Take me to a place once and I usually know how to get there again. I make a mental map in my head and I’m good. But apparently I cannot read an actual map. That morning, we had more than an hour before we were to meet our guide Atsuko from VisitKansai.com, who was going to accompany us around Nishiki Market, and I thought it was a good idea to look for the streets of Ishibei-koji, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. They were part of the Lonely Planet guide book’s Southern Higashiyama Walking Tour that we wanted to follow on our first afternoon in Kyoto, but couldn’t because it was so freaking cold—which was, by then, taking its toll on me. So even though I woke up with a headache, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat, I insisted to my husband that I was fine. I was determined to find those streets. Or at least one of them.
How can you not go inside?
After we went inside Yasaka Shrine, I tried to make sense of where we were in the map. We were not on a main road and there wasn’t a street sign I could understand. I thought maybe I was looking at the map in the wrong way. Minutes of standing in the cold wasn’t helping my map-reading skills, so we decided to simply walk down the street to the right of Yasaka Shrine, because it seemed like it was the right direction. We kept walking until we saw a quaint, little alley with a short covered walkway. It piqued our interest. We saw three elderly folks enter. It didn’t look like a private property so we followed them. We figured if they lived there they would have turned us away. But they ignored us. So we kept walking along that almost empty, narrow cobbled street lined with shrubbery over a long concrete wall.
P and I didn’t know where in the map we were or where we were going, but it didn’t really matter at that point. Aside from the fact that we could easily retrace our steps, for the first time, we felt like we were exploring Kyoto on our own. Searching for a place and anticipating what we would actually find. Then we saw two girls dressed up as geishas turn to another alley. We followed them and there it was Ishibei-koji. Though there was no street sign, I knew it was the street Lonely Planet calls, “perhaps the most beautiful street in Kyoto,” because (1) it was indeed beautiful (though not sure of being ‘the most’) and (2) because I had been watching this video on Kyoto hundreds of times before flying to Japan and for a few seconds it shows Ishibei-koji—an immaculate cobbled alley lined with traditional Japanese inns and restaurants. Sometimes, even without a map, you end up where you’re supposed to be, anyway.
Four-hundred meter heaven: Nishiki Market
I was going to write a part of the trip for my editor in a food magazine so I wanted to explore Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market with a guide/translator. We met our guide Atsuko at a train station along Shijo-dori before walking to the centuries-old marketplace dubbed as the Kitchen of Kyoto. Atsuko, who lives in Osaka is a licensed guide who teaches English. The tours are a way for her to practice her English and she was very patient answering our questions, such as: What were those pasty or powdery concoctions covering the vegetables and the fish? (Answer: nuka, which is rice bran, or miso) What were the tasty black beans called? (Answer: Kuromame. You can eat it as a snack or cook it with rice for flavoring) What did you call those gelatinous, salty-sweet preserves of seaweed, fish, or meat served as a side dish to many Japanese meals? (Answer: Tsukudani).
We explored the 400-meter long marketplace lined with around 140 stores. It was a food (and kitchen) paradise; I would be happy going there every single day. We tasted some kuromame and tsukudani. Checked out the knife shop dating back to 1560 that sold a variety of hand-crafted knives. Saw how bonito flakes looked like before they were, well, flaked. Found our mouths watering at the sight of mochi, onigiri, fish cakes, sashimi tuna on a stick, and the one I looked forward to the most after months of stalking Kyoto-based food blogs, the tofu doughnuts.
One of the shops I love since it sold those sweet-salty Japanese side dishes called tsukudani. Feel free to sample each one.
At the Aritsugu knife shop, where you can find all sorts of knives—for meat, fish (even for a particular fish), sushi rolls, noodles, vegetables, etc.
Nishiki has several shops selling Japanese sweets like mochi and daifuku
Pickled vegetables covered in nuka or rice bran
All sorts of seafood--from fresh to pickled to ready-to-eat
Throughout our Japan trip, P saw a number of small dolls left on the doorways and gates. This one was outside a shop in Nishiki. Anyone know what it's about? (Update: Blogger Tokyobling gave me this explanation: "I think it is meant to be a frog, and as we all know, frog in Japanese is “kaeru” or カエル, which happens to be the same as come back, return, 帰る. So a lot of Japanese stores, cities, temples, stations have some sort of frog symbol near their exit to welcome visitors back.)
Yolk and bean jam buns. I didn't enjoy this one so much.
Want tuna sashimi on the go? Have it on a stick!
The best Nishiki Market snack for me: Konnamonja’s tofu doughnuts
After ogling at so much food (even though we bought and snacked on some octopus on a stick, kuromame, bean jam buns and tofu doughnuts), by the time we had walked from one end of Nishiki Market (Teramachi) to the other (Takakura) we were hungry for lunch. Atsuko recommended her favorite sushi-ya in Kyoto—at the basement food hall of the Daimaru Department Store. (Now, a basement food hall or depachika is another food/consumerist phenomenon in Japan altogether. Check this article from Food & Wine.) We walked past shiny stalls of every Japanese food and western delicacies packaged and presented so elaborately, and found the corner sushi-ya Atsuko was talking about.