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Japan TRAVEL

Finding Zen in Kyoto

Kyoto; the never ending draw card for experiencing traditional Japanese culture, from exploring and tasting the regional food and its local specialty’s, to visiting one or many of the overwhelming amount of Buddhist temples.

Kyoto’s wooded forests and breathtaking mountains on the outskirts of the city are a hidden treasure within its self, with its towering pine trees, ancient cedars and pilgrim trails that have been used for centuries.

Thankfully modernism has only made a small impact on this quintessential Japanese city and its traditional customs, resulting in the perfect balance for any visit to explore its historic culture, or to find a slice of Zen from one of the many gardens, temples or Onsens as well as savoring the local food that has left an impact on the rest of Japans food culture.

Kyoto’s Kitchen

Whenever I visit a new place while traveling I love to wake up early and see where the locals shop for their produce. This gives me a good idea of what the region produces in season and what is the local specialty.

If you would like to see the local food market head to the century old Nishiki Market, which translates to ‘’Kyoto’s kitchen’’.

The busy market consists of a narrow thoroughfare that takes up five blocks from start to finish. The market originally started off as a fish market and is now a culinary heaven for locally grown produce and products. This is the place to come if you wish to shop like a local and experience Kyotos culinary traditions, as well as seeing first hand how Kyoto and its surrounding region has influences traditional Japanese’s food through out the rest of the country.

The market offers every thing from seafood fresh and dried, vegetables, deli’s selling hot and cold specialties, spices, cookware, roasted coffee and the regions specialty; pickles.

The pickle is ingrained if not the center of Kyoto’s traditional cuisine.

The over whelming variety of pickled vegetables are on display in waist high wooden pickling barrels. Indigenous vegetables like; Seigoin turnip, Kamo eggplant, Katsura gourd, Kujou onion and Kyoto bamboo shoots as well as daikon with sudachi (Picked Japanese radish with Japanese citrus fruit). Along with the vast offering of pickles there is also a wide variety of pickling methods and flavors to choose from; red shiso salt, rice bran, malted rice and a simple salt pickle style.

For the ultimate taste bud experience I suggest visiting Uchida’s Pickles Shop to select the finest pickles.

How to get there:

The market runs Parallel to Shiji Avenue. Walk up one of the side streets on the northern side of Shiji and you can’t miss it.

Temples

There is an abundance of Buddhist temples in and surrounding Kyoto and it can be daunting trying to decide which ones to visit. The number of temples is up to 1600! This is a list of my personal favorite temples.

  • Nanzen-ji Temple – Northern Higashiyama, offers beautiful gardens, surrounded by wooded hills, subtle karesansui (dry gravel “Zen” garden)
  • Tofuku-ji Temple – If you’re after peace then this is the perfect temple.
  • Honen-in Temple
  • Ginkaku-ji Temple
  • Daitoku-ji Temple – Is more like a village of temples, it also has some of the best Zen gardens in Kyoto.
  • Fushimi Inari – A walk through the Fushimi Inari torii gates is a must for any Kyoto visit. Walk through the thousands of tori gates up along the trail into the sacred Mount Inari and into the wooded forest on top of the mountain.
  • Kiyomizu-dera Temple – The UNESCO Kiyomizu-dera Temple is perched on the side of the wooded mountain on the site of the Otowa waterfall and is surrounded by maple and cherry blossom trees with the city and Higashiyama district hillside below.

 

Visit one of the oldest tofu restaurants in Japan

If you’re serious about your food like me and are in need of a calm beak after a visit to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple that is near by then I highly suggest a relaxing break in one of the oldest tofu restaurants in Japan. Once you step in to Okutan Kiyomizu that has been serving vegetarian food to the monks of the Kiyomizu-dera temple since 1635, it feels like you have stepped in to an oasis of peace and calm. Well that’s what it felt like after experiencing a day of extremely high humidity and walking the busy streets outside. The wall to ceiling windows look out to a lush green traditional Japanese’s garden and the tofu is made daily in the basement below. I hear they also offer tofu making classes!

Dishes include grilled tofu with sweet miso, sesame tempura tofu with crisp pickled vegetables and the specialty Yudofu (boiled tofu with wild yams) that is served in a hot clay pot over a flame.

Okutan Kiyomizu
3-340 Kiyomizu, 1-chome Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

Exploring
Hike over the mountain from rural village Kibune to Kurama

After spending some time in busy Tokyo all I wanted to do was to escape back to nature and re charge after being surrounded by neon lights. So we hoped on a train and headed north from Kyoto to Kibune for a day trip hiking over the Mt. Kurama down to the Kurama village in the Kitayama mountain range, to experience some much needed tranquillity and calm.

We started in the village of Kibune, situated in a valley surrounded by breath taking Mountains covered in towering cedars and pine trees and an icy fresh water river that flows down along one side of the village. It felt like we had escaped to another world away from the busy city.

Traditional style Ryokan and quaint restaurants line the rivers edge and the only street in the village. For an experience you will not forget have lunch on one of the restaurants platforms that are positioned right over the river with the water flowing beneath you. In the peak of summer this is the best place to visit to escape the heat and humidity of Kyoto.

We chose a place selling freshly made cold soba noodles with traditional Tatami mats and the rushing river only a meter or two below. The catch to our lunch experience though was that we had to catch our lunch!

A long pip of bamboo cut in half ran along the edge of our little table that was connected to a hole in the wall of the tinny kitchen, fresh water was flowing quickly along it. Behind the hidden wall our lunch of soba noodles in neat little balls was placed into the running water, it quickly floated down the pip and past our table. If you’re not quick enough to pick the noodles up with your chopsticks you will loose your lunch all together!. For someone who is left-handed this was considerably difficult especially with the water rushing very quickly.

Before we started our hike over the mountain range we visited the Kifune Shrine that is dedicated to the god of water and rain. At this special temple you can receive a very unique type of fortune that is printed on a type of rice paper that is not visible until you submerge it in to the shrines water. The fortune then appears; I can’t say I received the best fortune!

Not happy with my fortune we decided to set out on our 1-1/2hr hike, we paid the small entrance free and headed up the step mountain. Exposed cedar tree roots lined the pathway up and over the mountain towards the Kurama-dera temple that looks out across the next valley. The area is said to be the center of the earth! It certainly felt like it was with its stunning view looking out to a never-ending outlook of lush forested mountains.

Treat yourself after the hike to a blissful dip in one of many traditional onsens (hot springs) in the village. Kurama onsen was by far one of my favorites. http://www.kurama-onsen.co.jp/index_e.html