Kyoto is in most ways a very average large Japanese city. Bulky, gray buildings and power lines dominate the skyline and malls and subways bustle with commerce and traffic. Even Gion, the famed geisha district, is, aside for a few lengths of narrow alley, hardly charming to look at. But just moments away, on the borders of the city, lies the seemingly separate universe of temples and old streets. While it's just as bustling as the rest of the city, if not more so, the pure beauty of the temples and gardens bestows a kind of calm lacking elsewhere in the city.
The sun-warmed wood of the temple verandas, worn into smooth ridges and burls by generations of feet, is pleasant and calming under the stocking feet. In the courtyards, the gnarls of ancient tree roots are softened by moss and dappled with sun. Cherry blossoms wave over bridges and garden stairways, and nothing could be farther from the harried pavement of downtown. Kyoto's culinary spectrum is as broad as its aesthetic one. While Kyoto is famed for having some of the best food in Japan, our sampling was rather limited, due to both time and budget concerns - but I think we still had some good finds.
Our first and most spectacular meal was happened upon by chance: as we arrived rather late and needed a meal near to our hostel, we chose a ramen shop down the block that specialized in a particular form of green onion ramen, or negi ramen (negimen for short.) The chefs unique touch was the flambéing of the dish with a pour of hot sake, a treat for which patrons lined up, donned a bib, and then learned back - to avoid the conflagration at the bar. We, unfortunately, ordered before we understood that a giant plume of flame was on the menu, so got the rather sedate, but still tasty, regular pork ramen. The casual atmosphere and comforting savoriness of the ramen perfectly fit the rather working-class neighborhood of our hostel, and the firm noodles and salty broth slurped up satisfyingly.
For a contrast, in the temple district we sampled Kyoto's traditional delicate confection of folded mochi rice sheets flavored with cinnamon and enclosing red bean paste. It's now made with a variety of fillings and flavors, from chocolate and strawberry to black sesame. My favorite was a sakura-flavored rice sheet with the traditional red bean inside. While the treat is basically comparable with the most common daifuku mochi, a rice dumpling filled with sweetened bean paste, the thin rice sheet is firmer than a daifuku exterior, and less gooey, while the cinnamon adds a refined air to the simple rice and assertive red bean.
Nara has a more rustic feeling than Kyoto, but its sights share an elegance with the best moments of Kyoto and indeed, the lunch we had there was at once comfortingly simple and surprisingly refined. Kamameshi is rice served in a hot iron pot, mixed with meat or seafood and vegetables. The iron pot crisps the rice around the edges, while the lid on the pot keeps in some moisture to soften the rice, allowing you to scrape the darkened kernels from the sides of the pot. We had one pot of chicken with herbs and one with mixed seafood, chicken and vegetables, and both had a remarkably nuanced flavor. Sweet and nutty toasted rice mixed with savory chicken and light, fresh herbs to be at once warming and refreshing, filling, and lightening. The seafood was clean and mild, and the oysters, from Hiroshima, were the largest, plumpest, and sweetest I've ever had. The weather was dreary that day, and we were chilled and worn from temple-hopping, and the reviving effects of the kamameshi were invaluable.