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.
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.
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.