Grilled as you like it

Nishiki Koji March 16, 2010

Whenever I’m in Kyoto, I love to go strolling in Nishiki-koji Market. Here are some bamboo-wrapped kuzu manju.

On this trip I really had pickles and dashi on my mind. We stopped at the nuka-zuke shop and I bought a few nuka-zuke cucumbers.

At another pickle shop we bought some salt-pickled cucumbers. There were some chiles and kombu pieces in the brine too. We liked this one so much that we bought some more. Alex decided that they might be the best pickles in the world–in his opinion, at least.

You can see the cucumber pickles in the second vat in the front row. I guess we weren’t the only ones who liked them; they were nearly sold out even though it was still morning.

I bought one of these sticks of driftwood. Just kidding, they are really dried katsuo for making dashi.

At the kombu shop I bought some dashi kombu.


Kyoto Continued… March 14, 2010

Another wonderful day in Kyoto. The day started out cloudy and rainy, but that meant perfect lighting for photographing lotuses at Hokongoin, near Hanazono station.

It was doyo-ushi-no-hi so this shop was grilling eel over charcoal all day long. Mmm… it smelled so good.

We stopped at Nakamura-ya for a snack of korokke (croquette).

Then we walked through the bamboo grove to Okochi-sanso, the former residence of samurai film actor Okochi Denjiro.

We saw this mossy, grass-roofed house as we walked north-west of Arashiyama and Sagano.

We saw these passion flowers growing near there too.

Later we went to Nanzenji. This is the old aqueduct. First were were enjoying taking photos…

…when suddenly the sky opened up and it began pouring rain like mad. We took cover under the big San-mon gate and tried to wait it out, but after an hour it wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. We ran back to the subway station. The rain was coming down so heavily that the water in the storm drains was pushing up the sidewalk tiles and gushing back out onto the street. We were soaked.

The next day we visited Nishiki-koji market and went strolling in Gion.

Somehow I always have to come here when I come to Kyoto. I love the colorful saru-bobo.

Finally we visited Sanjusangendo before hopping back on the shinkansen to get home.

That is definitely a long hall.


Uji Afternoon March 6, 2010

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 6:39 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The next stop on our trip was to Uji. We went to watch a traditional cormorant fishing demonstration. The fisherwomen wear this same type of costume: a black cap and grass skirt. I couldn’t resist getting a shot of this adorable guy by the ticket sales booth though.

First we visited Byodoin, the temple on the 10 yen coin. It’s beautiful. The old fading paint seems proper and historical, but surely it won’t last long–it stands in sharp contrast to the fresh bright orange paint on the bridge.

Uji is a famous tea growing area, so many of the shops along the traditional streets near the temple invite customers with matcha soft-serve ice cream and matcha parfaits.

We walked along the river in the afternoon, and as evening descended we boarded one of these boats. After a brief explanation (in Japanese) about the history of cormorant fishing, the demonstration began. The birds have a ring around their necks, so they can swallow only the smallest fish, while the rest are for the fisherwoman. Of course the birds get to eat plenty of fish after the show’s over.

To begin, the logs in the basket are lit aflame. The fish are drawn to the surface, thinking the light is from the moon. The fisherwoman sings out in an unearthly voice. The boatman raps on the side of the boat with his oar. The chanting and wooden thuds weave an eerie tune. The fisherwoman feeds slack line to the birds as they chase after the fish, flipping over and diving under the water, and just as suddenly bobbing back to the surface. She sees a bird lift its head, trying to swallow the fish. She skillfully tugs him to the boat and scoops him out of the water while letting the rest of the fish continue their hunt. She coaxes the fish out of his mouth, and it falls to the boats floor. Then she tosses the bird back to the water where he rushes back to hunt again.

Finally, the birds are fed, the boats are empty, and the water is still, except for lone fishermen working their rods from the shore. A peaceful night in Uji, and now we’re hoping to be fed too.

