A Week in Kyoto

Sushi Cooking Workshop, Geisha Photoshooting, Samurais, Monkeys & Ninjas, Pottery, Breathtaking Views and Great Food

First night in Kyoto. After a long journey from Koya-san, we were famished, and so we found an all-you-can Japanese Black Waygu Beef restaurant called Chifaja. We had to take our shoes off (as you do in many Japanese venues) and put them in a small locker:

I loved the fact that the “keys” were simply small blocks of wood:

Each “key” had a slightly different slot pattern, thus matching a specific locker

We entered a small chamber floored with Tatami mats, sat down on small pillows next to a large wooden table with a built-in grill, and looked at the menu, and were astonished at the number of available dishes: meats, vegetables, rice, salads, noodles, soup, and even several authentic deserts.

So many options… the menu also had a backside!
Let the dinner begin!
Hmm… what should we get next?
infinite-loop grill
Japanese Black Waygu Beef Steak. So marbling!

Gion Walking Tour

The next morning, we joined a free walking tour in the historical streets of Gion, the beautiful Geisha district of Kyoto. Our tour guide Jens was very knowledgeable and explained about the Geisha lifestyle, their training, the Japanese tea house culture, and the Tanuki dolls you see next to many of the shops there:

Yes, they have gigantic balls. Jens explained they are a symbol of wealth
The view from Shijoo Bridge, next to Gion-Shiju Station
I have no idea how Ariella managed to shoot a Geiko in a Rainbow

During the tour we also learned that Jens, our guide, was a professional photographer. Ariella wanted to do a photography class for some time, so we asked Jens about that, and apparently he was available that afternoon and had a spare Nikon camera he could lend us.

We met at the Kitano Tenmangū shrine, and after a quick explanation about the camera, its settings and the lenses, started shooting the marvelous plum blossom in the park next to the shrine:

Jens, camera and I
Shooting a Toro (stone lantern) in the park
Through the lens, the lantern looks like a tiny forest
Plum blossom close-up
It also comes in white
An ornament reflecting the beauty of the park and the shrine behind
I’m definitely happy to be there!

After roughly one hour and half of walking around with the cameras and shooting photos of everything we could, we needed to take a break. Jens jumped on the opportunity and took some romantic shots of us:

See the green-tea bottle falling off my hand?
The beauty of Japan!

After experimenting with the camera in the park, we proceeded to Kamishichiken, when we hoped to capture some authentic Geisha photos just before the sun sets, about the time when they start working. The streets were empty, so we started shooting some interesting objects we encountered:

Jens explained that each district had a typical type of lanterns. In Gion, the lanterns had white circles on a red background, while in Kamishichiken, they had red circles on a white background:

Ariella enjoying the old streets of Kamishichiken

Finally, the sun has set and we could spot some Giekos and Maikos:

Ready to capture some Geisha shots in the twilight
At last, our patience started to pay off — we’ve spotted some Geisha and a Maiko (a trainee)!

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is a lively marketplace with many ready-to-eat food stalls and all kind of shops. It was a perfect fit for a slightly rainy day, as the market streets are covered and you can easily find some hot drink or dish to warm you up:

Dance of the red octopus
Hedgehog cookies, anybody?
Fish Skewer Exhibition

Many of the shops offer tasters (and sometimes free tea), so it is a great way to get familiar with all sort of foods you wouldn’t normally dare to buy. For instance, one shop owner invited us to try some Japanese Sanshō Pepper. It had a unique taste, slightly acidic (as lemon), and didn’t feel hot at all.

About one minute later, however, we realized that the store owner was a little too generous, as the tip of our tongues began to tingle, a sensation which kept going of another 20 minutes. Fortunately, the other tasters proven a bit more successful:

Yatsuhashi, a tasty sweet that comes in many flavors. We fell in love and bought several packs!

While exploring the market, we couldn’t ignore the many signs instructing not to eat while walking:

Eating while walking can have severe consequences!

In addition to food, the market also has many stores with unique merchandise and crafts, and even a knife shop that was founded 460 years ago!

Cute paper-kitties

DiY Sushi Workshop 🍣

A Sushi Workshop is one thing we really wanted to do in Japan. We didn’t find such workshop in Kyoto, so we asked one of the hostel staff members for help. It was amazing to see how quickly the entire hotel staff joined forces and worked together to find and book the workshop for us the next morning. Kudos to the WeBase Kyoto team for being so helpful!

When we arrived at Kyoto tower, a nice Japanese chef and all the ingredients waited for us. The chef didn’t speak any English, but he gave us a card with all the steps explained in English, and demonstrated each step slowly so we could copy his steps.

In a nutshell, you need to take 18 grams of Sushi rice (or else, as the instructions warn you, the proportion of rice-to-fish won’t be good!). Gently roll it into a ball, place it over the fish, hold the ball between the thumb and the middle finger, and push with the other thumb on top to flatten it into a more rectangular shape.

