Wednesday, April 14, 2010

March 31, 2010: Kyoto III

An early wakeup on our second morning in Kyoto gave me my first opportunity to do any real birdwatching in Japan. A pre-breakfast wander along the river and through the grounds of the nearby Shimagamo Shrine resulted in around fifteen new species, including Japanese grosbeak, Japanese wagtail and Hawfinch. The shrine itself was quite impressive - another of Kyoto's many UNESCO world heritage sites.

The main outing for the day was to the Arashiyama area, a short train ride north-west of the city. Getting off the train we aimlessly followed the crowd down to the Oi River and the famous Togetsu-kyo bridge.

The mountain backdrop distracted us from the touristy vibe of the bridge area, with bursts of cherry blossom flaring out of the forest.

A quick poke around the stalls near the river (no mochi, lots of street-meat), and we decided to turn back and get our temple on at Tenruy-ji, the other side of the train station. This zen temple is particularly famous for its rock garden, which dates from the 14th century. It's very peaceful and calming (if you can tune out all the camera sounds and noisy kids).

Despite being founded in the 1300s, the temple itself is only a century or so old. Like so many of the temples we visited, the buildings have been periodically destroyed by fires or floods over the centuries.

We paused in the temple grounds for a quick snack, picked up from one of the touristy stalls near the train station.

These yatsuhashi are on sale everywhere in Kyoto. The little triangles have a vaguely mochi-like texture and the fillings included red bean paste and sweet berry flavoured mush. Not bad.

Re-energised, we headed for the most famous sight in the area: the Sagano bamboo grove. Tucked behind Tenryu-ji, the bamboo forest covers 16 square kilometres and is quite hypnotic.

Just outside the bamboo grove is a little train station with a couple of stalls, including this guy:

happily frying up fresh mochi and serving it up to all comers (120 円 each, $1.40). Who could resist? Especially when our lunch plan (another tofu restaurant) turned out to be closed all day.

Filled with mochi-power we kept on walking, heading for a stroll through Kamayama-koen, a park beside the river, with a nice lookout.

Having given up on our tofu lunch plan, we did a quick scan of the town for other vego options, and found nowhere particularly promising. So instead of just eating tons of mochi each for the rest of the day, we jumped back on the train and headed for downtown Kyoto and the Nishiki market.

The market is covered and 400 metres long, filled with small stallholders selling everything from pickles and vegies, to knives and and tofu. It's a wonderful place to just wander around explore, with every stall selling something intriguing or delicious looking.

Our main purpose here was eating - we needed something to tide us over until dinner time. I started with a freshly made seven-spice rice cracker from Mochiyaki Sembei, which was a taste and texture sensation.

Cindy and I were both intrigued by the big sign promising 'tofu doughnuts'. These turn out to be basically doughnuts cooked using soy milk rather than dairy milk (and thus quite possibly vegan - we didn't ask about the egg situation. For 250 円 (~$3), you get ten of these little suckers:

They could probably have used a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar, but freshly cooked they were still an amazing treat.

The food market eventually runs into Teramaki shopping mall, an old street that was once chock full of temples and is now a covered mall with loads of sneaker shops, restaurants and video game arcades.

Like all of Kyoto though, there are always temples lurking - something like 12 are tucked in behind narrow gaps in the shop-fronts.

With night falling, we set out to find dinner, heading up to the river and some of Kyoto's best cherry blossoms.

name="siesta" The venue for dinner was the trendy-sounding Cafe la Siesta, a veg-friendly bar and cafe fitted out with tremendously cool retro video games.

Even the little menu holder is Nintendo-themed.

While the drinks menu lists a wide range of game-themed cocktails. I couldn't resist a 'highscore' (white rum with apple juice and mint, 680 円/$8), while Cindy opted for an 'invader' (rum, lychee and sherbert, 750 円/$9).

You can't quite make it out in the picture, but the yellow ice-cubes in Cindy's drink were in the shape of little space invaders. Very cool.

The food options are a little less zany - the vego menu made up of four pizzas, four pastas and a couple of rice dishes (vegan options are plentiful and clearly marked). Cindy decided she was up for some pasta and ordered the mushroom and pepperoncino spaghetti (750 円/$9).

As you can see, this wasn't a particularly exciting meal - it was tasty enough, but given the high standards we'd become used to in Japan, it didn't really measure up.

My Thai-style curry with rice (700 円/$8.50) was a bit better , with a pretty impressive curry sauce and some nice, fresh vegetables.

I think though that Cafe La Siesta is really a better place to go drinking than eating - it was empty when we were there between seven and eight and I get the impression that it's much more popular as a nightspot than as a restaurant. It's certainly easy to imagine having a great time drinking cocktails and playing Streetfighter or Afterburner until the wee hours. Unfortunately we were both pretty shickered from our long day (and besides I think Cindy's patience for video games was wearing pretty thin - we sat right by an old console with a case full of games to choose from and I quickly turned into a terrible dining companion).

So we headed back out into the night and had one last look at the cherry blossoms before jumping on the train home to bed.


  1. Yaki mochi! Tofu donut! Omigod!

  2. So much excitingness here that I think my head will pop. I became obsessed with any treat flavoured with matcha and red bean together in Japan, and wish I'd found a fresh mochi place! Also, I'm envious of you Nishiki experience - I went bright and early because I thought that's how markets work, and missed out on all the good stuff because the early morning is just for restaurants and the like. Sadness!

  3. *bird-nerd moment* Wow, that Hawfinch is an impressive looking little bird! *end bird-nerd moment*

    I have been loving all your Japan posts, and I'd give anything to go there! Alas, the closest I'll come is sitting under my potted Japanese Maple and eating a bowl of udon.

  4. Lisa: every time we saw mochi I thought of you.

    Hannah: It was our biggest day of the trip I think. I was surprised by how great the Nishiki market was - I was expecting more fish and less fun.

    Hayley: Wait until you see some of the birds we saw in Malaysia!

  5. While you are in Kyoto, pick up some Aritsugu knives. They are the best Japanese knives you can get and are 1/4 of the price you would pay in Australia. Its the knive shop in the food mall. They engrave your name on the knives too!

  6. Anonymous, I wish we had! Unfortunately by the time we posted this we had moved on and missed out. Hopefully your advice will come in handy for any future travellers reading this post.