Thursday, November 29, 2012

28/11/12 – 29/11/12 Kanazawa, Kyoto and Cooking


Our day started by having breakfast at our lovely ryokan. Today was our last day in Kanazawa, and we wanted to make the most of it. What better way to do so than with a hearty breakfast?

Afterwards, we gathered our things, and went to check out. We gave our gratitude to our lovely host, Mai, who like always, was very graceful and appreciative for us staying there. She said “thank you very much for your long stay.” From this we gathered that most people must only stay one night or so, but we enjoyed our three nights in Kanazawa, as it gave us ample time to explore the town at a relaxed pace.

We had a fair amount of time left before our train left for Kyoto in the afternoon, so in the meantime, we decided to see Kenroku-en, the garden that we saw at night at the beginning of our time in Kanazawa. The daylight and pleasant weather would give us the opportunity to appreciate its full beauty.

And beautiful it was. I can see why it is ranked as one of the “top 3 gardens in Japan”. Firstly, it is massive, and each area you visit has its own detailed design and purpose – one area is a plum blossom grove, so during the springtime, it flowers and looks stunning, whereas another area has a lot of trees that have leaves that turn red during the autumn season. It’s all very well designed – no matter what time of year it is, there is always beauty to behold within Kenroku-en.

One practice which we had noticed around Kenroku-en (and Kanazawa as a whole), is that trees all over the park were having their branches tied to tall poles at the center of the trees. This puzzled me for a little while, until I realised that winter was coming. They were doing this to help preserve the trees through the heavy snowfall that Kanazawa experiences. This way, the pole in the ground and the strong ropes would take the weight of the snow, and the tree’s beauty would be preserved for the following year.

There is a real “castle town” feel to Kanazawa – I’d say it is mainly because of the excellently preserved districts and the amazing castle and gardens, but I did notice one other thing that I’ve never seen anywhere else before – when you looked to the sky, you could constantly see birds of prey circling, looking for their next meal. It definitely conjures up imagery of a feudal-Japan age.

After spending a good hour leisurely strolling around Kenroku-en, and taking in its beauty, we headed to our next spot for the day – the Nagamachi Samurai district. I didn’t really have much of an idea what was there, but I heard the word “Samurai”, and I was instantly keen to check out the area. It was a fair walk from Kenroku-en, but Kanazawa is a fairly small city, so it was only 30 minutes or so on foot. A bus trip would have saved us plenty of time, but we weren’t in any particular hurry, and the weather wasn’t an issue, so we decided to walk.

The area wasn’t all that well-defined. It sort of just blended from regular residential buildings into this samurai-styled canal area. It was very pretty, and it had definitely been preserved quite well. As we walked around, we stumbled upon another of Kanazawa’s big attractions which we had no idea actually existed. It was the “Nomura Samurai House”, a house that was once owned by a renowned Samurai family. We had a look through it, where it had several examples of Samurai armour and weaponry. It also had a very picturesque garden at the back of the house. Very much an interesting detour in our sightseeing.

It was starting to get close to when our train’s time of departure, so we started to walk back to our ryokan. Along the way, we stumbled upon the “Life Coordinate Store”. From what Emma and I could deduce, it was the Japanese equivalent of a Crazy Clarks. Nothing had prices on it, so we didn’t know how much anything would cost until we got to the register. Thankfully, most of the things we bought were only 105JPY, so it wasn’t an unpleasant surprise. I bought a few different types of candy – some tomato flavoured ones (yes, tomato), and ones that I like to call “THE MYSTERY PACKET” – it has no picture of what the candy contains, and there was no English description anywhere on the packet. I think I’ll give them as a gift to one of my unsuspecting friends. It should be interesting.

We then headed back to the hotel, got our bags, and made the long trek to the train station. At the train station, we bought tickets to Kyoto, and we were finally able to secure reserved seating this time. Huzzah! We then bought some nice bento boxes for some lunch, and boarded our “Thunderbird 32” train bound for Kyoto.

What followed was a very smooth and relaxing 2.5 hour journey on the train. After eating our lunch, we actually dozed off for an hour or so. There wasn’t all that much to see out the window – it was getting dark, and the train was speeding by too quickly to really take in what we were looking at. We did see some lovely forests and mountains though.