See more from Uji and Kyoto at Alex’s photoblog


Grilled Eel Lunch February 24, 2010


On our next day in Kyoto we started the day with sightseeing at Kinkakuji and Niji-jo.

After sightseeing, we headed downtown for a late lunch. We were on a mission to find Kaneyo, a historic grilled eel restaurant which I had been looking forward to after reading about it on Kyoto Foodie. The area it’s in is full of fashionable shops, so we actually walked right by on the cross-street and didn’t even notice how close we were. We felt like we were starving by the time we finally found our way back to the right street.

Luckily for us, it was July 18th, the day before Doyo-ushi-no-hi, the traditional summer day to eat eel to give you stamina to endure the summer heat. If it had been the next day, surely the shop would have been packed. Learn more about Doyo-ushi-no-hi at Taste of Culture.

Their specialty is unagi donburi; you can get a regular, large, or special large bowl (or at lunch, a mini). The eel is grilled over charcoal, and according to their website, they have been using the same sauce base for over 100 years, adding to it, but never throwing it away. Alex got the large unagi-don. I got the regular kinshi-don, which came topped with a fluffy pillow of tamago omelet. The donburi came with pickles, and you can also order chawan mushi (steamed egg-custard) on the side. The donburi were pretty big, so we passed on the chawan mushi.

Both bowls were fantastic. Alex deemed it the best eel he’s ever had, and I think I agree. The eel was rich and charred just the right amount on the edges leaving little crisp, caramelized bits. I really liked the fluffy texture and delicate flavor of the tamago too, though the eel in the unagi-don (no topping) were crisper, as the piping-hot fillets steam a little bit under the egg.

I suppose at 1600 yen for the regular and 2300 for the large bowl, it might seem expensive at first, but trust me, it’s worth it. It was a very satisfying lunch, and left us ready for more sightseeing all afternoon, which was a good thing, because it was a long wait until dinner…

Want to see what else we did that day? Take a look at Alex’s photoblog.


Evening on Pontocho-dori February 17, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 5:37 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Along the Kamo-gawa in Kyoto, you can see a row of old-fashoined Japanese buildings, their wooden decks jutting out over the adjacent canal. What a wonderful sight it is.

And around the other side, you’ll find a narrow alley lined with equally traditional looking entrances, each hung with a lantern. Welcome to Pontocho-dori, Kyoto’s old red-light district and current home of delicious obanzai restaurants.

In the early evening chefs in their white coats walk up and down the street, or inspect a delivery.

Many restaurants entice customers with displays of their fresh kyo-yasai, Kyoto’s uique vegetables…

…and beckon you with their traditional architectural touches.

We chose a spot that advertised charcoal grilled foods and had hamo on the menu, which I really wanted to try. Sorry, but I can’t remember the name.

They ask customers to choose the set menu in order to dine outside, but that’s ok, because the set menu looked pretty good. We actually started the meal inside due to the rain, but soon the rain let up and we moved out to the balcony overlooking the river.

Octopus, long green onion, and abura-age (fried tofu) with su-miso sauce
Deep-fried fu (wheat gluten) and eggplant
Salad with fried yuba (thin sheets of soy)
Smoked duck with boiled vegetables
Hamo (conger eel) and vegetable tempura
Matcha soba
Pickled Japanese vegetables
Warabi mochi with kinako

Octopus, long green onion, and abura-age with su-miso sauce

Deep-fried fu and eggplant

Salad with fried yuba

Warabi mochi

After dinner, take a stroll back down the alley and enjoy the sights. Goodnight owls.


Gas-san and Yudono-san January 22, 2010

lilies blooming near Gas-san’s 8th station

Happy new year! We’ve been away for winter break, but we’re back now, so I’ll pick up where I left off. Here are some more photos from our trip to Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata.

