Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TRIP: Kyoto

In the middle of our trip we took a four day excursion to Kyoto. The city once was the capital of Japan until the Emperor relocated the capital to Tokyo. Kyoto is a very different city compared to Tokyo, it has a fraction of the population (1.5 million) and as a result is not nearly as busy. Kyoto is known for old architectural buildings as well as lots and lots of temples and shrines.

We passed Mt. Fuji while on the bullet train.
Kyoto Tower (it's more impressive at night)

We only had two solid days in the city since the first and fourth days were consumed with travel. Riding the Shinkansen (Bullet train) it took us 2.5 hours to get to Tokyo not bad for covering 320 miles. Kyoto train station is every bit as large as Tokyo's. It's got at least two department stores and a hotel attached to it with a huge variety of restaurants. This picture really doesn't cover it, I just liked the roof structure.

We stayed near the station at an older hotel, the Kyoto Century Hotel. Despite being older and less expensive it was still immaculate and the service (just like everywhere else in Japan) impeccable. The pastries were from the shop in the hotel. Breakfast offered a choice of western style or Japanese style breakfast buffet.

They had a great what I called "old school" cocktail bar. I don't mean that from a disparaging sense, it was very well kept classy with the bartender well versed in all manner of cocktail.

Of course our first stop was lunch. We randomly picked a restaurant in the station (I swear there is not a bad restaurant in Japan) "Aoi-jaya". Their speciality was a bamboo steamed basket, I picked the beef hotpot, it came with seasoned rice, sashimi Japanese pickle and warabi mochi for desert. The egg is used to cool the beef from the cauldron. We added some tempura since we had yet to have any while we were here. This is considered a "traditional" Japanese lunch called washoku. It was a very light and well balanced meal a great way to start our visit. Washoku always consists of rice, miso soup and a bunch of seasonal side dishes. There are various sets that change up the "main dish" and as a result the complementing side dishes but you get the idea. (more examples to come)

That night we took a bus into city and walked around. Wandering around the city was pretty busy at night. Lots of shops and restaurants, almost every one we visit was solid with reservations booked all night. We managed to get a seat it a Korean BBQ place featuring wagyu beef. I want to take a moment to say that there was no where in this country that I felt the least bit unsafe. We remarked at the fact that people parked their bikes unlocked on the city streets here. I'm sure there's a "bad" part somewhere but for the most part it's not like anywhere else I've ever been. Most places if you don't have your bike seat chained up folks will steal it, not here.

The next morning we attended a traditional tea ceremony class. Our instructor was dressed in a full kimono and walked us through the "simple" ceremony (the full one takes up to four hours). She talked us through the significance of each of the implements as well as the preparation of the tea. This is a photo of the poem and flowers that adorn the tea room. The poem talks about the uniqueness of the gathering like the alignments of the planets is something to be treasured and honored. That's the really short summary of it, our host was far more eloquent. (I wish I had recorded it)

Here our instructor showed us what guests bring to a ceremony. A small fan which is presented and you bow with to upon entry. A small knife for cutting the desserts, and paper used as a plate for the sweets served. To teach the tea ceremony in Kyoto you need a teaching certificate from one of the tea masters of the city who trace their lineage back to the original tea master that first developed the ceremony.

The selection of the tea powder vessel, temperature of the water, and even the tea scoop are all deliberate to show respect for the guests as well as to the day and season.

The tea cup has a front and back. After the host prepares the tea they make two turns of the cup to present the nice front to the guest and likewise as the guest finishes they make two turns and presents the front to the host as they place back on the tatami.

Here's a selection of sweets, the larger ones were a jelly sugary confection and the small dots were made of a special ultra fine sugar that melt in your mouth. I think the sugar helps alleviate the bitterness of the macha.

For a small cup of tea you use a fairly large scoop of tea.

As you whisk the tea you make two clockwise circles and then a "W" shape whisking motion until you get a frothy tea. My guess is to aerate the tea and help reduce the bitterness. Matcha is made from grinding up young dried tea leaves. It has a very high antioxidant content and is considered very good for you. If you have free time in Kyoto you should definitely check out the Tea Ceremony room Ju-An it was a great education and we had a wonderful time.

After tea class we walked around a bit and saw the Higashi Honganji temple. On the way there we were greeted by this beautiful Grey Heron.
Front Gate of Higashi Honganji

The temple was a massive walled off compound that is actively in use. We observed an prayer ceremony. This is one of the two largest temples in Kyoto and considered the “head” temple built just over 400 years ago.

