Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Travels: Japan Day 3-Asakusa, (Shinjuku) Tokyo & Kyoto

Today I was moving onto Kyoto. My train was later in the afternoon. I checked out of my hotel and left my luggage at the front desk. Be sure to ask in advance. Most hotels will allow you to check out early and leave your baggage at the hotel. If not, most train stations have lockers (small, medium and large) to store your bags.

I took the subway from Shinjuku to Asakusa on the Ginza line. Asakusa is in the northeastern part of central Tokyo. Asakusa is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tokyo. It used to serve as the entertainment district of old Edo. The Sensoji Temple, located here, is one of Tokyo's top and oldest attractions.

This is Kaminari-mon or the Thunder God Gate. It is at the intersection of Asakusa-dori and Nakamise-dori. It's hard to miss with its 220 pound red paper lantern hanging in the center. Kaminari-mon also marks the proper entrance to Sensoji Temple. The original gate was destroyed by fire in 1865. The replica that stands here today was built after WWII. You'll notice when Japanese people walk past the gate, they will stop and clasp their hands in prayer as a signal of respect.

As with tradition, two fearsome guardian gods are installed in the alcoves of Buddhist temple gates to ward off evil spirits. To the left is the Thunder God (Kaminari-no-Kami) and to the right is the Wind God (Kaze-no-Kami).

Behind Kaminari-mon is a narrow pedestrian street called Nakamise Dori. It is lined with booths selling Japanese souvenirs, crafts and food. Radiating on both sides of Nakamise Dori are more covered shopping arcades. I arrived early in the morning and the shops were still closed.

At the end of Nakamise Dori is a two-story gate called Hozo-mon. The gate to the temple courtyard serves as a respository for sutras (Buddhist texts) and other treasures of Sensoji.
The gate also has its own guardian gods.
On the back wall of the gate are an enormous pair of sandals (a gift of a Yamagata prefecture village famous for its straw weaving).
Sensoji Temple (also known as Asakusa Kannon) was founded in A.D. 628 to house the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness. As the folktale goes, two brothers were fishing in the nearby Sumida River and netted the catch of their lives, a tiny golden statue of Kannon (Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness with is empowered with the ability to release humans from all suffering). Sensoji Temple was erected in her honor. The statue is still housed here but it is never shown to the public.

The temple was destroyed in 1945 during a WWII bombing raid and rebuilt with donations from the Japanese people. It attracts about 20 million worshippers a year, many of them seeking favors from Kannon. Admission is free and it is open daily from 6 am-5 pm (4:30 pm in the winter).

The temple was under construction while I was there. This huge dragon covering was placed over it.
The incense burner is where worshippers "wash" themselves to ward off or help cure illness.
There's also an impressive dragon fountain at the entrance to the main hall to purify your hands before offering a prayer.
Both the main hall and the five-story pagoda are copies of the originals that burned down in 1945. It took 13 years, when most of the people of Asakusa were still rebuilding their own homes and businesses, to raise the money for the restoration.

In the main hall hangs the Sensoji chief's claim to artistic importance, a collection of votive paintings on wood, from the 18th and 19th centuries. Plaques of this kind are called ema and are still offered to the gods at shrines and temples (but are simpler and smaller). Worshippers purchase a tablet of wood with the picture already painted on one side and write down a prayer on the other side. The temple owns more than 50 of these, but only 8 are on display, depicting scenes from Japanese history and mythology.
There are paintings on the ceiling done by 2 contemporary masters of Nihon-ga (traditional Japanese style painting). The dragon is by Ryushi Kawabata and the motif of angels & lotus blossoms is by Insho Domoto. The one image off limits is the holy image of Kannon itself, which is said to be buried somewhere deep under the temple. Not even the priest of Senshoji has seen it!
To the left of the main hall is the Five-Story Pagoda.

The courtyard looking toward the gate.

To the right of the courtyard is Asakusa Jinja. This is a Shinto shrine in honor of the founders of Sensoji (the Hikonuma brothers and their master, Naji no Nakatomo). It was built in 1649 and survived the bombings of 1945.