Finally, turn it around to bring the fish to top, squeeze it once with two fingers, and give it a gentle stroke with the thumb and the index finger to complete the store. Repeat for the remaining 9 pieces :)

Before…
… and after!

When we finished, we were also given a bowl of Miso soup and bottled green tea to complete the lunch set.

We are now certified Nigiri-Sushi chefs!

Samurais and Ninjas 🐱‍👤

We spent the afternoon in the Ninja and Samurai museum. It had some fun activities such as throwing Shuriken (Ninja stars), and blowing darts. It turns out that Ninjas actually worked as spies, and as such, had to camouflage their weapons. For instance, they would carry a flute that would serve as a blow tube for the darts.

Ariella was really good at blow darts!
Ninja fast sword drawing moves with cool background music

Samurais, on the other hand, were a whole different story — they were officers with special privileges, such as wearing two swords, or fighting on horse-backs. We were lucky to get a British guide who told the stories of ancient Japan with a lot of passion and was very knowledgeable and made the museum tour much more fun.

Almost Samurais…

We learned that some Samurais started their career in a very early age (12 years old), so they wore masks with mustaches to look older and to scare the enemy. Some of the mask had really exaggerated features and actually seemed a bit ridiculous:

Three Samurai dolls and a real one

Experimental Dinner

On our frequent visits to convenience stores we were always intrigued by the large hot pots containing bunch of mysterious ingredients floating in a hot broth. Thus, we decided to try that for dinner:

What are all those strange things floating in hot water?

We later learned that this dish is called “Oden”, and even found detailed explanations about some of the ingredients. You pick as many pieces as you want using tongs, spill some of the Dashi broth over them, and pay by the piece.

My favorite one was Daikon, a Japanese radish that soaks in all the flavors from the other ingredients. You can see it on the left-bottom corner of the photo.

Some of the ingredients reminded me flavors from home, such as the beef mince filled cabbage roll (left-bottom in the photo). The most surprising one was, however, a grayish cutlet that tasted much like Gefilte Fish, a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dish. Who’d believe we’ll find this in Japan?

Arashiyama, Okochi Sanso Garden and Monkeys!

Arashiyama is a district famous for its impressive bamboo groves, where you can find sky-scarping bamboo trees:

Bamboos, everywhere!
Bamboo-Selfie

While exploring the groves, we found some talented grove-performers:

Crystal Ball Magic

Next to the grove we found a beautiful Japanese garden called “Okochi Sanso”:

A traditional Japanese House in Okochi Sanso

Finally, we headed to visit some local monkeys in the Iwatayama Monkey Park. After about 30 minutes of a steep climb, we found them:

Hakuna Matata?
Amazing panoramic view of Kyoto

Gion Corner Show

Gion Corner is a Theater where you can get a glimpse into Japanese traditional performing arts — a 50 minutes show that includes shortened versions of the Tea Ceremony, Geisha and Maiko dances (called Kyo-mai), Flower Arrangement, Koto (string instrument) playing, Gagaku dance, Kyogen Theater, and even Puppet Theater (which was pretty impressive):

Tea Ceremony
Maikos Dancing
Puppet Theater, Gagaku dancing & Koto playing

Issen-Yoshoku Dinner

By the time the show ended we were famished. We started heading back to the hotel, as the following scene caught our eyes:

The entrance of the restaurant. Ahm!

This piqued our curiosity, so we checked the menu and were surprised to find only a single item: Issen-Yoshoku. The waitress explained that this is Kyoto style Okonomiaki, a kind of pancakes with eggs, spring onions, beef, ginger, tempura batter, Konjak jelly, dried Bonito and other savory ingredients. So we ordered one. It was indeed delicious:

Our Issen-Yoshoku
This is how they are prepared

Ginkakuji and Unplanned Pottery Workshop

We took a bus to Ginkaku-ji temple, followed by a short walk from the bus stop to the Philosopher’s Path that leads to the temple. While walking, a small sign advertising a pottery workshop caught my way. Five minutes later, Ariella and I were sitting next to the wheels and crafting a bowl and a cup.

Proud of our fresh creations

Mansa, the shop owner, provided an excellent guidance that helped us achieve the exact shape we wanted. The bowls will be delivered to our home after firing and glazing, and we are looking forward to get them in a month (or so).

We then stopped for lunch in Omen, where we had Udon, Tempura and Marakel Sushi:

Cold Udon, dipped in Soy and Sesame broth. Yummy!

The Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji is a Zen temple in the Northen part of the city. Its name translates to “The Golden Pavilion”, as the walls of the top floors are covered with gold leaf. The temple is situated next to a large pond, and you can walk around it and view it from different angles. We arrived late afternoon, and the views were simply amazing:

This place is real!
Just the three of us

Kyoto was full of colors, flavors and experiences. We had a good time there!