We went and visited the Shosei-en Garden just a few blocks away. It was originally built as a second residence for the Chief Priest of the Higashi Hongan-ji 370 years ago.

Although we were early for cherry blossom season (by about two weeks) we did manage to catch a couple of early blooming trees here in the garden. The one tree was quite a sight to behold, I can only imagine what it looks like to have them all in bloom.
Closeup of the Sakura

Another traditional Japanese lunch. Sashimi over rice with dried white fish and shredded egg with the accoutrements to make it a Chazuke (tea rice). The side dishes included a fresh made tofu, some chicken karaga, smoked fish and azure bean and mocha dessert.

More temples: we took a taxi to visit the Kiyomizu-dera temple. The temple is about 1238 years old and has been constructed without a single nail. It’s massive in scale and spreads out across the mountain side. It’s known for it’s cherry blossoms as well which we were again lucky enough to catch a couple of blossoming trees. (I think the front ones were actually plum blossoms). This is the front gate.
Here's a distance shot from the garden that includes the main temple, it's too bad part of it was under restoration.

The streets leading to the temple were lined with shops and various food vendors. Particularly popular were vendors of triangular sweet called Yatsuhashi. They came in mocha like sheets or folded in triangles filled with red bean or sesame and red bean (our favorite).

An interesting Pate a choux like pastry stuffed with a matcha cream.

Baumkuchen is a popular cake here brought over from Germany.The rings resemble the rings of a tree and hence the German name of "tree cake". We had some of this at the tea ceremony class as well.

Restaurant that makes their own tofu, the bottom poster show the process. This wasn't the only restaurant we encountered that served all tofu but we didn't get a chance to actually dine at one.

Walking around further you can get a really view of the historical architecture of the buildings in Kyoto. Everything was illuminated by lanterns.
Ume (Plum) Blossoms

We returned back to Kyoto station and found dinner at a restaurant serving Omelette rice. Rice fried with ketchup wrapped in an thin egg wrapper. This is actually a very popular dish in Taiwan as well. My Mom would make this for us growing up and it was on my wife’s “To eat” list while we were here. I’ve made it before for a bento, the ketchup gives a sweet and tangy flavor to the fried rice it’s actually quite good (don’t knock it till you try it).
Night View of Kyoto Station
Reverse view of the illuminated steps

Next day we visited the famous Temple of the golden pavilion: Kinkaku-ji. It was a residence of a previous Shogun who had the building converted to a Zen temple after he passed away.

The garden still features preserved structures like the Shogun’s tea room.

Prayer candles where you can pray for a variety of things. There are predefined inscriptions on candles that you pay a donation to light, so anything you need: good grades, safe travels, fortune etc it's covered. (I could have used these things when I was in school) They even have the label in english for us tourists.

Finally, my wife wanted to do pictures in full traditional gear. There were lots of photo studios that provided this service so we picked one with the best reviews. There were also plenty of kimono rentals that you could dress up in traditional gear to go to visit temples. There were quite a few folks decked out while we were visiting but we were also told that during graduation many women dress up in formal kimonos as part of the graduation ceremony. The guys were stuck with their standard school uniform. So no telling if it was graduation or the "thing to do" while we were there.

Finally after an exhausting amount of walking we finished and went back to Kyoto station and dined at a Washoku restaurant Eijuan. Fresh tofu salad with a ginger dressing, Tamoyagi (omelette) with soy daikon, Tsukemono (japanese pickle), sashimi, Mushroom miso soup, grilled Alfonsino. I’ve never had Alfonsino, it’s a firm fleshed white fish which kind of reminded me of a thin version of cod and has a bright red skin. Every dinner here has been just as much a feast for the eyes as for the stomach. I’ve always left feeling quite satisfied and “light” unlike some of the “food coma” inducing meals I’ve had back home. As much as carbs seem to be on my enemy list these days for food, it does make a case that maybe it’s not the carbs that are bad. After all, everyone here seems pretty healthy, but then again it maybe all that walking they do here.

We had a great time in Kyoto, it’s definitely very different from Tokyo. It’s a slower pace and more of a chance to see what traditional Japan looked like. Lots of temples… LOTS of temples. But each one was unique and they were a lot of fun to visit.

You know when you've gone on a long vacation and on the last day you get that "No place like home" kind of feeling? I didn't have that at the end of our trip. I definitely could have stayed a lot longer.  There's so many more sights to see that we're pretty sure we're going back sometime soon. I've got one more post about our second fabulous meal so that's coming up, but this wraps up my post on our two city tour of Japan. I highly recommend a visit!

