Aesthetic Dining Experiences in Kyoto, Japan

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Soft mochi and iced green tea at a traditional sweets store in Gion.

Whenever I travel to a new place, I like trying a combination of the local cuisine and the most crazy places that I can find.  Kyoto is known for its tofu, noodles, kaiseki (vegetarian dishes), and of course; matcha sweets (which includes green tea-flavored ice cream, parfaits, and more).  Here is a list I have compiled of the most unique dining experiences I have had in Kyoto:

Gold Ramen at Zundoya

Zundoya is an extremely popular ramen chain in Japan because of their affordable and delicious bowls.  In their Tokyo and and Kyoto branches, they have the option to purchase gold flakes which you can sprinkle on any ramen dish on their menu.  This comes with a hefty extra 5000 yen charge, but was fun to do just for the aesthetic purpose of eating golden ramen.  You can buy these gold flakes at souvenir shops in Kyoto and Kanazawa.  They can be used as a topping for virtually any food due to them being flavorless.

The regular bowls of ramen are also packed with flavor!  The funny thing was I came here after a music workshop with some of my Japanese friends per their recommendation.  That’s when you know it’s a good place to eat!

Kichi Kichi Omurice

Omelette and rice dishes (dubbed omurice) are an extremely popular food combination in Japan, and this restaurant does it best!  When you see the head chef, Yukimura Motokichi, slice a freshly baked omelette and have it perfectly melt over the rice in an almost cinematic fashion, you’ll understand why this restaurant is so popular.

This meal was seriously the best omurice I had ever tasted because the omelettes are cooked to be extremely fluffy.  Since this website is so popular, it is recommended to make a reservation on their website.

Kitten Company Cafe

As the name implies, this cafe has cat-themed sweets, and is extremely vegan-friendly.  I tried their vegan curry, chocolate cake, and kitten cookies.  All of them were scrumptious, and I was delighted to see the curry arranged in the form of a happy cloud!  No reservation is required for this restaurant, but you can see their website here.

Menbaka Fire Ramen

NO RAMEN NO LIFE” is the English slogan that greets you at this ramen restaurant.  I immediately liked the atmosphere the minute I entered.  Menbaka puts a large amount of green onions and pours oil right over the dish before it is served to create an explosive fiery effect.  Just watch the video of me seconds before the fire starts to burn:

The taste of the ramen is quite ordinary; maybe a little more oily but otherwise unnoticeable.  It is worth going to once just to see the fire!  This restaurant does not accept reservations; you must lineup and take a numbered ticket.  You can explore other places in Kyoto while you are waiting, so it’s not so gruesome of a wait.

Green Tea Soba Noodles

Tsujiri Teahouse offers one of the most unique noodle dishes I’ve ever seen in my life: green tea soba and tofu in a white milk-like broth.  Though that doesn’t sound appetizing at first, it actually has a refreshing taste!  I ordered mine chilled and they really hit the spot.  If you are feeling adventurous, this is definitely a good thing to try!  In additional to noodles, there are many parfaits and sweets here.  Next time I come to Kyoto, I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for more unique food like this!

Exploring Hikone: A Castle Town with a Mythical Island and Fierce Cat Samurai

Over the weekend I made the amazing discovery that samurai cats are real!  About an hour east from Kyoto lies a quiet castle town called Hikone with the adorable samurai cat mascot you see here: Hikonyan.  Hikone is in Shiga Prefecture and borders Lake Biwa, one of the most famous lakes in Japan due to its lovely scenery.  I decided to start my trip by taking a ferry from Nagahama Port, which is just a few stops north of Hikone Station on the JR Tokaido-Sanyo line, and visit the mythical island in the middle of the lake called Chikubushima.  See the ferry schedule for reference–a roundtrip ferry ticket is around 3000 yen.

Chikubushima is known as the “Island of the Gods” and is said to be imbued with magical powers.  Though I am not a religious person, I appreciate going on journeys like this because it gives me the chance to see rare parts of the world!  You can walk around the whole entire island within 30 mins and see shrines, a beautiful view of the lake, and also try some local cuisine at the cafes (though the selection is very limited).

The main point of interest here is visiting Hogonji Temple and making a wish with a daruma doll.  Daruma Dolls are a special kind of talisman here that you can write your wish on a slip of paper and put it inside the doll for good luck.  The Japanese people at the shrine were extremely kind and helped me do this.  Though this island was tinier than I expected, it was a very nice way to start my trip!

After the pleasant ferry ride back (which only takes 30 mins), I then decided to go directly to Hikone Castle to see the Hikonyan Show!  During this time, the fiercely adorable samurai cat will come out before the castle gates to greet his visitors.  Hikonyan is treated as a celebrity by Japanese people.  I was surprised to see a line of people with cameras out waiting to see him, but he is definitely worth the hype!  He appears every day and you can see the timetables here.

