WAKE-UP CALL on Day 4 was at 5:30 am. We had to walk to the Shinjuku train station; a mere 15 minutes from the inn that felt more like 2 hours because we were frozen. From there it was a 30-minute train ride to Shinagawa station, where we would catch the Shinkansen or bullet train, Japan's high-speed train that zooms past its countryside and takes Tokyo-dwellers to places like Osaka, Kyoto, Nagano etc...
LITTLE BOY loved the ride, and so did we. It was smooth, comfortable and scenic. We gasped in awe when majestic Mt. Fuji, its upper slopes blindingly white with snow, suddenly appeared by the window opposite us. After a brief nap, we opened our eyes to a scene right out of a postcard: that of a small mountainside village whose rooftops, treetops and cars were bathed in snow. This was Nagano, and although we ignorantly thought it was snowing in Kyoto, after 30 minutes of this charming view it was back to flat and grassy fields awash with sunlight.
ARRIVING too early to check in we walked to Nishiki Market, a famous food market in Kyoto. The long street is lined with shops sellling pickled ginger in a myriad of colors and tastes. There was a knife shop I was interested in, but their extra sharp goods were too expensive for my budget, although I gazed longingly at the chef's knives on display. There was no lack of cooked savory and sweet food to be had: grilled fish, breaded pork and seafood, bento boxes, soy milk donuts (we ordered these hot and fresh, and the distinctive taste of soy milk was evident in every sugary bite), and more mochi than I've ever seen in my life! Kyoto in Spring in mochi territory!
entrance to Nishiki
tuna on sticks, waiting to be grilled
dashitamago-large omelets with various fillings using dashi (dried bonito fish and kelp or seaweed) as a flavor base.
making tamago using special rectangular tamago pans. i've tried making some with a regular round non-stick pan and it worked out fine, even if it differed in appearance from restaurant tamago.
i ate 2 of these beauties in one sitting. imagine the onslaugt on your senses: sticky, bland mochi balls encasing smooth and sweet red bean paste, then a squirt of sweetness and tang from a soft, ripe, juicy strawberry. i tried some from a convenience store in Tokyo but the berry was guilty of being too small, too bland and too squished. this handmade one from Nishiki was worth every cent.
triangular, paper-thin mochi with sweet fillings, a specialty in Kyoto only during spring. i also tasted plain white mochi balls that you dip in a black sesame paste. wonderful!
OUR STAY in Kyoto was devoted to visiting it's lush gardens, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and temples steeped in history. SIL and I were lucky enough to have our pictures taken with both maikos (apprentices) and geishas. The cab drivers who brought us around chatted with SIL about geisha history, showed us a geisha's mansion, and took us down memory lane by driving by a street depicting the Kyoto of old - more than 100 years old; the small houses once home to ancestors of Kyoto residents now used as quaint restaurants, izakayas and souvenir shops.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imeprial Palace
WHILE walking around the Maruyama Park SIL and I spotted an English-style manor serving Western food, and at first I thought how silly it was, this pretentious restaurant, until I was silenced by the plaque in front: it had been serving the general public at the exact spot since 1909.
STUNNED, I laughed my silliness off by walking farther away from the source of my shame, and came upon an English-style (again!) tearoom, complete with rose-painted china and other relics of genteel Victorian life scattered about the diding room. Here I ordered herring soup with buckwheat noodles (um, yes, they serve authentic Japanese food). The steaming hot broth cleared my nose and warmed my chilly insides. The herring was grilled and brushed with a sweet, teriyaki-like sauce. Its bones were so soft they melted in the mouth. SIL and I stayed for a bit and sipped their aromatic green tea before gathering enough energy to walk around again. We toured the Eastern part of Kyoto (Kodaiji Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Chionin Temple, GIon) for a good 3 1/2 hours, and was rewarded for our efforts by the sight of Kiyomizudera Temple at night, its cherry blossoms lit by garden lights.
Kiyomizudera at night
FOR DINNER we all trooped to the restaurant two doors down from our hotel - oh, did I mention our room here was 6 times bigger than our Tokyo one? It had a proper closet, dressing room, living room, a long cabinet housing fluffy robes and silky kimonos, and two TV'S! And it cost far less than our Tokyo box! Dinner was at a bright, happy place where the specialty was shabu-shabu, which we didn't order (don't ask why, it frustrates me to this day). I wasn't disappointed with my bento box and SIL's sushi platter though. Hubby's bento box contained tuna sashimi, which I happily ate, chicken teriyaki, a flavorful, quivering mass of chawan mushi (egg pudding) with generous bits of prawn hidden inside, pickles, salad and assorted tempura. Mine had assorted sushi and tempura, a mini beef hotpot cooked in a coffee filter- like paper bowl over a slow flame, chicken teriyaki, chawan mushi and a delightful vegetable and seafood ball broth. All this for HKD 120/bento box. My camera's battery had died down at this point, and the memory card was full, which explains the lack pf pictures for these 2 days and why I bought a camera upon arriving at Tokyo on the afternoon of DAY 5.
AFTER A leisurely breakfast at the hotel the next day - composed of convenience store bento boxes, we set out for Kinkakuji, an extremely beautiful and serene temple made out of gold leaf. It sits in a lagoon and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The surrounding hills, streams, mountains and gardens are forever embedded in my mind, and hopefully hubby will endeavor to surprise me with a Japanese garden replica in our future home, albeit a fraction of the size, and without the gold leaf pavillion, of course. It was a perfect morning marred only by the tourist shops, too many of them, noisily selling their wares a few meters before exiting temple grounds.
RYOANJI temple was next, a "masterpiece of Japanese culture", according to the guide books. The complex houses the Kyoyochi Pond, made in the late twelfth century, and a famous rock garden, composed of only 15 rocks and white gravel, and measuring 25 meters east to west and 10 meters south to north. Philisophers would sit by this garden and contemplate life and the meaning of the rocks. Whoever designed the simple garden at the end of the 15th century meant to inspire in the viewer zen-like meditation.
ON THE WAY back to Tokyo I overdosed on onigiri at a convenince store. What looked interesting was simple a circle of rice dipped in soy sauce with NO FILLING INSIDE! ARGGGGGH! I was sick of bland rice! Another ongiri using red rice and beans was average, and the salmon one had a strand of hair sticking out from it so I lost my appetite altgether and didn't buy a single onigiri for the rest of my stay.
GOOD THING we had dinner at the Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Lumine EST Department Store, Shinjuku. Wolfgang has 3 eateries in this city, an express at Harajuku, tha cafe and a fine dining option. By this time I had my new camera, a Canon Powershot A640 (hey, it got good reviews on the net, with a professional photographer saying it's more than a beginner's camera, though not a professional one, and will work well for the camera enthusiast, like me!). I hadn't tinkered around with it or read the manual so in the box it stayed while we enjoyed our baby spinach salad with crisp bacon, goat's cheese and caramelized pecans tossed in sherry vinaigrette; Italian sausage pizza; tomato. basil and garlic spaghetti; fresh chittara with cream, bacon and basil paste; the house special burger with onion rings; and a truly indulgent appetizer of truffle potato chips with bleu cheese dip.
BEFORE we had dinner SIL took us to Harajuku, shopping havens for either the rich fashionistas or weird teenagers of Tokyo. I feasted my eyes on the shops selling gothic wear, lacy undergarments in the most "baduy" designs, and even sighted some Harajuku girls that looked like Gwen Stefani's back-up dancers.
ALL IN ALL, an eventful 2 days.