We spent the entire day in Kyoto–it’s definitely my favorite city in Japan. It’s like Xi’An or Berlin: so much to do and to see. A week could be spent there without it getting boring. First item of the day was the Kyoto Imperial Palace ‘京都御所’. The palace was mostly in disuse when capital functions moved to Tokyo, but emperors still had their coronation there. Like a lot of other places we had visited, the current palace has been rebuilt due to fire damage. Eight times. So the version we saw was completed in 1855. Across the street was Doshisha University: a ton of students walked past us.
I wish I could remember more of its history, but it was already hot out that morning; as a result, I wasn’t the most focused. Just intent on finding shade to hide under. After this early history field trip, we headed out to a kimono factory. A fashion show was provided for us. Seeing the price tag on a kimono always makes my eyes pop. Incredibly expensive; the pretty ones are up in the thousands. How I would love one, though!
And here came my favorite part of the day: 昼ご飯, hirugohan. Lunch!
It was at The Sodoh Higashiyama Kyoto. An Italian restaurant and one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in Japan. While I can’t attest to the quality of the restaurant now, when we went 6 years ago, the food was flawless. To eat Italian food in Japan seems an odd choice, but my goodness was it some of the best Italian I’ve had! Service was impeccable and the environment was wonderful. Glass walls, bright golden wood, warm lights, and surrounded by bamboo. The bread was crusty and warm, and the butter was some of the creamiest and richest in memory. Okra salad with homemade fresh burrata. Minestrone was so light and refreshing, and you could still taste the sweetness of the vegetables. Pasta with perfect marinara sauce–not too sweet and not too sour (which is what happens when you overcook tomatoes). The asparagus provided a nice crunch. Mango pudding, tiramisu, and raspberry sorbet. Out of this world. And I never drink coffee, but I had around 3 cups that day because it was so good. My mom still fantasizes about this meal, not even exaggerating.
Then it was off to Kiyomizu Temple ‘清水寺’, Sannenzaka ‘三年坂’, and Ninenzaka ‘二年坂’. Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 798 and the building we saw remains standing from 1633. One of the most fascinating and amazing things about Kiyomizu-dera is that not a single nail is used in its structure. Its name is derived from the small waterfall that runs off the nearby hills. Everyone lines up for the waterfall, Otowa-no-taki, after paying their respects at the temple. The water fall is divided into 3 streams for health, longevity, and success in studies, respectively. There are communal, wooden cups that everyone drinks from.
My favorite part about Sannenzaka (or Ninenzaka) is that there are a bunch of food shops with free samples everywhere. It’s great! There was a yatsuhashi ‘八ツ橋 ‘ shop with over 30 flavors, including “ramune”. Yatsuhashi is basically mochi flattened to the thickness of dumpling skin and then wrapped around red bean paste. So delicious.
And while I remembered exactly how to get there by visual memory, I wish I knew the actual directions to this awesome ice cream shop nearby. In 2005, my mom and I had the most delicious kabocha chestnut ice cream. Not only did the ice cream taste like kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and chestnut, but they also stuff real kabocha and chestnut on the sides of the waffle cone. Unbelievable. Basically of the 2-ish hours we were given to spend time around Kiyomizu, my mom and I spent 3/4 of it eating. Yeah, we’re pretty good at this.
Back into the city, into Gion ‘袛園’. Gion is known as one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in Japan. The geisha here are referred to as “geiko”, meaning a “woman of art”. Geisha simply means “artist’. Part of the district is declared a national historical preservation district, for the historical machiya (townhouses) and ochaya (teahouses) that have housed samurai to modern ‘salarymen’ for centuries. Geisha numbers have dropped a lot since the centuries before, so spotting one is a pretty priceless experience.
It was rather serendipitous that we came in the midst of political elections, and Gion is one of the highest-status geisha districts, frequented by powerful businessmen and politicians: a lot of geiko were running around. But since they’re meant to be seen only by an exclusive group, most of them covered themselves as well as they could and hopped into limos as soon as they saw one. They move incredibly fast for women wearing 2-3 inch okobos, like squirrels scurrying about. Our tour guide challenged us to keep count of how many we could spot. Everyone else: 3. Mom and I: 17. This is due to stumbling onto Hanami Lane ‘花見小路’, which translates into “flower-viewing lane”. It’s where all the okiyas, which house the geishas, operate. I felt bad for being apart of the touristy hawking and gawking, but even Japanese people almost never have the chance to see true geisha–and I did! The rest of the evening was spent walking around Kyoto. Mostly eating.
Kyoto is famous for its tonkatsu: breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. Either fillet or loin is used; the meat is salted, peppered, dredged in flour and egg, and coated with panko bread crumbs. It’s then served with shredded cabbage, tonkatsu sauce or ponzu and grated daikon, rice, and miso soup. As vegetarians, we had “taro”-katsu. I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the world, and it makes me sad. Best deep-fried taro I’ve ever had. The breading was so crunchy and thick; yet despite its thickness, it never got dough-y and soft, like breaded onion rings tend to become. Glorious!
The name of our restaurant, if you’re ever in Kyoto and want delicious Tonkatsu, is Katsukura in the Sanjo shopping district. Also, hit up the shaved ice place with green tea and red bean ice cream and mochi to go with it. Perfect on a hot summer day! Our lodging for the night was the famous Kyoto Hotel Okura, one of the most upscale hotel chains in Japan. Recommended if you’re ever in Kyoto and willing to spend the $300+/night. 🙂 Or you can just go on a tour like we did and save some $$. Great views of Kyoto if you’re on one of the upper floors.