We wanted to eat sushi in Kyoto and asked Hotel Mume for recommendations. They recommended Matsudaya, a one Michelin star place that serves Edo-style sushi, and got us a lunch reservation on a Sunday. I have never tried Kyoto sushi but hear that it is on the sweet side and tastes different from the Edo-style sushi that we are used to eating.
Matsudaya, located in Gion, is about 10 minutes away from Mume by foot. We took a walk along Shijo-Dori overlooking the Kamo river, and wandered around the side alleys off Shijo-dori to work up an appetite for lunch. We were mindful that we also had a potentially huge dinner at Restaurant 245 that evening. Two huge meals in one day were a bit worrisome for my stomach.
There really was no need to be concerned about being too full after a sushi meal at Matsudaya. We did not feel overstuffed at after consuming some 16 courses and 3 carafes of sake over lunch. The Japanese have a knack of feeding you a lot of food in portions that are just right. I even had a Tsujiri parfait immediately after lunch.
We liked Matsudaya. It is a tiny place, with about 7 seats at the counter, manned by the chef (who speaks English) and a helper (his wife I think). The sushi was excellent and unlike some sushi places which tend to be quite formal and stern, Matsudaya is fairly casual and comfortable. The chef chats with the guests while preparing the sushi and you can talk with your companion without feeling the need to keep quiet and pay absolute attention to the food, and only the food.
We stayed at Hotel Mume in Gion for the first time when we visited Kyoto two years ago. I came across a review of the 7-room boutique hotel on Time’s website. I was charmed by Mume’s design around 4 nature themes of “Butterfly”, “Wind”, “Moon” and “Flower”. However, the only room that was available to us at that time was the “Moon” double room. The room was chic, intimate and elegant but we found the room a little too dark for our liking.
For our second visit, we managed to book the bright and airy “Wind” room (photo above). It is quite difficult to get a room in Mume so we had to plan our two-week Japan schedule around the availability of rooms in the hotel. That is how much we like Mume!
This is Mume’s chinoiserie-style lounge-cum-bar, furnished in dark wood accents, European and Chinese furniture, Chinese lanterns. There is always a huge floral arrangement sitting on the counter. This is where guests gather to have their breakfast, pre-dinner drinks, coffee/snack when you are back from a day out traipsing around Kyoto.
I am fairly sure that we will be repeat guests at Mume. I would say that the level of personal service shown by the owner, manager and staff is the winning factor for me. The Mume folks show an incredible amount of hospitality to its guests, always inquiring about your day and making sure that you know exactly how to get to the restaurants and attractions in Kyoto by printing out maps, train schedules and photographs of the exterior of the restaurants.
We always look forward to chatting with the owner or the manager at the end of the day. They speak good English so that makes for easy conversation. Twice, I have left behind something in Mume after checking out, and both times, they called me at my next hotel to let me know that they have forwarded my things to the hotel through the Japanese delivery service.
I love Mume’s breakfast (which is included in the room price). They serve a daily continental breakfast set comprising fruit juice, homemade yoghurt, fruit, homemade soup, breakfast rolls, soft-boil egg, assortment of jams and coffee from the Nespresso machine. The food is simple, clean, fresh and delicious. I usually skip the breakfast rolls and soft-boil egg because too much food in the morning ruins my appetite for lunch.
Another reason that we like Mume is its location. It is conveniently situated a couple of streets behind Gion, and within walking distance to the Kamo River, the Gion-Shijo subway line, the shopping districts in Shijo-dori and San-jo-dori, as well as the Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park.
Just a short walk away from Hotel Mume is the pretty Shirakawa-minami-dori, an old street lined with machiyas, plum and cherry blossom trees. We walk past this lovely street everyday, to get to Shijo-dori or the Gion-Shijo Keihan subway station.
The Shirakawa river runs parallel to the street, with stone bridges connecting the pavement to the restaurants housed in the machiyas. We were here at the start of spring two years ago and it was particularly scenic with the spring-time foliage. This is a popular place for Japanese bridal photo shoots and to see maikos.
Another stretch of machiyas that is very popular with bridal shoots. It is a lovely spot for a morning walk, before the crowds turn up.
We were introduced to Ristorante 245 Gion by our Kyoto hotel, Hotel Mume. The restaurant is conveniently located on the same street as Hotel Mume on Shinmonzen Dori (several streets behind Gion) which meant that we could get ourselves totally tipsy and still be able to make our way back very easily on foot.
