This is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.
After Kiyomizudera, we planned to walk all the way to Gion for lunch, which is more than 3 km away, but with lots of stuff to see along the way.
But before leaving Kiyomizudera, we spent some time shopping in shops in front of the temple. One particular shop is quite popular, they serve complimentary green tea and allow you to sample all the different snacks they have on offer. One item that was recommended to try was a large wheel of matcha-flavoured swiss roll called Baumkuchen. However, since it has to be eaten within a few days, we planned to buy it at the airport in Osaka. We also bought some rice crackers and matcha chocolates from here.
Turn right from the temple is Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, a district of well preserved traditional homes converted to shops and restaurants. It is a bit like Bukchon Hanok is Seoul, except a little more friendly and commercialized (and closed to traffic). Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka are actually two conjoined streets, but I’m not sure where one begins and the other starts, just follow the crowds and shops and you won’t veer off track.
Along the way we tried this popular snack – Kobe beef croquet for JPY 300. I wonder if they really use Kobe beef?
En route to Gion, we detoured off one of the side streets to find %Arabica, said to serve the best coffee in Kyoto. They’ve a few branches all over the world, but in Japan they only have 3 joints and they are all in Kyoto. In our time here, we managed to visit 2 different branches (the other one in Arashiyama).
I really like their minimalist dÃ©cor, and the verdict on the coffee? Yes, it really good, far superior to any I’ve tasted recently. If you are looking for this coffee bar, look for Hokan-ji temple and it is a few doors away.
Further on we saw some geishas taking a ride on a traditional rickshaw.
Next we turned off yet another nondescript lane with no markings except of a small wooden sign in Japanese. This is Ishibei-koji, said to be the “most beautiful lane in all of Kyoto”. Well, I can’t attest to that claim, but its rather pretty. They took pains to maintain a 17th-century look and feel and it is worth a few snapshots (but keep it quiet, there are people staying here).
At the end of the long walk you will reach Maruyama Park. In the summer months, the park and the temples within are rather lively. After struggling with the directions for awhile, we decided to skip Shoren-In (so far to walk!), and walk around the park instead. At the western end of the park, where our lunch destination was located, we found that there was festival going on in the smaller Yasaka Shrine.
As with most major temples at this time, there are food stalls abound here.
We bought this – crab meat on a stick. Somewhere in Japan there’s a giant crab walking around missing a left hand.
Right in front of Yasaka Shrine is a massive traffic junction, and on the other side of the road is Izuju. At first we lined up the wrong shop, there was this other shop with long line of people waiting. We assumed this was Izuju (since it was very popular) but when the menu was passed along the line for pre-order we realized it wasn’t serving sushi. Doing some post-trip research, I think that other shop is Hachidaime Gihey, serving specially cooked rice with sashimi and other sides.
But anyway, we were singleminded focused on trying Izuju. A nice guy in the bakery pointed me to the shop next door, there was no sign in English! There was also no actual queue, just some old Japanese folks sitting around. An old man pointed the reservation list where you are supposed to write your name with a brush.
Since we can’t write Japanese, and their kanji characters have different meanings from our Chinese, we wrote in English. You write from up to down, the number denotes your party size.
We waited for about half an hour with 5 groups ahead of us. Meanwhile we saw Pablo cheesecake across the road, so I went to buy some of their famous cheese tarts.
They had some winter promotion going one, so I selected two of each flavours of cheese tarts for about JPY 1900. There are 3 flavours – original cheese, chocolate and matcha. Plus the promo also entitled me to a free cup of cookies. During our entire trip, I think we tried 4 different cheese tarts / cakes.
Anyway, back to lunch. Finally we got a seat in Izuju, the restaurant is extremely small! Only 5 tables, the rest of the place is taken by the kitchen. This restaurant is 100 years old and is the oldest and most traditional place serving Kyoto-style sushi. They use cured fish and vinegar so it tastes rather different from other sushi we’ve tried. Traditionally, this is because Kyoto is landlocked so the people here had to preserve their fish to last the winter months.
The verdict – Definitely the best sushi we’ve ever tried, my wife said it was the best meal in Japan. Better than the unagi in Arashiyama? Hmmm tough call. But savour the tastes, you will not find it anywhere else.
Next – Fushimi Inari