In addition to Hikonyan, you can walk through the Hikone Castle, see the Genkyu-en Gardens, and also visit the Yume Kyōbashi Castle Road that has shops and souvenirs.  I visited all of these places by foot from Hikone Station, but you can also take buses around the city!  By 6pm, I was exhausted from all the travel so I decided to go back to my capsule hotel in Kyoto.  Hikone makes for the perfect day trip from Kyoto because it is easy to access and full of history.

Ine: A Beautiful Fishing Village in Northern Kyoto

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A native Ine bird freeloads on my fishing boat.

When people think of Kyoto, they usually think of the historic temples, people clad in colorful kimonos, and the Arashiyama bamboo forest.  All of these are wonderful aspects of visiting the city, but there is actually a lot more places explore!  In the far north lies a beautiful fishing village called Ine which welcomes visitors.  Ine is extremely important to the history of Kyoto because it is where rice-growing was introduced from China, and it also shows how people traditionally lived by the sea.  This culture has been preserved since its establishment and is truly magnificent to see.

There are a number of boathouses called funaya that are available for visitors to stay in, but they require reservation at least 2 months in advance.  The advantage to staying in one is that you will have a meal plan and can relax while seeing and an amazing view of the ocean.  You can also rent fishing equipment quite easily.  I wanted to watch the weather to ensure it was a sunny day when I arrived, so I opted to just take a day trip here.

I’ve been to Kyoto numerous times, but this is the first time that I’ve ever gone this far north!  From Kyoto Station, you can take the JR Line to Miyazu, then reach Ine by bus in approximately 3 hours.  The trip is very long, but the scenery you see along the way is a great way to pass the time.

The reason I wanted to come to Ine is because it reminds me of Terazzi, a town in one of my favorite PS1 games called Tales of Destiny.  Tales of Destiny is an amazing game because it takes the player through forests, castles, harbors, and even to Utopian societies in outer space.  Namco utilized the Linear Motion Battle System in the game so you really feel compelled by the battles and the areas you travel through are quite memorable.  Though I first played it nearly 10 years ago, I still remember how the towns felt like real places.

Terazzi always stood out to me because it is this beautiful, Venetian-like city but has boat houses almost exactly like those in Ine.  Terazzi and Ine are both have a number of residents living in them, but also feel a bit isolated at times.  In the game, you must navigate through a maze of waterways to find the entrance to the castle, much like how walking around the boathouses is here (although sadly there is no castle).  I can see a clear resemblance of how many port towns in games are inspired by real places like Ine.  It feels surreal when you finally experience them in real life!

Going back to reality, when I arrived at Ine, I decided to take a few pictures by the harbor and walk alongside the ocean.  There are a few houses you can enter and see the boats up-close in.  I went to the tourism office, and they were able to arrange a boat tour for me and a few other people for only 1000 yen.  The boat trip was really fun because you get to learn about the history of Ine, and they also give you bird food so you can feed the local birds!  They really aren’t afraid of people and flew close to the boat.  I was able to capture some amazing photos:

Besides fishing and being on the ocean, you can also walk around and see a few local shrines.  There are restaurants and cafes open during certain times as well where you can try the local cuisine and a lot of seafood.  I stayed here for about 3 hours, and that was more than enough to see everything I wanted.

If you are an adventurous traveler who has already seen most of Kyoto and likes being near the ocean, I would recommend this trip to you!  Please note that this area is quite remote, but easy to navigate on foot.  Just be careful to watch the bus timetable when you get off, and you’ll be absolutely fine.

Amanohashidate: An Eerily Beautiful Beach in Northern Kyoto

Over the weekend I had a wonderful trip to obscure fishing villages, islands, and beaches in northern Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture.  One of my favorite places that I discovered was this sandbar in Miyazu called Amanohashidate (try saying that three times fast)!

Amanohashidate is a 3 hour train ride from Kyoto Station with four different transfers, but its scenic atmosphere and remote location make it the ideal getaway for hotspring vacations or even just day trips away from the city.  Due to my bus itinerary, I arrived here around 7pm just as dusk fell.  I wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk across the entire sandbar this late at night, but surprisingly it’s open 24 hours, which is often rare for public beaches in Japan.

When I reached the southern tip of the sandbar (which is just a short walk from the station), the beach was illuminated with backlights in stark contrast to what it would normally look like during the day and some serene music was playing from a speaker.  It was like being at a rave, but with calming music.  I felt as if I was an alien that had landed on another planet!

Though I’ve been to many wild beach parties in Thailand, my stroll on Amanohashidate was something I’d had yet to experience.  I’ve never seen such a thin and beautiful beach lit up like this.  In the middle of the sandbar is a shrine, and there are lookout points on both ends of it.  It takes about an hour to cross the sandbar by foot, but bike rental is available during the day.  I was extremely tired from all of the travel, but during this trek I felt rejuvenated by soaking my feet in the water.

