K.O. in Kyoto

Knocked out, it’s true, at least by way of metaphor.  The huge, black storm yesterday and the subsequent downpour, the umbrellas popping up like mushrooms, the whisper of wheels on wet streets.  It all adds up.

In the rain, we found god’s noodles: A little place by a canal for cold udon and a draft.

Later, pulled into Takeshimaya by the Food Ray, we purchased grilled chicken for the train ride to the mountains.

That night: Yakitori of wings, thighs, breasts, and even a whacked embryonic bird that took getting used to.

Bang!

Beyond the Temples

Kyoto, beautiful down to its toes, has hilltop temples–Buddhist, Shinto–and shrines scattered throughout, but the real charm beyond these relics to a time when faith trumped science, is the city itself.  Having escaped the bombings during the past war, it is filled with alleyways, canals, and pre-war architectural gems.

You get to wander.

There is an old Kyoto.

The city, sister to Boston, (separated at birth) due to its many (75) universities, shares its sibling’s youthful vibe and obeisance to the past.  Only here it’s the previously mentioned T & S (temples & shrines) while back home it’s a commitment to a suspicion of outsiders.  The embrace of past and future, which suggests a contradiction, is actually what makes both cities so complex.

Anyhow, yesterday, on the routine, four hour jaunt through the swelter, it was a visit to a bazillion year old rice cracker shop where a curmudgeon deigned to take payment for the brown, sugary, salty snack, followed by a stop at a woodblock print shop selling fun prints from the 1860s, and a pop-in to an indigo studio where the sweet, old artisan showed us his clothing that he touched with his purple fingers.

Lunch was at Honke Owariya, one of Kyoto’s oldest soba restaurants.  Wonderfully impossible to find.  For $17, we’re talking a bowl of the freshest made noodles topped with a vinegary soy and dipped into a creamy yam broth.  Cold, of course.  The noodles had the power to make the customer happy.

Pre-game from Takeshimaya at the house: Tiny tomatoes bursting with flavor.  The size of peas.  And grilled chicken washed in soy.  Beer, shochu, a nap, and it was time to head out.

This isn’t anything like Tokyo nightlife: Just alleys, small crowds, tiny bars and restaurants.

A friend set us up at Yamashita.  An amazing 14 seater, plus a room upstairs, it’s a lively neighborhood place with high-end hamo (conger eel) and all sorts of regional food.  We had the hamo three ways: Steamed, boiled, and grilled.  Each was flat out amazing, with the boiled, dipped in ponzu, the most flavorful.  A basket of matsutake kept staring at me, so I bought one of the mushrooms and we ate that grilled with lime and salt.

The folks on other stools joked and talked with us throughout the night.

As the evening wound down, the cooks and chef drank drafts.

 

 

 

 

In Search of Umami

8:40 A.M.: Train to Tsuruga from Kyoto while reading MIshima’s psycho novel 金閣寺.  Disoriented by geography, but told later it was N x NW.

In Tsuruga, a couple of hours with good friends Kiyomi and Jiro at a konbu kura.  Konbu, a.k.a. kelp, is used to enhance and deepen broths, soups, and sauces.  It’s a perfect example of the nearly indefinable umami, which is a flavor created by naturally occurring glutamic acid.  That stuff is found in products like dried anchovies, hard cheeses, and, of course, kelp.  This kelp is harvested from regions of Hokkaido.  It’s aged, some of it, for three years, and in the drying and storage room I saw long, black, and beautiful sheets.

Delicious grilled sea bream later over lunch with K.  Is Japanese gastronomy the best or what?

Back in HK (Hot Kyoto, not Hong Kong, like you may have thought),  a cold shower, a cold beer, and then time to buy beautiful things for dinner at home: Crab from Hokkaido, beef from hokkaido, grilled chicken, fried tofu sheets, taro salad, etc.  I had a craving for a slice of pizza, but it passed.

 

Kyoto, Just Like I Pictured It, Temples and Everythin’

Braving the swelter, it was a four hour walkabout of Shinto structures on hills above the city, surrounded by graves, bamboo forests, and manicured shrubbery.  The empty space within the buildings was evocative.  Duh and double duh.

Escaping the mind numbing heat, we found OMEN, which I’d looked for the day previous: Cold hamo (conger eel) and cold soba with a broth enhanced by streamed vegetables, a draft Yebisu, and lots of a/c.  Strength to see an old mansion and just enough to crawl home for cold showers and naps.

No news on dinners in restaurants recommended by friends, and most signage is in Japanese, which seems to translate to, “Where Are You From?,” so I headed to Takeshimaya, which truly is heavenly.  After eight previous visits to Japan without a kitchen, at last a chance to cook the food!   And enjoy a few cooked items.  We’re talking shrimp tempura, grilled chicken thighs, and ikura cones.  We’re talking beautiful baby tomatoes, eggplants, and asparagus singing with flavors.  And one thin, white steak from Hokkaido that in just 4 oz. was enough to satisfy three hungry people.

Later that night: Japanese whisky in a hidden bar on the third floor of a building deep in Gion.

Today it’s meetings with food officials outside of town.

 

The Big K

Waking up in the tea house on a quiet, residential street in Kyoto yesterday, the first stop was Nishiki Market.  Five years ago, I had been impressed by the shops selling beautiful poultry, fish, tofu, vegetables, and fruits, and now I’m still so moved that I salivated.  It’s eel season in Japan, especially here in the west, and conger, known as hamo, is from the sea and it’s wonderful.  Made a good addition to breakfast.