You'll notice in Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism enjoy a comfortable coexistence together since the former arrived from China in the 6th century. It's the rule, rather than the exception, to find a Shinto shrine on the same grounds as a Buddhist temple.

By this time, most of the shops on Nakamise Dori were opening up. I decided to check it out.
Going back down Nakamise Dori, is the first stall on the left side. It's called Kimuraya Sohonten. She was selling various Japanese snacks.
There was one type that caught my eye. This is a senbei coated in ume shisho. Yum!
Next door was a store that I think is called Sukeroku that specializes in traditional handmade dolls and models clothed in the costumes of the Edo period. It's a tiny shop but the handmade dolls and models were gorgeous. The shopkeeper requests no photos.

The third shop down was called Asakusa Kokonoe.
They sell all kinds of yummy age manju. Age manju are deep fried sweet bean jam cakes. They are soooo good! They have several flavors such as a regular one, tsubuan (half smashed bean jam), goma age manju (with sesame seeds), macha manju (green powdered tea), kabocha manju (sweet pumpkin or squash) and a sweet potato manju.
It was so hard to choose one. I decided on the sweet potato manju for 170 yen. OMG! These are so good, I would have bought more to bring home if I could have. Inside was a lovely creamy sweet potato mix and the outside batter was deep fried with hints of sesame seeds. Yum!

Nakamise Dori was starting to get busy.
There were a lot of schoolchildren here. I overheard them asking visitors questions. It seemed like a school assignment. They were asking visitors where they were from. I think one of them overheard me speaking in English. Soon I was surrounded by a group of kids. They asked me where I was from and if I liked Japanese food. I wrote my name down on their map and as a token of appreciation, they gave me an origami shoe. Cute! Here's my Japanese group:

Moving along I watched this guy make little sweet bean filled cakes. These cakes are called different things. In Hawaii we call them manju. Here they are called Ningyo-yaki or Dorayaki. I think it depends what the batter is made of. These Japanese sweet snack cakes are made by pouring batter into an intricate mold. They are typically filled with sweet red bean paste (azuki beans) but can also be filled with custard or chocolate. They come in all kinds of shapes and characters.

They're yummy and worth a try.
I got them still warm. Yummy!!

There were many booths selling senbei and various rice crackers. Asakusa is famous for its kaminari okoshi (thunder crackers) that is made of rice, millet, sugar and beans. They are yummy and make good omiyage gifts!

This display caught my eye. Dried ume. I *heart* ume! They had samples in the little container. These were so good, I just had to get some.

Here's a display of different rice crackers or senbei.
After visiting Asakusa, I headed back to Shinjuku. I still had time to kill before my train to Kyoto. Here's some of the famous Shinjuku buildings in the distance

I walked over to Takashimaya Times Square. It's a gigantic shopping mall. If you head to the basement levels of most Japanese department stores, that's where the good stuff is. They literally have a whole floor (if not two) dedicated to food-stuffs. They'll have pastries, snacks, pickles, sweets and prepared foods. I wandered for a bit.
I was hungry. I decided to check out the restaurants inside the building. Takashimaya has about 2 or 3 floors dedicated to restaurants. It's called Restaurant Park. I browsed some menus and decided on Komatsu Soba on the 13th floor. If you haven't noticed by now, I *heart* noodles. Japanese noodles (udon, soba, somen and ramen) are among my favorites. *blush*
This restaurant was pricey. It boasts that it's soba is made with 100% buckwheat. They say the buckwheat soba is slightly sweeter than regular soba noodles. It takes about 3 months for buckwheat to be mature for harvest and is why these noodles are more expensive.

I ordered the Komatsuan (cold soba noodles and tempura) for 2320 yen. It was an expensive lunch but really good. The tempura was served on rice with a wonderful teriyaki sauce drizzled over it. Yummy!

