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Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama, Matsumoto report - very long

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As a follow-up to my trip preview here's a long long overdue report. Unfortunately I lost a lot of my trip data, including prices of meals, due to an ill-timed iPhone restore, so I’m missing many details. Anyway better late than never...

* Kyoto:

- Ramen Karako
Ate here our first night in Kyoto and it was the perfect comfort meal after many, many hours of travel. Really good yellow chicken based ramen with a free panchan-like spread of appetizers. I am no rameniac - though I do love the tonkotsu-style places proliferating in NYC like Ippudo et al - but this was great. I will likely be returning here on my next trip.
http://www.japan-hopper.com/2006/12/1...

- Okariba
Fun place with the exotic stuff I mentioned in the preview. Had a huge platter of excellent grilled wild boar and a grilled ayu before coming around to discussing bear and bee larvae with the grill-master/owner - Aoki-san. He emerged from the kitchen with a platter of bear jerky (tasted like ham), some bee larvae cured in honey (tasted like honey), and salted and honey glazed fried 'locusts' (perfect drinking food, salty, sweet, and crunchy - I could have eaten these and drunk beer all night - come to think of it I did!). He was also kind enough to go back to his walk-in to fetch the hunk of bear from which our jerky had been sliced, and finally gifted me a limited edition Marlboro lighter he had... I'm always amazed by Japanese generosity. Not refined, but definitely fun, and with raspy-voiced drunk locals sitting at the counter to boot. Not too expensive either, considering we were stuffed and drank many draughts for about ¥4000 each.
http://www.bento.com/kansai/rev/7143....

- Sojiki Nakahigashi
Our only high end meal in Kyoto and very hard to get a reservation. Overall an amazing experience and my first foray into what I guess is kappo-style sansai-ryori (please correct me if I am wrong). Without getting into course by course descriptions, one of my favorite things were the multiple consistencies of rice Nakahigashi-san offered over the course of the meal as it slowly cooked in his earthen oven (okudo?), from "al dente" (his words), to firm, to crispy and soccarat-like. The only weirdness (and the franco-german consultant sitting next to us who was doing gastro-research in Japan - how do I get that job?) came from the astoundingly, heart-stoppingly bitter vegetable he served for one course (some preparation of fuki or fukiba?) and the infused oil (I seem to recall wasabi infiused, but the taste was like chinese peppercorn) that he served as an accompaniment to his signature final course (mezashi and rice from the okudo – see the link below for details). He also encourages you to dip the okoge gohan into the oil, which made my lips a little numb and to my palate tasted very… hmm… soapy is the only word that comes to mind. Clearly over my gaijin head.
Here's where I first read about it:
http://www.japanesefoodreport.com/200...

- Yorozuya - negi udon
Nice little udon place hidden away in Gion. I had read on kyotofoodie that they made the noodles very soft - which is not my thing - so I asked for them a little ‘katame’. The middle-aged japanese couple sitting next to us commented to each other about this, then noticed me listening and asked if it was our first time there. When I replied that it was indeed my first time, a look of politely camouflaged horror crossed their faces. I’m assuming it's because only an idiot specifies noodle doneness in a place he’s never been before, but I would love some theories on this from you guys.
http://kyotofoodie.com/negi-udon-shop...

- Izuju - sabazushi
Meh. Expensive and not up to its reputation IMHO. And I really love saba.
http://kyotofoodie.com/izuju-best-kyo...

- Waraji-tei - obanzai
Still love this place. Good food. Tons of specials on which to roll the dice (I can't read kanji and they really don’t speak english) and obanzai dishes to point to on the counter. Nice people. Friendly regulars.
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/422738

- Shigetsu - shojin ryori
A good option for lunch in Arashiyama, albeit a little pricey. But I never thought vegan food could be quite this tasty. As almost always happened when it was possible, we were politely ushered into an empty back room soon to be joined by other gaijin. Love to visit the country, eat the food and meet the people, so I’ve learned to accept it, but I still can’t help noticing every time it happens.
Shigetsu - http://www.bento.com/kansai/rev/7094....

* Osaka:

- Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/680595
This food 'theme park' was ok as an option near the aquarium, but definitely not worth a detour.

* Kanazawa:

- Komatsu yasuke - sushi - for lunch
Begged our way in for lunch after being denied a reservation the week before (I had strategically booked us in the APA hotel where the restaurant occupies the storefront) and were granted one hour at the end of the bar, along with a solo young woman from Kyoto on a sushi pilgrimage who quickly became our friend (she even joined us for a walk in the park after lunch – but that’s another story). The itamae was cracking jokes the whole time (couldn’t understand a word), and for our benefit, whenever he placed a piece down at our end he would look right at our japanese neighbor and in english say “no soy sauce!” followed by rounds of merry laughter. Pretty silly but I appreciated him making the effort to get us in on his patter somehow.
Anyway… it was amazing. Best ten pieces I’ve ever had including fantastic uni, chu-toro, anago, tsukemono sushi and baigai (these last two I’d never had). Finished off with a fantastically fresh ume, shiso, yama-imo temaki (my choice).
4.45 on tabelog! http://r.tabelog.com/ishikawa/A1701/A...

- Housyou zushi – Silverjay’s rec but sadly and for various reasons we didn’t make it. Next time!
http://www.housyouzushi.co.jp/

- Daiba Ekimae
Instead we went to the significantly closer Daiba location by the station. Although we had reserved we arrived almost ½ hour late (not very Japanese of us, but we got a little lost) so they asked us to be out within 90 minutes, which was fine. Very busy on a Saturday night but good and fun izakaya. We had a reasonable set meal and a nice limited edition sake and a couple of beers.