But: on a second visit on the same day, I thought the food looked nearly great.  So I went to the basement of Takeshimaya where truly the world’s best and most astonishing food is sold.  Toro, yuba, sake later, it was pre-game at home before going to Matsuno, a good, but old school, and tired unagi place on the main drag. Other joints were either closed or had signage I could not decipher.

In-between meals, we walked slowly in the festival crowds and crazy heat.  Respite came in the form of Ippodo, a tea shop I’d read about.  For $7, I had four cups of astonishing, iced green tea.  The tea and the shop were the best I had ever enjoyed.

The goals for the week?  Find decent places for dinner.  Not as easy as it might seem: Kyoto is not a city with many good restaurants…

Planet Japan and The Anti-Magnetic, Interplanetary Ray

After a final night in Bangkok, where it must have been an unannounced Asian Girl-White Guy Night, and a lovely, veg meal at Bolan, where two of David Thompson’s former sous chefs from his one * Michelin in London, Naam, are cooking up a savory storm, I returned to the hotel.  I thought: OK, a night’s sleep.

But little did I suspect that I would be caught up in the powerful force of The Anti-Magnetic, Interplanetary Ray and sent back to Planet Japan.  It’s true: Resistance is useless!

So at 2:45 A.M., placed in a green and yellow “taxi,” whisked to the airport, and placed in what resembled an ordinary plane, I arrived at Narita.

Soon, about five hours later, via the Shinkansen, it was back to Kyoto.  It’s Gion Matsuri this week–Japan’s third largest festival–and the streets were filling up with kids and families and grown-ups, some  in traditional gear, others were hipsters, etc.  Kyoto is a lovely place, modern and old, and I’m writing this all up on assignment from a well-known travel publication.

Then, thanks to Tanaka-san, the owner of the machiya where I’m staying, we wound up, on the floor, at Hitomi, a hard to find yakitori restaurant, off the main street, and near the river.  You tell me, what could be better than grilled chicken, cold drafts, and shochu?

 

 

Tales of the Jungle

Well, not really.  OK, there is some jungle, but mostly roads, shops, and homes have been built to stand up to the relentless greenery.  Still, it’s there, visible from my post here, and that rustling just to the west?  Is it the wind swaying the tall, grassy bamboo stalks?  Or is it something else?

Today we leave this region for a brief layover in Bangkok.  My flight to Narita is at 5:40 A.M. on Sunday so it appears that I’ll be up long hours.  Plenty of time to fret over shortcomings!  In Bangkok there will be just enough time to get a massage and a meal at Bolan.

Yesterday it was more of the same although…my stomach seems to have a life of its own.  This isn’t the G.I. bill here, it’s another G.I.

So I settled for pan frying cheeseburgers and having FF for dinner rather than every herb known to mankind.

Hands Down!

People in Thailand are kind of snack crazy, eating small amounts of food as meals throughout the day and night, so that you leave the table just about satisfied, but not quite.  This leaves you ready for the next experience.  Arguably, this approach is informed by some kind of interpretation  of Buddhist principle: Striving for perfection.  And, unlike some countries I could name (Japan), the feeling of longing carries no regret or loneliness.

Which brings me to: Thamma Da Day Spa by Chivit Thamma Da. 179 Moo 2, Soi Rong Suae Ten 3, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand. 053-166 622.

Folks, this place r-o-c-k-s.  From Duangjai Bumrungkul, the red skirted receptionist and her colleague, Pattharabadin Chaisuwan, the dude with the gorgeous gold bracelet, to the masseurs, we’re talking people who can CYD (calm you down)!  One hour of hands, and you’ll be dizzy.

Next to the spa?  A Swedish bakery with very chill clientele: Thai, farangs, whatever.  There is a free floating library of great books, Sixties style, draft Singha, views of the lazy, brown river, and dozens of chairs and sofas for lounging PM (pre massage or post massage).

 

Blissed Out

Having attended an exhibition at a museum sponsored by an organization in support of The Queen Mother, and there having encountered many very evocative B&W photos, I sent an email to the photographer, Chalit Chawalitangkun, and yesterday met him at his SOtA (state of the art) studios in DCR (downtown Chiang Rai): Bliss Studios.

His work is deceptively simple, like Chekhov, and it’s often interesting what happens when an artist creates without judgment.

The expressions of his subjects also have the effect of inspiring others, who are not photographers, to observe people beyond or in addition to how they wish to be seen.

Prior, we had a wonderfully spicy lunch, riverside, and a handful of thuggish looking guys and a cheery looking gal sat at the table next to ours.  Could not guess their occupations.

 

 

Thailand & Farangs & Rice

It’s a funny place, Thailand, at least in the NW, where I’ve been, and in B (Bangkok), The Big City.  You’re almost invisible as a farang (foreigner), ignored politely, regarded as part of the landscape, not diminished nor disregarded, but irrelevant.  Almost no eye contact, no clear interest, it’s not like being in other countries where the curiosity that must be there is expressed openly.

But who knows?

It’s only been ten days.

The routine, of course, is MMCRW (markets, massages, cooking, reading, writing).

A recent discovery: The northern rice fields, of which there are an abundance, are, I’m told by AF (another farang), individually owned, sometimes collectively farmed, and sometimes tenant farmed.  The rice–“HOW” (with a hard “H”)–is so plentiful that Thailand is the world’s largest rice exporter.

The rice is long grained, mostly, and fresh and delicious.