Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tousuiro Kiyamachi in Kyoto: Tofu Kaiseki

Hidden down a narrow lane that runs along Kiyamachi-dori, just west of the Kamogawa River, Tosuiro Kiyamachi is a well-kept secret among Kyoto’s vegetarian and bean curd loving cognoscenti. Located in a traditional wooden merchant house or 'machiya' from the Taisho era, Tosuiro is tricky to find but easily identified by the large white chochin paper lantern outside its entrance. Tosuiro specializes in oboro-dofu, tofu made with 100% local soybeans. "Tofu originally came from China," Tousuiro manager Nagashi Yoshida explains. "It was first brought to Nara, which was then the capital of Japan. There were a lot of priests there, so it became associated with Buddhism. When the capital moved to Kyoto, the priests came, too, and brought tofu culture with them." The secret to the delicate taste and the creamy texture of Tosuiro’s oboro-dofu lies in the ultra pristine Kyoto water and the high quality soy beans, and it's a dish that's made them famous for being a tofu-lovers paradise, perfected by Buddhist vegetarian monks over the centuries.

Arriving for Tousuiro's celebrated Tofu-Kaiseki, we sat at a low Japanese-style horigotatsu table with cushion seating on traditional tatami floor mats, and chose the highly recommended Takasegawa menu which consisted of a flight of fabulous dishes, each artfully presented. Beginning with a lovely handmade pitcher of cold sake, our kaiseki-style tofu menu began with a beautiful plate of zensai, Japanese amuse-bouches, followed by Tousuiro's famous cold oboro-dofu served in a lovely copper bowl on a bed of crushed ice, which was absolutely divine with the silky creaminess of a loose custard. The next course was yuba (tofu skin), a specialty of Kyoto. Yuba is made from the skin that forms on the surface of soy milk when boiling in an open pan. This skin is then skimmed off with a bamboo stick and rolled to be eaten fresh, which is considered a delicacy and generally served by itself, garnished with yuzu citrus juice or soy sauce. We then followed with a delicious lily bud, tofu and mushroom clear soup with chrysanthemum blossoms; skewered grilled tofu with miso paste, autumn salmon and ricemalt; Rikyu-style simmered Japanese gluten cake with turnip and green beans in a sesame sauce; mixed tempura, then rice with Spanish mackerel, lotus root and yuba topped with tea, finishing with a refreshing homemade pear and soy milk sherbet. Kyoto is famous for its tofu, its sublime kaiseki cuisine and its Buddhist vegetarian fare, but Tousuiro elevates tofu cuisine to an art form.

Tousuiro's beautiful sake pitcher handmade by a local artist,
with Tamanohikari Junmai Ginjo Sake brewed since 1673

The sake cups were also handmade and full of charm

The first course of the Takasegawa Kaiseki dinner: Saury Sushi, 
Crab and Yam Tofu, Purple Yam Tofu topped with sesame seeds, Mixed Scallop, Cod Roe and Sea Urchin in a Cup, and egg and grated tofu folded into the shape of a Gingko Leaf

Cold oboro-dofu served in a copper bowl over ice

Oboro-dofu made tofu made with 100% local soybeans and served in a wooden tofu barrel
has the silken creaminess of a custard

Sashimi of freshly dipped Tofu Skin (yuba) garnished with radish

Shoyu sauce for the yuba

Black lacquerware soup bowl with gold rice stalk motif

Lily Bud, Tofu and Mushroom Soup with Chrysanthemum Blossoms

Grilled Tofu Skewer with miso paste, Autumn Salmon and Ricemalt (kome koi)

Lovely white ceramic bowl with green leaf and berry motif

Rikyu-style simmered Japanese clover, gingko and chestnut gluten cake, 
with turnip and green beans in a special sesame sauce

Shiitake Mushroom, Red Pepper, Shishito Pepper and Autumn Eggplant Tempura

Himalayan pink rock salt for dipping the tempura

Sencha Tea

Teapot of Hot Sencha Tea

Tsukemono of pickled daikon, shibazuke and mustard leaves

Black and red lacquerware soup bowl

Rice with Spanish Mackerel, Lotus Root and Tofu Skin topped with Tea

Pear and Soy Milk Sherbert

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Himeji-jō: Japan's 17th-Century 'White Egret' Castle

Japan's most magnificent feudal castle, Himeji-jō is the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture, made up of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys, including the imposing 150-feet tall tower, connected by a series of gates and winding paths. Although there have been fortifications in Himeji since 1333, the castle was gradually enlarged over the centuries by the various shogunate clans who ruled over the region. The castle is a masterpiece of wood construction, combining function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance unified by the white plastered earthen walls and in the subtle relationships between the building masses and the multiple roof layers. It was originally encircled by three moats, two of which still survive. One of the first UNESCO Heritage sites to be registered in Japan, Himeji is nicknamed Shirasagi-jō - The White Egret Castle - due to its bird-like silhouette and white exterior plaster walls. Unlike many other Japanese castles, it was never destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and survives to this day as one of the country's twelve original castles.

