Friday, August 9, 2013

Kyoto Diaries - I Love Matcha

Tea is a big thing in the Japanese culture, and Kyoto is famed for producing some of the finest green teas in the world. To the Japanese, tea is not just a beverage and tea drinking is an experience that is respected and enjoyed. 

If green tea is your cup of tea (no pun intended), I would recommend a visit to the Ippodo (not to be confused with Ippudo ramen), one of the oldest tea retailers in Kyoto with over 300 years of history. 

The Kaboku tearoom located at its flagship store on Teramachi Street offers guests the opportunity to learn and enjoy the tea brewing process with their choice of tea from the menu, rather than simply having it prepared and served by a staff.

 We choose the koicha set under the weekday special.

Kana, our lovely tour guide has been learning the art of tea making for over 6 years and kindly offered to show us how to make our own matcha.

Matcha refers to powder green tea and there are 2 kinds - the thicker koicha (as pictured above) and the thinner usucha. It was my first time trying koicha and I never knew it existed because the common way to consume matcha is usucha way. All tea in the teahouse are served with a sweet and my tour guide told me the right way to eat it is to have it before drinking the tea. I would have done it otherwise and have the sweet after drinking the matcha. 

To make your matcha, you would need a chasen (bamboo tea whisk) and matcha chawan (tea bowl).

I tried my hands at making my own usucha. I looked so serious! Well, got to respect the tea making tradition right? 

Halfway through my usucha making. Need to whisk it better to create more foam. 

We finished the tea appreciation session with a bancha, and I chose a genmaicha (tea with roasted rice) as my choice. 

There is a retail section next tea house where you can buy the different types of green tea.

Visiting Ippodo is definitely a great way to learn more about tea appreciation and the art of tea making. By the end of the session, I learnt more about the various types of green teas – matcha, gyokuro, sencha, and bancha. I left Ippodo richer with tea knowledge and poorer in yen, but with bags full of tea! 

In fact, I love my tea appreciation session at Ippodo so much that I bought my very own tea so I can make matcha at home. Not too shabby looking right? 

Since we are on the topic of green tea, don't forget to try the soft serve in matcha flavour. 

Do get your hands on matcha kit kats too! You can buy them at the airport before you leave. Try both the matcha and sakura matcha flavours. Stock up for they are really delish.

And don't forget about the Malebranche Okoicha langue de chat that I wrote about in my previous entry about Kyoto!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Kyoto Diaries - The 3 Must-Try Delish Stuff

These are three gastronomic delights that are uniquely Kyoto and you must not miss when you are there.

One is the famous Japanese confectionary that is unique to Kyoto named nama yatsuhashi, which caught my attention for they look like triangular wantons (Chinese dumpling) but have a mochi-like texture wrapped around azuki (red bean) paste.  

They make a great souvenir and gift, and come in several flavoured skins ranging from green tea to cinnamon. 

One has not been to Kyoto if one has not tried Malebranche’s okoicha langue de chat cookies. Those who had the chance to savour it will tell you it is worth visiting Kyoto just for it, since the company does retail outside of Kyoto and the shelf life of these delish sweet treats is only 15 days. They do ship within Japan, but that is if you can navigate through the online store in Japanese.

Langue de chat literally means cat's tongue in French and what makes Malebranche's version so sought after is the special green tea wafers that sandwiched the piece of white chocolate. 

Not just any ordinary green tea, but premium green tea selected by a tea appraiser and a master tea maker form the Uji Tawara region in Kyoto, which is considered the birthplace of Japanese green tea. 

They are not cheap at about 630yen for a small pack of 5 pieces, but leaving Kyoto without trying them will leave you with much regret.

Noodles are a staple in the Japanese diet and noodle bars are a dime a dozen across Japan. What makes Omen so special is the way the udon is being served.

Omen has three restaurants in Kyoto and its signature namesake dish consists of a bowl of special homemade udon made by experts in the north of Kyoto City, served either hot or cold to be dipped into a bowl of tsuyu dipping sauce made with fish stock.  

A beautiful assortment of seasonal Kyoto vegetables are served as dipping accompaniments with the meal, alongside Chinese cabbage, radish, burdock, ginger, scallions. You can also add on tempura and other dishes to your udon if you need something more substantial, or simply if you are just a glutton like me.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kyoto Diaries - Kobe Beef

The streets of Gion are also lined with several bars and noteworthy restaurants, one being Itoh Dining, a teppanyaki place where you can savour the famous Kobe beef. 

The beautiful walkway leading to the restaurant
Part of the NOBU group, Itoh Dining is located in an old traditional townhouse next to the Shirakawa river in the scenic part Gion district. 

If you are a fan of this prized Wagyu beef, Kyoto is a good place to eat it, since it is only an hour’s train ride away from Kobe and freshness is guaranteed.

The chef cooking the Kobe beef at the teppan right before our eyes. *drool*

Delish! Oiishi!

Kyoto Diaries - In Search of Geishas

Once the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years, Kyoto continues to charm Japanese and foreigners alike with its architectural and cultural offerings. I love how my travels inspire me and change me as a person, and my recent visit to Kyoto taught me to appreciate life and treat every experience like a ritual.

Just like how the names are written and pronounced, Kyoto is the complete opposite of Tokyo. Kyoto takes on a slower pace of life as compared to its more popular and modern counterpart. However, it makes up for the lack of high-octane excitement with its heritage and cultural offerings. 

Most visitors to Japan will usually spend more time in Tokyo and merely stop over in Kyoto, perhaps with just a day trip or at most, a night’s stay or two. I hope this series of Kyoto Diaries will inspire you to spend a little more time to discover the beauty of Kyoto, one of the few Japanese cities that was spared from destruction during World War II. 

Top on the list of the must-do things in Kyoto is to take a walk down the geisha districts (known as hanamachi, which literally means flower street) in hope to spot geikos and maikos, which is one of the main reasons for most tourists to visit. 

The streets of Gion are lined with old wooden buildings, comprising okiyas, ochayas and exclusive Japanese restaurant and bars.


Walking through Gion is like wandering through old Japan, rather surreal and very tranquil. 

Geiko means geisha in the Kyoto dialect, and refers to professional entertainers who are well trained in various traditional Japanese arts, such as music and dance. Maiko is an apprentice geisha, and the girls are usually aged between 15 to 20 years old. 
A simple way to tell geisha and maiko apart is that less is more for geishas, while maikos wear more elaborate make up, hair accessories, kimonos and sandals with higher wooden wedges known as okobo. Check out this link for a detailed explanation.

Maiko on the left, geisha on the right. 

Geishas can be found in several cities across Japan, but Kyoto remains the most prestigious place with the best geishas. Perhaps a reason for this is that Kyoto is the only place where strict geisha apprenticeship still exists.  

Standing outside a geisha school. The board behind me shows the timetable of the lessons that maikos have to attend.

There are five geisha districts in Kyoto and taking an evening stroll at sunset down the popular Gion and Pontocho will be your best bet to catch a glimpse of geishas and maikos leaving the okiyas (special geisha housing) to make their way to work at the ochayas (teahouses).  

I spotted a maiko as I walked down Pontocho. Taking photos of these famous ladies are permitted, but do have the basic courtesy not to obstruct their way and refrain from acting like trigger-happy paparazzi.