It has been a very stressful year, and I had longed many times to get away for a holiday. Finally we found a one-week window in our schedule that overlaps that of my mother and sister-in-law, so that they could stay at our flat and look after V when we travel. My mother came down from KL the day before our trip. On the morning itself, I was busy helping out at V's school dance performance. After the show, it was a bit of a mad rush to get home, bathe, change and get to the airport. Destination: Japan. Three days in Kyoto and three in Tokyo.
We arrived at Haneda airport close to midnight, just in time to catch the last shuttle bus to their domestic terminal where the Haneda Excel Tokyu Hotel is located. Our room was spacious and decorated in soothing pale, grey shades. Large screen TV, comfortable bed, yukatas to sleep in, bathrobes and slippers to change into, and free wifi. In fact, we stayed at 3 hotels in Tokyo and all had free wifi in the rooms, I sincerely wish that other countries would make it just as easy. In the morning we dragged our suitcases along the airport train to Shinagawa train station in Tokyo, from there we took the fastest and newest bullet train the Nozomi express, to Kyoto city centre. Lunch was bento boxes brought at shops in the station, most were delicious but the unagi was rubbery and tough. In the Nozomi first class cabin, blankets are available, and power sockets can be found in the armrest. The ride was quiet, and despite worrying reports from other travellers, although there are no designated luggage racks in the train, it was possible to put our suitcases behind the last seats in the cabin as the trains run quite frequently and are hardly packed.
In Kyoto, we were lucky to snag a room at the Citadines Karasuma-Gojo, it happened to be long weekend with a temple festival and the city was inundated with local tourists. The serviced apartment is one minute walk away from a metro station, and though the neighbourhood is quiet, there is a bustling 7-11 nearby and a handful of decent restaurants.
Kyoto is a city with a storied past. It was Japan's capital and home to the Emperors from 794 until 1868. The city centre is compact and laid out in a fairly predictable grid system. There are plenty of shrines, temples, museums and the occasional castle to see, and many other attractions a short train-ride or two away. My threshold for "temple fatigue" is very low, so we set ourselves a relaxed schedule so that we can enjoy the city and spend time with each other.
The weather forecast for the week we were to visit was gloomy- rains and thunder every day. Fortunately we didn't see any rain at all, in fact it was mostly sunny and very hot, as high as 30 degrees C. The parasol that I put into my suitcase at the last minute came in very handy, and I had to keep cool with fans and neckerchiefs.
Gion district is postcard-perfect with its well-preserved wooden houses lining tidy cobble-paved streets, and of course for the geishas and their apprentices maikos who may be sighted occasionally. Nearby is Maruyama Park, home to some notable temples like Kodaiji and Chion-In Temple. The neighbourhood is very pretty too, good for souvenir shopping. The Totoro gift shop (I call it that because of the large Totoro cutout figure outside) there had a wider variety of merchandise than the one at the Ghibli museum in Tokyo. I spent a happy morning shopping at Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu. Noting that stocks may run out later in the day, we went early and were delighted to find a huge inventory. The bags are made of high quality, sturdy sail canvas, very well made and beautifully designed so that they look good yet discrete. My mum loves the tote I got for her, a sunny yellow medium sized bag with a protective flap, the proportions are just right for her height, and the bag itself sufficiently roomy.
Since we are talking about shopping, I will confess now that I went a little nuts buying up handkerchiefs. Most were priced at 525 yen, or 500 yen at the airport. I have them now in a variety of designs, ranging from tiny Little Twin Stars and Totoro to more traditional Japanese embellishments as well as more modern graphic prints. I also learnt a new word: Aburatori-Gami. It means facial oil blotting paper, a very popular consummable with women especially Japanese ladies who all seemed to have stepped out of their beds with perfectly made-up faces. Yojiya is iconic in Japan, their main shop is in Gion and their best-selling item is their Aburatori-Gami. I am not one to use these papers much so I got only a small packet for myself, and a larger packet for my sister-in-law. Later I regretted buying so little, because wow-oh-wow, these papers have super-tentacular suction powers, and I got to thinking maybe I can use them all up myself. Fear not, the duty-free stores at the Haneda airport has a little stand for such situations.
We also visited the Nishiki market, it is a huge market in the middle of the city. The weather was hot, but the produce were distinctly autumnal. Mushrooms, chestnuts, grapes, figs are in season. Many stalls sell their own products like rolled omelet flavoured with dashi, grilled rice balls, and especially tsukemono or pickles , great big barrels of vegetables soaking in their pickle baths of sake lees or special brine formulations.
