When we were in Kyoto, we were intrigued by the variety of traditional Japanese snacks available in just one shop alone which we’d visited. It is a 老舗 shinise, which means that it has been around for a very long time, and the selection was far more extensive than what we would probably find in all the snack shops we’d seen elsewhere combined. Senbei and other forms of rice biscuits in all thinkable Japanese-inspired flavours from the savory sansho and sakura-ebi to sweet ones like kurogoma and matcha. But this comes as no surprise of course. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan for more than 1000 years. Many of these snacks have their roots deep in the art of 和菓子 wagashi, the traditional artform of Japanese sweet-making. But some of these are classified as 南蛮菓子 nanban-gashi, brought into Japan by the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries more than 500 years ago. The most famous of these “imported confectioneries” must surely be the カステラケーキ kasutera cake which was derived from the Portuguese “Pão de Castela”. It has since become a speciality of Nagasaki. Another lesser known confection which is essentially a nanban-gashi as well, is a cookie known as そばぼうろ Soba Boro, These have since become a popular snack which is synonymously associated to Kyoto, where visitors would buy packets of them home as omiyage. But the recipe is fairly straightforward, so now you can make them on your own as well!
The art of 和菓子 Wagashi making is one of the finer elements of Japanese culinary culture and for me, it is the epitome of its levels of exquisiteness and artistry of its gastronomic heritage. Most wagashi used a grain-based starch as the main ingredient, usually glutinous rice or Japanese short-grained rice, but 蕨餅 Warabimochi is an interesting form of Wagashi using starch extracted from the roots and lower stems of the bracken fern instead. It is an extremely popular snack in the Kansai region and I remember first tasting it as part of the dessert served with a Kyoto-styled Tofu meal when we were in Osaka 2 years back. The texture was unique, somewhat chewy with quite a bit of bite yet soft and delicate at the same time. So it is quite difficult to describe but remains memorable until today.
Our last day in Kansai and we were not about to waste it. Chanced upon a new book (then) on cafes and patisseries in Osaka just the night before at a local bookstore in Shinsaibashi. Perfect! We had a quick browse and shortlisted two seemingly promising places to visit on our last day. First off in the morning was to Pâtisserie & Salon de Thé Coichi located near Tamatsukuri Station 玉造駅 which is just a couple of stops away from where we stayed. They open really early for a patisserie, starting the day at 8 am instead of the usual 10 or 11 am, but we don’t mind at all! Just in time for some pastry breakfast! Or so we thought!
7th day in Kansai, back to Osaka after our short trips to Kyoto and Nara. Time to pay our due visit to the Osaka Aquarium. Alas, the good weather we’d had earlier in the week took a turn and brought persistent showers who lasted for hours, and sometimes entire afternoons. That kinda dampened our spirits, quite literally. Oh well, our last 3 days in Kansai and we are determined to make the best out of it.
Located in the western end of the metropolitan by the bay, the Osaka Aquarium is home to a large variety of marine animals from all over the world, including Kai kun, one of the few whale sharks in captivity. Here are some photos which I snapped in haste, which do not accurately portray the scale and grandeur of the place for sure. Do enjoy them nonetheless…
I remember our first walk down Shinsaibashisuji after we’d touched down at Osaka on our first day. It was exciting as we’d read so much about this shopping street, packed with all sorts of shops selling all kinds of stuff from facial masks to fugu. There was a cake shop that specialises in castellas, and a tea house with all grades of Kyoto Uji matcha. The wide corridor is also flanked with many eateries for all sorts of cuisines and desserts. And the one which made us stop and stare hard into their window the most has to be Dalloyau.
The bento lunch was cold but tasty, and alas, too short. We continued our way around Nara, crossing Nara Koen and making our way to Todaiji 東大寺, an ancient buddhist shrine, which boasts many “firsts” in this ancient city.
I’m “fast forwarding” my Japan posts to bring to you guys the Le Cordon Bleu Macarons from Kobe! “Nan desu de?!” some of you might ask. ‘Cos in barely 2 weeks’ time on 20th March is Le Jour de Macaron aka Macarons Day! This day which celebrates the popular French confectionery was initiated by no other than the man who revolutionised macaron gastronomie, Pierre Hermé. Since its inauguration 7 years ago, Macarons Day is celebrated by many patisseries around France, with notable names like Sadaharu Aoki, Dalloyau, Laurent Duchêne and Jean-Paul Hévin, just to name a few. It has since spread across the Altantic to NYC and Toronto, as well as the rest of the world! And over at Aspiring Bakers, we are having celebrating it for one whole month with “Aspiring Bakers #17 – March Macaron Madness!”
