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 cliché “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.