In his book "the man who ate everything" jeffrey steingarten brilliantly recounts his visit to and awe of kyoto cuisine. I read this on my last flight from tokyo and vowed to myself that i would go to Kyoto and retrace his steps; a culinary pilgrimage. My preparation for the trip involved photocopying the chapter. We neglected to read any guidebooks, this was going to be a spiritual journey to the spiritual heart of Japan.
Taro and myself started out on friday at midnight with a night coach from shinjuku, tokyo. Mr. steingarten arrived at kyoto on a luxury cruise ship after travelling around the southern half of japan. I should point out that this was going to be a budget remake of his trip. The night bus was quite a curious thing; similar to lying in a coffin on top of a speeding flying carpet. "Fitful" best describes the night's sleep; "relieved" best describes my mood on arrival.
Kyoto was japan's capital city for just under 1100 years. It is still the emotional capital of the country and home to many temples. We arrived at 7am. Knowing that it would be height of glutony for us to start eating immediately, we got the bus to the golden pavilion (Kinkajuji). This is a UNESCO world heritage site with a garden that remains as it did hundreds of years ago. I don't want to appear unimpressed by the temples of Kyoto, they are truly magnificent. My personal view is that I would rather get away from the crowds of tourists, the flash of the camera and experience the real life of the city ~ I'll leave it at that.
the pond is called kyoko-chi (mirror pond) ... i wonder why
Now that we had done the "intellectual" part of the trip, we decided to get onto the subject of our visit... la comida... An unexpected hanami party on the philosopher's walk led us to the ginkakuji temple. Somewhat controversially we performed a deft left turn and (in order to see the view and build our appetite) climbed the Higashiyama Mountain. We arrived to the top sweating and gasping with heart palpitations. It was quite a humbling experience to find about 100 pensioners who apparently had made the trip earlier, faster and with picnics (no wonder Japan has the longest life expectancy of any country in the world). There was only one thing for this ... revenge through eating...
We went to Kawaramachi, the main food and shopping district for okonomiyaki. This is in fact an Osakan specialty, but as we were only half an hour away we didn't feel much remorse. Okonomiyaki is a thick savoury pancake that contains shredded cabbage and diced seafood or meat. It is most often topped with tonkatsu sauce, mayonnaise / mustard, tempura crumbs, green onions and bonito flakes. It is cooked much like Teppenyaki, on a grill in front of the diner. The food is then moved to the cooler, diner side, of the grill to be eaten. It is not exactly healthy, but is really delicious after a climb. It calms bruised egos.
As you can probably tell, the whole weekend hadn't exactly been planned up to this point. Having had our first meal, we were at a cross roads, a moment that would most likely shape the remainder of the weekend and perhaps my memories of this part of Japan. We had two options - get a hotel in Kyoto or go to Osaka to meet Jumpei, an old friend of Taro's. Given that we had no hotel booking and that all seemed to be full, we decided that we really did want to head to Osaka.
Osaka is Japan's second most important city and the third largest. If that doesn't give you enough of summary, you can find the city's fy2005 budget proposal here. After only one night there I can say that its population of 2.5m are nearly all mad! This was a ... varied night; I'm going to give you the edited highlights.
JS mentions the ongoing debate as to whether Osaka or Kyoto have the best cuisine in Japan. I'd have to go with Osaka in this debate (mostly because the great cuisine of Kyoto; kaiseki ryori was somewhat too expensive for this weekend). Jumpei explained to us over dinner that the Osakan philosophy of food is ruled by a continuous quest for improvement. They are passionate about food. The local word "Kuidaore" probably best describes this; "to eat oneself bankrupt".
The other thing that you may do in Osaka is "eat yourself dead". As we all know, the best way to do this is with blowfish. For this reason (and to my eternal surprise) we went to a blowfish restaurant. Before you think this was crazy, my arm was twisted by Taro and Jumpei saying that more blowfish is eaten in Osaka than anywhere else in Japan. They insisted that the death "rumour" is vastly overblown (hah) and, more importantly, the fish is extremely good. The liver is the dangerous part of the fish; chefs will train for years to prepare the food. I was going to post instructions on how to cut it, but i don't want to be sued. I will mention that the kanji for blowfish is 河豚 (river-pig; obviously because a: it's not a pig and b: it comes from the sea) ...
would you trust either of these two? i can't believe i did ...
My first bite was the most difficult, but thereafter this was an incredible meal. The meat is actually quite delicate and when cooked reveals a surprisingly chickeny flavour. You are supposed to get a tingling sensation, especially on the lips, but I have to be honest and say that I didn't. The beer did give me a drunken sensation.
We ate a very traditional meal including:
Fugu skin - blanched in boiling water and eaten with ponzu sauce (soy sauce and citrus juice)
Fugu-sashi - thinly sliced raw fugu, basically sashimi
Fugu-chiri - similar to a chanko-nabe; vegetables and fugu cooked in dashi soup in a large pot
Fugu Kara-age - floured and deep fried
Fugu testicles - unsurprisingly soft and, my dignity would say, not the tastiest part of the meal
Investigations on the web have since revealed:
- there are 100 deaths a year caused by blowfish; this has been contradicted by another source quoting only one death
- blowfish is the only delicacy that is not permitted to be served to the emperor
- tip from lonely planet "make sure the local emergency number is plugged into your mobile. Given that mine doesn't work in Japan I didn't feel so aggrieved about not obeying this recommendation
- it is the only species of fish that can close its eyes
Given that I had lived through the experience, we went out to celebrate for the evening. This culminated with checking into a capsule hotel at 5am ... Mr. S never told me about this.
Next on zarzamora - getting out of Osaka alive, getting sidetracked by more food and a visit to THE food market.