After breakfast at our shukubo on Haguro-san, we walked to the bus stop and rode the bus to Gas-san’s 8th station. Above the station there was a high wetland meadow, the Mida-ga-hara Marsh, with small ponds, green grasses, and blooming lilies and skunk cabbages. We walked around on the planked boardwalks for a bit until we found the real path to the summit.

Misty clouds collected along the path, obscuring the view ahead.

We saw plenty of yamabushi tour groups. We could hear them coming, too, by their tinkling bear-bells. Amazingly, some of these guys were hiking in thin-soled zori shoes instead of hiking boots.

the rippled surface of the melting snow

As we climbed higher, the clouds began to clear up, revealing some amazing views.

In some places, the stone path widened, and seemed almost like a road. Here, some small flowers peek out from their sheltered spot.

We found a large pile of rocks in a sunny spot, so we stopped for a late-morning snack.

The three peaks of Dewa Sanzan represent the three stages of Buddhist existence. Haguro-san is birth, Gas-san death, and Yudono-san rebirth. Just below the summit, we started to really get a sense of why Gas-san represents death. As we reached the boardwalk, the clouds became thicker and thicker, until we could barely see our companions in front and behind us. Signs warned us not to get off of the path. A fierce wind pushed across the ridge that we were walking along. At some points, you could look over the edge and see the clouds swirling in the chutes below. Even with our friends, it seemed lonely and forbidding.

Disappearing into the mist: here I go! You can just barely see Sarah ahead, but she’s really only about 20 feet away.

Finally we reached a big patch of snow. A rope was stretched along it, so we followed the rope. The clouds started to thin and we could see the view again. Here we were, at the summit. I can’t remember if we forgot to take pictures or if they just weren’t very good, but I don’t have any photos of the summit. There is a small shrine. You can go into the shrine and receive a ritual purification that ends with a sip of sake. The shrine is not very large, and the purification and tour were very quick.

After that, I paid a visit to the composting toilets at the summit. They’re driven by wind power, and are much cleaner and nicer smelling than any of the (non-composting) facilities on Mt. Fuji. Well worth the 100 yen use charge. Very cool.

As we were heading off of the summit, we noticed that everyone was taking a picture of some flowers that were growing near the path. I think these are black lilies.

We sort-of made friends with this yamabushi guy. He was pretending to kung-fu fight Alex with his walking stick. Later, he pointed out some interesting scenery to us and gave us some candies. He hikes fast though, so we lost him eventually.

Not too far below the summit, the path splits and most of the hikers coming down from the summit chose the trail leading back to the ropeway and Yudono-san Hotel. So that’s how they all got there (because they certainly didn’t come the way we came).

At the next split in the trail, we could hike up to the peak of Yudono-san or climb down to the jinja. Not having packed lunches, we were losing some steam at this point, so we decided to head down. It’s a good thing we did, because the rest of the descent was much more obstructed and took significantly longer than we thought it would.

kissing skunk cabbages

In a clearing about half-an hour to an hour from the bottom, we found a seating area. A Japanese couple from Tsuruoka was there, so we chatted for a bit with them. They said that the yamabushi had left some sashimi-takenoko. Gas-san is famous for its thin and tender bamboo shoots that can be peeled and eaten raw. Here you can see the Gas-san takenoko; one of them has been peeled and is ready to eat. As we headed off, the man said that we shouldn’t waste the takenoko, so I wrapped up a big handful to take home. At home I blanched them and had them with a dab of kewpie mayonnaise. Delicious!

Just after our break in the clearing came the tough part. The picture above looks like a small, dry-ish waterfall, right?

Nope, it’s the trail!