One of Japan's greatest historic sites, several rings of walls and moats served as the main defence of Himeji although the middle moat is all that survives

Nicknamed Shirasagi-jō - The White Egret Castle - for its lustrous white plaster exterior and stately form on a hill, many say it resembles a bird taking flight

The Castle's main gate, Otemon Gate

Himeji is a masterpiece of wood construction, combining function with aesthetic appeal, 
and in the elegant relationship between the building masses and the multiple roof layers

Japan's most magnificent feudal castle, Himeji-jō is made up of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys connected by a series of gates and winding paths 

The castle was reopened in 2014 after a five-year renovation

Kokoen Garden is a beautiful Japanese-style garden with the magnificent Himeji Castle as its backdrop

The pond was brimming with enormous koi

There are nine different gardens within Kokoen, including a Japanese water garden, 
a tea garden, an evergreen garden, a bamboo garden and a flower garden

Thatched Garden Pavilion overlooking Kokoen's water gardens

One of the many gardeners keeping Kokoen looking its best

Japanese Grape Hyacinth

A waterfall in Kokoen's water garden

Stepping stones over the stream and antique stone lantern in the moss garden 

The gardens are built in the style of the Edo period matching the architecture of Himeji Castle,
and was designed by some of Japan's top landscape artists and architects

Monday, October 15, 2018

Kappo Nakaichi: Michelin Star Omakase in Kyoto

As Japan's former capital and seat of the imperial court for over a thousand years, Kyoto offers a rich culinary tradition with over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants, including the outstanding Sushi-Kappa Nakaichi founded almost 50 years ago deep in Gion's famous geisha district. Recommended by the concierge at the Kyoto Hyatt Regency, Nakaichi was one of our favourite restaurants while we were in Japan, from the outstanding sushi and sashimi to the genuine warmth and welcoming hospitality of the chef. Seated at the beautiful L-shaped Japanese hinoki cypress sushi counter, this omakase gem seats only 8 people plus a traditional tatami room with shoji screens for private dining. Every morning fresh fish is brought in from several markets across Japan and prepared using the chef's expert knife skills and culinary techniques to bring out the most exquisite flavours and provide the ultimate culinary experience. Secrets are hard to keep when something is this good. The perfect combination of creative cuisine, atmosphere and omotenashi mesmerizes gourmands from around Japan, but only the luckiest can get in. 

The omakase menu which ranges from ¥12,000-¥30,000 began with a gorgeous selection of sashimi followed by a symphony 20 of nigiri sushi including luscious Japanese Bonito, umami-rich Pacific Saury, delectable Uni from both Hokkaido and Kobe, succulent Otoro tuna a specialty of Kappa Nakaichi, and translucent local Ikura from Lake Biwa that were little pearls of heaven. One of the most unique flavour sensations of the night was the 2 year-old preserved fish known as 'narezushi', considered the "granddaddy" of today's sushi. Sushi was originally created as a form of preserving fish in the 8th-century and involved wrapping a piece of gutted fish in fermented rice which allowed for fish to be stored for several months, but surprisingly, the rice was thrown away. Later, the fermented fish was eaten with rice, and was called narezushi, and is one of the true tastes of ancient Japan offered at Nakaichi. A Japanese couple sitting beside us treated us to this stinky, ancient concoction to gauge our reaction, and smiled in admiration as we unflinchingly gobbled it up. A special memento of our wonderful evening, the chef took a picture of us on his polaroid camera as a partying gift. There is something about Kyoto that takes our breath away. The very name brings a flutter to our heart, as does the memory of our special evening at Nakaichi and our new 'narezushi' friends — dōmo arigatō gozaimasu.

The traditional exterior of Kappa Nakaichi in Kyoto, deep in the heart of Gion's famous Geisha district

Chopsticks on beautifully sanded Japanese hinoki cypress sushi counter 

Cold Sake served in one of the chef's personal collection of antique Tokkuri 

The chef slicing the sashimi for our first Omakase course

Chef's selection of sashimi: Japanese tiger prawn (kuruma obi), 'Otoro' fatty tuna, 
and sea bream (tai) with wasabi and shiso blossoms

Soy with fresh made wasabi and shiso blossoms

Wood grilled prawn head with sweet tomalley

Sumi-ika (Japanese golden cuttlefish)

Japanese Horse Mackerel (Aji) with ginger, spring onion and a little sesame oil

Fatty Bluefin Tuna (Otoro)

Japanese Blackthroat Sea Perch (Nodoguro)

Uni from Hokkaido

Scallop (Hotategai)

Japanese Red Sea Bream (Madai)

Lean Bluefin Tuna (Akami)

Salmon Roe (Ikura) fro Lake Biwa

Medium Fatty Tuna (Chūtoro)

Our second Tokkuri 

Japanese Bonito (Katsuo)

The chef slicing fermented fish which dates back to the 10th-century,
had been fermenting for 2 years and tasted like blue cheese

A Japanese couple saw how much we were enjoying the sashimi and ordered 
this 2 year-old fermented fish and rice (Narezushi) for us and watched our reaction as we ate it

Anago (sea eel) with nitsume (sweet eel sauce)

Pacific Saucy

Warm homemade Tamagoyaki with nori

Tuna Tekkamaki

Grilled Rice (Yaki Nigiri)

Uni from Kobe

Fatty Bluefin Tuna Belly with "Snow frost Marbling" (Shimofuri Otoro)

The chef's personal collection of antique Japanese sake and tea cups

Sencha green tea

Maple Syrup Jelly

Sweet, smooth and absolutely delicious

The Polaroid the chef took of us before we left Kappo Nakaichi