Saturday, November 28, 2009
Kansai Long Weekend
Last Monday was a national holiday in Japan, giving us a three day weekend. It also happened to be right at the peak of the fall colors in the Kansai region. I had tried to round up all the Michigan kids to take a trip to Kyoto together but pretty much all of them were bums and opted out, so in the end it was just Mike, Yuki, and myself who went.
The goal from the start had been to do the trip on the cheap, so we planned to travel by overnight bus and stay in a youth hostel. However, because it was both the peak of fall and a three day weekend, a TON of people were heading to Kyoto as well. In the end, we only just barely managed to get bus tickets and ended up having to stay at a youth hostel in Osaka, which is about 30 minutes away by train. We'd all been to Kyoto before and, to be honest, the bulk of what you can do there revolves around wandering around temples, which is cool if you don't live in Japan but not the most exciting thing for those of us here full time. It's cool for a day, but you get tired of it pretty quickly, so it was actually kind of nice to have an excuse to head over to Osaka.
The main source of color in the fall here is from the Japanese maples, which turn an absolutely stunning bright red. Like cherry blossom season in the spring, however, the fall colors don't last very long here; a couple of weeks at the most. In that sense, you really have to time your travels right or you'll miss out. We lucked out and really couldn't have asked for a much better time to have been in Kyoto.
One nice thing about traveling by overnight bus to Kyoto is that it arrives early in the morning (7ish in our case). That pretty much forces you to get going about your day early, so you don't waste too much time. We left late Friday night and arrived on Saturday morning, then headed straight for Kiyomizudera and Tofukuji, two of the most popular temples, in hopes of beating the rush. Despite the fact that it was still quite early in the morning, there was a healthy crowd at both, which makes the idea of visiting in the afternoon absolutely frightening.
Along the way, there was a little street vendor selling dorayaki. Dorayaki is essentially two small pancakes with a layer of anko (red bean paste) between them. I love pancakes. I REALLY love anko. Win-win. They had two types, one with maple flavored pancakes and one with matcha (green tea) flavored pancakes, both of which they kept warm in huge steamer boxes. I'm not a huge matcha fan so I went with the maple and was quite pleased with it.
After wandering around all morning we were ready for some lunch. We were in the Gion area at the time, which has a lot to offer in the higher price ranges, but we were doing this trip on the cheap, so our options were kind of limited. We finally found a Thai restaurant that looked good, so we went with that. But once we sat down and looked at the menu, the best looking thing on the menu was beef curry udon. Not at all what we had in mind when we headed in, but it was a pretty cold day and thick chewy udon noodles in hot curry sounded exactly like what we needed. All three of us ordered it and it definitely hit the spot.
We hit up more temples in the afternoon, but made sure to grab some good eats along the way. While we were still in Gion, Mike told us about a place that had what he described as the best choux cream he had ever eaten. I love choux cream and the place was nearby so we hit it up, trying their black sesame choux cream. I'm not gonna lie: it was damn good, probably one of the best I've tried. My only issue with it was that the black sesame flavor was pretty subtle, so it didn't do much for me. But the pastry was fluffy and the cream creamy, so you won't hear any complaints from me. We also grabbed some deep fried satsuma-imo (Japanese sweet potatoe) that had been given a healthy sprinkling of sugar from a street vendor near one of the temples. Deep fried AND sugar coated? Yes please!
We headed over to Osaka that evening and checked into our youth hostel, the Guest Hostel UK Osaka. I have to admit, it was unlike any other hostel I'd ever stayed in, but it was absolutely perfect for us. It really was just a regular three bedroom apartment with a pair of bunk beds in each room, with the living room serving as the lobby. At just $25 per person per night it was perfect for our budget and the three of us had a room all to ourselves, something that pretty much never happens in hostels. Even better, it was just a couple minutes walk from the heart of Osaka's nightlife.
We had made plans to meet up with Sarah, a UM friend of ours teaching English in the area, for dinner but the owner of the hostel had told about a place nearby that had what he claimed to be the best takoyaki in Osaka. Takoyaki are a bit tough to explain, but they're basically little balls of dough with octopus in them (it's better than it sounds, I swear) and if there's one food that Osaka is famous for it's takoyaki. We could hardly pass up the opportunity, so we made a pit stop at the shop to grab a pre-dinner snack. I am by no means a takoyaki connoisseur, but these were wonderfully light and fluffy and far too easy to eat. We all agreed that we could probably eat 4 or 5 packs each and not be sick of them. But alas, we had dinner plans, so we called it quits at one pack and headed off to meet Sarah for an okonomiyaki dinner.
