Compared to Tokyo’s sprawling expanse of concrete, steel, neon, and asphalt, Kyoto’s first impression is one of water, greenery, mountains, and temples, temples, temples. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites within its boundaries, and countless other locations of historical and cultural significance in between each one, it often seems as though you can’t go two blocks without running headfirst into a torii gate. Yet Kyoto is also a city of contrasts. Modern high-rises and construction sites butt up against the grounds of 17th century shogun residence, Nijo Castle. Geisha in full face makeup and kimonos walk down the streets of Gion, past tourists and residents heading out to eat.
The city’s rich background of history also finds its way into the cuisine. Kyoto features seven three-star Michelin restaurants, nearly all of them devoted to the traditional Japanese multi-course meal, kaiseki. A kaiseki meal is typically in the neighborhood of 10 or more courses, and a good portion of the magic is concentrated in the visual arrangement and composition of the courses. Chefs arrange the tiniest of ingredients to exacting standards, worrying over the position of an individual flower petal, or cutting already tiny ingredients into intricate patterns.
The push and pull of history and modernity finds its way into kaiseki. Within the kaiseki ‘scene’ in Kyoto, one has a variety of choices. The most well-known is Kikunoi Honten, a three-star place with locations in Kyoto and Tokyo. The owner, Yoshihiro Murata, is the picture of a modern day star chef. He studied in France and consults on food for Singapore Airlines. He’s known for integrating more modern techniques into kaiseki, and a look at the menu now reveals this in dishes featuring items like turnip “ice” and kumquat sorbet. All of this makes for an excellent dining experience, but we were searching for something more traditional. For our kaiseki meal, I went with Hyotei.
Hyotei exudes history from every brick.. The restaurant started 400 years ago as a stop-over for pilgrims on their way to the nearby Nanzenji Temple. Pilgrims would stop for tea and eggs before doing their worshipping thing. The egg recipe apparently hasn’t changed in the intervening centuries, and they’re a centerpiece to every meal you have there.
Booking the reservation was fairly easy with the help of the concierge at the Westin Kyoto, but there was one strange aspect. Hyotei offers you a selection of price points, with no detail at all on what the different prices entail. I asked the concierge and was told more expensive meals “might” have “more courses or more expensive ingredients.” So basically, pick one and hope for the best! I picked one two steps down from the top, as the top was over $500/person and I had already blown my wad on Jiro.
Hyotei sits on the same manicured grounds as the Nanzenji Temple, so close that it’s nearly temple grounds itself. Instead of one main restaurant, Hyotei is like a complex of small tea houses and classically Japanese dining rooms (paper-thin walls and tatami mats and all), all standing individually and apart from one another. Going to the restroom involves putting on provided slippers and taking a brisk walk outside between buildings. A completely private dining room for all parties, however, is a nice bonus.
For those with Western dining sensibilities, a meal at Hyotei is like something from an alien planet. Sights, smells, tastes, and textures are often foreign and unpredictable. The meal started with a set plate featuring such things as edible chrysanthemum flower, jellyfish, and soy sauce “made from tomato.” Even after eating, I would still have trouble pointing out which element is which. Bites are very small, just enough to get a quick rush of flavor and texture, and then it’s over and you’re on to the next one. I don’t expect tomato-based soy sauce to catch on – the flavor was astringent and lacked the salty notes of garden-variety sauce.
The meal moved on through a roller coaster of ups and downs. A white miso soup had all the rich flavors of the best sushi-restaurant miso, with a fantastic sweetness added on top. Meanwhile a deep fried turnip was doused in a thick, mucilaginous “starchy special sauce.” Taro root formed into the shape of shrimp and simmered was like eating wet chalk. But a course of prawns cut into caps for balls of sushi rice was delicious, and accompanied by the famed eggs. Somewhere between sous vide and soft-boiled, with a rich orange yolk, the eggs were perfect bites. Four hundred years of iteration yields good results, it seems. Occasionally a course would include a bit of charcoal grilled duck, or perfectly marinated block of fish, but it would inevitably be accompanied by something like “lotus root cake, like tofu” and my internal cuisine compass lost all sense of direction.