Oh yeah. I did get a photo while we were doing the dress up thing....
Samurai Jack

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

TRIP: Memorable meals in Tokyo (1/2)

Best meal I had while in Tokyo? Well there were two and this is one of them. Our friend that took us on a mini tour of Tokyo over the weekend took us to his favorite lunch place for dinner. During lunch they serve a bustling crowd with Kaisen Don (a Sashimi rice bowl). He had never been here for dinner and reserved us a space for an Omakase dinner, the chef's selection, the literal translation is "I'll leave it up to you". I couldn't for the life of me tell you the name or where this restaurant is, the only thing I have is the above picture of the sign outside the building.

The restaurant is very nondescript, it was on the third floor right around a stairwell and had I been walking around I would have missed it. It's really close to the Parliament building so the part of town is nearly deserted during the evening.

Here's the photo of the restaurant, it's shot from our table of four and there's a four seat behind the screen. 20 seats. The place was tiny. I'm not sure that they normally open for dinner, we were the only customers for the evening and it appeared that they were doing the books.Dinner was a total of a eight course .

Our first course was a scored squid quickly blanched to create a flower effect, simply beautiful. The squid was blanched in a salt water to give it flavor. The texture was very soft without any trace of rubbery over cook-ness.

Next was a chu-toro with sea salt and a sliver of raw garlic. I've never had sashimi this way. No soy sauce needed since it was already salted. As you can see the tuna was a beautiful red color and the tell tale white stripes indicating a medium fatty belly cut. The Chu-toro was melt in your mouth and the garlic gave it meaty "flavor". I guess I usually associate garlic with beef. If I had closed my eyes I would have believed I was eating some sort of well marbled beef. My mouth is watering as I write this.

There was a flurry of conversation with the Chef and our friend. Our friend translated asking if we eat "alive fish". I wasn't exactly sure what to make of this, I was envisioning Gollum with a fresh catch "raw and wriggling". My intrepid wife responded without hesitation "of course!" I really only draw the line at insects and even then I'd try anything at least once. Upon seeing the dish, I now understand the fish tank on top of the sushi counter, it was not for decoration. This is the first video I've ever actually posted so I hope this works. I'll admit I was a little intimidated at first. Do you swallow them whole? Give them a chew? Envisioning sci-fi horror movies, I opted for the latter to be safe. The white fish were dressed, in a soy ponzu sauce. The chef came by to explain that the fish were just now in season to be eaten this way. This one is a hard one to explain, the fish itself didn't impart much flavor so mainly soy ponzu with a hint of fish, the texture was like eating konyaku noodles (a low calorie noodle made from yam) slippery with bursting texture like salmon eggs. It was actually quite delicious and unique.

Grilled mackerel, the fish was first marinated and then quickly grilled. The skin was edible and fattiness of the fish came out with the grilling.

Sashimi course featuring yellow tail, surf clam and sweet shrimp. Most of the time surf claim is served cooked in sushi bars in the US it features a red tip and the wider part is white. Also shrimp tends to be cooked as well, so it's been a neat experience eating the shrimp raw. Both were a very different textural experience. The spicy radish greens went well with the naturally sweet shrimp. The Chef's wife poured some dark soy for us to eat with the sashimi.

Which leads us to the soy sauce. There were two containers of soy sauce one for light soy sauce and one for the dark. Both soy sauces were brewed by the chef here in his restaurant. There was a hint of sweetness to both of the soy sauces and something missing in the after taste that I normally associate with soy sauce. It was explained to us that the thicker dark soy sauce was for sashimi and the light for sushi.

Poached snapper with grated daikon soy sauce chives and grated chili. The chili gave the fish a nice amount of heat.

A quick palate cleanser. Tomato, just under the size of a golf ball. I could get the variety of tomato, it was very sweet and more fruity and no tartness.

The final course was sushi. From the top left. Tuna, scallop, another type of clam, squid and a gunkan of qual egg and chives. This was served with the light soy sauce.

Oishii! This was a perfect amount of food, our friend asked if we needed more food and we both declined, we both felt perfectly content, not uncomfortably full and not hungry. The meal lasted two and a half hours and we enjoyed every morsel of food and every minute of conversation. The chef and his wife were such wonderful hosts and a great thanks to our friend to show us this gem that we would never have had an opportunity to try otherwise.

Still need to post Kyoto and our second epic meal.