This hundred-year-old restaurant is smack dab in the middle of Arashimaya in Western Kyoto. Although we stayed at a Zen Temple, meals were not included as part of our lodgings. We were, however, able to sample a delicious vegetarian yudofu - boiled tofu - meal at Takemura.
We didn't go into this blind; we found Takemura via one of my favourite Japan bloggers (Blue Lotus) and decided that we were definitely stopping by when we went to look at the beautiful bamboo groves.
We arrived in Kyoto in the evening, as dusk was just starting to fall. We’d been travelling all day, from Kanazawa in the North, by the Sea of Japan. It was too short a visit, but we wouldn’t be making the same mistake while were in Kyoto – planning a good 5 days in Japan’s ancient erstwhile capital. We didn't have any definitive dining plans, so once settled at Shunkoin Temple, we decided that ramen made for a fast and easy meal option. For many of our food recommendations, we relied on Kyoto Foodie’s blog and headed out to the other side of town in search of Takaraya Ramen on Pontocho, near Gion.
When planning our Japan trip we booked our Kyoto accommodations first, sensing while doing a cursory initial search, that we would have the most difficulty here for finding something within our requirements and budget. We didn’t want to stay at a standard Western-style hotel, and we also didn’t want to splurge on a $300/person/night Ryokan. (Heck, even a $100/person/night would have been a little steep for us.) That left a few mid-range Ryokan or Minshuku, and we didn’t necessarily want to stay at backpacker's hostels, either.
And that’s where Shunkoin Temple fit the bill, though I did send out more emails inquiring as to where other places had availability. In truth, my first choice had been the Guest House Waraku-an, found through Flickr friend San ku-kai’s beautiful photostream of his Japan trips. Waraku-an bills itself as a hostel, but has private accommodations available for couples and groups.
In Europe, we knew better than to ask for take-home boxes or doggie bags if we somehow were not able to finish the food on our plates. And in Japan, we rarely encountered a meal wherein we might have been compelled to take food home. We were really surprised then, that at the end of our first fancy-schmancy meal at Kichisen, the chef presented us with a “take away” (their term, not mine) bag for asa-gohan (breakfast) the next day.
"For whatever reason, modern Japanese have maintained their deep emotional linkage with the annual shifts in climate, ingrained from ancient times whether cultivating crops or fishing on the coast. So much is this connection the heart and soul of a cuisine, that when I am asked, "What is kaiseki?" I often have a very simple answer.
"It is eating the seasons."
-- Yoshihiro Murata, Kikunoi
Roan Kikunoi, according to the 2011 Michelin Guide for Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, was created by Chef Murata as a somewhat more affordable option for the younger set as compared to Kikunoi Honten, his flagship fine-dining restaurant that's garnered 3 Michelin stars. His other outpost in Akasaka, Tokyo, won 2 stars and admittedly Roan Kikunoi has 2 stars for itself. Though quite a high bar, lunch here is also possibly one of the best deals for sampling kaiseki in Kyoto. Chef Yoshimi Murata has been something of an international celebrity, recently receiving accolades from Noma's Rene Redzepi (best meal), providing consulting advice to Singapore Airlines for in-flight meals and releasing a gorgeous English cookbook that garnered him a James Beard nomination. He also appears to somewhat controversial in Kyoto, as evidenced by this discussion string on Chowhound.
We should have asked. We had noticed the young man standing by the sidewalk – not so much in the middle of the walkway, but on the edge, somewhat nonchalantly, looking around – crisp cream shirt, black trousers. He stood in front of a quiet, understated entrance whose signage we did not initially see; we also didn’t want to gawk and only glanced in its direction (we thought it could have been someone's residence). We should have just asked, “Sumimasen, Kichisen wa, dochira desu ka?” (Excuse me, where is Kichisen, please?)
It took us an hour by Kyoto's city bus to get to Kichisen on the other side of the city, approximately the same time estimated by Google walking directions. It’s a good thing that we left the Shunkoin Guest House with plenty of time.
Kichisen was our first truly fancy meal of the trip, selected because of Michelin, recommendations and accounts by Kyoto Foodie, and some research on Chowhound.
Fushimi Inari is the oldest of all Inari shrines in Japan, said to be founded around 711 AD; this date also coincides with the first recorded instance of Inari worship. It's the head shrine, and the largest, and there are as many as 32,000 other sub-shrines in Japan. Inari is the Japanese Shinto diety (or kami) of agriculture, fertility, rice, wealth, and industry. Her messengers are represented by foxes -- kitsune -- most commonly found as a duo in front of the shrine - one holding a key to the rice granary and the other holding a jewel or a scroll. The Fushimi complex is also known for the thousands of striking torii gates ("senbon torii") that line the pathways up to sacred Mount Inari. No one knows exactly how many torii there are, but they are all donated by businesses hoping for wealth and blessings from Inari -- the size of the gate coincides with how much the benefactor donates.
Hassun course at Kikunoi Roan: skewer of miso-marinated avocado, smoked salmon and Tai liver; grilled squid with nori seaweed and egg yolk; fava beans, mountain yam "butterfly;" poached egg-bearing octopus; Tai sushi with Kinome pepper leaf; Yurime lily root petals; Udo stalk petals; ikura.
Indeed, what about the food? The trip was planned after all, in CCDD fashion, around food. It's been absolutely glorious - from the high-end to the low, from street food or market stands to Michelin-starred establishments and smoky izkayas, train station ekiben or small ramen-yas filled with salarymen... we've been eating very, very well.
In Osaka, I think I quite had my fill of takoyaki; DD kept wanting to sample these wherever we went, and we ended up tasting some from 4 different vendors. We also loved sushi fresh from Kuromon market and Endo Sushi in Osaka's Central Wholesale Fish Market, similar to, but not as big as Tsukiji.
We'd read that the best times to visit Japan were either in the Spring or Autumn. DD, reluctant to miss porcini season in the Bay Area, made the decision easier and we selected springtime for hanami, or flower-viewing - when most of the country goes crazy for the beautiful pale pink cherry blossoms that are spread so widely across the entire nation. We arrived in Osaka to find it a bit chilly and indeed, a bit too early for sakura; buds were still green and tight among the trees we saw...
After a few days in Osaka, we traveled by shinkansen to Takayama, a mountain town in Central Japan known for their well-preserved old town of machiya, or merchant's houses.