We reminisce our evening at Takonyudo. The evening starts out with us hunting down this local restaurant known to specialize in akashiyaki, grilled egg batter cooked with tako (octopus chunks). In wet weather, we walk in search of Takonyudo along Kamiyachi-dori, the street located along the Takase River canal and also known for Kyoto's vibrant nightlife with down-to-earth and cheap dining jaunts. Unable to read Japanese characters on the restaurant signboards, we resort to peeking through each entrance we pass by to see if it fits with the description of what we've read about Takonyudo. Finally T spots a picture of an octopus at the entrance of one of the tiny restaurants. We peek through the glass door and hanging yellow curtain and see the horseshoe counter lined with bowls. Score. This is Takonyudo.

We take a seat at the horseshoe counter. There is no menu here but the counter is lined with bowls and pots of obanzai (Kyoto specialties) so that customers can see what the kitchen has prepared for the day and then order the items. Not all available dishes line the counter so if you have a particular item in mind, be sure to ask if they have it. Dishes are served in small portions and meant for sharing with your companion(s). In true Japanese style, when eating, drinking, and conversations are combined, dishes are ordered gradually with 1-2 items at a time. At Takonyudo, the lovely chef and his wife tend to the customers. We start our night with some beer and tell them "Nama biru oneigaishimasu" (draft beer, please).

We put in an order of their specialty, the akashiyaki which is egg batter and chunks of tako (octopus) cooked and grilled together on a hot plate with small rounded moulds. An order comes with 10 balls and though we see other customers generally getting one order for him or herself, we decide to share an order among ourselves. The akashiyaki is cooked until lightly brown on the outside and the center is surprisingly very moist. Each ball is light and fluffy.

And so our very memorable night in Kyoto begins.

Obviously realizing that T and I are gaijin (non-Japanese), the very pleasant salaryman sitting next to us at the counter asks in his basic English knowledge, "Where are you from?". At this time the friendly chef and his lovely wife take interest in our conversation. We tell them that we are from America and say "Amerika shusshin desu". Further on I say "Malaysia umare desu" and T says "Singapore umare desu". The chef's wife then smilingly says that she visited Malaysia during the time of "Mahathir-san" and her husband chef says "Prime Minister".

We ask our new dining acquaintance for his food recommendation and he says something in Japanese to the chef's wife. Shortly after, the lady brings us a small bowl of stew with beef and konnyaku (devil's root jelly). The stew is prepared with a dark liquid-y sauce with a light drizzle of red colored oil. Despite its dark color and as a stew, the dish is not heavy and in fact very tasty.

Thanks to a magazine article we read, we wish to try their pond snail dish and not knowing the Japanese word for it, all we ask is "Snail?" in English. Alas, when we realize that neither the chef, his wife, nor our new dining acquaintance understand the word, Tim proceeds to gesture with his fingers mimicking the action of something walking very slowly before using his fingers to "draw" the shape of a snail's curled shell. It turns out that the gesture, which is actually quite a hilarious sight in itself, isn't any more helpful . Before we know it, our new acquaintance whips out his cellphone from his pocket and tries to call his friend who presumably speaks some English. T brings out the iPad and goes to Google Translate. At one point, to our amusement, the chef's wife casually tells other customers that we are from America. A truly funny moment.

Note: It is true when people say that if the Japanese do not understand you, they will try their best to communicate with you.

With the Japanese word for snail that we just learned on Google Translate, we try it out on them. Then we hear the chef and his wife say two English words that sound like "small shells" and before we know it, she walks towards one of the pots, scoops something into a bowl, and shows it to us. Ah hah, that's right! They have snails! We instantly say "Hai!" (yes, in Japanese) and they respond with "Ahhh". At this time, loud laughter ensues among us. Language barriers can be interestingly fun but this is only the start. The tanishi (pond snails) is simmered in soy sauce and is perfect with our nama biru (draft beer).

We get another dish, this time a type of leafy and thin stalk vegetables braised with maguro (tuna) flakes. The new dining acquaintance who is sitting next to me finishes his food and beer and stands up to leave. Soon enough two young men walk into Takonyudo and take the empty seats next to us. The chef's wife comes over to talk to T and I, while pointing to one of the men next to us, and says "Eigo wo shaberi" (he speaks English) though soon enough T and I find out that this guy's English isn't much better than our very poor Japanese!

