Kyoto, take two



the tanuki is a raccoon-like dog, famed for its skill in the art of deception as much as for the legendary scrotal endowments of the males

Take one got lost somehow as I was trying to upload it via a crappy wifi connection. This is an attempt to rewrite what was in that entry. (But boy, I’m finding it a lot harder to write about things now, compared to when they were fresh.)


turban shells (sazae) are a popular summertime food, and tsuboyaki (cooked live on a grill) is the most popular way of making them.

Kyoto for me is about food. I came with a list of things I needed to eat while in the city and was able to cross two off in my first meal here–at a restaurant on the Shijo-dori (literally “4th Street”) near Kawaramachi (literally “riverside”) street, which is about a block west of the Gion district. The local take on nishin (herring, one of my favorites) is a dried fillet that’s been cooked and flavored with soy. I was concerned that it would be too sweet, but it turned out to be very nice. Yuba is the skin that is lifted off the surface of a vat of soy milk as it is heated to make tofu. You typically find it as packaged dried sheets, but in Kyoto fresh yuba skins are another classic. The skins turned out to be much thicker than what I expected (the dried sheets are like a paper-thin crepe once they’ve been rehydrated) and a bit more like tofu than like any yuba I had had before. They were presented very simply–just the yuba in a bowl, with a soy dipping sauce on the side. And they were yummy in all the ways that supermarket tofu is not, i.e., they had flavor and texture, and they were inviting to eat. Sorry, but I do not like tofu. I also forgot to snap any pics.

mochi on a stick

mochi (sticky rice cake), soy glaze, and a nori wrapper...and on a stick! what could be better?

After lunch, our little group split in two to explore the Gion with different objectives: Ryo went with Adri who wanted to look at boring temples and shrines and shit, while Shark and I went looking for good snacks. First thing we tried was a sort of soy-glazed mochi on a stick, wrapped in nori. Mmmm–starchy.

sembei cracker

that's one fresh cracker!

Then we had a very fresh sembei cracker. Sembei is something I generally think of as a packaged snack food, with a shelf life determined only by how long the little bag of desiccant holds. If you’re into this sort of thing, it’s like comparing those packaged pork rind snacks with a freshly made chicharron, still hot from the frying fat.

Somehow we cut a path up to the famous Kiyomizudera temple, where tourists were lining up at kiosks to pay four bucks a head for a look inside. We took a pass on this, opting instead for a cold drink from a vending machine.

That evening (after checking into a posh-looking Ark Hotel where the rooms smelled like old ashtrays–one bit of advice: never, ever use the Agoda online agency to book your lodging) we returned to the Kawaramachi for a “street” fair (actually the fair was along a wide riverside promenade). We were visiting Japan during obon, the national holiday in which the Japanese return to the land of their ancestors–Kyoto-ites who have gone elsewhere to pursue their lives would be back in town for this period. The Japanese community in my part of LA (east side) hosted obon festivals that I used to go to, but I never understood this aspect of their significance. There was always traditional Japanese dancing, carnival games, and street food, but it was really nothing like this.

umi-budo (sea grapes)

the package says "umi-budo"--I was happy to be able to read it

umi-budo (sea grapes)

tiny, crunchy green spheres of intense texture but relatively little flavor

Especially the food. First thing I tried was an alga called umi-budo (“sea-grapes”), which really did look like clusters of tiny green grapes. They really didn’t have much flavor of their own, but they were very crisp and reminded me of kazunoko-kombu (herring eggs that were released into the water by spawning fish and settled onto the kombu alga. This is collected and preserved by salting and later desalted and seasoned with a light soy-lemon-ginger dashi. Very crunchy. This was similar if just a bit softer). It came with a shiso (perilla)-flavored soy sauce.

sazae hat

you've got to trust someone who wears a sazae hat. the mollusks were delicious.

Next we had some grilled seafood at a stand fronted by a guy wearing a sazae-hat (sazae is the turban-shelled marine snail Turbo cornutus). The sazae were so good we went back for seconds. The grilled aji (Spanish Jack) was also excellent.


live ayu in a tank (pic was taken at a restaurant, not at the street fair)

ayu on a stick

this ayu was skewered and grilled whole--guts and all--and the guts were a surprisingly very nice addition to the dish!

Next we had a grilled ayu (“sweetfish,” Plecoglossus altivelis). Ayu is a highly-prized freshwater fish that is allegedly in the Osmeriformes (smelt order), but in terms of size, shape, and flavor it reminded me more of brook trout than of smelt. This fish is almost always prepared in the most rustic yet elegant way possible: just the whole, intact-with-all-the-innards fish threaded on a wooden skewer (in through mouth, out the side, then back through twice, making the fish appear as it is swimming), salted and grilled-either over a hibachi or by jamming the base of the skewers around a cooking fire.

