I am by no means an expert on Japanese food. I like a wide variety of Japanese food, but I don’t know THAT much about some of the dishes less well known to foreigners. In the states, I enjoy Japanese steakhouses, sushi rolls, tempura, teriyaki dishes and the like. Since I started traveling to Japan, I have been exposed to different dishes that I had never heard of before. Food like kushiage (breaded and deep fried foods on skewers), shabu-shabu and sukiyaki (similar dishes- a sort of meat fondue. The only differences seem to be the medium you cook the meat, and you dip your sukiyaki meat in raw egg before eating it), and I liked everything I’ve tried so far. So I haven’t eaten anything crazy before, and I didn’t this trip during Kyoto. But I ate well, and that is always a good thing.
Food is one of the things I look forward to the most when traveling to a new location. There is such a wide variety of cuisine out there, and for the most part (with a few exceptions here and there), I tend to like most local foods I’ve tried. The first night on this trip to Kyoto, I had dinner at a restaurant called Isobe. It is conveniently located, situated in the heart of Maruyama Park. The restaurant sign is only in Japanese, but a red umbrella is depicted on the sign to help you out. For dinner I had a Maruyama with tempura meal (pictured above). The meal consisted of a pot of boiled vegetables and seafood, rice, miso soup, fish soup, and boiled tofu (a local specialty). It also included an assortment of small side dishes, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what any of them were, but I ate them anyway. The food was good, though the seating arrangement was a bit odd. I was situated in a small room right across from the entrance along with another foreign couple. There is a main dining hall, but it looked like it was reserved for a group. The cost of the meal was 3,990 yen (roughly $40 USD).
The next day for lunch, I had to sort of scramble around to find a place to eat. It’s not that there wasn’t any restaurants available. It’s just that it can sometimes be difficult picking a restaurant. Since I don’t speak or read Japanese, that can limit what restaurants I choose to eat. However, a nice quirk of many Japanese restaurants is the display cases outside. Most restaurants have very realistic looking plastic displays of some of the main dishes they offer, which helps you choose. So even if you don’t speak Japanese, it is always possible to order just by pointing at one of the plastic dishes that look good to you.
Since I was running low on time, I elected to eat lunch at Ichiba Coji, which has a couple restaurants throughout town. The one I elected to eat was in central Kyoto in the basement of the WithYou Building, near the Teramachi covered shopping arcade. I selected the chicken naniban, which is a deep fried chicken obento lunch. Ichiba Coji’s lunch service is a well oiled machine. The obento lunch boxes are pretty standard with rice (a very tasty purple rice), miso soup, boiled tofu and a small assortment of side dishes. All you have to do is pick out the main dish and it will be served within a few minutes. It was definitely tasty, and the lunch was filling without making you feel over stuffed (it’s actually rather hard to feel stuffed at most Japanese restaurants, just because most of the food is pretty healthy and the portion sizes are very reasonable).
The next day’s lunch was at Ganko Sushi. There are a couple branches of the restaurant in town. There is one located in central Kyoto, on Sanjo Dori, just west of the Kamo River. The restaurant sign is in Japanese, but the sign also has a logo of a face with glasses and a bandanna to help you out). I had dinner at that branch during my first trip to Kyoto, but this time around, I had lunch at the branch in the Kyoto Train Station.
Now is probably a good time to mention just what a food marvel Kyoto Station is. Now make no mistake, the entire city of Kyoto is filled with all sorts of restaurants. You will never go hungry in that city unless you want to, but Kyoto Station has probably the most concentrated bang for your buck eating opportunities in one location. There are around 70 restaurants in the Kyoto Station area, either in the underground arcades, near major exits, near the Hotel Granvia, or on various floors of the Isetan Department Store, which is conveniently directly connected to Kyoto Station. There are helpful maps around the station showing the location of all these restaurants. There is ample choice, though keep in mind that again many of these restaurants are only in Japanese (but they do have those helpful plastic displays out front to tempt you).
My lunch was a very tasty sushi and tempura box lunch. It was nothing crazy or out of this world. It was just tasty and filling and affordable. The lunch cost me 1490 yen, which is roughly $15 USD. It is interesting to compare the different costs of meals in Japan. On my last trip, I paid $110 USD for a 8 oz Kobe beef steak meal at a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant (detailed in a past blog post), but I can get sushi for cheaper than what I pay in the states. When I arrived at the Kyoto Airport, I had about an hour’s wait for the train ride into town and I was hungry. Thankfully the airport had one of those fast food sushi places where all the different sushi dishes are served on a conveyor belt, and you simply eat as much as you want. I was able to get eight sushi dishes for less than $10 USD, which is not something I easily find in the states (and frankly am suspicious of any sushi restaurant that is that cheap).
Now would also be a good time to let loose a little mini rant about some Asian restaurants and the napkin situation. I’m a rather messy eater (not deliberately, but often my table setting looks like a chipmunk ate there at the conclusion of the meal. And if I’m really on a roll, I will have spilled at least once on my clothes), and I appreciate good, thick napkins. Most restaurants in America offer either thick napkins, or at least an abundance of napkins. It is a bit hit or miss in restaurants in Asia. Korean restaurants do provide napkins, but they tend to be very tiny and flimsy. The nice is thing is that there tends to be a pile of napkins. So many restaurants in Hong Kong and Japan don’t even offer napkins. I guess Asians must be dainty eaters and don’t make a mess, but that doesn’t help me out very much. Often I end up using the towel provided to wash your hands at the beginning of the meal. One of the few places I did find thick napkins was where I had dinner that night- an Italian restaurant called Ante Caffe, and is located on the 11th floor of the Isetan Department Store (the restaurant floor).
My final meal in Kyoto ended up being lunch. Yes that IS a burger you see, but I couldn’t resist. The burger is a Kobe beef blend. I had to try it. I knew it wasn’t pure Kobe beef (after all the burger lunch only cost me around $15 USD), but any burger place called Kobe Gravly had to be tried. Like the others I ate at, this restaurant is located on the 10th floor of the Isetan Department Store. Thankfully there is an English menu, though you could still have ordered from the pictures alone. I chose the cheddar cheese burger meal with sweet potato fries. It was GOOOOOOD. And messy. Thankfully this restaurant also provided an abundance of napkins, otherwise the situation would have been dire for my hands.
There are many other Japanese foods I want to eat when I go back to Japan next year. Some of them I’ve tried before (like sukiyaki), some of them I want to try (like kaiseke). But one of the pleasures of a trip to Japan is eating your way through the entire journey. You’ll never go hungry and the wide assortment of foods is a major pleasure for your taste buds.