The soba noodles were really good also but I'm not sure about the price tag. Honestly, I'm not sure I would be really able to tell the difference in a taste test. They were good, but not that good!
The views from the restaurant were of the train tracks below. Across the land bridge and behind those first set of buldings was my hotel. Talk about convenient!
I finished my lunch and headed back to the hotel to collect my bags. I had made my reservation for the Shinkansen (bullet train) earlier that morning. Space on the trains are limited for storing luggage. If you have to travel with a medium/large suitcase, there is a small amount of space between the last row of seats and the wall. I specifically made reservations for a seat in the last row. My ticket from Tokyo station to Kyoto station on the Nozomi train was 13,520 yen. I had to travel from Shinjuku to the Tokyo station to catch it.

Because I was a dork who lost her JR pass, I had to pay for my ticket. Since I was paying for my ticket, I decided to take the faster Nozomi train (faster by about 20 minutes). You can't book the Nozomi trains with the JR Pass, but still it's a good deal to get the pass. The Nozomi train takes about 140 minutes (distance traveled 230 miles) to reach Kyoto. I love the bullet trains! It makes visiting Japan so convenient!

Here's some different snacks I picked up along the way. The long bar is a kinako flavored kit kit. Kinako is roasted soy bean powder. It's often used to coat mochi or rice cakes and taste kind of like peanut butter. The other is a green tea and cherry blossom (sakura) flavored kit cat.

The Kyoto Station is massive. Along with the train station, there's a shopping mall, a huge department store, a movie theater, a hotel and several office buildings. I took the Hachijo exit to find a taxi. I took a taxi to my next hotel, Hotel Monterey Kyoto. The ride cost about 1100 yen.

Check in went smoothly at the hotel. I had forgotten to buy the Kyoto City Bus Pass at the Kyoto Station. They are a good deal at 500 yen a piece. These cards give you access for the day to most of the Kyoto city buses. In Kyoto, there is as subway, however, your best bet to get to the tourist attractions is by bus. Figure out how many days or passes you'll need and buy them at the train station. Sometimes when you get on the bus, you may end up on one that's sold out of these popular passes. Luckily my hotel was selling them at the front desk. I picked up 2.

The hotel is located in central Kyoto on Karasuma dori. It is conveniently located near a Starbucks (across the street) and 4 convenience stores. It is within walking distance of Nishiki Market and about 0.5 mile from Nijo Castle.

The room was very clean and European looking. Here's my view of Kyoto.

I got settled and off I went. I wanted to catch the action at Nishiki Market. It's a food frenzie open market but it closes around 6pm. I had to hurry. It was a short walk from the hotel.

Nishiki Market is a narrow covered shopping street. It is located on a road one block north and parallel to Shijo Street. It is about 390 meters along and runs east to west from Tenmachi dori to Takakura dori. There are over 100 small shops and stalls selling traditional Japanese food items, ingredients and produce. The first fish shop in Nishiki Market opened in 1311. The hours vary by store but are usually 9 am to 6 pm (closed Wed and Sun).

It was about 30 minutes to closing when I arrived. There were literally shops selling everything imaginable: pickles, sweets, dried food, fresh seafood, produce, crafts, sushi, etc. It was a feast for the eyes!

Just look at the fresh yummy seafood!
Of course I'm not one to just feast with the eyes. My belly was hungry too! Here's a stand selling dango or mochi of different flavors.
They had a kinako covered mochi. Mmm...kinako! These were so good!
A senbei (rice cracker) stand.
This stand was selling seafood broiled and grilled. The sashimi (raw fish) on a skewer looked good but I'm not sure my tummy would appeciate me eating raw fish that was sitting out like that. Seems like a food borne illness waiting to happen.
Here's some grilled unagi.
These caught my eye. I love scallops and these looked yummy.
Take my word for it. They were good!
Here's a craft center selling cute sewn items. This display are sushi made from fabric. Cute huh?
Fresh produce in Japan is pretty expensive but the fruits are really good here.
These were so pretty. They're mochi (rice cakes).

Pickles are popular in Kyoto. They really know how to make them here. Most stalls will have samples for you to try. If you're asking, yes I did try them all. =0)

Kyoto is known for these gigantic radishes..
and these little tiny pretty ones...
This is an odd place for a shrine but at the end of Nishiki Market is Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine.

