Off the Brochure Kyoto, Japan
No matter how early it starts, I have to see the tuna auction at the Kyoto Central Wholesale Market.
The most exclusive, expensive restaurants and sushi bars buy up the highest quality tuna. Before he became a tour guide, Toby was a sushi chef so he knows his tuna. He bends over a beautiful fish and points to the part of the tuna most prized by aficionados-the belly. The look in his eyes says, where's my sushi knife, let me at it!
We watch the action until the last tuna is sold. A large fish flown in from Spain sells for $5,000.00. Toby tells me, before the financial bubble burst, the same fish would have cost two or three times as much. One fish even sold for $45,000.00.
In Tokyo, at the popular Tsukiji fish market, encircling the market are dozens of soba, udon, ramen noodle shops and sushi bars. Even early in the morning, the narrow sidewalks are full of locals and tourists in search of tasty treats.
Not so in Kyoto.
Natural Beauty and Culinary Adventures
Kyoto is a beautiful city.
Come during cherry blossom season at the end of March or in the fall when the leaves turn and Kyoto fills with color and excitement as tourists and locals stay outdoors enjoying every moment of this transitory, natural beauty.
A love of nature is deeply ingrained in the Japanese spirit. Visit, as I did, a temple like the Sanjusangen-do Temple, and you'll see dozens of Japanese surround and photograph a plum tree in bloom.
Shunko-on Zen Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple in the Myoshinji Temple complex.
Ajiro, the vegan restaurant at the entrance to the Temple, our host, Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, explains that Zen dishes are intended to cultivate the body and the soul.
To experience Kyoto's cosmopolitan qualities, we go to an upscale department store where customer service is as important as the high quality goods. The vibe is very 1960s. Don Draper would feel very much at home.
Attentive, smiling clerks greet us in the Daimaru Department Store as we enter each department, offering to find us exactly what we need.
Credit cards aren't accepted everywhere and, unhappily, the dollar/yen exchange rate favors the yen, which means a cup of brewed coffee costs $5.00 U.S.
Great, let's go inside. Her look says, you're kidding, right?
To be entertained by a geiko, she tells us, is a great honor and requires an introduction and it is very expensive. How expensive? Her answer suggests that if you have to ask, you can't afford it.
Misoguigawa, an upscale French-Japanese restaurant offering a Kaiseki (multi-course) meal featuring locally sourced, seasonal meats, seafood and produce transformed into edible art.
Many restaurants in Japan specialize in one preparation, technique or an ingredient--think sushi bars, restaurants serving yakitori (skewered meats and vegetables cooked on charcoal grills), tempura, sukiyaki, curry, cutlets, blowfish and noodle joints, selling ramen, udon and soba.
I head to Kaneyo on Sanjo Street, a restaurant specializing in Kanto style cooking where the deboned eel is grilled first without seasoning, steamed and grilled a second time with sauce.
Attention to detail and coaxing the best out of ingredients are hallmarks of Japanese cooking. Americans take pride in eating naturally and locally, something the Japanese have pursued for generations.
If you're looking for a place to hang out with friends, try an izakaya, a drinking bar with small plates of food. Izakaya are showing up in U.S. cities. In Kyoto experience the real deal.
Usually small restaurants, each with a specialty, an izakaya is whatever the owner-chef wants it to be--dark and intimate, crowded and smoky or casual and laid-back.
A small, smoky restaurant, the tachinomi bar (a standing bar without stools) is on the left where Asada, the chef-owner, serves up drinks and small plates of curry, tempura, sushi and other snacks. Crammed together in the back are half a dozen small tables. Yokoyama tells his friend we want to have a sake tasting and Asada grabs six isshou sized (1.8 liters) bottles of his favorites and sets us up at the bar.
Served cold in small glasses, the sakes--filtered, unfiltered, sweet, dry, full-bodied or delicate--are as different as they could be. They are all good. I like Kagamiyama the best with its light, dry, clean taste.
The most fun stop on our Kyoto foodie adventure is the Nishiki Market.
Used by locals to do their daily shopping as well as a tourist favorite, the market is jammed with small shops and stalls, one on top of the other with no thought to zoning regulations.
Fresh seafood shops are next to stores selling food snacks, clothing, shoes, kitchen supplies, handmade Japanese knives, coffee, tea, rice, candies, fresh produce, tourist curios and nukazuke pickles, a local delicacy.
Years ago, a friend told me about her mother making nukazuke pickles at home. They aren't difficult to prepare, she says, but if I want to make them, I must have rice hulls. I'd love to try, but where will I ever find rice hulls? When we're visiting Chuo Beikoku (stall 107), a shop devoted to high quality rice, a large bin is filled with vacuum packed bags of rice hulls. Even though I don't have room in my suitcase for any more purchases, to the amazement of the shopkeeper, I decide I must bring back a bag of rice hulls so I can make my own nukazuke!
For lunch we eat at Iyomata for Kyoto style sushi.
Our guide instructs me to put a small dab of freshly grated wasabi on the fish, not in the soy sauce as I usually do at home. Placed directly on the fish, the wasabi's heat accentuates the vinegar's edge, adding to the pleasure of each bite.