The last section of the trail was steep, muddy, and super-slick. The guidebook mentioned rusty metal ladders, but they were completely covered in mud. We couldn’t even see the ladders–all we had to hang on to were ropes, or sometimes just the trees and bamboo growing alongside the trail. Bamboo looks like flimsy grass, but it’s surprisingly tough stuff.

ghostly flowers spring up from the fallen leaves at Yudono-san

Finally, we’d made it. Lightning papers adorn the bridge to the Yudono-san shrine. No photos are allowed inside the inner shrine, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

The last leg took longer than we had expected, so we had to be quick at the shrine before hopping on the shuttle and then the bus back to Tsuruoka. By a stroke of bad luck, I wanted to get a Coke because I was really thirsty, but didn’t have time before we got onto the shuttle. At the Yudono parking area, where we transfered to the bus, all of the vending machines were sold out! I spent my parched ride back to town wishing I had gotten one before I got on the shuttle. Finally though, I got my omiyage (dadacha-mame), a Coke, and relaxed on the way back to Gunma while watching the sun set over the sea.

See more of our photos from Gas-san and Yudono-san on Alex’s photoblog.


Haguro-san December 19, 2009

looking down from the beams of the main shrine at Haguro-san

For the next part of our trip to Yamagata we caught a bus from Yamagata city to Tsuruoka, where we met up with our friends Sarah and Jen and then hopped on another bus to Haguro-san. My plan was to finally finish hiking all three of the sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan: Haguro-san, Gas-san, and Yudono-san. It is said that the mountains should be hiked in the order of the life-stages that they represent: Haguro-san stands for birth, Gas-san for death, and finally Yudono-san for rebirth. The three peaks are popular with mountain ascetics known as Yamabushi, who hike the peaks in white robes and tabi split-toed shoes. Of course, there are plenty of other hikers in white robes who I suspect are tourists on Yamabushi tours rather than authentic religious pilgrims.

We got off the bus at the base of the mountain. I had been craving some Yamagata cherries, so we asked if there was a place nearby to buy some. The souvenir shop owners pointed us down the road so we walked a while to a you-pick-em cherry farm. The 10 to 15 minute walk turned out to be more like 20 or 30 minutes, and unfortunately, when we got to the farm they were already out of cherries for the day (due to a lower harvest than usual). They did give us three delicious cherries each to sustain us on the walk back.

After we got back to the base of the mountain we stopped at the public restroom in town before we started hiking. This cute little frog was hanging out next to the men’s room.

We saw this furry caterpillar on the sidewalk.

At the beginning of the hike we entered a lush, mossy forest of towering trees. This red bridge crosses a small stream.

Past the red bridge is a stone bridge that leads to a small shrine in front of a waterfall.

Next, we came upon the 600 year-old five-storied wooden pagoda. The pagoda is a national treasure that was constructed without metal screws or nails.

If you look closely as you climb the 2446 steps you might see some of the 33 figures of gourds, sake cups, bottles, or in this case, a yamabushi. We were able to find about 10 of them.

We also saw several “Yamabushi” hikers.

We stopped at a small tea shop that was perched midway up the mountain. I got a miso soup with tofu and Gas-san takenoko. Gas-san takenoko are thin bamboo shoots that grow on the slopes of Gas-san and are in season this time of year.

At Haguro’s summit, the dieties of all three mountains are enshrined since Haguro-san is accessible year-round.

Yamabushi receive a blessing.

A shrine for shoes

It was the season for ajisai.

We stayed at Saikan, the shukubo at the summit. Since there weren’t many travelers staying there, we had a huge room to ourselves.

I expected the meal to be vegan shojin-ryori, as it had been the last time I stayed there, but I was surprised to find that dinner included a grilled fish. The other dishes included wild mountain vegetables, Gas-san takenoko, goma-dofu (sesame tofu) with yurine lily bulbs, pickled eggplant, and Tsuruoka melon. My favorite dish was the sweet miso-topped broiled eggplant.

Breakfast on the other hand was vegetarian, featuring miso soup, rice, handmade tofu, and wild vegetables.

I was excited to find some vendors selling cherries in the parking area. We tried two different kinds and they were both delicious!

Saikan at night

See more of our photos from Haguro-san on Alex’s photoblog.

Plan your own trip to Dewa Sanzan with Wikitravel.