Our ten day trip to Japan was over so fast, it felt surreal when we came home, like we never left at all. After one night in one of the smallest hotel rooms in Tokyo, we took the bullet train to Kyoto. A tourist mecca, Kyoto is packed – especially during sakura (cherry blossom) season – but there are still pockets of the sublime to be discovered. Between the grey buildings and endless traffic, there exists of glimpses of old Japan that are stunning to these foreigner eyes. There’s the endless green of the Philosopher’s Path, Nishiki market, Tennoji – a temple whose grounds burst into a huge market once a month – and of course, the Gion and Higashiyama historic quarters. The almost-burnt patina of the wooden houses, the rustle of the wind through the trees and babbling waters are hauntingly beautiful.
As for food, it’s difficult to eat poorly. Every meal has pickles, whether it be vinegary wakame or the more freaky firefly squid with metallic guts that burst in the mouth. Even sakura gets pickled, its vibrant pink petals preserved for a little while longer. Noodles are very popular and so they should be. I loved Omen’s handmade udon. K had his in a broth, with the tiniest pink shrimp floating on top. I had the Omen signature, tsukemen udon with roasted sesame seeds and topped with vegetables – daikon, spinach, ginger – that were stacked like sculptures.
Then there was Gogyo, a little shop specializing in burnt miso ramen. Bowls of caramelised black, topped with mountains of spring onions and melt in the mouth pork was an exercise in umami. Even the salary men were going hard at it (once they had their bibs on).
Kyoto is temples galore, but for temples and food, Nanzenji is the place. At Nanzenji Junsei, ladies in kimono presented bowl after plate after bowl, making up one beautiful set meal: tofu grilled with white miso, silken yudofu hot pot, warm soy milk, quivering tofu wrapped in yuba (my favourite), sesame tofu and finally, as a sort of dessert course – I actually thought it was nougat – tofu set with nuts, served with green peas and nectarine. We walked off the meal on the Philosopher’s Path, saying ‘kawaii!’ at the canal cats and chasing the very last of the sakura.
I would come back in a heartbeat.
Hotel Visto Premio | 457 Matsugaecho, Kawaramachi, Nakagyo-ku
Super clean, comfortable and superb location. Close to Nishiki market, undercover malls, transport (subway AND bus) plus geisha districts, Gion and Pontocho, are within easy walking distance. There’s even a cat cafe one block away, if that tickles your fancy.
Kashogama Pottery School | 3-343 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku
Have a go at wheel pottery right in the heart of Higashiyama. After creating your clay work of art under expert tutelage, the pots are fired, glazed and couriered. There is an English instructor available. Really good fun.
Ganko Sanjo Honten | 101 Nakajima-cho, Sanjo-dori, Kawaramachi Higashi iru, Nakagyo-ku
This multi-storey behemoth is where locals go for sushi. The bento boxes are great value, look for sets that include shabu shabu.
Gogyo | 452 Jumonjicho Yanaginobamba-dori Takoyakushi Sagaru, Nakagyo-ku
Ramen shop just off Nishiki. Come before or after lunch to avoid the queue.
Nanzenji Junsei | 60 Nanzenji Kusagawacho, Sakyo Ward
Look for the two concierges with ear pieces at the entrance. All the meals are tofu-centric, so definitely for tofu lovers.
Myoudai Omen Shijo Pontocho | Nakagyoku Shijyodori Pontocho Nishi
Handmade, chewy udon noodles served in super seasonal combinations. In spring, expect fiddlehead ferns and bamboo shoots. The more popular, original honten restaurant is in Northern Higashiyama not far from the Philosopher’s Path (74 Ishibashi-cho, Jodoji, Sakyo-ku).
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