Having the guts in the fish actually makes it a better dish, adding a pleasantly bitter funk to what would otherwise be a tasty but comparatively boring little grilled fish. If I remember this the next time I go backpacking with the intention of living off the fish I catch, I’ll be able to save myself the weight of a frying pan and a bottle of olive oil.

shishito pepper

shishito peppers on the grill is something I make all the time at home, and yep, they taste just like these

Other stuff we ate included grilled shishito peppers, yakitori, shochu (basically a 25% alcohol product made with whatever fermentable are available–most commonly barley or sweet potatoes. Shochu has, I believe, overtaken sake in popularity and consumption rates in Japan). We ate a lot and very well and quite inexpensively. (Generally speaking, Japan was not an expensive place to visit–more about this if I ever get to a summary post.)

There were other activities that I did recognize from the obon street fairs that we had when I was a kid: games to win little prizes or goldfish, traditional dancing, and a stage for a variety show (we heard a linguistically surreal rendition of a familiar Hawai’ian clich√© “Aroha o’e”). One standard obon festival activity in Japan (that we never did in East LA) is to release floating lanterns into a lake or a river. Usually (as I have seen it in movies, at least) each lantern is little more than a paper boat holding a lit candle. The lanterns here were very elaborate spheres woven from reeds and housing an electric light, rather than one using live fire.

lanterns for obon

I presume that these lanterns would eventually be released into the river, though we never saw it happen

obon lantern

this gives a better idea of the size and set-up of the Kyoto lanterns

It got dark quickly, and Ryo and I decided to sit on the Kamo river bank for over two hours waiting for the lanterns to float, but fatigue and the last remnants of our home tIme zone forced us back to the hotel just after ten-thirty.

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Street. We got there at 8:00, before any of the shops had opened. The covering of colored glass is a good way to identify this market.

Have I mentioned that I really have no interest in boring temples and shrines and shit? So if it weren’t for the monkey park and Nishiki market (not to mention a traveling companion who actually likes TS&S), Kyoto might have been Xed off of our Japan itinerary altogether. I’ve already posted on the monkeys of Arashiyama– this is another food-centric entry.

eel livers

unagi-kimo, aka eel livers. At 300 yen per skewer (about six livers), these tasty treats quickly became a favorite

Nishiki is a covered, pedestrian-only street of shops (but there is vehicular traffic at cross streets, so watch out) dedicated entirely to food and food-preparation. The place is filled with food stalls of all sorts. Among the items we sampled were eel livers (it’s the best part–no, really!), tofu-octopus balls, and baby octopus stuffed with a quail egg.

yumm, eel liver

“Dad, can we get some more of those eel livers?”

octopus/tofu balls on a stick

sort of a Kyoto version of takoyaki, these octopus balls were made with tofu (instead of the usual pancake-like batter). They were very good!


octopus stuffed with an egg

This little octopus was stuffed with a peeled boiled quail egg and cooked so that the ring muscle at the base of the mantle shrunk around the egg. cute.

By our last afternoon in Kyoto I had crossed off most items on my to-eat list of Kyoto-no-meibutsu (foods endemic to Kyoto), but there were still two important ones left: hamo and funazushi.

hamo live

Hamo is still brought live to market, where it is prepared by expert chefs

hamo snack

This small piece of hamo cost 1000 yen (about ten bucks), not including the beer, which I got from the hotel vending machine.

Hamo is Muraenesox cinereus, or Daggertooth pike conger, which has a pointier face than your typical eel. It’s a classic Kyoto dish because it’s one of the few sea fish that could survive the long periods under hypoxic conditions. Back before they invented ice, keeping the fish alive was really the only way to get them this far inland. And since hamo is so disinclined to asphyxiate, it was the natural choice when at the emperor wanted his fix of marine fish.

The problem with hamo is that it is incredibly bony, and the bones are not easily removed from the fillets. The solution to the hamo’s bone problem is to make hundreds of parallel cuts through the flesh to (but not through) the skin, spaced a millimeter or less apart. Done properly, this reduces the bones to tiny fragments that just blend in with the rather crumbly flesh, which is cooked much drier than what is typical for the Japanese.

Hamo is both “emperor’s food” and a skilled-labor-intensive dish to prepare, and so it is a fairly high-end item in Kyoto, despite the fact that it is a rather low grade of fish when compared with the marine fish you can get on the coast–or for that matter any of the freshwater fish you can get locally.