We did not make any dinner reservations during our 4-night stay in Kyoto, to give ourselves some flexibility around our dinner options. The restaurant recommendations given by Mume have always been spot-on (Kichisen on a previous trip; Sushi Matsudaya and Ristorante 245 during this trip).
Helmed by a young Chef Masakazu Yoshioka, Ristorante 245 was described as an Italian-style restaurant that serves a fixed menu at dinner around a 10-seat counter. Having been there, I would describe it as European kappo style dining – an open kitchen concept with counter seats, where the chefs cook and plate your food right in front of you. Each dish is cooked using Western techniques but with seasonal Japanese ingredients. Elegant food in a casual setting. I like kappo dining, mostly because I enjoy the seeing the chefs cook my meal.
There were five of us in the restaurant on a Sunday night. The chef helmed the kitchen with only one assistant who was responsible for topping up drinks, serving wine, plating the food, serving the food, removing plates AND washing the dishes! You will never find someone who is willing to do all of that in Singapore.
Over 2.5 hours, we ate 10 courses (including dessert) and had several glasses of wine each. Every course was impressive. The Japanese-influenced flavors were delicate and the ingredients (such as Japanese squid, octopus, shishamo, unagi, pheasant, hotate, kumquat) were mostly what was in season then.
I did not come to Kyoto expecting to eat European-style kappo food and then going away thinking that it was my favorite meal in our entire 2 week holiday. I want to go back again on our next trip to Kyoto, and see what new creative dishes the chef will make for us.
We started the day by walking from our hotel to the Chion-in temple. Sprawling grounds, quiet and calming.
A rare photo of me where my face is not out of focused. My husband struggles to grasp the basics of using a DSLR…
From Chion-in Temple, we cut across the Maruyama park to get to the shopping streets around the Kiyomizu temple.
This gorgeous little pussy with liquid gold-coloured eyes was the centre of attraction in the park.
Besides aesthetics reasons, do these bamboo tubes serve any other purpose…?
We walked into the Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine along Gion, and caught the tail-end of a wedding procession.
The bride is so pretty. She looks like Haruka Ayase, the lead actress in Dr Jin.
I have no idea why I am so fascinated with the Kanji characters on these lanterns.
She makes washing the floor look classy and elegant, doesn’t she?
We ate our lunch – hot soba – in this beautiful traditional restaurant.
I am not sure if this is Ninen-zaka, or Sannen-zaka. Hoardes of people were thronging these streets during the weekend that we were there. No matter how lovely these streets are, I wanted to get out of there. I felt horribly trapped by the crowds. Needless to say, we never made it to Kiyomizu Temple. We walked a bit more before heading back to Gion.
Sticks of piping hot grilled mochi. I cannot appreciate this. Give me a stick of gyutan any day… Maikos. Just ask them politely if you could take a photo of them, or with them, and they will usually be happy to oblige. That’s my experience.
That’s Okutan, the other famous tofu kaiseki place in Kyoto. We went to Tousuiro.
I wish I could plant a plum blossom tree in my HDB flat.
In Japan, you can spot an ice-cream shop from a mile away. They always have this big plastic ice cream cone on display outside the shop. I have seen white, green, pink and yellow ones.
Nope, we definitely didn’t make it to the Kiyomizu Temple.
Our last day in Kyoto was spent in Arashiyama. We took the subway from Gion to Arashiyama, walked across the Togetsukyo-bridge and headed straight for the bamboo forest, having decided to skip the Tenryuji temple.
Spotted an unusual bloom in a flower bed just off the main streets.
A beautiful two-toned camelia. It looks perfect.
This is my second visit to the Arashiyama bamboo forest, the first visit was in 2006. Nothing has changed, it looks the same as how I remember it to be. The bamboo forest is a fairly small and self-contained area, just follow the path and everyone ahead of you.
The other bamboo forest that I have visited is the one in Damyang, Korea, and it is several times bigger than the Arashiyama one. The Damyang bamboo forest is definitely worth a visit as a day-trip if you are in Gwangju and have some time to spare.
At the end of the bamboo forest is the Okochi Sanso Villa, a traditional Japanese house with beautiful and lush landscaped grounds that used to belong to a famous Japanese silent movie star.
The lush gardens and driveway leading to the main residence.
We hiked around the grounds for a bit, climbing up and down narrow stone path ways circling the gardens, before heading back to the bamboo forest to make our way back to the main streets to eat lunch at Hirokawa.
If you are looking to escape the crowds in the main Arashiyama streets, the Okochi Sanso Villa is a perfect hideout. It is serene, calming and a calming place to enjoy channel your inner Zen.
