Sunday, April 28, 2013

Japan Honeymoon Trip Report - Two Days in Kyoto Itinerary

Honeymoon trip report! We covered three major cities in Japan this time round - Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. In the second part of this mini travel report series we'll write a little about our itinerary in Kyoto and hopefully it'll help you if you're planning a future trip too :)

Previous Post in this series: Three Days in Osaka
Next Post in this series: Three Days in Tokyo

Day One: We take a JR train in the morning from Osaka to Kyoto - a 30-minute, ¥540 journey, and immediately head to Ryokan Shimizu, a roughly 10-minute walk from the JR Kyoto station. As is fairly standard with Japanese hotels, we're not allowed to check in before the stipulated mid-afternoon check in time, so we just dump our luggage with the front desk and head out.

Two Days in Kyoto Itinerary

Almost immediately we find out that unlike Tokyo and Osaka, the two other major cities we visit this trip, Kyoto's public transport system is pretty damn inefficient. With only two subway lines for a city roughly equal in area to Tokyo plus Osaka combined, we found ourselves exclusively taking the bus to all the places we wanted to go. Within the general city area, each one-way trip is ¥220 (board the bus from the back door, and pay the driver when you're exiting the front). For the tourist it makes much more sense to buy the daily pass for ¥500 though - available at the JR Kyoto bus station or sometimes available from the bus driver.

Now the main problem about the bus system is that even on the uber popular routes, buses only come about once every ten minutes, so these popular routes get extremely packed. There were a couple trips we took where we were pretty much sardines in a tin can, squeezed so tightly we couldn't even stand properly.

Two Days in Kyoto Itinerary

Anyways, for lunch we headed over to Gogyo Ramen, by some margin the most popular Ramen restaurant (among gaijins) in the city. Its specialty is 'roasted' miso and shoyu ramen - greasy, oily, black, burnt. Check out our full review here.

Gogyo Ramen Best in Kyoto

After lunch we adjourn to the nearby Nishiki Market - a few hundred meter long stretch of shops selling some souvenirs and cute omiyage (souvenirs), but mostly food, fruits, vegetables, produce and assorted pickles. Lots of pickles. This is an actual market after all.

Nishiki Market, Kyoto
Nishiki Market, Kyoto

After the market we head back to the Ryokan to freshen up before heading out to dinner. As we mentioned earlier, our choice of accomodation is Ryokan Shimizu. At ¥12,600 per night (considered cheap for ryokan standards) you won't get fancy kaiseki dinners or natural onsens; but you do get a nice, clean (if a little small) room, extremely friendly and helpful front desk staff (who also speak good English), and a 'public' bath that isn't really public since residents take turns booking the bath for their private use.

Nishiki Market, Kyoto

Speaking of kaiseki, we splurged ¥25,000 per person on a kaiseki dinner at Kichisen Kyoto. After all, Kyoto is THE capital of kaiseki-ryori, and Kichisen with its 2 michelin stars is the best place to eat ultra traditional, court-style kaiseki. And if you're still not convinced, its' head chef has previously gone on Iron Chef, challenged Iron Chef Morimoto and came out victorious! Check out our full review of Kichisen here.

Kichisen Kyoto best Kaiseki
Kichisen Kyoto best Kaiseki
Kichisen Kyoto best Kaiseki

Day Two: After a night of rest and relaxation, we head out to see more Kyoto sights. First stop - the bus (extremely cramped) to Ninnaji Temple. This temple's popularity really skyrockets towards the end of the sakura (cherry blossom) season because it's got a garden of specially cultivated late blooming trees. There's a nominal (few hundred yen) entrance fee but totally worth it since if you're in Japan around this time you're probably here to see sakura anyway ... aren't you?

Sakura at Ninnaji Temple
Sakura at Ninnaji Temple

A short bus ride later, we find ourselves at yet another magnificent Kyoto temple - Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion. It really is more magnificent in person rather than seeing it in photos, especially after finding out that the temple isn't just painted Gold - it is really covered in actual Gold leaf. About 20 kilograms of it in total, apparently. Amazing how there hasn't been any attempt to steal any (or all) of it, hehe.


After Kinkakuji and on the way to Gion, we stop by at Hanaore to have a late lunch. Hanaore does one thing, and one thing only - serve the best sabazushi (Kyoto style Mackerel Sushi) in town. For about ¥1,500 or so you get 3 slices of the fattest, choicest Saba (Mackerel) from the Tokyo Bay area, vinegar'ed and packed on tightly packed sushi rice. It's a uniquely Kyoto-style dish and very good. Check out our full review of Hanaore here.

