Mr. Hallock and I went to Japan for the food. I mean, yes, as mentioned before, Mr. H grew up in Kobe, so there was an emotional pull. But it was really all about the food. We eat a lot of Japanese cuisine at home: sushi (when we are feeling flush), miso ramen (the real stuff, not instant!), and tonkatsu (deep-fried pork loin on rice). Our goal for this trip was to expand our culinary horizons and stuff our faces. Mission accomplished.
Saloon. Gastropub. Tavern. Izakaya. This is the stuff! One small problem, though: we don’t speak Japanese. To be fair, Stephen recalled a surprising amount from his childhood, which helped in a pinch, but neither of us could read a menu.
Fortunately, our first real izakaya—Gassai Ekinan (above) in Himeji—had an English menu, allowing us to try some local specialties, like lotus root tempura. Yum! Emboldened, we searched for the best izakaya in Kyoto once we got there. And we saw one that looked amazing, but we could find nothing about it in English, either in front of the shop or on the web. Most places we ate at in Kyoto had at least a small sign that announced if an English menu was available. Not here.
Mr. H and I stared into the window wistfully for a few minutes, but then we chickened out and walked down the road to the Spring Valley Brewery. This was not a bad move, as the brewery had very good craft beer, but we knew we had missed out on something special with the izakaya, so we vowed to go back.
Big problem: we could not find it again. We walked the area around the Nishiki Market a lot, gradually expanding our route in concentric circles, searching for a place that we did not even know the name of. There is a famous documentary on Japanese Zen Buddhism called The Land of the Disappearing Buddha, referring to how the Buddha would give a talk to an audience and then vanish. Hence, we referred to our mysterious izakaya as the “Disappearing Buddha Bar.”
Our very last day in Kyoto, we tried one last time—and Buddha smiled on us! Not only did we find it the next afternoon, but it was empty. Usually, that is not considered a good sign, but we figured that the staff would be more likely to help out clueless foreigners when they weren’t swamped. We stood outside the place again for a minute, our nerve wavering, but then we thought: what the hell, let’s try it! Lo and behold, they did have a (limited) English menu!
The Disappearing Buddha Bar has a real name: Kokoraya Iseyacho, orここら屋伊勢屋町 in Japanese. The decor inside is full of traditional Japanese handwritten menu pages and vintage Japanese celebrity posters. For all its tradition, though, the music was totally unexpected: American 80s rock-n-roll, including Blondie, John Mellencamp, and more. A sign from the Amitabha Buddha in heaven?
The food was amazing, including the best tempura of the whole trip. We had earlier skipped the touristy place that charged $80 a seat for overrated tempura, so this find felt like cosmic timing. Sweet potato tempura is now one of my favorite foods in the whole world. They also had a “recommended sake” feature (for a set price), and we were totally game—times four! I have a new appreciation for a variety of Japanese rice and vegetable wines. Yum.
We left happy—nay, giddy. Our only regret is that we had to catch a plane too early the next day, and we could not return. Not yet.
If you want to really enjoy eating in a country, you must eat on the street. Or, when in Japan, in the basement of a supermarket. That is where all the food is, even prize fruits:
There are also take-home foods, from avocado salad to tofu-wrapped-rice (our favorite breakfast), to fresh-grilled meats, to sushi (yay!). The only drawback is a lack of a place to sit. Had there been open seating, we might have eaten in Daimaru and Sogo the whole trip. The quality of food was amazing.
And then there is old-fashioned fast food, like the seafood munchies available in Nishiki Market. Octopus on a stick? Yep, we’ve got that.
While our focus was mostly on Japanese cuisine, we happened to stay next door to Kobe’s Chinatown our first night, and we craved takeaway Peking duck pockets. Because why not? We also watched talented chefs hand-make soup dumplings, a specialty I remember from lunch with my sister-in-law in Shanghai. A good dumpling should actually burst with soup in every bite. Yum!
Three of our other favorite places in Kyoto were: a spicy ramen shop that we never got the name of but is right across the street from the Hotel Vista Premio where we stayed; an amazing gyoza shop; and Kura kaiten–zushi (conveyor belt sushi) next to the Golden Temple. Nom nom nom . . .
And there were always vending machines for when we could not be bothered to stop for coffee or beer or . . . farm-fresh vegetables? We only saw a veggie machine once, but it seemed like a great idea for food deserts in the United States. I don’t think the alcohol machines would be helpful in the same way, but they were convenient.
My favorite treat was hot coffee in a can. Japan has been coffee savvy since the post-war period, and Starbucks outlets are about as ubiquitous as Hello Kitty. But who wants to spend $6 on a coffee when, for less than a dollar, you can get a nice, hot coffee (or hot cocoa) at your convenience from a vending machine on every street corner—literally.
It was good that Mr. Hallock and I hoofed it five miles a day, maybe more, throughout each city on our itinerary. Not only did this allow us to discover the best stuff, but it was also necessary to burn off each meal in time for the next one. A perfect vacation.