I’d recommend for most people to visit Amanohashidate during the day so you can ride the cable car, but unfortunately I did not have time to do this.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience I had here, and would recommend it to people who have already been to Kyoto and Osaka and are looking for something different.  Walking across a sandbar is definitely a unique experience for most people traveling in Japan!

Before I went back to central Kyoto, I decided to try a course meal at a restaurant near the station called 310 Amanohashidate Japanese Table.  Since I do not eat meat, I requested a fish and vegetable course a received avocado, salad, tofu, sashimi, and some delicious grilled fish and rice:

If you have the time, please consider exploring northern Kyoto.  You will find less tourists and a lot more culture here!

Running Around the Kyoto Imperial Palace

As someone who’s been a cross country runner for over 10 years, I have a tradition of going on an average length run (around 5km) every time I’m in a new place. Not only does it help me get better acquainted with the area, but it also gives me an incredible endorphin boost that will keep me in a good mood throughout the day. If you do this, just be sure to take your phone along so you don’t get lost!

The hilarious part about my 5 day trip to Kyoto was that my shoes randomly broke while I was hiking. Fortunately I was able to borrow some cheap ones from my hotel, but I really need shoes with good support to continue to high level of activity.

I found a shoe store chain called ABC Mart near Nishiki Market in central Kyoto. They have Nike, Puma, Converse, and a variety of brands but my favorite is the Japanese brand ASICS. I settled on this pair of red ones so I could continue my streak of running around the city:

ASICS is a reliable brand with gel support, and they tend to last for a while. I set off for the Kyoto Imperial Palace which has a beautiful park that you are free to roam around in outside of the gates. It’s so peaceful and quiet here, and you can choose to do laps around it or run down the street nearby towards Nijo Castle. I love the sense of peace I get coming here in the morning. Even if you’re not a runner, this is an area I definitely recommend checking out!!

Sweet Twist: A Vintage Ice Cream Store in Shimokitazawa

Trying unique and adorable ice cream stores scattered across Asia has become a huge hobby of mine. As I was thrift shopping for clothes in Shimokitazawa (which has much better selection than the overcrowded Harajuku), I stumbled upon Sweet Twist–a vintage ice cream store selling a variety of soft cream, gelato, and crepes with customizable toppings.

Like most sweets stores in central Tokyo, the store is tiny, but the bright pink exterior and colorful signs advertising a variety of desserts seemed extremely inviting.  Not to mention the fluffy mascot that’s printed on all of the cups is the epitome of cute!

I decided to try the strawberry topped soft cream first. Like the name implies, the ice cream is extremely light tasting and sweet. The strawberry topping tasted much like strawberry chocolate so I really enjoyed the taste. Since the portion size I ordered was small (I regret not doing the 2 scoop option), I decided to try the raspberry gelato as well. They have a variety of flavors like green tea, coconut, chocolate fruits, etc. and you can choose extra toppings for just 50 yen. I liked the ice cream slightly better due to its sweetness, but I imagine everything here is really good!

The interior design with the neon pink flamingo and framed photos of Audrey Hepburn and other nostalgic icons was also a pleasant experience to take in. This neighbor hood has a lot of vintage shops that you should definitely check out if you have the chance.  I will definitely be back here in the future to try more delicious flavor combinations!

Making the Most of a Rainy Day in Kyoto at Cozy Coffee Cafes

With its historic temples, crowds of people wearing colorful kimonos, and perfect view of the mountains from its central station, Kyoto is hands down one of my favorite cities in Japan.

However, a rainy day can definitely damper plans! Instead of going hiking in the mountains and risk being stranded in a downpour, I decided to check out the local cafes and stumbled upon Alpha Foods & Drink near Nijo Castle. This is a relatively new cafe with a hipster vibe that will definitely brighten your day!

Mimicking the weather, I decided to order the “clouds over coffee” cotton candy drink. You can choose other drinks like hot cocoa, banana milk, and soy milk coffee (which I chose). The cotton candy stick is creatively balanced so the steam from the drink will slowly melt it in for a subtle sugary taste. Additionally, you can choose to eat the cotton candy separately if you prefer or request a cold drink instead.

Another reason to come to the cafe is to meet the owner’s extremely adorable miniature schnauzer! She was an extremely polite yet energetic dog that sat quietly on the couch but was friendly when I approached her:

My Japanese friend also took me to this extremely charming % Arabica Coffee store in Higashiyama which is unique to Kyoto but is gradually expanding due to its popularity with the locals. He claimed it was one of the best coffee shops in Japan due to the founder exporting coffee beans and owning his own coffee farm.

Was it really worth the hype? Yes, it was! Usually I don’t always try coffee shops with large crowds like this one, but the wait time wasn’t too bad. However, I tried the iced coffee latte, and was extremely impressed with not only the taste but also the cup design:

Overall, I had an amazing time exploring both of these places even though the weather wasn’t favorable. Both of these drinks were cheaper than Starbucks and more delicious too! I’ve been to Kyoto nearly 5 or 6 times, but there are always new things to explore each time I come!