After a long hike up and down monkey mountain (and a stupidly long wait at a bus stop that wasn’t part of the route on Sundays where we were advised to wait by the local shop personnel), and munching on the food stall fare, I wasn’t much in the mood for a sit-down meal, so I bought a tray of hamo to eat later that evening back at the hotel. I found it to be nothing special–just another crumbly-textured, overcooked piece of fish, IMO.


the sliced carp is arranged over a bed of the rice that has fermented with the fish. If this looks smushed, that’s because it had been vacuum-sealed


This small tray of funazushi cost 2600 yen (about $26)–a bargain, considering how good it is and how difficult it is to find, even in Japan

Funazushi, I’ve heard, is either the origin or inspiration for sushi in Japan. Now having eaten it I can see the connection. There is the fish and also the fermented white rice that is sour with the metabolic end products of a complex succession of bacterial “cooks.” the process starts with an egg-laden female Crucian carp, preferably from Lake Biwa, that is eviscerated (leaving the eggs!) and heavily salted and allowed to age for a good long time. Then the salt is washed from the fish and the body cavity is packed with cooked white rice and then the fish is packed in cooked white rice which is then allowed to age for an even longer time. Through this process, the rice becomes salty and soured, the fish’s bones become soft and chewy, and the flesh and eggs (and head and tail) pick up a fairly strong cheesy-fishy funky goodness that I found to be incredibly delicious.

It’s also rather expensive–2,600 yen for the smallest tray, which the shop owner was nice enough to pack in ice once I was able to communicate that it would be my lunch on tomorrow’s train trip (“ashita taberu”–“densha no bento”), and I followed what I think were his instructions to keep it cold in the hotel fridge.

The presentation for funazushi consists of salami-slicing the fish thinly and arraying the slices artfully on a dish. My tray of funazushi was vacuum sealed, and I was halfway expecting a limburger-like odor to permeate my train car when I opened the packet. That didn’t happen, though. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this funazushi, either, and its other-worldly yumminess left me with a distinct desire to return to Kyoto someday.

ryo bento

Ryo’s densha bento (train boxed lunch) of choice was tonkatsu with rice.

Postscript: some may be asking, “What is Ryo eating? I see Jeff and Sharkey consuming all sorts of things, but what is there in Japan for the less adventurous eater?” Well, if you have to be one of those, you can steer clear of weird foods and still eat well. While I had my funazushi as a highly peculiar (even by Japanese standards) densha bento, Ryo had a more conventional train meal, tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) and rice.¬† This bento box (purchased at the train station in Kyoto) got a way thumbs up from our tonkatsu expert.

Kyoto, Arashiyama


bamboo forest

Arashiyama bamboo forest

Have I mentioned that I don’t really have much interest in looking at boring temples and shrines and shit? Well if you take away the TS&S factor from Kyoto, all you’re left with is some good eats and … the monkey park!

fishing the Hozu

this guy caught a couple of ayu (or this is what they looked like from a distance) while we were waiting for a bus


helping cicada-y get back to his tree

Out at the western end of the city is the Arashiyama area, and the hills nearby are home to a tame but still technically wild troop of something like 1,400 Japanese macaques. The Arashiyama monkey trail costs about the same as what you have to pay for a visit to a top-end temple or castle (about five bucks), but hey, we’re talking about monkeys!

jeff and snake-y

helping snake-y get down the hill (towards Kyoto)

There’s a modest climb up stairs and trail to get to monkey central, and along the way I got to help a cicada-y get back to its tree and a little snake-y get past a snake-proof barrier, so that he could go do his shopping in Kyoto. (Something like this happens in almost all of the Japanese fables, ref. Momotaro).

shark and sign

something lost or something gained in translation?

We got to read some interesting signage along the way. I wonder if the Japanese is as inscrutable as the English. The most amusing instructions we got were in the brochure/guide map: “Please feed monkeys only from your final resting place.”

saru and ryo

feeding a peanut to a resident from the "resting room"

saru close up

Arashiyama monkeys that are partial to peanuts and chestnuts (as opposed to grain) stay attached to the windows of the rest house

At the top (or where the trail crested) there’s an area that has been graded flat to serve as an observation deck with a nice city overlook and, yes, a rest house from which you can feed the monkeys (who have to stay on the outside). As we entered our “final resting place” we were given frozen moist towelettes, which felt very nice. The watering hole for the monkeys is a little koi pond.

saru and koi

Arashiyama Monkey Park

Adri skipped this little adventure, opting instead for the TS&S down in the flatter parts of Arashiyama.