Okonomiyaki is right up there with takoyaki as an iconic Osaka dish so it seemed like a good choice. People often try to describe okonomiyaki by comparing it to pizza or a pancake, but the truth is that it is neither of those things; it's simply okonomiyaki. Ours was good, but it wasn't particularly superior to any okonomiyaki that I've had at other places.
After parting ways with Mike in Osaka in the morning, Yuki and I were back in Kyoto on Sunday night to check out some of the temples which lit up the maples after dark before catching the bus back to Tokyo. Our bus didn't leave until nearly midnight so we had some time to kill and decided to grab dessert. Yuki loves matcha, so she got some matcha flavored chiffon cake with some matcha flavored goo (seriously, I have no idea what that stuff was. nama yatsuhashi maybe? I'm just gonna stick with green mystery goo), which she enjoyed. Personally, I'm not that into matcha. It's bitter. Who wants bitter when you could have sweet? Not me, that's for sure. I opted for a parfait which had just a small scoop of matcha ice cream, chestnuts, chiffon cake cubes, whipped cream, and a big generous serving of anko. Much better.
"But Peter, what about the rest of Sunday?" you ask. Indeed what about Sunday. I will tell you. Sunday, my dear friends, was a day of culinary indulgence the likes of which I'm not sure I'd ever experienced before.
It started off with breakfast. The forecast called for rain, so Yuki and I decided to hop over to Kobe instead of going straight back to Kyoto. Temples aren't very fun in the rain and Kobe was just another half hour train ride away. Upon arriving in Kobe, we set off in search of a bakery that Yuki had heard about. She had a rough map, so we followed that and eventually found the Honest Cafe and Boulangerie Comme Chinois. Tucked under an office building, it was a jackpot of baked goodness. I'm pretty sure you could buy anything here and it would be amazing...
When it comes to breakfast, I tend to prefer the sweet to savory, so these babies were a great way to start the day. The first has a super flaky pastry shell and is filled with apples cooked to the point where they melt in your mouth. It was so good that Yuki had one bite of mine and decided she needed to buy one for herself to eat on the road. Next to that is a rusk, which was like boozy french bread baked until the crust is crispy then coated liberally in cinnamon sugar. I had planned to stop there, but they brought out fresh bagels and I'd be a fool to turn down fresh bagels. This one is blueberry lavender and honestly tasted like lavender. What does lavender taste like? Just like it smells. A little mind boggling, but absolutely delicious.
A few years back, I'd tried stopping in Kobe in hopes of eating Kobe beef in Kobe. How cool would that be, right? Unfortunately, things didn't work out that time and I left unsuccessful. But this time I was not to be denied.
Kobe beef is crazy expensive, to the point where having it for dinner is not really in my price range. Lunch is still pricey, but doable. We were scoping out places to eat with mixed success. We were looking at the menu outside one restaurant when a waiter came out and started talking to us, so we asked if the course on the menu with wagyu was kobe beef. He told us that there was nowhere in Kobe where you could get Kobe beef for that price and warned us that recently many restaurants have started calling regular wagyu Kobe beef to attract customers. If we were really interested in getting Kobe beef, he said, we should go to Tor Road Steak Aoyama a few doors down, where the chef displayed the certificate verifying that his beef was honestly Kobe beef.
We'd actually noted the restaurant before and put it on our list of potential candidates, but that sealed the deal.
Tor Road Steak Aoyama is a small restaurant that couldn't sit more than 10 people max. The center of the action is a huge metal griddle with counter seating, behind which the chef cooks your meal in front of you. Like Benihana with class. And none of the stupid tricks.
Things start off with a salad accompanied by a few little braised dishes. The salad is light and fresh and goes well with surprisingly clean and bright flavors from the braises. Next comes a simple bowl of potato soup. The flavor is so simple and hearty that it could only be homemade.
The appetizers are good, but that's not why we're here. We're here for the meat and damn is it beautiful...
There are some veggies that get grilled along side it as well. The carrot and asparagus are braised separately.
The beef is seasoned generously with salt and pepper. Part way through the cooking, it gets a quick splash of red wine. That's it. No need to mess around with meat this good, just let it be.
When people talk about food melting in your mouth, this is what they are referring to you. Cooked perfectly medium-rare, the purest beef flavor I have ever tasted.
I'm a bit worried that I'll never be able to eat regular steak again...