If you are planning to visit Arashiyama and love unajyu, please include Hirokawa in your itinerary! Having been around since 1967, the famous traditional eel restaurant is now located in a beautifully designed sukiya (wooden architecture) building right across the street from Tenryuji Temple and the entrance to the bamboo forest. We spotted the sukiya quite easily after our morning excursion to the bamboo forest and the Okochi Villa.
I looked up Hirokawa’s menu online before visiting the restaurant so I already knew what I wanted to eat. Unajyu and boiled loaches (the dish known as Yanagawa on the menu)! Hirokawa’s unajyu comes in five different sizes (small, medium, large, extra large, kids), or you could choose to have one whole eel without rice and eaten with a dipping sauce. There were other tempting side dishes as well but I had my mind firmly set on boiled loaches. I was extremely curious to find out how loaches taste like. I have never seen this fish in Singapore before.
We managed to get a seat after waiting in line for approximately 45 minutes, without a reservation. We ordered one unajyu (medium; 2,900 Yen) each and shared a Yanagawa (boiled loaches served in a broth and scrambled eggs).
The Yanagawa came first and we tucked into the tasty hot soup which had a herbal flavour to it. I didn’t know what to expect of boiled loaches; I thought they were a lighter-tasting version of eel.
Unajyu served in a beautiful lacquer box. Delicious! Even the husband who doesn’t like unajyu ate up every morsel in the box. He finds unagi too ‘fishy’ for him and unajyu too sweet, the sauce overwhelming his tastebuds. Hirokawa’s version is just perfect for us, their special sauce complements the eel and rice very well. Not too sweet, yet sufficiently so to combat the strong flavour of the grilled eel, bringing down the level of ‘fishy-ness’ of the dish.
When I was researching on what to eat in Kyoto, a tofukaiseki meal kept popping up. So I wrote to Hotel Mume, the hotel where we were staying at in Kyoto, to ask them to recommend us a good tofu restaurant. They suggested Tousuiro or Okutan, and I picked the former because Tousuiro had a branch in Gion which is very close to our hotel. Okutan is in the shopping streets near the Kiyomizu Temple and would be an excellent lunch spot if you are planning to visit the temple before or after lunch.
I know that Kyoto is well-known for producing excellent tofu, which is great for the husband’s tastebuds. He enjoys eating tofu while I am less of a fan. I was a little concerned that a tofu meal in a tofu restaurant would mean tofu being served in every course of the meal. Thank goodness it is not the case in Tousuiro.
The first course of our Yen 5,000 per head set dinner. The baby squids were SO yummy.
Sashimi, my favourite course.
Mmmmm, no Japanese meal is complete for us without a flask of sake.
This is how Tousuiro cooks their tofu at the table.
And you eat the tofu dipped in shoyu, a little grated ginger and chopped spring onions. The tofu was quite yummy but being the tofu-plebian, I could not tell how good it was. I ate one piece and let the husband savour the rest.
Another delicious course of vegetables and octopus.
Some sort of fishcake-tofu in a broth with wakame. I liked this alot.
Grilled bamboo. I lurve…! Not so crazy over the mochi dengaku though.
Rice, pickles and miso soup to end the meal. By this stage, I was so stuffed and could not eat another bite. The wait staff was quite appalled that I did not eat my rice. I felt bad about wasting food but I had absolutely no space in my stomach for a bowl of carbohydrate.
So grateful for hot tea to wash it all down. Then we paid our bill, put on our coats and trudged back to the hotel, shivering in the cold weather.
Update: Omotesando Koffee is no longer operating in Kyoto.
We came out of the Nishiki Market, strolled along the shopping streets along Shijo-dori and saw the words ‘Omotesando Koffee’ on the window of a department store. We sailed into the store. After several days of drip coffee, we were craving for a cup of expresso.
Omotesando Koffee is not a sit-down cafe, but a coffee kiosk on the ground floor of United Arrow department store in Kyoto with only standing space. Having been to the main kiosk at Omotesando Hills in Tokyo, both kiosks share the cube-like frame where the barista prepares a cup of coffee wearing a light blue lab-coat.
I wanted to try these delicious-looking cubes of caneles but I was just too full after the eating tofu doughnuts and soy milk ice cream.
Deftly filling the portafilter and tamping the coffee powder.
A really nice cup of doppio expresso that made the husband grin from ear to ear. I don’t really know how to describe the flavor of Omotosando Koffee’s expresso except to say that I liked it. It was on the acidic side, which is not usually how I like my expresso, but this was balanced by a strong and slightly bitter taste which made the expresso smell very good (but the reflective metallic cup and saucer gave me a slight headache). I tried the doppio cappucino at the kiosk at Omotesando Hills and it was FABULOUS. More about that later.