Hanaore Best Sabazushi in Kyoto

In Gion we really didn't do that much. We wandered around a bit hoping to see some Geiko or Maiko but without much success. So we headed over to the Kaburenjo Theater for the 141st annual Miyako Odori - Kyoto's Geiko & Maiko traditional Spring Dance. Tickets are ¥4,500, ¥4,000 or ¥2,000, and for your money you get to see dozens of geiko/maiko singing, dancing and playing musical instruments for about an hour. Pretty nice gaijin-friendly introduction into the world of the Geisha! Apologies for having no pictures of the performance itself as it was stressed repeatedly that photo taking was not allowed.

Miyako Odori

For Dinner we decided to try an actual Japanese kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) place, so we walked to Musashi Sushi on the intersections of Kawaramachi dori and Sanjo dori. At a flat ¥137 per plate, it's cheap, cheerful and very foreigner friendly (since you don't actually need to order anything. Just sit, and take whatever you want from the conveyor belt). Of particular note is the Unagi sushi which was nicely grilled, big, and delicious, and totally value for money for that ¥137.

Miyako Odori

We then adjourned back to the Ryokan for our pre-booked soak in the public bathtub (make sure you shower first before entering the bath). And then headed to a nearby fast food restaurant (カフェラビット at Ebisunochō (Shichijōdōri))for ¥400 gyudon (beef with rice bowl) and udon combination for supper before bed :)

Day Three: We check out and drag our bags to the JR Kyoto station for the two and a half hour shinkansen ride to Tokyo.

So that concludes our two days in Kyoto. If you've read this far we hope that this short write-up has given you at least an idea as to what you could do in this city. If you've got any questions do leave us a comment below; otherwise we'll be back with our Tokyo write-up in the days to come!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Sabazushi at Hanaore - the Best Kyoto-style Mackerel Sushi there is!

Mention the word "sushi" and the mental image you normally get is the ubiquitous nigiri sushi - slices of fish or other predominantly seafood ingredients sitting on a hand-formed, lightly packed ball of vinegered sushi rice. There are many other types of sushi though, and today we're exploring a Kyoto specialty - the sabazushi.

Unlike Osaka and Tokyo which are next to the sea, Kyoto is landlocked. Hence before the advent of refrigeration, Kyoto residents simply didn't have a supply of fresh fish. So what they did was to take the stronger flavored fish and preserve them in vinegar (or salt) - eventually resulting in sabazushi, or mackerel sushi, being created.

Hanaore best mackerel sabazushi in Kyoto

Since the sabazushi's fish and rice were both semi-preserved and semi-pickled thanks to the vinegar, they typically didn't need to be eaten immediately and were often bought and transported (presumably in a backpack somewhere) for hours back home. As a result the rice in this sushi dish is a LOT more tightly packed than your typical nigiri. The mackerel is big - bigger than any saba shioyaki I've ever had back home - and thus makes for a deceivingly filling meal.

Hanaore best mackerel sabazushi in Kyoto

For this Kyoto specialty, word is that there's no better place to sample it than at Hanaore. Also located around the Shimogamo Shrine, this small restaurant prides itself in serving sabazushi and only sabazushi. You do get a choice of whether you'd like it slightly aburi'ed (blowtorched), which cuts through and lessens the vinegar taste and adds on a rather pleasing semi cooked flavour.

Hanaore best mackerel sabazushi in Kyoto

For regular eaters the 3 slices (served with a bowl of clear soup) are just right for a light lunch or perhaps an afternoon snack, but if you're a heavy eater you might need to order extras. The staff typically don't speak any English but you can easily order off the English menu. We highly recommend taking a detour here if your schedule allows it as there are few other (reasonably priced) foods that have its' roots as deeply entrenched into Kyoto's history as the sabazushi.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sublime Kyoto Kaiseki (京料理) at 2-Michelin Star Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa's Kichisen Kyoto

It has been said that the concept of the degustation menu has its' roots in Kyoto's Kaiseki ryori (haute cuisine). Perhaps more so than any other dining experience, the kaiseki's multiple-courses are designed first and foremost to showcase the best and freshest ingredients of the season, and the chef's skills in weaving those flavours to excite the palate. After some research, we decide to go with Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa's take on ultra-traditional kaiseki; partially because of his credentials of having been victorious on an episode of Japan's Iron Chef.

