Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kyoto Kaiseki

Here's what we had at our kaiseki meal at Nissho-Besso

A plate of sashimi - tai, maguro, and hirami

Hassun -  various appetizer tidbits, including tarako, tako, little fu cakes, among many other things

Futamono - a bowl of delicately stewed shirako

Futamono # 2 - hotate stewed in tonyu with yuzu

Yakimono - grilled buri with mixed pickled and fresh vegetables

Suzakana - ebi with pickled daikon, koimo and snowpeas

A little interlude with king crab

Shiizakana - Kamo-nabe ingredients

Kamo-nabe cooking

Naka-choko - tarako

A Kyoto regional specialty, yudofu and fu


Kanomono - beautiful pickled vegetables

Mizumono - a light dessert of melon and ichigo

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Japanease: One Night at the Nissho-besso Ryokan

The most wonderful thing about staying in a well-run ryokan is the pleasure of putting yourself completely in the hands of competent professionals who have been trained for generations to think about nothing else other than doing whatever it takes to make you, personally, happy. You give up your street shoes at the door of an ancient building and put on the slippers that have been waiting there for you maybe forever. The quiet is soft and enveloping except perhaps for the sound of a fountain somewhere. Hot tea and sweets are waiting in your room. The futon is hidden away for later but a couple of low chairs in the alcove next to the window afford a view of late afternoon sun on the garden. There’s cold beer and sake in the fridge. Before the kaiseki meal arrives, there is time to slip on your yukata and pad down the hall to take a nice hot bath.

Those are the essential characteristics of the ryokan experience. Our stay at the Nissho-besso ryokan (http://homepage3.nifty.com/nissho-besso/) in Kyoto hit the mark on all of them. The façade is basically all that remains of the original building, constructed over 220 years ago as the home and shop of a wealthy thread merchant. The remodeled public spaces are organized around a long path to the entrance, a central garden and an atrium, bright and modern, but still cozy. Since we booked the special Rosanjin kaiseki meal – about which, more later – we were lodged in an enormous 15-tatami-mat room (almost the size of our entire apartment). Our room was named “Aoi,” or “hollyhock”- ryokan rooms are generally named after plants or animals. The garden was delightful, compact but strollable, though a bit marred by the blue tarps of a construction site next door.

If you go there, treat yourself to the “chartered bath” which costs an extra 840 yen per person per dip. This buys you 45 minutes of privacy for at least 2 people (not sure if more are allowed) in a bathroom with a view of a small garden and three different tubs of varying temperatures. There’s a traditional hinoki or Japanese cypress bath at one end that two people can stretch out in, then two big ceramic bowl-shaped baths, each big enough for one. Of course, as with all Japanese baths, you scrub yourself well before soaking. The dressing area offers a selection of creams and lotions, razors, q-tips, sprucing supplies and cans of cold tea.

And then to bed. At just the right time, the futon team shows up to lay out the bedding. A bottom mat is overlaid with a softer upper layer which is then topped off with a thick feather comforter. At the Nissho-besso, they also laid out a bedtime wish on our pillows, accompanied by tiny origami horses. Here’s the wish:

“Welcome to the Nissho-besso. The origami or folding paper of “HORSE” means physical and mental energy in Japanease oneiromancy or dream-fortunetelling. We hope that you will feel rested well tonight for tomorrow. Have a good dream and thank you very much for staying here with us. by Manager.”

Beats a mint.

VS (Origami horse photo by NV)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Temples? Shrines? Phooey! What's for Dinner?

When the Ajimi Team travels, it travels on its stomach. Thus, when it honeymooned last week it chose to take the Shinkansen south to Kyoto, home of the best food in Japan in addition to what it understands are some thousand years of religious, cultural, architectural, imperial and literary history completely unrelated to food. The epicurean part of the journey began with the decision of what to eat on the 2.25 hour ride on the Nozomi Super Express. We have read a lot about eki bento, the boxed lunches on sale at stations throughout Japan, but we have yet to find any truly delicious ekiben at Ueno or Tokyo stations, the main points of departure for the Shinkansen. We did get some rather nice pork buns at Tokyo Station, some senbei and mixed nuts, all washed down with some One Cup sake purchased from the food cart on the train. (Not the best of nihonshu, at least this was a step up from our first Shinkansen booze on a trip last year to Yamagata. On that journey, the only nihonshu available from the cart was flavored with fugu fins and tasted exactly like what you would expect tepid, fishy booze to taste like. That was, however, our first encounter with the self-heating sake can, an admirable bit of technology that makes one appreciate anew living in a land where they devote a ridiculous amount of attention to infinitesimally small details).

But we swallowed our disappointment for we were resting up for the main event: five days and four nights of eating and drinking in Kyoto. Neither snow, nor cold, nor vanishing guidebook restaurant recommendations could prevent us from having several outstanding meals with a few sublime snacks thrown in for punctuation. Yes, we trod the path of culture and history but after all that treading it was the meals that restored our spirits. We accumulated more photos of small plates of kyo ryori than of any temple, or of each other, for that matter. And the bento we prepared for the ride back to Tokyo was lovely.

(Photo: The Ajimi Team at the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, Fushimi, Kyoto)