Textures in the kaiseki meal were particularly problematic. The Japanese seem to have a love affair with soft textures for savory courses, like puddings and jellos. In Sapporo for instance, we got a warm pudding made of crab miso (a general name for the dull green/brown paste of internal organs left over after the crab meat is gone). Sukiyaki in Tokyo was a wonderful combination of Kobe beef simmered in soy sauce and sugar. But just in case that was too nice for you, they coat it all in raw egg, just to make sure it slides down your throat better. Kaiseki chefs revel in these traditional soft textures. By the time we got to the dessert, a starchy sweet paste made from adzuki beans, I had reached my limit. Thankfully the final dish was a huge, brilliantly-colored persimmon cut in half. The simple sweetness was a welcome palate cleanser.
In planning the itinerary for our Japan trip, I was warned against “temple fatigue.” While nearly every historic site in Kyoto and elsewhere in Japan is majestic in isolation, visiting site after site can become tiresome as every temple pagoda and tori gate blends into one in your mind. Around this time of the trip, I began to get a similar sensation regarding traditional Japanese food. I don’t mean to tell anyone that Hyotei was a bad experience, but there turns out to be a limit to what my taste buds could take. Just a couple nights before, we had stayed at a ryokan where we had another traditional kaiseki dinner. Combined with frequent Japanese breakfasts that seemed to always center around a mound of soft tofu or some sort of savory gelatinous concoction, fatigue had started to set in. For our remaining time in Kyoto, we set out to find something, if not modern, a little more homey.
Finding a good izakaya in a Japanese city is the proverbial needle in the haystack problem. Izakayas are essentially small plates restaurants in Japan, and they’re nearly as common as Starbucks in America. The vast majority, like tapas restaurants in the US, are mediocre to decent in quality, with a few truly standout places for every ten or twenty standards. Finding those gems can be a search, as it turned out to be in Kyoto.
Okariba is not an easy place to find. The address varies depending on what website you’re looking at, and punching any of them into Google Maps yielded erroneous location information. Still, word on the web was that the proprietor of Okariba was an avid hunter, and that the menu was largely made up of his kills. It seemed somehow appropriate that such a place put our own tracking skills to the test.
Once you’re on the same block as Okariba, there will be no mistaking the signs. Outside sit two separate lit up signs, one showing a dead boar on a grill, and another featuring a boar in hunting gear with a shotgun, and two dead boars in the background. From my experience at Okariba, when boars play the Most Dangerous Game, it’s the customers who benefit.
We ate at a few izakayas in our time in Japan, and they presented a common problem – the lack of English menus. While Emily is quite fluent in conversation, remembering the thousands of kanji proved difficult, particularly for esoteric food items. To compensate, we usually just ask the waiter to bring out a selection of things for us, like omakase at a sushi restaurant. Sometimes this worked out well. At other times, the waiter returns with a plate of whale sperm sacks (literally the first thing we ate in Japan. Mushy and overly tangy from the marinade. Not recommended). We hoped for better from Okariba.
The chef, Aoki-san, is a soft-spoken, bespectacled man resembling a Japanese Mario. He mans a large grill area in the center of the restaurant. The place is clad from head to toe in wood, giving everything a log cabin feel in fitting with the hunting theme. While the menu didn’t specify which specific items were from hunts or not, it was clear there was more than your average izakaya available here. Emily noted references to bear, deer, duck, and more. Aoki-san was happy to accommodate our omakase request and set to work.
The first dish to come out was the restaurant’s signature – boar hot off the charcoal grill, coated with a thin, slightly sweet miso sauce. Served in chunks on a skewer like kebabs, this was one of the best things I ate on the trip. True charcoal-grilled meats are something that just can’t be easily had in the States, and eating one that’s expertly done can be a singular experience. The smokiness infused itself into the meats, and biting down let loose all the seared-in savory juices of the meat. The net result was a symphony of pig.
