Monday, April 12, 2010

March 30, 2010: Kyoto II

After the evening's unseasonable snow burst, Tuesday dawned fine and clear, so we decided to tackle a Lonely Planet temple walking tour through the Southern Higashiyama area. As did everyone else in the greater Kyoto area. Within fifteen minutes of setting out we'd come across three other people furrowing their brows at the same walking tour in the Japan Lonely Planet guide.

The walk started us off up Chawan-zaka (teapot lane), filled with tourists and pottery shops and leading up towards the first temple of the day Kiyomizu-dera with its famous red pagoda.

It's a large temple complex dating originally from the seventh century, with beautiful gardens, lots of small shrines and an impressive main hall.

And people. Lots and lots of people.

The waters of the temple are supposedly healing, but both Cindy and I were in pretty good nick, so we dodged the queue of people lining up for their sacred sips.

Making our way out of Kiyomizu-dera we found ourselves on Sannen-zaka, a laneway crowded with pedestrians, cherry blossoms and gorgeous traditional wooden buildings.

In the middle of this street was our lunch spot: Okutan, a 350 year old vegetarian Buddhist restaurant. Luckily for us the Pocketguide had the name of this place in Kanji as well as in English characters, as there was nothing on the sign that we could read - we found a few restaurants in the neighbourhood and matched symbols.

Tofu is a particular speciality of the Kyoto area and, though many tofu restaurants use loads of fish products, there are a few vego-friendly places like this one that prepare glorious tofu-based feasts. The setting was stunning - low tables, tatami mats and big windows looking onto a peaceful courtyard garden. Everything seemed quite traditional, so Cindy and I spent a good portion of the meal worrying about doing something wrong - are you supposed to dip this tofu in that sauce? Can you drink from the soup bowl? Sure we were going to offend somebody, we took our time, observing the tables around us before making fools of ourselves.

The menu is basically set: we were given two options that we didn't quite understand and chose the second one. I think this was the bigger, slightly more expensive version of the set lunch (4000 円, $46), but I'm still not sure. It's hard to imagine that it was the smaller option - there was loads of glorious food.

First up was a chunk of tofu that wasn't even really tofu. Goma dofu is sesame tofu, a tofu-like substance made predominantly from sesame paste rather than soy and served with a light soy sauce and a dab of wasabi on top. The block of 'tofu' had a light sesame flavour, but served mostly as a vessel for the soy sauce and wasabi.

Next up were these cute little tofu sticks, each skewer spearing through a miso marinated, lightly scorched chunk of tofu.

These were the highlight of the meal, finally helping me to realise how great miso can taste. I could have eaten about twenty of them.

While we were making our way through the skewers, the meal's centrepiece came out: a pot of tofu that's boiled and then kept warm over a little flame at the table.

The tofu chunks are eaten with a topping of spring onions, soy sauce and a strange pepper-like seasoning that neither Cindy or I could quite place. Again, the tofu is not particularly flavourful, but its freshness and texture made for a hearty and satisfactory lunch.

But of course, there was more. Next up was this stunning tempura plate, featuring a mix of vegies, tempura nori and a beautiful perilla leaf.

As well as all of this food (and I ended up eating about three-quarters of the boiled tofu, Cindy wasn't keeping up by the end) there was rice and tea, so we left stuffed to the gills with soy-based delights. Even Astroboy is a fan.

Walking a little more slowly now, we continued on our tour. First, along historic Ninaen-zaka and Ishibei-koji, filled with traditional tea-houses and shops.

Then past Kodai-ji, which had too many stairs for us to venture into in our overfull states.

And then into Maruyama-koen, a bustling park containing Kyoto's most famous cherry blossom tree, which hadn't quite hit full stride when we were there (possibly due to unseasonable snow!).

After a quick rest in the park, we carried on to Chion-in, the impressive headquarters of the Jodo school of Buddhism.

Then it was time to trek back to town, past the massive red gate of the Heian-jingu, to the river and the train station that would get us back to our hotel and some rest.

name="mikoan"After a couple of hours lazing, we were ready to head back out and track down some dinner. Our destination was Mikoan, a tiny Buddhist cafe tucked down an improbably narrow laneway. Inside, the restaurant resembled a living room even more than Sunny Place, with clutter and cat paraphernalia taking up every spare corner of the cramped space. Again we were seated at a bar, with all the cooking and meal preparation taking place right in front of us.

Our pitiful monolingual skills were once again saved by the set dinner option - it really does make ordering simple - which came in at just 1000 円 ($11.50). Impressively, the two women working the kitchen managed to provide almost entirely different set meals for the two of us to share. After the lunch we'd had, we were both quite happy not to see any tofu in the sets.

We each scored rice, soup and a sprout-based salad, but while Cindy got some fried 'chicken' pieces, a pumpkin-based salad and some sort of carrot and cabbage based pickle, I ended up with intriguing spring rolls, a green salad and a pumpkin based pickle.

We split things almost evenly and devoured the lot - the spring rolls were filled with an odd dryish filling that reminded Cindy of tuna, but left me baffled, while the pumpkin pickle in my set was tangy, sweet and amazing. Clearly Mikoan is working a very similar vein to Sunny Place - it's too hard to pick a favourite, we'd recommended both to anyone passing through Kyoto.


  1. The pictures (and the food) look great!

  2. wow beautiful temples and scenery - sounds just the thing for some time out but I am not sure about those crowds - the tofu in boiling water sounds intriguing - in fact I admire how well you have eaten in japan generally - if only I was headed that way I would know just where to eat

  3. It's so beautiful with all the cherry blossoms! Absolutely stunning.

  4. Thanks, all! Our surroundings were indeed very pretty. These places probably look even more amazing now, a fortnight later, with more blossoms.

  5. There's the temple! You got much better photos than 5-years-ago me did, for sure! These posts do make me feel I missed out on a lot in Japan, though... goma tofu, the cherry blossoms, pumpkin pickle...

    I guess I'll just have to go back with a print out of a "Where's the Beef" Japan guide to stick my nose in :)

  6. We did that very same walking tour and did a lot of eyebrow furrowing too.

    I loved tofu in Japan. They tasted so vastly different. So fresh and tasty.

    Gorgeous pictures.

  7. Hannah, you will indeed have to go back! It's top of my list of countries to revisit. :-)

    Yes, Kat - terrific tofu!