In stark contrast to Tokyo’s big-city bling and buzz, Kyoto is where to head if you want to draw deeply from Japan’s cultural well. It is timeless Japan writ large: ancient temples, enchanting shrines, geisha drifting down alleyways to secret liaisons, spectacular gardens that majestically serenade the changing seasons and a city that showcases the full spectrum of traditional Japanese cuisine with unrivalled flair and faithful execution. It’s where much of Japan’s cuisine was born or perfected.
A sure-fire way to immerse yourself in the flavours of Kyoto’s foodie scene is to join an expertly guided tour. I enlisted the specialists at Japan Wonder Travel and joined their Nishiki & Gion “FooDrink Tour.” My three hour exploratory, with guide Tatsuya, began in the heart of Kyoto’s glamourous shopping district on Shijo-dori, where many women are immaculately attired in kimonos. Before we plunged head-first into the feeding frenzy of Nishiki Market, bursting at the seams with 130 specialist stores – some no bigger than a kitchen, Tatsuya led us to a stunning doughnut shop, adjacent to the entrance.
Mai Doughnuts has a fostered cult following amongst Kyotoites, who flock to munch on their soymilk doughnuts, made from soybean flour and milk, which are much lighter and fluffier parcels of deliciousness, compared to their Western contemporaries. And they’re not so saccharine-sweet. Tatsuya then led us into the head-spinning trading throng of Nishiki’s cavernous wonderland, which was teeming with the collision of wide-eyed camera-toting tourists and seasoned locals, concertedly going about their shopping. They know the place inside-out, as if it was their own pantry.
Tatsuya remarked that all of the city’s top chefs will only shop from Nishiki. It’s not enough for the food to taste better than it does anywhere else, but at Nishiki, it has to look better than it does anywhere else, too. Sure enough, every shop displays its assorted wares, whether they be core ingredients, full dishes, snacks or sweets, like prized pieces of jewellery. From the eels arranged on beds of ice like necklaces or woven baskets brimming with fresh chestnuts, the culinary offerings are a triumph of food porn. Fresh fish is tightly packaged, so as not to stink the place out.
Nishiki is certainly not Japan’s largest food market, but the attention to detail is incomparable in this beloved emporium. The signage left me completely baffled, but most shops are only too happy to let you graze on free samplings. Tatsuya’s advice, alongside decoding the signage? Try everything — it won’t kill you. Don’t miss takotamago, a quail egg embedded in octopus. The skewer dish is miniature-sized, but so much is squeezed into it — a metaphor for Nishiki itself.
Some of the market shops are old-timers, like Uchida, which has been selling pickled vegetables here, like eggplants, radish and pumpkin, for 80 years. They’re displayed in a radiant array of colours, from luminescent yellows to tie-dye pinks. Another time-honoured stall is Miki Keiran, famed for its fluffy dashi maki (omelette) made with kelp stock. We snacked our way through the market with voracious intent, devouring the likes of hamo (daggertooth conger eel), fried fish cakes, yuba sashimi and omusubi (high-quality rice balls.)
Pop into a sake shop for a sampling of Japan’s top tipple – unquestionably an acquired taste. We called into lovely sake shop operated by the same family across 18 generations! And then there’s the green tea, iconic of Kyoto. Matcha powder is used to make the tea served at traditional ceremonies, and Matcha mania has transformed Kyoto’s confectionary shops, with a stunning array of Matcha-laden sweets, including mochi and jellies. The latter is like a vivid green Turkish delight, but not as sweet.
Tatsuya also ushered us into Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine, a gorgeous little shrine that is dedicated to the Shinto god of learning. We noticed students popping in to pray for good grades or to pass a test. The shrine is actually over a thousand years old and was shifted to its current location in the 16th century.
Beyond the market, Tatsuya led us across the Kamo-gawa River to the city’s beloved geisha and entertainment district of Gion. It’s a stunning area to take a stroll, rich with the atmosphere of 17th-century teahouses lining many of the narrow streets like Hanami-koji. Shimbashi is arguably the most photogenic street, famed across Asia for its cherry-blossom displays.
Apprentice geisha are called maiko and we noticed plenty of happy women playing out their dress-up fantasises, strolling around Gion with the full make-up and kimono kit. At last count there are 200 geisha (or geiko) in Kyoto, working as professional entertainers, trained in various traditional arts, like dance and music. And there are currently 800 maiko in training, according to Tatsuya. Traditions reign supreme in Kyoto. www.japanwondertravel.com
In a city of 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto’s cultural reverence runs deep. A superb accommodation option is the Kyoto Tokyu Hotel, which embodies the refined charm and traditional design qualities of Kyoto throughout its property, accentuated by a glorious waterfall garden in the central courtyard. The building has been showered with awards for its artful fusion of traditional and modern design elements, in a contemporary structure. For great rates, check out the new iPrefer app, which includes member rates and rewards, or book at www.preferredhotels.com
I zipped my way to Kyoto from Tokyo on one of Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen trains. Pre-purchase a Japan Rail Pass, which delivers excellent value for money, total flexibility and travel convenience. Contact Rail Plus, the experts in rail, to secure a pass to suit. www.railplus.co.nz
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