* Takayama:

- Sakana
Silverjay had warned me about this spot, but on a rainy Sunday night in Takayama it was the easiest one to find. The food was quite good, with two of the best fried oysters we’ve ever had. Crispy on the outside and deliciously meaty and sweet and oystery on the inside. A large Japanese variety of which I forget the name.
But the chef/owner was a bit much – first giving us a very limited gaijin menu, then upselling us after we asked for osusume. We were prepared for the pile of photo albums and all but he was the only guy on our whole trip who blatantly upsold us. Overall it was ok but expensive for what we got – even accounting for the Hida beef sashimi. I guess I liked the food, but not the chef or his prices, so I would skip it next time.
http://iitokorone.blogspot.com/2008/0...

- Ryori ryokan Hanaoka
Amazing. Just amazing. Best meal of the trip. Best PQR meal I’ve ever had. Well worth a stay at the otherwise serviceable ryokan. Dinner was a ridiculous spread of sashimi, chawan mushi, hida beef sukiyaki, broiled eggplant with hoba miso, mountain vegetables, tofu, more vegetables, asari clam soup, fruit and on and on… just great. Loved it even with the slightly odd classical music piped through the speakers at mealtimes. Senoue-san – who runs the place (I think his wife does the cooking) is my new hero. If you look at the pictures in my flickr photostream you can see my post-dinner look of disbelief at all this goodness.
http://paulstravelpics.blogspot.com/2...

* Okuhida Onsen:

- Yarimikan. Beautiful onsen with four private/family baths, and excellent cuisine to match. If you like rotemburo and have the time to venture up here this is a must.
http://www.yarimikan.com/index.htm

* Matsumoto:
Didn’t have basashi in Matsumoto. Instead had soba for lunch at this place…

- Soba Sanjiro
Found this on tabelog, and if I hadn’t had my iPhone GoogleMap and one of my trusty front door pictures I would never have found it, despite it being right on the main drag to Matsumoto-jo. Very nice and peaceful soba restaurant. Major needle scratch when we walked in – it took about 5 minutes after we sat down to even start hearing a peep from the other tables. Excellent, thick, slightly nutty zaru soba with fantastic fresh wasabi from around Matsumoto – which is a if not the major center of wasabi cultivation in Japan. I complimented the obasan who was running the joint on everthing and especially the wasabi, which even when fresh is so different in the US. I suspect that like many other things it just doesn't travel well. She gave me her card, and then as soon as we had left, she ran after me on the street to present me with a ziplock bag containg a 6 inch root. Only in Japan.

* Tokyo:

- Mosburger in Shinjuku – my first time and… meh… still way better than McD’s.

After that I went to the izakaya in the dining floor above JR Ueno station for a late-night snack. Everything was ok but pretty pricey – I must have gotten used to non-Tokyo value during my trip. My sashimi moriawase had among other things, a piece of very sloppily cut buri (which I thought was out of season in April anyway – was I misidentifying the fish?). Anyway… not very impressed.

I haven’t really organized my photos too well, but here’s a link to my flickr album with lots of food shots interspersed with holiday pics:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/24899905...

And that’s it. Thanks again to Silverjay, Robb S and other Japan board CHers as well as to Harris Salat of japanesefoodreport.com, Paul at paulstravelpics.blogspot.com and Peko at kyotofoodie.com for sharing the knowledge. Also SJ I’ve been enoying your posts about Shinbashi over on the Manhattan board ;
)Next trip – November!

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  1. Glad to hear the trip went so well. Awesome that you got into Komatsu Yasuke. Overall, I'm particularly impressed with the amount of interaction you had with chefs and other patrons. Sounds like you had a great..or at least interesting time...at most of these places, on top of the food...Yeah, I just found the guy at Sakana too unctuous and was dying to get out of there by the end of my meal. I have my theories about why he's like that.....But hey, you're back to Japan in November?!? Best food month. Let's start planning your itinerary!...I just booked our end of the year trip today actually.....Oh, I'm getting a "This page is private" message at that Flickr link. Not sure if it's me or your account settings....Anyway, great stuff. -SJ

    1. I went to Izuju with high hopes. I agree, it was very "meh".

      2 Replies
      1. re: kersizm

        @kersizm and @snaporaz--

        What about Izuju was so meh? I'm not jumping to its defense or anything; like snaporaz, I added it to my shortlist for an upcoming trip based on Kyoto Foodie's write-up and am curious to hear any positive/negative feedback on it. Was it simply poor PQR? If it failed to meet high hopes, what were you expecting in terms of flavor and how did it fall flat?

        And finally, are there other Kyoto-style sushi places you'd recommend in its place? I'm intrigued by sabazushi and hakozushi especially.

        1. re: graceface

          @SJ - I'd be curious to hear your theory about the guy at Sakana. And though I'm going back in November, it's basically to play tour guide to my father, so I'll be retracing a lot of my steps. I do have three nights on my own, of which I'm thinking one will be spent in Osaka, one at Benesse on Naoshima and the third... not sure yet. Maybe somewhere like Takamatsu - just to get a taste of Shikoku. Don't know if that makes any sense. But Naoshima is so hard to get to that it kind of limits the possibilities.
          Here's a link to just the food pics that should work:
          http://flickr.com/gp/24899905@N03/6nib1E

          @graceface - for one I thought that the rice to fish ratio in the sabazushi was way too high. I understand it's a strong flavor that is suited to being used sparingly, but I thought it was a little stingy - esp. for what it cost. And though I'm a big fan of saba in all its preparations, I just didn't really love this particular dish. I've had it since at Ariyoshi in NYC and enjoyed it much more. Maybe it was about expectations too.

      2. The original comment has been removed