Aoki-san followed it up with a salad of greens and venison, dressed in a citrus sauce. It was an excellent chaser to the pure meat and fat of the boar. Among a couple other small plates came one that we asked for by name: basashi. Otherwise known as horse sashimi. Horse meat is not exactly common in Japan, but it’s far from unheard of. We even saw one restaurant in Tokyo where the entire menu was horse. Aoki-san went to the back to get it, and brought out a bright red plate of sliced meat. I tried a piece right away, noticing a strange crunch as I chewed. It was near frozen. Apparently this isn’t a common dish there, and Aoki-san got it out of the freezer without adequately defrosting it. After a few minutes, the slices lost their icy crunch and became more palatable. But the pieces defrosted unevenly, and the varying temperatures made the experience unpleasant. The taste is similar to rare beef, with a very fleshy, meaty texture. Without the temperature weirdness, this would have been a tasty bite.
Finally, Aoki-san came to our table. He was clearly happy to have two Westerners in his restaurant enjoying his food, particularly one who could converse in Japanese. He brought out a plate with a sly smile and presented it on our table. Our eyes grew wide and we exclaimed in unison. It was bugs. Two piles of bugs sat on the plate, staring back at us with dead compound eyes.
The first pile was a blackened heap of locusts, legs splayed in all directions. They had been fried and coated in a brown sauce of some kind that hardened on their dead bodies. The other pile appeared more like a science experiment gone wrong. A grayed yellow and black pile of short little worms. Bee larvae, Aoki-san revealed, laughing. The first impression was that they were one step away from maggots.
“A challenge!” said Aoki-san, with his usual big grin. I stared down at the plate, wondering whether, if I bolted, the locusts would take off and come after me like in the plagues. I picked one up, and put it down, unable to put it in my mouth. I have problems with insects, and just when I’m being asked to put them in my mouth. I couldn’t imagine myself eating one. Meanwhile, Emily popped one in her mouth. I was in disbelief watching it, having seen her driven to screams by insects before. But it was even more unbelievable when she said “Wow, these are really good!” Clearly an elaborate joke was being played on me here. Nevertheless, I finally mustered every spare drop of courage from the furthest unexplored recesses of my body and ate one.
My first expectations were refuted – the taste was certifiably not revolting. The locusts had been fried so much that whatever their flesh was like before the cooking process, all that was left behind was a locust shaped shell of fried oil and sweet sauce. It crunched just like a chip, and in fact, that describes the whole experience of eating them – little different from popping chips. However, while I was chewing, one of the spindly legs of the locust broke off and got turned around so that the point drove itself directly into my tongue. It didn’t break the skin, but it hurt, and left me with the image of a locust leg sticking in my tongue. As such, I didn’t eat any more, while Emily happily munched away on another two or three.
Our last challenge loomed large, however. The bee larvae sat staring at us from unseen eyes, daring us to touch it. I went through the same process as the locusts of trying to muster courage up, failing, and retrying. In the end, failure won the day. Lines have to be drawn somewhere, and it turned out that just in front of bee larvae dessert was where my line was to be found today. We apologized to Aoki-san and let him know we were ready for the check. He laughed, took the plates away, and came out with one last surprise – a bottle full of umeshu, a sweet plum wine. His gift to the Westerners who ate (some of) his bugs.
The meals of Kyoto were just a part of what the city had to offer, as one could spend whole days if not weeks going over the tourist sites. We enjoyed the towering spires of Kiyomizudera, a massive temple built without a single nail, and the stunning facade and immaculate grounds of Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. We contemplated existence in the Zen garden of Ryoan-ji, and saw a geisha walking the narrow corridors off the main roads of Gion. One may find oneself suffering temple fatigue or cuisine fatigue after enough time. Kyoto, however, always seemed to find a way to defy expectations.
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