (disciples of Buddha). As far as we could tell, each one is different. Some are quite serious, others almost cartoon-like and playful.

At the top are beautiful temple buildings, pretty gardens and a pond, and a wide range of statues including a golden reclining Buddha.

There are o-mikuji and ema available, but here many of the ema are in the shape of a rice paddle, a symbol of the island, which claims credit for its invention. Good luck maneki-neko (beckoning cats) are also on sale. We weren’t able to work out what the panels about birthdates represented, but fortune slips for those are also offered.

Another eye-catching detail is the beautiful cascading drain pipes – individual metal cups strung together one above the other.

For those with the energy, the paths behind the temple lead up onto the mountain, and to other halls and statues.

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For Pete, with love in my heart…

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Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.

 

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

The name of this island is actually Itsukushima, but it’s most commonly known as Miyajima or Shrine Island for its famous “floating” O-torii, one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions. Miyajima is just off the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture, a 20 minute ferry ride from the mainland.

Itsukushima Shrine is a Shinto shrine dating back to the 6th century, though it’s been destroyed and rebuilt a few times since then. The present shrine dates from the mid-16th century, but follows the design laid down four centuries earlier. Because the island is considered sacred, commoners were forbidden from setting foot on the island until relatively recently. Building the shrine on pier-like supports gives the impression, when the tide is in, that the shrine is floating on water and is separate from the island itself. This ambiguity allowed devout pilgrims to approach whilst maintaining the purity of the island. O-torii (grand gate) was built over the water in the same way, and commoners were directed to steer their boats through the gate as they arrived at the shrine.

At low tide, current day visitors enjoy walking across the sand to the base of the gate.

Next to Itsukushima Shrine is Hokoku shrine, which includes a five-storied pagoda. There’s also a large stone torii on the waterfront path.

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For Pete, with love in my heart…

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