We visited Kobe as a day trip on our second last day in Kansai. It was an impromptu decision actually as we’d initially decided to stay put in Osaka after visiting Kyoto and Nara a couple of days back. But we kinda ran out of places to visit in Osaka, which is pretty much of a business and commercial hub, with much less character and history than its neighbouring cities and towns. So it was off to Kobe for more patisserie hunting!
Early morning our 6th day in Kansai, we checked out of our hotel and proceeded to JR Kyoto Station for a train ride for a day trip to Nara. It was a fairly short journey, only 40 min if I recall correctly since the two cities are very close to each other.
奈良 Nara, like 京都 Kyoto is an ancient city. In fact, it is reputably older than Kyoto, being the capital city of Japan during the Nara period. The city celebrated its 1300th anniversary in 2010 and our trip was scheduled then, in hope to catch some of the festivities and celebrations. Alas all was not meant to be and the trip had to be postponed til early 2011. But that is another story altogether.
First thing when we’d reached Nara was to find a luggage locker at train station, which thankfully was not too difficult to locate. No way we are lugging our bags around the city! Then it was off to Nara Koen, a mere 10 min walk away, but we’d opt to take the bus instead. Recuperating from all that walking in Kyoto and saving our legs for all is to come!
奈良公园 Nara Koen is basically a vast grass field which seemed pretty ordinary to start with. But its “occupants” are far from being ordinary! Serving as “messengers from the gods”, sika deer roam the compounds freely without barricades whatsoever and despite the signage found all over the park to remind that they are wild, the deer seemed very domesticated and definitely very used to humans. Souvenir shops around the vicinity capitalise on the animals and sell “deer biscuits” which one could purchase to feed the deer. Judging by how brisk business was and well-fed the deer were, we weren’t about to contribute to the Japanese economy this way. So no, we didn’t get any biscuits, but most certainly had lots of fun watching others do it! Sometimes we couldn’t make out who was more entertaining, the people or the deer.
After our little tour at Nishiki Market, we found ourselves at Daimaru Kyoto, located in between Kawaramachi and Karasuma stations. Won’t miss the chance for a little “tour” of the depachika as well. True enough, the basement is filled with little takeaway corners representing various big names which have found themselves in Kyoto. The one that struck us most was a small little booth by the famed Belgian patissier cum chocolatier, Jean-Philippe Darcis.
Apart visiting kiyomizu-dera 京都清水寺, we headed northwards passing through numerous small lanes which we so well-preserved of Kyoto’s glorious past. Some of the houses have been standing for hundreds of years. Even rebuilts were modelled after the old design. If not for the people, one would have been transported back to the Edo period…
After waking up to a cold and lazy morning, we took a bus from outside the hotel to Kyoto Station. Though the train station is nearby, we opted for buses instead as its cheaper. Moreoever, we get to sightsee along the way, and hopefully chance upon something which would be interesting. Today’s itinerary is to cover Higashiyama, which literally means the “eastern hills” of Kyoto. We had glimpses of the place yesterday since Gion is located there. Today’s walking trail would bring us from Kiyomizudera to Heian Jingu.
2nd day in Kyoto, we woke up to a pleasant surprise. it had been snowing the night before and the neighbourhood was enshrouded in a white veil. barely 6 am in the morning but the sky’s already quite lit but the air was chilly and dense. the neighbourhood was still in slumbers, quiet and peaceful saved for an occasional but infrequent bark. probably an Akita. clouds ominous and grey brood in the distant mountains foreboding a storm making its way down the hills. True enough, it began to snow again.
Pâtisserie Henri Charpentier (PHC) is easily the most “accessible” french bakery in Japan, with many takeaway outlets in depachikas of the major departmental stores like Isetan, Daimaru and Takashimaya, all over Japan. In fact, I don’t recall not seeing them at any of the departmental stores we went to! If one is forced to draw comparisons, PHC is like BreadTalk in Singapore, only that the former is much much much much much much…better, especially for a pastry junkie like me!
As we were on our way, leaving Gion to cross Kamogawa for Takashimaya Kyoto, we chanced upon our first french pastry shop in Kyoto, Pâtisserie Gion Sakai. Amidst the traditional Japanese architectural infrastructure of this part of the ancient city which beared two-storey shophouses with wooden framed doors, this establishment seemed like the most unexpecting and perhaps awkward juxtaposition. Nonetheless, we are glad that we have found it.
We took a bus from Arashiyama back to Central Kyoto and boy oh boy was it a long journey. The bus weaved through the numerous streets of Kyoto which we probably won’t have known or visited otherwise. We stopped around Gion-Shijo area and walked down to Hanamikoji 花見小路 for some geisha spotting!
