Japan 102: how to eat all the things and avoid garden-fatigue

Blogged by Anne

From Himeji, we were off to Kyoto for a 5 night stay in an AirBnB. We are increasingly using AirBnB wherever we go because we think they are great value for money and we enjoy acting like locals. Apart from the usual advantages, in Japan they mean you are more likely to have a private bathroom and a larger room for the same price and they often include a portable wifi device that you are allowed to carry around with you. In Kyoto, our hosts sent us an amazing list of cheap neighborhood restaurants which saved us from the many tourist traps in areas like Gion.

Most of Kyoto’s attractions involve shrines, gardens or both. It is worth planning your itinerary carefully and being a bit selective because (a) the attractions are mostly on the edge of the city and very spread out (b) even the most die-hard fan will get garden and temple overload eventually and (c) the entrance fees add up rapidly. Our favourite sites were:

  • The famous Arashiyama bamboo grove – it’s packed full of tourists but cool anyway and you can head out the back for some peace and quiet
  • The wonderful garden at Okochi Sanso very near the bamboo grove (the entrance fee seems expensive but includes macha tea and a sweet)
  • Adashino Nenbutsu-ji with its thousands of stone figures
  • The photogenic gold pavilion Kinkaku-ji
  • The amazing orange shrine gates at Fushimi Inari-Taisha and the walk into the hills behind it
Okochi sanso 
Moss garden at Okochi sanso
Moss close-up  
Enjoying matcha tea and sweets
Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
Thousands of figurines
Gangnam style
Autumn views
Scary guy
What the golden pavilion looks like in your photos
What the golden pavilion looks like in real life (this was at opening time on a Sunday morning)
Foxes at Fushimi
Fushimi torii
Hiking into the hills
Ryoan zen garden
Inside Ryoan

Also in Kyoto we did a brilliant (and extremely good value) food tour with Jason, an American who has lived in Japan for a long time. We really can’t recommend this tour highly enough (https://jdkai.com/). It takes place in completely non-touristy part of the city and involves visiting tiny specialist shops where the locals shop. We tried a big range of Japanese snacks ranging from sweet to savory, and learnt about tea and dashi (the basic stock used in Japanese food). There was just the right amount of pushing you out of your comfort zone and it really made a big difference to what we were brave enough to try on the rest of the trip.

Food tour lunch
River eel in omelette
Learning about tempura
All kinds of pickles
Learning about roasting black tea

This seems like an appropriate place to talk more generally about the wonderful food in Japan. We could go on about it for days. These were our favorite foods and food experiences:

  • Okonomiyaki – cabbage pancakes with delicious toppings. The best one we had was in Osaka, the dish’s home town.
  • Sushi – especially from cheap-and-cheerful conveyor belt places
  • Sashimi – best bought fresh at one of the markets, don’t expect it at every sushi restaurant
  • Ramen – in every style you can imagine and some you can’t
  • Taiyaki – tiny filled waffle type things, sometimes fish shaped, best with sweet potato filling but generally delicious
  • Matcha (green tea) flavoured everything.
  • Highly specialist restaurants and shops – we found one that only does grilled pork on rice with optional miso soup and a shop called Bake which only makes a specific type of amazing cheese tart
  • Tiny neighborhood izikayas – recognized by their paper lanterns reading 居酒屋, izikayas are bars that serve snacks. Many bars in Japan charge a cover charge so we preferred the tiny ones outside of the main nightlife areas
  • Yakitori – grilled meat skewers, but watch out for offal and raw chicken ones, both of which are regarded as delicacies
  • Convenience store and department store basement takeaways – incredibly varied and good quality, although sometimes more expensive that you would expect
  • Rice balls – something delicious wrapped in rice wrapped in seaweed for a snack on the run (best bought from a 7 eleven)
  • Spanish style croquettes – try beef curry flavour
  • Katsakura and katsu curry – breaded pork (or chicken fillet), on its own or with curry sauce
  • Tempura – the light-as-air kind and the crispy minced fish ones
  • Actually, basically anything deep fried is a guaranteed winner in Japan
  • Vending machine iced coffee – about a quarter of the price of a coffee shop coffee. Tully’s do the best ones.
  • One Michelin star lunch for USD8 at Nakajima in Tokyo after queuing for only 20 minutes (we arrived at 11:10 on a Friday). You can choose between grilled, fried, sashimi or baked sardines with miso, rice and pickles. Dinner is 10 times the price.
  • Gyoza – (preferably fried) dumplings with pork filling
  • Dim sum – especially beef-filled steamed buns, it’s like Chinese dim sum, but with recognizable ingredients
  • Massive, flawless, extortionately priced fruit
  • Fresh pastries that put Parisian bakeries to shame
  • Omorice – we only found this rice omelette with bechamel and bacon once, but it was amazing
Michelin star sardine sashimi
Sweet bread
Pork and rice (worth the 45 minute wait)
Ordering the pork and rice (luckily we had read about how it works online)
Indecipherable izikaya menu
Indecipherable izikaya order form
Successful izikaya order
Matcha flavoured croissant 
Dippy ramen
Halaal ramen
Shinjuku Cactus (fab basement bar in our apartment building in Tokyo)
Last meal katsakura
Chicken yakitori
Cheese tarts from Bake
Beef buns
Okay this is actually our last meal rice ball
Tempura, who knew that a deep fried leaf could be so amazing
Even the (really last meal this time) airport sushi was amazing 
Matcha eclair
Katsu curry
Supermarket sashimi
Sweet potato taiyaki
Matcha soft serve
Best sushi at the omi-cho market
All the flavours (yes, that is a toasted red bean sandwich flavour you see)
Massive apple-pear
The only thing we ordered and didn’t eat, when I remember who recommended it we will have words… 

The historical capital of Nara is an easy daytrip from Kyoto with a JR Pass and well worth a visit. It’s famous for one of the largest wooden buildings in the world which houses a large Buddha as well as some fantastic gardens and other temples. This is another place where it worth walking up the hills behind the famous sites to escape from the crowds.

Massive wooden hall at Nara
Scary looking man
Giant Buddha
Inside the hall
5 tiered pagoda
Beautiful (and free) Yoshikien gardens

From Kyoto, we headed off via the 2 hour “Thunderbird 5” train for a day in the historical city of Kanazawa. We started off with a sushi brunch at a tiny conveyor belt place in Omi-cho market recommended by our friends Warren and Jan. We were not disappointed – there was already a queue at 11:10 and the sushi was delicious and cheap. I especially enjoyed the scallops and they do excellent tasting platters. After brunch we were off to see the Kanazawa castle and the famous Kenroku-en gardens, supposed to be one of the best in Japan. The gardens are beautiful, but busy and we were starting to get a bit gardened out by this stage. Kanazawa also has a well preserved geisha district and it possible to see a geisha show (we didn’t) and visit the inside of some the houses (which we enjoyed).

Massive wooden beams at Kanazawa castle 
Kenroku-en gardens
And more garden
And some more (it is in the top 3 gardens in Japan you know…)
Last one
Geisha district
Inside a geisha house

Next stop: Tokyo


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