We learn from our new chatty friend that he was born in Canada, lived there until he was 2 years old, and then lived in Singapore until he was 10 before returning to Japan. He looks coy as he tells us that although he lived in Singapore his English is, in his words, "still not good". We make instant conversations with each other which include him asking if we are just visiting Japan. He tells us that he personally ranks the best and most interesting cities in Japan with Tokyo (#1), Osaka (#2), and Kyoto (#3). A large part of our lively conversations throughout the night involve him attempting to communicate with us in English, including taking short pauses where he thinks of the appropriate English words to convey his thoughts. On our part, we attempt our equally poor and limited knowledge of the Japanese language.

Now, not only is our new friend chatty and friendly towards T and I. He orders some fried yuba (tofu skin), another Kyoto specialty, and tells us that it is for us, from him. He then gestures the action of putting some salt onto our plates and lightly dipping a piece of yuba into the salt before eating. T and I enjoy the delicate and crispy fried yuba while feeling incredibly honored by his display of graciousness. Soon, the second guy who came in with him informs us that it is the chatty friend's birthday today. T gets the birthday boy a round of nama biru (draft beer) and we all toast in celebration. Oh, what a wonderful night that transcends language barriers.

T and I get more food for ourselves and this time we get oden to satisfy my craving for these boiled Japanese fish cakes and konnyaku (devil's root jelly) on a cold and wet night.

In conversation, T gets curious about the nearby city of Kobe and asks our new dining friend about it. He tries to tell us about Kobe but ends up being able to do so only by having 3/4 of his response in Japanese while the 1/4 in English. He then calls out to a white American young man who is eating with 3 Japanese women as a group; they are seated close to us at the counter. Our chatty friend starts talking across the counter to the American in continuous strings of sentences in Japanese. At this point, the night becomes increasingly hilarious. Not understanding a word that is said, T laughs and says "Wakarimasen" (I don't understand). Then, the American turns to us and says "He said to tell you that he doesn't think Kobe is traditional Japan because it has influences from all over." Right after this, our new friend had a revelation of an English word he wants to use to describe to us about Kobe and quips "Hai! International!". He starts speaking again across the counter to the American and the latter conveys the message to us: "He said he would like to buy you a dish because it's his birthday. It's from the bottom of Kyoto's heart."

Once again we are touched by his sincere generosity and let him recommend his favorite dish. Seeing that we already had some konnyaku (devil's root jelly) that night, he gets one with a different preparation for us while saying "It's konnyaku but it tastes different." We tell him "Arigato" (thank you) and he replies "Enjoy Japan". The dish indeed tastes different from other konnyaku preparations we've tried. His recommendation is spot on. It is boiled in a spicy and sweet soy sauce, and the flavors are well-absorbed into the konnyaku.

Our new chatty-generous-lively friend then decides to be more tech savvy as he takes out his smartphone to use the translator app. He types Japanese into the translator app and then shows us the translated words in English. In hopes to explain to us why he now decides to use the translator app, he shows us the translated word on his smartphone: Convenience. Though at various points in the night, he turns to his other friend (who came for dinner with him) asking how to say certain words in English. Seeing this, Tim is prompted to ask that friend "Your English is good?" The friend laughs and says "No, I am pure Japanese. Born and live in Japan." Tim says "But he is asking you about some English words." Our chatty friend smiles shyly and says "Top secret." Yes, it is top secret that he previously lived in Singapore because his English is "still not good."

The two gentlemen end up leaving the restaurant before us and on his way out, he asks the American (the poor American who is now our token translator!) how to wish us a Happy New Year in English.  
Note: This visit to Japan was in December but only now am I catching up with this blog entry!

A great, albeit short, friendship is formed with so much graciousness experienced by T and I that night. We may not see our new chatty friend again but for the memories of that night at Takonyudo, that is stuff that great friendships are made of.

204 Shijo-agaru

Very little English is generally spoken here though the chef can speak some English words.