We get our ryokan receptionist to help us with the reservation, and then eagerly turn up to Chef's 2-michelin star restaurant - Kichisen. As a nice touch, one of the waiters is standing outside the restaurant by the roadside in sub-10 degree weather specifically to greet us at the door. We're guided in and are welcomed by another waiter in full kneeling bow (with forehead touching the floor) - which is a little disconcerting, to be honest.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori
~ Yes ... exactly like this guy ~

Japanese hospitality culture shock aside, we're ushered into a private room and get comfortable to wait for the smorgasbord of food that's coming. While waiting we're served some nice pickled Cherry Blossom (sakura) tea (light, refreshing, a hint of sour) and Chef Tanigawa makes an appearance to pour us some warm sake to open up the meal.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

Before we start though, let me insert a disclaimer that thanks to the language barrier (my half past six command of Japanese vs the staffs atrocious command of English), some of these ingredients and course names could be a little inaccurate. Or a lot inaccurate. Apologies in advance.

Sakizuke (先附): Tempura Yuzu ball, Shijimi (Corbiculidae, type of shellfish) and assorted seasonal spring vegetables - warabi (Japanese bracken fern), soramame (fava beans), fuki (bog rhubarb), kombu kelp and avocado with miso. This first appetizer dish sets the tone for the rest of the meal - fresh, local, seasonal, where the focus is on tasting the produce rather than drowning them out in heavy seasoning.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

To cleanse the palate, up next is a cold onion soup. It's refreshing with a pretty even onion - milk/cream flavour profile, with a consistency bordering on a light frothy foam (rather than a soup).

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

Futamono (蓋物): Aburame (Fat Greening fish) with Ame (Deep Red Plum) and Yuzu flowers served in a to-die-for clear fish stock. The fish has been simmered to perfection - sweet, and flaky flesh without being too firm. We're instructed to suck "just a little" of the accompanying plum for just the right sour finishing touch. We're not as enthusiastic about the yuzu flowers though, they've got a taste that's a little alien to our taste buds.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

Mukōzuke (向付): Seasonal sashimi. We get some Uni (sea urchin), Toro (Tuna Belly), Ika (Squid), Tai (Sea Bream), Ebi (Shrimp) and some sort of snapper whose name eludes us. As expected, the sashimi is uber fresh (our shrimp was still twitching when served), and perennial favorites Toro and Uni don't disappoint. We've never appreciated raw squid though, because of its' questionable texture.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

We also don't care much for the next dish (Nakazara) - a substantial piece of Unagi (Freshwater Eel) steamed with rice in a huge piece of kelp. The entire thing is perhaps a little too soggy and broken up for our liking.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

The next course is by some margin the prettiest food we've ever been served. It's a collection of different ingredients (again, many of them only available in the Spring) cooked in a variety of styles; each in its' own cute little bowl and sprinkled liberally with cherry blossom petals.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

Among others we have some bean curd skin with gold flake jelly, fried baby squid, skewers of yam, scallop and toddler squid (for lack of a better word), kinome miso, cucumber, noshi ume (plum and arrowroot starch) and namako (sea cucumber). We had a hell of a time tasting and comparing all the many flavors of the different dishes.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

Nimono: A generous helping of steamed Bamboo Shoots accompanied with kelp and an extremely pungent tasting fern in soup. For me this was the weakest dish of the night because the fern tasted so alien, and it was pretty astringent and ended up both overpowering the mild taste of the bamboo and leaving a tingling semi-numbness on the tongue.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

Yakimono (焼物): Trout on a thin slice of pineapple served on hot stone and topped with a banana puree. I liked this dish very much, especially when dipped in the accompanying sudachi (green citrus fruit) sauce. The fish surprisingly was accented very nicely by the hot banana puree; giving it a very rounded, savory flavor.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

Gohan (御飯) and Kō no mono (香の物): A rice hot pot with a very seasonal (and bitter) fern with shredded bamboo shoots, served together with assorted pickled vegetables. The darling tells me that this fern only grows in the wild and is known for being very good for health - which perhaps sort of explains its' medicinal aftertaste.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

We're also pretty stuffed, so we're stoked that the main course is over and we're moving on to Mizumono (水物) (dessert). There's always room for dessert, especially one that looks this awesome. This is a Japanese Orange that's been hollowed out and filled with a nice cold citrusy jelly. We're told first to try the jelly on its' own, then add a few drops of orange liquer, and finally squeeze the orange juice from the top half over the remaining jelly before polishing it off. One dessert, three flavor profiles, awesome!