Omotesando Koffee Kyoto
UNITED ARROWS Kyoto Store
12-1 Tachiuri Higashi-Cho, Shijo-Dori Yanaginobanba Higashi-Iru, Shimogyo-Ku, Kyoto
(Note: UNITED ARROWS is located on the same side of Shijo-dori as the Nishiki Market.)
At the famous Kyoto Nishiki food market. The market is a long, narrow, and covered walkway flanked by little shops selling cooked food, fresh, frozen and pickled food, Japanese snacks and groceries on both sides.
We visited the market on a Sunday, after a long day out at the Fushimi-Inari shrine and the Sanjusangendo temple. By the time we got to the Nishiki market and saw the crowds, we were tempted to cross out the market on our itinerary, turn back and find a place to sit down and rest our feet. After a moment of hesitation, we decided to brave the crowds. Let’s get this over and done with.
Mid-way through the market, we REALLY wanted to turn back. Had we been in the mood to enjoy the wares peddled in the market, there were way too many people for it to be much fun. I felt like I was being mobbed…
… then I saw THIS! The first thing that perked me up. Skewered marinated octopus stuffed with a quail egg! I love marinated octopus and this is one of the items that I usually pick up at the conveyor belt sushi places.
While waiting for my turn to place an order, several Caucasian guys stopped at the stall and started making gagging noises at the skewers and you could hear them say things like “disgusting food”, “how revolting”, “octopus…gross” in loud voices. I felt like elbowing them and them to stop being such sissies, and have some respect. If you don’t fancy the food, please go away. No-one is forcing any down your throat.
When I received my skewered octopus, I waved it in front of them and said: “This is delicious, try it if you dare!” and walked off.
After enjoying the octopus, we walked on and nearing the end of the market, we arrived at Sakaimachi-dori and saw this shop selling tofu doughnuts and soymilk softserve ice cream.
Judging by the queues outside the store, this has got to be good. So I ordered a soymilk ice cream in a cone. It was so GOOD, I wanted to order another one so that the husband could have his own cone. I went back to join the line and walked away with a bag of small tofu doughnuts instead. Oooooh, best doughnuts I have eaten. We wolfed down the freshly made, piping hot doughnuts so quickly, I forgot to take a photo of them.
Boy, was I glad that we made our way to the end of the market. Eating the soymilk ice cream and the tofu doughnuts made jostling in the crowds worth it. After leaving the market, we turned a corner….and stumbled onto OMOTESANDO KOFFEE, the Kyoto branch. An excellent cup of expresso to end our day.
Visiting a dessert shop in Kyoto was one of the things that I wanted to do. It was right at the top of the to-do list. Unfortunately, due to the long queues, our experience with these dessert shops was not exactly a positive one.
I planned to visit the two popular dessert shops in Kyoto – Gion Kinana and Gion Koishi. However, there was almost always a LONG queue outside both shops. We visited Gion Kinana in Hanamikoji Street on a weekday and the queue was horrendously long. Same goes for Gion Koishi. No matter how much I wanted to eat a parfait in one of these parlours, joining a queue was not an option for me. Not when I am on holiday.
I had already given up on visiting one, when we managed to get a table in Gion Koishi on our last morning in Kyoto, while we were on our way to Arashiyama. At 10am when the store had just opened for business. I ordered a matcha parfait and TBH chose a hot zenzai.
Cravings satisfied. A tick against my to-do list. The parfait was scrumptious. But definitely not worth queueing up over an hour for.
It is famous for housing a very large statue of the Goddess of Mercy surrounded by 1,000 smaller, but nearly life-sized, statues of Goddess of Mercy (bringing the total number of statues to be 1,001). The main hall of the temple is a very long wooden structure and its name literally means ‘a hall with thirty-three spaces between the columns’. When visiting the main hall, visitors have to take off their shoes and change into indoor slippers provided by the temple.
The view of the statues in the main hall is very impressive. Pity photography is not allowed in the main hall.
The picturesque temple grounds were accentuated by cherry blossom trees in full bloom.
Having finally been to the Sanjusangendo, I feel that it should be a compulsory stop in anyone’s Kyoto itinerary. You will be blown away by the sight of the statues.
Gosh, it is almost coming to the end of May and I am still blogging about the Japan trip which ended in the first week of April. I reckon that by the time I am done with all these posts, it would be autumn. You will be seeing photos of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo possibly only in November, just in time to start planning for another spring trip to Japan.
