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.