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

We also get some huge strawberries and berries in syrup. Maybe it's because the strawberry season is ending in Japan, or maybe it's because of just how sweet the previous dessert was, but we felt the strawberries were a little ... bland.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

And for the final course of the night, a mochi ball-style confectionary and a delicate clear jelly cube with a cripsy sugar crust. Satisfying end to a satisfying meal.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

... well, not quite the end. Presumably to wash down the sweetness lingering on the tongue, we're given some green tea to end the night. This is proper, proper green tea - thick, concentrated, bitter, but miles better than those cheap crappy green tea bags we blanche in the office.

Kichisen Kyoto Haute Cuisine Kaiseki Ryori

As we conclude our 10-course (or more, depending if you count the dessert as one course or three) dinner and pack up to leave, Chef Tanigawa comes out of the kitchen and chats with us, hands the darling a parting gift and to say thank you and goodbye.

Looking back on the meal we begin to understand the concept of the Kaiseki and it's focus on tasting the ingredient rather than overpowering it with seasoning. As compared to general western cuisine it's definitely much lighter tasting but no less delicious. What perhaps held us back from full appreciation of the meal was perhaps that there were a LOT of ingredients; some of which taste (flavor and texture) very different than the food we were raised on.

And as for the price? Cuisine and service of such level certainly won't come cheap; You get to choose from a range of prices between ¥14,000 and ¥25,000; ingredients used will vary depending on how much you want to pay. We chose the middle ¥20,000 option to which (roughly) ¥5,000 in charges and taxes were added on, bringing our total bill to ¥50,000 for two people. Totally worth it with no regrets, though!

Kichisen is near the Shimogamo shrine area and is reachable by bus; although coming by taxi can be a worthwhile alternative. If you're not very conversant in Japanese it's recommended to request your hotel / ryokan people to make the reservation on your behalf. Non halal.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Best Restaurant in Kyoto ... Gogyo Ramen?!?

To start off, what I'm referring to by "Best Restaurant in Kyoto" is Gogyo Ramen's #1 ranking over at TripAdvisor. It's a little hard to understand how a humble noodle soup joint commands top honours in the city where kaiseki-ryori originates, so naturally we just had to pay them a visit to see if the food lives up to its' reputation!

We find the place quite effortlessly thanks to Google Maps, and step inside. Immediately we notice that this is a sit down restaurant (unlike practically every other ramen place in Japan), and is actually pretty well decorated too! Nice ambience and nice service, definitely a great first impression.

Gogyo Ramen Best Restaurant in Kyoto

After taking our orders, our waitress asks if we need bibs - rather amusing. We politely decline and wait a few minutes for the Gyoza to arrive. As far as Gyoza's go this one is above average - it's got a nice tasting pork filling with a nicely seared and crusty skin.

Gogyo Ramen Best Restaurant in Kyoto

We quickly move on to the star of the show, however, and realize why our waitress had recommended bibs. Gogyo's specialty is their burnt / roasted (depending on translation) ramens - which come in black, thick and greasy broths. We really enjoyed the Roasted Miso Ramen - imagine a concentrated miso-based ramen and adding a 'roasted' flavor (not unlike the charred crust you get on a good steak or BBQ'ed meat). It's flavorful, thick, oily, and delicious. Do be warned though that this is a very strong flavoured broth, and you might not enjoy it if you've got a preference for the lighter flavoured shoyu or shio varieties.

Gogyo Ramen Best Restaurant in Kyoto

Our Roasted Shoyu Ramen however wasn't as enjoyable. Without the strength of the miso base, the 'roasted' / burnt taste simply overpowered every other flavor in the bowl, so all you ended up tasting was a very one-dimensional mouthful of oily burnt charcoal flavor. We ended up dumping the uneaten noodles into the miso broth just so we wouldn't waste the food.

Gogyo Ramen Best Restaurant in Kyoto

The bill came up to slightly over ¥1,000 per person, so it's pretty standard value for money compared to other ramen places. We recommend coming here to eat if you're also planning to browse the next door Nishiki Market; otherwise it's perhaps not really worth the travel especially considering Kyoto's relatively rubbish public transport system.