Even a rainy night in Kyoto can't take away the calm and elegant atmosphere for dining and nightlife along Pontocho. The alleyway is narrow and long with traditional wooden buildings that grace both sides of the alleyway. Lanterns are hung outside each dining and dining establishment and come sunset , the lit lanterns add to the romantic atmosphere.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

The Fushimi Inari Shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought of as messengers to Inari and as a tribute, fox statues are places all over the shrine grounds. Perhaps the most striking feature of the shrine is the bright red and famous Senbon Torii gates. There are a total of 1,400 torii gates placed very closed to each other while creating a fascinatingly beautiful effect that covers a hiking trail. The trail goes uphill and visitors can walk as far (or short) as they wish before turning back.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is located right outside the JR Inari Station.

Gogyo Ramen

As one of Kyoto's ramen landmarks, don't fret if you get to Gogyo and see a line of people waiting for a table. Any ramen place worth going to in Japan has a line and the good thing is that turnovers are fast. The lines always move along quickly as people go in, slurp up their noodles, and are on their way. If you are really hungry, Nishiki Market is just steps away to get a snack while waiting. Gogyo not like a typical old school ramen shop but instead has a contemporary Japanese decor which is indeed interesting since everything about Kyoto is heritage and traditional. Don't let the contemporary design detract you from it's really, really good ramen though.

What makes Gogyo special is their well known signature kogashi (burnt ramen) that is prepared with lard flambeed in 300 degrees Celcius. The result from this genius method is a very dark colored and deeply flavored ramen broth, complete with hints of charred flavors. Naturally, the broth is very hot in temperature when served so be careful as you take your first spoonful of broth. The broth base comes with the option of either shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) or miso. At Gogyo, thin strand noodles are used and the chashu (pork slices) are very tender.

Aside from their signature kogashi (burnt ramen), Gogyo also shines in their yuzu-flavored gyozas which turn out to be the best gyozas we have had. The dumplings are pan-fried to a perfect crisp on the skin that is already so delicate and thin. Dumplings are often judged by the thickness of their skin (high quality dumplings have a thin wrapper skin so that the focus is on the filling) and Gogyo has gotten their yuzu-flavored gyoza completely right. We dab some wasabi onto the gyoza, dip the dumpling into some soy sauce, and then easily bite into it through it's delicate skin.

Karaage (Japanese fried chicken) can be ordered on the side with a bowl of rice. These crisp-at-every-bite and very flavorful pieces of fried chicken complete the meal experience at Gogyo.

Gogyo Ramen
452 Jumonji-cho

Note: Very little English is spoken at Gogyo but an English menu is available. 


Nishiki Market

Nicknamed Kyoto's Kitchen, Nishiki Market has been in business for about 400 years old. Along this narrow lane that spans 5 blocks is where Kyoto food specialties and snacks can be found. This place is not just meant for tourists; locals shop here too and the market is especially busy on days leading up to the New Year as the Japanese complete their last minute shopping to prepare for the holiday feast. Nishiki Market sets an example of how one can learn about a culture through their food.

Some standout/popular shops include, but are not limited to:

Specializes in tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and the largest pickle shop in the market. The pickles are displayed on large barrels and among the myriad of pickle varieties are eggplant, mustard green, radish, lotus root, and cucumber. Uchida pickles the vegetables using several methods including using nuka (rice bran), salt, shoyu (Japanese soy sauce), or kombu (kelp). Vegetables that are pickled in nuka can be seen buried in rice bran in the barrel.

A pretty selection of ready-to-eat seafood items with the most popular being the komochi ika (squid head stuffed with its own eggs).

A mochi shop that makes their rice cakes fresh several times a day. The mochi is made near the entrance of the shop so shoppers can catch a glimpse of the staff using a large wooden hammer to pound the mochi. Mochitsukiya has a sit-down restaurant at the back where the menu consists of different preparations of mochi such as grilled savory mochi with udon noodle soup, bubuzuke (hot tea poured over rice), and mochi with matcha (green tea) ice-cream for dessert.

The absolute best tonyu (soy milk doughtnuts) are made here. Yes, really. Having just come from a full lunch at Mochitsukiya (see above), we have no difficulty in finishing up the bag of 10-piece mini doughnuts especially when they are fresh and hot, soft and fluffy. Step out of the narrow lane of Nishiki Market, walk over to the side of the shop, and buy the freshly made ones that are just coming out of the fryer instead of the doughnuts that are already packed and on display at the front.