I wandered around Kyoto and ended up walking to Pontocho Dori. Pontocho Dori is one of Kyoto's traditional areas for nightlife. Along with Gion, it is where you will most likely see geisha apprentices (maiko) at night. It is a narrow street running parallel to the Kamo River. It is one block west of the Kamo River and runs from Shijo dori to Sanjo dori.

The alleyway is lined with stores and restaurants. Most of them are pricey. I was looking for a tofu restaurant I had read about in my Frommer's Guide. It was called Tofujaya. It was dark and a little hard to find. Tofujaya is located on Pontocho Dori. It's about half-way between Shijo and Sanjo doris. Look for a small tofu shop (on the left side if you're headed north). The restaurant entrance is around the corner and the restaurant is above the tofu shop on the 2nd floor (on the left side in the alleyway). It is not clearly marked for Westerners but this is what the entrance looks like.
It said reservations were required but I was going to take a chance. I was greeted at the door. I removed my shoes before entering the tiny restaurant. The tatami tables were all full of chatty diners. I was ushered to a counter where I had the sweetest view of the open kitchen and the chef preparing my meal.

As the story goes, owner Hamano-san inherited the small tofu shop downstairs. He then opened this small (seats only about 12 people) restaurant to promote the health and nutritional benefits of tofu. You don't need to tell me. I love tofu! I was told there was 3 types of kaiseki courses. My waitress asked me if I was hungry. Yes I was. She recommended the middle course for 4725 yen.

The price tag on dinner seems really expensive but you have to remember that traditional kaiseki is an artform in Japan. Food is presented in multiple courses. Only the very simple and seasonal foods are used and it is generally only to accentuate the main ingredient.
In this restaurant, it was served with a twist. All the dishes were made with tofu.

The appetizer course:
I can't really tell you what everything was, but on the left was a type of rice cracker shell with a savory creamy filling. Next to it was a stuffed shishito pepper. These peppers are very tasty! On the far right is a shisho leaf wrapped around a smoked salmon sushi. That was yummers! The thing in the bowl is a yuba (tofu skin) salad.

The simmered course:
You are brought a tray of seasonal vegetables and fresh tofu and a hot pot filled with a dashi broth. You cook the vegetables (shitake mushrooms, mizuna greens) an the tofu in the dashi. This type of tofu is called yudofu. You have a yummy vinegary soy sauce to dip it into. This was so good. As I said before I love tofu and this was the best tofu I've had.

Next was the raw course:

On the left are yuba (tofu skin) rolled up and to the right are assorted sashimi (raw fish). I think it was a sea bream and squid.

Next was a steamed dish. The yuba was wrapped with a pork filling and steamed like dim sum. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. It was delicious!

Next was a delicate mix of yuba soaked in a slightly sweet soy sauce with cooked mountain yam and brussels spouts.
I was starting to get full. The food was so yummy! Next up was a cold silkened tofu dish with a sweet soy sauce and onions. This was tofu at it's best. It was so creamy and soft.

Next (yes there was more) was the rice dish. A tofu paste was served on hot rice. There was a sauce to pour over it. It was served with a side of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and a wonderful miso soup.
Oh so full, but I had to try the tofu ice cream dessert! It was good!

I stayed for a while after dinner and chatted with the kitchen team. They were facinated with America and asked a lot of questions. They allowed me to snap this photo of them. So cute yeah?

Komatsu Soba
Shinjuku Takashimaya, 13th floor
5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, JAPAN
ph: 03-5361-1865
Hours: Daily 11 am-11 pm

Hotel Monterey Kyoto
3 Jyo Minami Karasuma-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto (Central Kyoto)
ph: 81-752517111

Shijo-agaru, Pontocho, Kyoto (Central Kyoto)
ph: 070 212 7706
Hours: Wed-Mon 11:30 am-3 pm and 5-9 pm (until 9:30 pm Sat, Sun and holidays)