Kyoto and other Musings

This past May (2017) I took a trip to Jakarta, Bangkok & Kyoto. Although Kyoto was the “vacation” portion of the trip I was still able to make some observations of the two SE Asian locations.

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One of the first things you’ll notice about Indonesia is everything seems to cost alot until you remember that 1 (US) dollar is over 13000 rupiah.

Jakarta:

Although I’m not a connoisseur of Indonesian food I do know that one of my favorite local cuisine is Padang food. The variety of dishes and flavors are out of this world and it’s super easy to try the various small plates. As you get seated all the dishes are placed in front of you. No menu needed. You’re charged by dishes you ate. The rest are put back into the kitchen pot. Some might be put off by the fact that the dishes are pre-cooked (cooked once a day.)

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Simpang Raya, the Pedang restaurant I ate at. I give it two thumbs up.

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I’ve barely had a chance to sit down and half our plates are already layed out. Talk about fast food.

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You need the dexterity of a circus performer to work at a Pedang restaurant.

For a country that grows coffee beans, coffee culture (local Starbucks being the exception) still lags behind the western world although it’s catching up quickly.

Other than the few photos shown here, there’s really not much to say about this metropolis. Jakarta has never been my favorite city to visit.

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I can’t remember the name of this coffee shop but the decor was very nice. That’s my pour over coffee. Good but not great.

Bangkok:

I made a quick three night visit to my home away from home so I tried to make the most of it. I had to have my mango and sticky rice fix at the best vendor in town: Mae Varee Fruit Shop.

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All my favorites in one place…Mango/Sticky Rice, sweets, deserts.

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Sweet and juicy mango, three different kinds of house made sticky rice (black, green pandan, and white), & warm fresh coconut milk. Heaven!

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Thai sweets or Kanom. Yes I have a sweet tooth when it comes to kanom.

Since one cannot just live on Mango & sticky rice, my other go-to dish is Hoi Tod, egg fried with oysters. Just thinking about it makes me drool.

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The main ingredient for one of my favorite dishes…oysters!

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I think I ate this dish twice.

For my final meal I accidentally found a bustling street food scene near my folk’s condo.

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I never knew the street food scene at the Ratchathewi BTS station was so brisk.

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Obviously the car fumes add to the food flavors.

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I had to have another helping of Hoi Tod. I believe the normal mussel/egg plate runs less than $2. For my friends in the US, note the unrefridgerated eggs.

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There is even a seafood restaurant nestled within the street vendors. Note the live giant prawns frolicking about. In case you’re interested 1 crab runs under $10 and 1kg of cockles is about $7.50. Then you tell the restaurant whether you want your seafood grilled or steamed. Not shown are their stunningly good seafood sauces.

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I believe this is a hot pot street vendor. Yes each table gets their own hot pot to cook in.

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It was Durian season but I did not partake on this trip for some reason.

Kyoto:

The itinerary was to fly into Narita (Tokyo) airport and take the shinkansen (bullet) train to Kyoto. This gave me a chance to try out the highly touted ekiben which translates as train (eki) boxed lunch (bento). To be honest I found the food to be overrated. It was obviously precooked, room temp. and a bit dry. Fortunately ekiben only costs around $8-13. You’ll notice that on the the train trip back I found a better food alternative. Click on the photos below to see descriptions.

 

Traveling in Japan also gave me a chance to start my collection of Eki Stampu (train stamp). Every train station in Japan has unique stamps you can add to a stamp book. Turns out most tourist attractions/temples also have these stamps.

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I bought myself a fancy stamp book for my collection.

After arriving in Kyoto my wife fortunately booked us a room at Hotel Granvia located inside the main train station. What a wonderful quiet oasis from the crazy hectic station just outside the lobby.

 

I took a walk around the train station the first night there. The weather was cool and dry, perfect for strolling around exploring. Here’s some random photos.

 

We started our first full day in Kyoto by exploring the train station. This station is huge and I could have spent my entire time in Kyoto just hanging out here. Imagine over 11 floors of shops, restaurants, department store, etc. Of course I got drawn to the snacks and sweets area in the basement. Typical of many department stores snacks and food stalls are usually located on the basement.

 

After being cooped up in the crowded train station, it was time to get some fresh air and explore the Imperial Palace. It turned out to be a hot day in the sun. Maybe that’s the reason crowds were small at the large palace grounds.

 

After being in the sweltering heat I needed to retreat to a confectionery cafe I knew was located nearby. I’m not sure if I was more impressed with Toraya Karyo Ichijo or the Imperial Palace. My jaws dropped (a regular occurrence while in Japan) when I walked into this cafe. Toraya is actually a confectionery company that happens to have a number of cafes.

 

 

 

There’s something to be said about taking the road less traveled when exploring a city. In this case Kyoto has a myriad of small side streets with little surprises everywhere. With my architectural background and interest in history, I really enjoyed checking out the many old shop houses and Machiyas. In many cases signage are so minimal I couldn’t tell what kind of shops they were even with my nose pressed up to the windows.

 

I had hunger pangs as I made my way towards downtown Kyoto, so I decided to check out the food scene at Daimaru, one the the larger department stores in Kyoto. As I mentioned earlier most department stores in Japan have a huge food hall in the basement. Unfortunately there’s no seating so it’s best for food to go. Fortunately the top floor is usually reserved for restaurants. I wanted a simple lunch so I popped into a noodle restaurant. Because they didn’t have an English menu (a good sign) I had to place my order as any non-Japanese speaker would….go to the front window and snap a photo of the plastic food you want to have and show it to the waitress/waiter.

 

Afterwards I explored the famed Nishiki Market. It’s a five block open air market. There’s some strange foods being sold here. I wonder if locals actually go here or if it’s mainly for tourists.