Note: Eating and walking at the same time are not considered polite in Japanese etiquette. If you buy something to eat or munch, stand aside or outside the shop and finish your food before continuing your walk. Some shops may have a small table with a couple of chairs that you can use.


Izuju, Kyoto-style sushi

With its easily identifiable red curtain and lantern hanging before the door, we get to Izuju without a problem. Best known for its Kyoto-style zushi (or sushi), this establishment has been in business for about 100 years old which speaks of the desire of Izuju's generations of sushi chefs to keep this art alive. The style of nigiri sushi which we are used to seeing and eating outside of Japan has its origins in Tokyo. Tokyo is located right by the sea which makes it a lot easier for chefs to prepare the fresh fish. In Kyoto, sushi chefs traditionally needed to modify sushi preparation techniques since Kyoto is located more inland and away from the sea. In the old days when refrigeration was not the norm yet, a type of fish preservation method was born.

We start with a bottle of hot sake and perhaps the most enduring way to start our meal at Izuju is when the bamboo basket filled tiny sake cups is brought our table. The sake cups come in different colors, designs, and sizes. After we pick the cup we want for ourselves, the server comes by and takes the basket away. Best known for its saba zushi, this sushi is famously prepared with the older method of fish preservation which involves curing the mackerel fish. The server brings the saba zushi to the table and informs us to remove the kombu (kelp) that is wrapped around the saba zushi before eating. We follow her advice and see beautiful pieces of the mackerel fish, with its shiny and smooth skin over the fish, pressed onto the rice. Each piece of saba zushi is perfectly shaped but perhaps what makes it most impressive is that the saba tastes like how fresh fish should be with not much of a hint that it is indeed cured the mackerel. This is the art of fish preservation at its finest. Hako zushi, another Kansai region specialty, is also a favorite choice at Izuju. Also known as box-pressed sushi, this form of sushi is prepared inside a wooden box and pressed down with the lid. The sushi is removed from the wooden box resulting in the square-shaped pieces. One notable difference for us between Kyoto-style sushi and the ones we've had in Tokyo is that the sushi rice at Izuju has a sticky texture whereas in Tokyo (specifically at Sushi Kanesaka and Sushi Dai where we ate) the grains of rice can be felt in the moist sushi rice.

In general, Japan as a country takes the changing of seasons as an important part of their culture and a very good example is where the Japanese flock to view cherry blossoms as a springtime ritual. When it comes to food, care is taken to pay attention to what is in season. Naturally, there is a wintertime favorite when it comes to sushi and that is mushi zushi. The sushi is steamed and served in a wooden square box with dashi (fish stock) added to the rice. Over the rice are finely shredded tamago (egg), ebi (shrimp), and anago (sea eel). Mixed into the rice are chopped up shitake mushrooms. Mushi zushi seems more like a small rice box than what one would normally imagine sushi to be. Small as it may be, the wooden box is packed with rice and it is a good to share among two people while still having space to fit in the other delicious sushi at Izuju.

We leave Izuju knowing that there isn't just one type of sushi. The ones commonly served outside Japan are Tokyo-style sushi and a visit to Kyoto allows us to understand how different parts of the country adapt to best methods for fish preservation based on their location relative to the sea. This makes a lot of sense. After all, preparing sushi is high art in itself and every sushi chef will want to find the best way to prepare and serve their craft.

Gion-machi Kitagawa 292-1

Izuju is located at the corner of a T-junction and across the street from Yasaka Shrine.


Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion

Our visit to Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is marked by rain though it does not take away the feeling of grandeur from this zen temple in Kyoto. We admire the temple from across the large pond, with rain drops falling on the water. Entrance into the Kinkakuji structure itself is not permitted but one does not need to be inside the monumental structure to appreciate the gold coverings on the exterior of the top two floors. Each floor is built to represent a different architectural style. With a gold phoenix statue sitting on the roof, the top floor is inspired from Chinese zen. The style of the middle floor is commonly found in samurai residences. On the floor level is the Shinden style that reflects palace buildings. Located next to the temple is the hojo which used to be the residence quarters of the had priest. A visit to Kinkakuji is a quick one and can be done in 30 minutes to an hour, and it's a good to way to spend the time.