After visiting Tenryuji and a walk through the Sagano Bamboo Groves, we found ourselves back onto the main street of Arashiyama where we were treated with a rare sight, even in Japan – a female rickshaw puller. We only saw another one a couple of days later in Nara. She was all smiles to everyone along the way but did not go about touting her services actively unlike the others around. Couldn’t resist a candid shot of her.
Prior to our trip, we did some info-scouting on tripadvisor and we had some wonderful advice from the good people there. One person I really want to pay tribute to is Kobekeith, an expert for the Kansai region on the website forum. His recommendations and suggestions were really superb and helped us a lot in planning our own itinerary.
After Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, we took a cab back down to Arashiyama station. The walk back downtown is quite a long one and we didn’t want to upset the schedule for the rest of the day. We saw a cab “straying” around the area when we were waiting at the bus stop and we flagged frantically to catch the driver’s attention. I’m pretty sure he was as glad to have chanced upon us as we’d found him!
Sorry for the lack in updates from our recent Osaka trip. These two weeks had been hectic as hell for me with students’ mid-year exams round the corner. Trying to cram in as much last minute revision as possible. But alas I’d better get this going cos we are going Taipei next week and that would mean a severe backlog to clear! So here we go!
Patisserie Alcyon is another home-grown brand under “Anjou and Alcyon” whose humble beginnings in 1972as a restaurant in Shinsaibashi Osaka, specialising in Mediterranean cuisine. The patisserie branch debuted in 1986 and has since grown not only locally but reached the shores of France, with dessert boutiques in Paris. We visited their takeaway outlet in Umeda, Osaka which is reputed to have a very good selection of macarons. And indeed they do! 30 flavours in all!
Pâtisserie Factory Shin @ Daimaru Umeda, Osaka. Another “home-grown” name trying very hard to make a name for itself in the patisserie circle in Japan, and had been somewhat successful, having almost 40 dessert boutiques and takeaway counters all over Japan, including Daimaru Umeda which we’d visited. And they had one of my all-time favorites, Mont Blanc in not just one, but two flavours!
Dinner time and we found ourselves back along shinsaibashi suji 心齋橋筋. Not wanting to travel far out, after a long and tiring day at Osaka Castle and Umeda, Dotonbori seemed like the best option, and 鶴橋風月 大阪焼 Fugetsu Okonomiyaki located just next to Dotonbori-bashi was ideal. It’s authentic and its piping hot for the freezing cold weather!
Cute pinky piggy on the menu whom i’d affectionately called “buta-san”.
No trip to Japan would be complete without sampling authentic Japanese cuisine. We ain’t very keen on Kaiseki 懷石料理 though. Exquisite it might be, the damage is not going to be dainty on our wallets. Our overnight stay at an mini onsen resort in Hakone during our last trip to the Kanto region came with a mini Kaiseki dinner, so its more or less a “been there done that” for us. But we’d not had 和菓子 wagashi yet. Not the authentic ones at least, unless you count the countless sticks of dango we’d bought from supermarkets! So we are definitely not going to miss the opportunity this time round to try some and zoomed in on those offered by 竹路庵, a very famous wagashi shop from 岚山 Arashiyama. We’d read online that the flagship store in western Kyoto is always packed with tourists! Thankfully they have a stall located at the basement of Daimaru in Umeda Osaka which is well supplied with freshly made confections sent from Kyoto 2-3 times a day. That definitely saved us the hassle of queuing, and not to mention giving us a preview of Kyoto, and a taste of spring…
Before our trip to Keikanshin Japan, we did some reading up on the patisseries in the region which are accessible to us. The list was quite overwhelming frankly. But given the time constraint, we had to trim it down to a small compilation, mostly those with takeaway outlets within the depachika of major shopping malls like Daimaru, Takashimaya and Sogo. Jean Philippe Darcis, Michel Belin, Wittamer etc were just some of the international names that had landed in Japan over the last few years. But personally, I’m more keen on sampling creations by the Japanese patissiers.
From a recipe book “Monter au Plus haut du ciel” published by MOOK, I learned about Hayashi Syuhei 林 周平 a patissier from Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku and now currently based in Kobe with his own Patisserie, Mont Plus. The book title, literally meaning “To Reach for the Skies” was very intriguing and so were the creations within. Kobe wasn’t on our itinerary but thankfully, Hayashi san opened an outlet, mont plus PAYSANNE in JR Osaka Station in Umeda. I knew I had to pay a visit to sample his works.
We were absolutely famished after a whole morning at Osaka Castle and the Plum Blossom Garden. We headed for Umeda via the Osakajo Koen Subway Station on the Chuo line.
Second day in Osaka was biting cold but somewhat sunny. What an oxymoron yes I know but that was exactly how we felt! But the perfect weather to visit the Osaka Castle. Not so much of a writing post, more of a photo log.