Shrines, Bicycles, and Fine Japanese-Dining: A Saturday in Arashiyama

Arashiyama is the beautiful mountainous district of Kyoto. Last Saturday, along with four of my English students, we pedaled across the river on our rental bicycles over the famous Togetsu-kyo bridge, and could immediately feel the change of pace from the busy, touristy streets that you find in the more populated area of the city. Our first stop was to eat a traditional Japanese lunch in our own private room at a Japanese Inn.

We waited for a few minutes in the lobby, then followed a woman dressed in a kimono who shuffled down the hall towards our room. She slid open the paper doors, where a low table and six cushioned chairs were waiting for us. We were immediately given cups of green tea, and dishes of sashimi. Then she disappeared behind the doors for several minutes. We enjoyed the raw tuna and sea bream with shiso leaf, grated daikon, soy sauce, and freshly grated wasabi,which was much milder than I was expecting.

When she came back, she set a red 3-layer lacquer box in front of each of us, as well as a clay pot above a candle. I watched my students for cues. They started disassembling the layers, so I did the same.

I removed the lid from the top layer and was met with a fishy smell. Immediately I recognized that it was fish paste, formed into balls, one white, the other dyed pink. I enjoy almost all varieties of Japanese food, but fish paste isn’t one of them. I ate the piece of pumpkin and the two snow peas that were in the dish, but even they were contaminated by the fishy flavor. I employed the strategy of eating without breathing through my nose. This made it much easier.

Off came the lid to the next layer. This looked much more promising. A piece of teriyaki salmon, a block of sweet omelette, another block of fish-paste (*deep breath*), edamame, a ball of green-colored wheat gluten bundled and tied in a leaf, sliced bamboo flavored with katsu-boshi (dried fish shavings, also on my “no thanks” list), hijiki (a kind of black seaweed) and shredded carrot salad, and a whole boiled shrimp. The 3rd layer contained a generous portion of fluffy, white rice, accompanied by Japanese pickles.

The woman re-emerged from behind the sliding doors and went around the table, lighting the candles below our clay pots. Soon we could hear a faint bubbling sound in the room, and I was eager to open our pots. Again, I waited for the cue from my students.

Inside we found tofu, sliced leeks, and seaweed in a clear broth. “Famous nabe in Kyoto,” my students told us. Nabe simply means “pot,” and refers to any one-pot dish, such as a soup or stew. Usually nabe is a communal meal with everyone eating out of the same pot from the middle of the table, but this day we each had our own pot.

Using a slotted metal spatula we picked up the tofu and leeks and lowered them into a gingery-soy dipping sauce.

My favorite part of the lunch was the tempura. It was served piping hot out of the oil, perfectly crisp on the outside. The sweet potato was my favorite, but the prawn, pumpkin, eggplant, and white fish were also exquisite.

For dessert we had a soy-pudding with berry sauce. The texture was like cream brulee (without the brulee) but it had a yogurt-like tang to it. It wasn’t too sweet and ended our meal on a good note.

Feeling energized, we hopped back on our bicycles to visit some shrines and temples in the Arashiyama area.

We saw some really beautiful things. You can view the whole gallery here, but here are some quick highlights:

One of many Shinto shrines in the area. This one is specifically for “traffic safety.” Come here to offer up a prayer for a safe commute.

Ring the bell to “wake up” the gods before praying and tossing a coin into the box.

A Japanese kitchen from the late 1600s inside the cottage of a famous haiku poet named Kyorai. The name of the cottage is “Rakushisha” or “cottage of the fallen persimmons.”

Prayers and wishes written on wood blocks, displayed at the shrine next to paper origami cranes.

And last but not least, Oishii is 1 year old today! Happy Birthday to our blog and thanks to all our dedicated readers 🙂

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