At one of the far corners of the Nishiki market is a very old unagi restaurant. Kaneyo is more than a 100 years old but the building looks very well-preserved. It is a bit difficult to find the place but just ask anybody and they will show you the way, the helpful ume (plum) pickle shop assistant that helped us even validated our choice with many refrains of "oishii, oishii". Once you are near, you will be able to smell the charcoal and grilled fish aroma in the air. The unagi is, as my friend Shigeki explains, cooked according to the Kansai (Osaka) style which is to grill over charcoal, versus the Kanto (Tokyo) style which steams the fish before grilling which results in a more tender end-product. The Kaneyo unagi was, in spite of the cooking style, very juicy and tender underneath its gorgeous grilled lacquer. We ordered a medium sized bowl each, one with omelet and another a la mode. an ideal combination because the omelet is strangely bland but the unagi portions are not very large so the egg serves to accompany the last few mouthfuls of rice.The reason we did not go all out for the unagi was because we were not sure how good it would be, and also because on the way to the restaurant we passed a very busy quick-service udon restaurant we wanted to check out.
It is near the Uniglo shop, and very popular. Customers choose from a menu of cold or hot udon, and decide on the condiments and optional items like tempura seafood or vegetables. If I see "mentaiko" anywhere I am compelled to order it, and it was a great choice. The udon was heaped with a raw egg, a generous dollop of the spicy cod roe, plus the seaweed, negi and ginger I garnished with, all of which I mixed up into a really delicious sauce to slurp the noodles with.
In summer, the refreshment of choice is matcha served cold. Matcha lattes, matcha freezes, iced matcha, these are just various combinations served everywhere from little roadside kiosks to slightly more upmarket cafes or wagashi shops. My favourite is what I call the matcha ice kacang. The first time I saw it was at a wagashi cafe in Gion, it doesn't have an English name and since I am largely indifferent to these slightly too-sweet confections of bean paste and more bean pastes, the shops all look the same to me. We went in to have something very cold to drink, and two young Japanese housewives were enjoying their afternoon tea. When her matcha ice kacang came, she giggled, her friend giggled, so did I and the waitress. It was enormous and a bit challenging to eat without spilling any ice on the high-gloss lacquer tray. The dark green ice rings with concentrated matcha flavours and also a healthy dose of sugar- as matcha has a distinct umami-ness, it also feels like you are eating something and not just drinking tea. The icy slushy part is the best, at the bottom there are some rice balls which I usually ignore because they are very dense and possibly a choking hazard, and also some red bean soupy paste which to me doesn't go that well with the matcha.
Some places don't serve this treat after summer, in which case we had to settle for matcha shake or good old fashioned hand-whipped green tea served warm. I know because it quickly became a habit to seek out something very cold and green every afternoon, no matter where we were or what we were doing. The best version I had was eventually to be found at Tokyo, at the very highly esteemed Toraya tea rooms, which makes sense, since husband thinks Toraya makes the most refined wagashi. Their matcha ice comes in medium or large sizes, definitely choose the larger, because you can't go wrong with their high quality tea.
Dinners in Kyoto were quite haphazard and unplanned, one evening it was a sumptuous beef shabu-shabu meal and sometimes it was just fruits and onigiri from the convenience store. One evening we checked out this diner just two doors away from our serviced apartment. It had banners advertising sanma sets from 630 yen. It happens that my favourite fish is sanma, a Pacific saury with a long swordlike body. In autumn, it is cheap and plentiful. The Chinese name is chiu-dao, meaning autumn sword. Simply grilled with salt until the skin is charred and the liver molten yet still retaining the finely fleshed texture of the fish, it is an irresistable treat.
The diner had sanma sets for 630 yen and 650 yen, the difference being that the 650 yen set came with mushroom rice while the 630 yen came with white rice. Both sets entitle one to have refills of white rice, diners help themselves to the rice pot on one side of the room. The fish was done to perfection, together with the delicious rice, everything else on the tray was redundant. That was one of my favourite meals, I could have eaten it over and over.
Night-time in Kyoto, one could go to a cultural performance in Gion I guess. We were more plebeian, preferring to stay in our airconditioned room and watch TV. There seems to be a concerted effort to market Kyoto judging from the programmes we saw. I saw Memoirs of a Geisha, a movie I had long ago overlooked but watching it in Kyoto and recognising the landmarks lends it a different spin. One evening there was a docu-drama on the life of a samurai book-keeper, the acting was measured and the costumes impeccable, the setting also disquietingly similar to modern day despite the hundred year difference in time. We slept well and the time passed quickly.
(Thank you for reading till the end. In Part 2: Arashiyama. )