Gogyo Ramen Best Restaurant in Kyoto

Overall, a mixed bag then where we thoroughly enjoyed the Miso base but had to wave the white flag for the Shoyu base. It's certainly a very interesting Ramen, although we're not quite sure that it's worthy of the #1 ranking. Non-halal.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Japan Honeymoon Trip Report - Three Days in Osaka Itinerary

Honeymoon trip report! We covered three major cities in Japan this time round - Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. In the first part of this mini travel report series we'll write a little about our itinerary and hopefully it'll help you if you're planning a future trip too :)

Next Post in this series: Two Days in Kyoto

Day One: We flew in by Cathay Pacific this time, partially because the tickets were cheap (for full service airline standards), partially because CX is a SkyTrax 5-star airline, but mostly because it's an overnight flight and touches down at 6.25am in the morning. First order of business was to pick up our Pocket Wifi for unlimited Internet - ¥9,070 for 8 days inclusive of a ¥1,420 pre-9am delivery charge.

We took the Airport Bus at ¥1,500 per person (about an hour's journey) from Kansai International Airport to Osaka, and walked about 15 minutes to Hotel Kinki. Do excuse the photo as we ... forgot to take one before messing the place up. The rooms are small as expected at this price range of ¥5,600/night, but they are functional and have all the amenities needed for the tourist who isn't expecting to spend too much time here. On the downside the pillows are strangely uncomfortable and there is a noticeable lingering cigarette smoke smell.

Shuttle Bus
Hotel Kinki

Anyways we drop off our luggage and are immediately off by train to Kema Sakuranomiya Park for some Sakura (cherry blossom) viewing. The park is one of the most popular hanami spots nationwide thanks to the thousands of sakura trees lining both banks of the river. Due to some uncharacteristically warm weather earlier in the month this year's season came (and ended) 1-2 weeks early; that's fine though cos we're still in time to catch most of the trees still at full bloom plus some hanafubuki (literally petal blizzard) to boot!

Reaching for Sakura

We then adjourned to the Osaka Aquarium for a couple of hours. It's a decent aquarium, and designed pretty creatively with the general walkway spiraling around the huge centerpiece tank with an impressive array of huge fish and assorted manta/sting rays. We're particularly impressed by the huge Spider Crabs, some of which have lower claw limbs a staggering 2 feet long!


To cap off the day we head over to one of the most famous shopping, entertainment and food districts in Osaka - Dotonbori, with that uber-famous Crab restaurant Kani Doraku. The crab set menus are a little pricey so we pass; but we do at least buy a Grilled King Crab Leg for ¥700 and eat it by the roadside.

Dotonbori Kani Doraku
Kani Doraku

We end up choosing Kamakura Soup with Noodles for dinner before heading back to the Hotel for some shut-eye. You can check out our full review of the Ramen here.

Day Two: We take a 20-minute morning train ride to the nearby town of Kobe, specifically to eat some Kobe Steak. The most popular restaurant among gaijins seems to be Steakland, right next to the Non-JR Sannomiya train station. Check out our full review of Steakland Kobe here.


In the afternoon/evening we head over to Nara to spend the rest of the day. We thought it was a pretty fun side-trip from Osaka's metropolis - we saw some scattered sakura trees ...

Lonely Sakura

... we got to feed a lot of the wild deer roaming Nara Park ...

Deer Food

... and we took in the sights of some majestic shrines, pagodas and temples. We like Kofukuji in particular!


We rounded off the day exploring, window shopping and having dinner at the food streets around Nara.

Day Three: We decided to spend the day at Universal Studios Osaka. One tip for buying tickets is not to buy them at the park, but instead to buy at the JR Midori ticket counter at the Osaka station. It costs the same, and you skip the ticket queues at USJ and get to enter the park immediately. Tickets are ¥6,600 each for adults.

Magical 2
Magical 1

Dinner is at the nearby Takoyaki Museum, which has a rather misleading name as it's not a museum at all. It's a 'food court'-style eatery with a half dozen outlets for famous takoyaki shops around Osaka. There's quite a few interesting takoyaki flavors and varieties, including this Black Pepper and Cheese one:

Pepper Takoyaki

Day Four: We check out and drag our bags to the JR Osaka station for the 30-minute ride to Kyoto.

So that concludes our three days in Osaka. If you've read this far we hope that this short write-up has given you at least an idea as to what you could do in this city. If you've got any questions do leave us a comment below; otherwise we'll be back with our Kyoto and Tokyo write-ups in the days to come!