A Week in Kyoto
Sushi Cooking Workshop, Geisha Photoshooting, Samurais, Monkeys & Ninjas, Pottery, Breathtaking Views and Great Food
First night in Kyoto. After a long journey from Koya-san, we were famished, and so we found an all-you-can Japanese Black Waygu Beef restaurant called Chifaja. We had to take our shoes off (as you do in many Japanese venues) and put them in a small locker:
I loved the fact that the “keys” were simply small blocks of wood:
We entered a small chamber floored with Tatami mats, sat down on small pillows next to a large wooden table with a built-in grill, and looked at the menu, and were astonished at the number of available dishes: meats, vegetables, rice, salads, noodles, soup, and even several authentic deserts.
Gion Walking Tour
The next morning, we joined a free walking tour in the historical streets of Gion, the beautiful Geisha district of Kyoto. Our tour guide Jens was very knowledgeable and explained about the Geisha lifestyle, their training, the Japanese tea house culture, and the Tanuki dolls you see next to many of the shops there:
During the tour we also learned that Jens, our guide, was a professional photographer. Ariella wanted to do a photography class for some time, so we asked Jens about that, and apparently he was available that afternoon and had a spare Nikon camera he could lend us.
We met at the Kitano Tenmangū shrine, and after a quick explanation about the camera, its settings and the lenses, started shooting the marvelous plum blossom in the park next to the shrine:
After roughly one hour and half of walking around with the cameras and shooting photos of everything we could, we needed to take a break. Jens jumped on the opportunity and took some romantic shots of us:
After experimenting with the camera in the park, we proceeded to Kamishichiken, when we hoped to capture some authentic Geisha photos just before the sun sets, about the time when they start working. The streets were empty, so we started shooting some interesting objects we encountered:
Jens explained that each district had a typical type of lanterns. In Gion, the lanterns had white circles on a red background, while in Kamishichiken, they had red circles on a white background:
Finally, the sun has set and we could spot some Giekos and Maikos:
Nishiki Market is a lively marketplace with many ready-to-eat food stalls and all kind of shops. It was a perfect fit for a slightly rainy day, as the market streets are covered and you can easily find some hot drink or dish to warm you up:
Many of the shops offer tasters (and sometimes free tea), so it is a great way to get familiar with all sort of foods you wouldn’t normally dare to buy. For instance, one shop owner invited us to try some Japanese Sanshō Pepper. It had a unique taste, slightly acidic (as lemon), and didn’t feel hot at all.
About one minute later, however, we realized that the store owner was a little too generous, as the tip of our tongues began to tingle, a sensation which kept going of another 20 minutes. Fortunately, the other tasters proven a bit more successful:
While exploring the market, we couldn’t ignore the many signs instructing not to eat while walking:
In addition to food, the market also has many stores with unique merchandise and crafts, and even a knife shop that was founded 460 years ago!
DiY Sushi Workshop 🍣
A Sushi Workshop is one thing we really wanted to do in Japan. We didn’t find such workshop in Kyoto, so we asked one of the hostel staff members for help. It was amazing to see how quickly the entire hotel staff joined forces and worked together to find and book the workshop for us the next morning. Kudos to the WeBase Kyoto team for being so helpful!
When we arrived at Kyoto tower, a nice Japanese chef and all the ingredients waited for us. The chef didn’t speak any English, but he gave us a card with all the steps explained in English, and demonstrated each step slowly so we could copy his steps.
In a nutshell, you need to take 18 grams of Sushi rice (or else, as the instructions warn you, the proportion of rice-to-fish won’t be good!). Gently roll it into a ball, place it over the fish, hold the ball between the thumb and the middle finger, and push with the other thumb on top to flatten it into a more rectangular shape.
Finally, turn it around to bring the fish to top, squeeze it once with two fingers, and give it a gentle stroke with the thumb and the index finger to complete the store. Repeat for the remaining 9 pieces :)
When we finished, we were also given a bowl of Miso soup and bottled green tea to complete the lunch set.
Samurais and Ninjas 🐱👤
We spent the afternoon in the Ninja and Samurai museum. It had some fun activities such as throwing Shuriken (Ninja stars), and blowing darts. It turns out that Ninjas actually worked as spies, and as such, had to camouflage their weapons. For instance, they would carry a flute that would serve as a blow tube for the darts.
Samurais, on the other hand, were a whole different story — they were officers with special privileges, such as wearing two swords, or fighting on horse-backs. We were lucky to get a British guide who told the stories of ancient Japan with a lot of passion and was very knowledgeable and made the museum tour much more fun.
We learned that some Samurais started their career in a very early age (12 years old), so they wore masks with mustaches to look older and to scare the enemy. Some of the mask had really exaggerated features and actually seemed a bit ridiculous:
On our frequent visits to convenience stores we were always intrigued by the large hot pots containing bunch of mysterious ingredients floating in a hot broth. Thus, we decided to try that for dinner:
We later learned that this dish is called “Oden”, and even found detailed explanations about some of the ingredients. You pick as many pieces as you want using tongs, spill some of the Dashi broth over them, and pay by the piece.
My favorite one was Daikon, a Japanese radish that soaks in all the flavors from the other ingredients. You can see it on the left-bottom corner of the photo.
Some of the ingredients reminded me flavors from home, such as the beef mince filled cabbage roll (left-bottom in the photo). The most surprising one was, however, a grayish cutlet that tasted much like Gefilte Fish, a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dish. Who’d believe we’ll find this in Japan?
Arashiyama, Okochi Sanso Garden and Monkeys!
Arashiyama is a district famous for its impressive bamboo groves, where you can find sky-scarping bamboo trees:
While exploring the groves, we found some talented grove-performers:
Next to the grove we found a beautiful Japanese garden called “Okochi Sanso”:
Finally, we headed to visit some local monkeys in the Iwatayama Monkey Park. After about 30 minutes of a steep climb, we found them:
Gion Corner Show
Gion Corner is a Theater where you can get a glimpse into Japanese traditional performing arts — a 50 minutes show that includes shortened versions of the Tea Ceremony, Geisha and Maiko dances (called Kyo-mai), Flower Arrangement, Koto (string instrument) playing, Gagaku dance, Kyogen Theater, and even Puppet Theater (which was pretty impressive):
By the time the show ended we were famished. We started heading back to the hotel, as the following scene caught our eyes:
This piqued our curiosity, so we checked the menu and were surprised to find only a single item: Issen-Yoshoku. The waitress explained that this is Kyoto style Okonomiaki, a kind of pancakes with eggs, spring onions, beef, ginger, tempura batter, Konjak jelly, dried Bonito and other savory ingredients. So we ordered one. It was indeed delicious:
Ginkakuji and Unplanned Pottery Workshop
We took a bus to Ginkaku-ji temple, followed by a short walk from the bus stop to the Philosopher’s Path that leads to the temple. While walking, a small sign advertising a pottery workshop caught my way. Five minutes later, Ariella and I were sitting next to the wheels and crafting a bowl and a cup.
Mansa, the shop owner, provided an excellent guidance that helped us achieve the exact shape we wanted. The bowls will be delivered to our home after firing and glazing, and we are looking forward to get them in a month (or so).
We then stopped for lunch in Omen, where we had Udon, Tempura and Marakel Sushi:
The Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji is a Zen temple in the Northen part of the city. Its name translates to “The Golden Pavilion”, as the walls of the top floors are covered with gold leaf. The temple is situated next to a large pond, and you can walk around it and view it from different angles. We arrived late afternoon, and the views were simply amazing:
Kyoto was full of colors, flavors and experiences. We had a good time there!