 

 

After Nishiki Market we quickly made our way towards Gion district of town. It’s also known as the old quarters or Geisha district. I knew the best time to see a real geisha would be around 6pm so we hurried towards Gion while quickly passing narrow Pontocho alley. Gion was just so peaceful, beautiful and in some ways surreal. Unfortunately I didn’t spend much time here so I’ll have to further explore these two areas on a future trip.

 

After a long day I decided to relax at the hotel rooftop bar and try out the local Suntory (from Kyoto area) whisky and do my best Bill Murray “Lost in Translation” look. The whiskey is pretty good too.

 

The next morning I woke up surprisingly early and decided to take advantage of it by exploring nearby the hotel on my own. It’s nice to see everyday life on a weekday morning. It was quiet, peaceful and mellow with just a few students and office workers scampering about. Here’s some of my observations:

 

After breakfast it was time to play tourist again. We took the train to the famed Arashiyama bamboo grove. It’s one of the top rated travel sites in Kyoto and I was ready for the rush of tourists. It turned out that yes there’s quite a bit of tourists but it’s a pretty hushed crowd (probably in awe). And the walk in the grove can be quite far so through attrition the crowds thin out as you walk farther. we also stopped at the Nonomiya Shrine which is tucked in the grove and picked up some omamori which are charms/amulets that can be found at many temples/shrines in Japan. Overall it quite an amazing experience.

 

On the way back we stopped at Nijo Castle, originally the Kyoto residence of a Shogun now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I tend to look for WHS when traveling the world. For anyone interested in architecture or history this is the place to go. Come to think of it the whole city of Kyoto is the place to go.

 

After Nijo Castle we were absolutely famished. Off we went back on the train to Kyoto Station. In case you haven’t figured, being in Granvia Hotel at Kyoto Station is a super convenient place to stay….and eat. We went to the 11th floor which is all restaurants and ended up at Ten-ichi tempura restaurant for a late lunch. At this point in our trip our lunch was dictated by my son’s nap time. It’s practically the only time for peace and quiet. Although this restaurant turned out to be a highly lauded eatery, we were a little let down maybe because of high expectations. It was good none the less.

 

Since we had a one week Japan Rail pass or JR pass we decided to take the bullet (or Shinkansen) train to nearby Osaka (less than 30 minutes) after lunch. I heard this is a pretty crazy foodie town and boy was I in for a kaleidoscope of sensory overload. Whereas Kyoto is a serene, cultural, refined, historic town, Osaka (in my brief time there) seemed industrial and blue collar and proud of it. Because we had so little time in Osaka, we decided to focus in the famous Dontonbori  district. This area is packed with eateries and bars and and explosion of oversized signs and lighting that a Hollywood producer would be jealous of.

 

Surprisingly with so many food options in Osaka, we didn’t really eat much besides a few signature dishes. It was more like snacking as we walked hypnotized with all that was around us. We got back to Kyoto late and exhausted but I was determined to grab a quick cheap bite. The best bet was the tiny noodle stand I spied near the train platforms. I believe it caters to businessmen needing a quick bite before heading home on the train. This is where I got my introduction to ordering food via vending machine. You press the corresponding button number as the menu item you want to order, pay and give the food ticket to the waiter or cook. I knew Japan is a vending machine crazed country but I didn’t know they took it to this level.

 

The next morning breakfast was at the Malebranche Cafe located in the Kyoto train station. Apparently it specializes in beautiful to see and eat pastries. It seems all of Kyoto specializes in gorgeous foods.

 

After breakfast we went to a nearby mall to check out one of my son’s favorite subjects: trains, specifically Steam Locomotive Railway Cafe (say that ten times quickly) a train themed cafe and store. I think my son was in heaven not knowing where to turn.

 

Back to Kyoto station for lunch (notice a theme here?) to try conveyor belt sushi for the first time. We went to Sushi no Muashi and I was really surprised at how good it was. I guess the (short) line of people outside gave it away as a good place to eat. It was so good that I wanted to eat here again. Alas it was a case of not having enough time to try all the eateries I wanted to. But as you’ll see farther below on this blog I found a solution to this problem.

 

After lunch we saved arguably the most famous site in Kyoto for last. Fushimi Inari Shrine is probably the most recognizable shrine with it’s countless orange torii gates. Indeed it was an impressive temple even with the crowds of tourists. This is where one encounters hoards of tour groups with its flag waving guides. Fortunately with its large grounds and endurance taxing uphill trails of orange gates the crowds slowly thin out and good photo ops are to be had after 20 minutes of walking.

You like ramen, I like ramen, who doesn’t like ramen? Dinner was at Kyoto station’s Ramen Street with its myriad of….. you guessed it….ramen restaurants. Actually it’s eight ramen restaurants showcasing eight regional types of noodles. All were supposed to be excellent so we just picked one of the less crowded ones. We ate at Touyoko which comes in a thick rich broth. So much so that there’s instructions on the wall on how to dilute the broth to vary the taste. The bowl of noodles are also huge. I keep doing my best slurping impression but couldn’t make a dent on my bowl of noodles. I was kind of embarrassed of the food I left uneaten and thought about the the family the leftovers can be feeding.

 

Back to Toyko (Narita) via Shinkansen. This time I bought food to go from the same conveyor belt sushi I ate earlier. Much much better food than the ekiben I had on the first leg of the train ride. I saw alot of Kyoto yet didn’t see much. We hit many of the top sites but it seemed a bit rushed. List of things to do on my next trip to Kyoto, spend more time in Gion district, maybe stay in a Ryokan, try more food, and just slow down.

 

Random photos of Kyoto

Food: Kyoto is a great place to be if you like to eat.

 

 

Others:

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