There are soooo many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto that you could spend days doing nothing but hop from one temple to another shrine. In our previous visits (this is my third visit to Kyoto and the huband’s second), we had already seen the highly popular Kiyomizudera temple, the Kinkakuji, the Ginkakuji, and some others, we skipped those this round and visited several others that we have not been to. This time, we went to the Chion-in Temple, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine and the Sanjusangendo.
The Fushimi-Inari Shrine, with its stunning orange-red Sen-bon torii gates, was at the top of my to-go list. It is the head shrine in Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, at the base of Mount Inari. What is Inari? Inari is the Japanese Goddess of rice, responsible for protecting the rice fields and ensuring fertility, and foxes are her messengers.
(The Japanese anime, Inari Kon Kon Koi Iroha, has a backdrop in Fushimi-Inari Shrine. The story is about a high school girl called Fushimi Inari who rescues a fox pup belonging to the resident kami of the shrine and is given the powers by the kami to transform her appearance. The artwork of Fushimi-Inari in the anime is beautiful.)
To hike from the main temple complex, through the torii gates, to the top of the Mount Inari takes approximately two hours. I read that the best times to do the hike are during the early morning hours or in the late afternoon. The temple and its surroundings are said to very quiet and magical then, while others have described the place to look rather eerie at that hour of the day. Going by what I see of the temple in Inari Kon Kon Koi Iroha, the temple is stunning when the sun sets.
Together with hoards of visitors, we started making our way up the Sen-bon Torii from this torii gate with the guardian fox statues.
Shortly after, we arrived at the widely-photographed twin entrances to the densely packed torii gates. It was way too crowded for me to take a good photo of the entrances ‘cos everyone had the same idea as me.
The side of the torii gates where the characters were painted on them. Each torii gate bears the name of its donor on one side. The view through these torii gates is really beautiful. The path looks quiet and peaceful in this photograph. From these photos, you cannot tell how crowded the path was. I had to wait for the moments when the crowds have dissipated to click the shutter. I had to be quick ‘cos before you know it, another large group of people would appear…
At the other end of the torii gates. Then we continued to march on through another stretch of less densely packed torii gates, slowing making our way up to the mountain.
Midway point. The Okuno-sha shrine, with many miniature toriis on display. Where we turned back and went down the same route to go back to the temple complex. Then to lunch!
After spending 5 days in Fukuoka, I took the shinkansen from JR Hakata to Kyoto where I met up with my husband, who had flown into Kansai from Singapore that morning. It was a Friday and the JR stations in Osaka (the transfer station for trains bound for Kyoto) and Kyoto were packed to the brim with people! It was only upon arrival at our hotel in Kyoto that we realized that we had run SMACK into a long public holiday weekend (the Vernal Equinox Day) in Japan. It was not the best time to be in Kyoto.
Despite the long queue for a taxi outside the JR station, I managed to hop into one fairly quickly. We chose to stay at Hotel Mume which seemed to be located in an obscure street somewhere in Gion, given the deep frowns of the rather grumpy taxi driver when I showed him the address of our hotel in Japanese. Muttering the address repeatedly to himself throughout the drive, I got the impression that he did not recognise either the hotel or its address. I was afraid that we would wound up circling the streets looking for the hotel, and eventually burning a hole in my pocket. I whipped out my iPad, looked for the hotel’s location on Google Maps, and monitored the path of the taxi making its way to the hotel. Good, we were on the right track.
Hotel Mume is located in a very quiet street. The hotel has a discreet entrance; so discreet that the taxi driver and I were standing right in front of the main door yet could not see it. More about the hotel later. After checking-in, we decided to find ourselves some lunch. As it was a public holiday, quite a number of restaurants around the hotel were closed, so we ended up eating a fast-food sort of pasta in a cafe after wandering around fruitlessin in a very crowded Gion, trying to find a place to eat. On hindsight, we were obviously looking for food in the wrong part of town. Everyone seemed to be in Gion. The crowded streets were filled with lovely women, elegantly clad in their kimonos with flowers tucked in their hair. I felt like a klutz, as usual.
To avoid the crowds, we escaped to the Kamogawa, strolled along the river before crossing over to the quieter side streets along Teramachi-dori. This street was lined with beautiful traditional wooden houses, swaying willow trees, pretty lighted street lamps and tinkling waters from the canal. Peaceful and zen. A completely different stage compared to the streets of Gion that we had just left behind.