When we got in to Kyoto, it was literally a three minute walk from Kyoto station to our ryokan. I’m really digging this “short walk to accommodation” thing. I should do it more often!

After checking in, we decided to just relax and watch a bit of Japanese TV. Yes, it is a weird as everyone says it is. It’s bloody bizarre, in fact. These days though, with so many weird youtube videos online, you sort of become desensitised to it. That is, until you realise that there is an anthropomorphised tiger dressed as a waiter in a French café dancing around, trying to sell you a laptop/tablet device by Intel. Yes, this is an ad for Intel, the CPU manufacturer. And this is considered normal. Our ads are really boring by comparison! Also, every single advertisement seems to end with a 1.5 second jingle of the company’s name. I think it gets to the stage where when every company has a jingle, they lose their effectiveness.

For dinner, we went to “Maragume Udon”, a place that we visited last time we were in Kyoto. On our way there, we had a slight moment of panic, when we thought temporarily that it had closed down. Thankfully though, it was just in a different place to what we remembered. The food was just as awesome as last time, for me at least. Since our last visit to Japan, Emma has become gluten intolerant. Even though the Japanese use low-gluten wheat flour in most of their cooking, Udon noodles are made completely out of this flour, so they contain a considerable amount of gluten in them. As such, Emma’s meal was pretty much a bowl of food poisoning. She decided to eat it regardless, even with the consequences that would follow her for the rest of the evening.

We then went into the nearby “Loft” department store. When you come to Japan, visit a “Loft”. They are the king of awesome things. They sell pretty much everything homewares and clothing-wise, but it isn’t really ordinary stuff. There’s loads of stuff that makes you say “holy crap that’s awesome”. That’s saying a lot with the sheer amount of awesome stuff that is in Japan.


The highlight of today, and really the only thing we actually did with our day, was a Japanese home cooking class. The day started with us catching a bus to a fairly northern area of Kyoto – fairly far away from most of the touristy areas. We had been told to meet Taro-san, our instructor there. When we got off the bus, there were four other young, Caucasian people waiting at the bus stop. Without saying anything to them, I knew we were in the right spot.

A few minutes later, Taro-san arrived. He apologised for making us all wait, even though he was only a minute later than he said he would arrive! I love the punctuality of the Japanese people!

We then walked a short distance to his house. When we got inside, he introduced us to his wife, Yoshiko-san, and his adorable daughter, Haruko-chan. Throughout the whole lesson, Haruko-chan played happily away, as all four year olds do. She was incredibly cute. We all then sat down and Taro-san took us through the recipes that we were going to cook. As we chatted away, we soon discovered that not only were all six of the students in the class today from Australia, but we were all from Brisbane! Bloody Aussies, we’re everywhere!

Two of the members in the class, Nathan and Isabella, were cooking the famous Kobe beef, so as such, Taro-san gave us a bit of background on the exact definition of Kobe beef.

Essentially, it is a high-class brand of beef that comes from only specific bloodlines of cattle, which are farmed by only specific farms in the Kobe region, and then are slaughtered in only certain slaughterhouses in the region. The entire process is highly regulated, with a certificate of authenticity given with each piece of beef sold. Did I mention that it is expensive? Well, it is. According to Taro-san, at a restaurant, a small sized steak of Kobe beef will set you back between 12,000 and 15,000JPY, or between $140 and $180 AUD. For a single meal, that’s mind-bogglingly expensive!

A good way to think of it is like Champagne – only wine created in the Champagne region of France can bear its name. Clearly, it’s a highly exclusive delicacy.

Taro-san then took us through the preparation for each of our dishes. Today, we made quite a few side elements, as well as a main dish. We learned how to cook Dashi, the basic “stock” that is used in many elements of Japanese cooking, primarily soups. Additionally, we learned how to make Miso soup, stir fried root vegetables, various pickles, Japanese omelettes and other small side dishes.

Having eaten all of these side dishes quite regularly over the past week of being in Japan, I found it amazing to see how much effort went into creating them – here I was, every time I was eating all of these things, thinking that they just came from a packet and were just mass produced in some factory, but no. We learned how to make each of the elements, and they all tasted just as authentic as the side dishes I had with multiple meals over the past few days.

Our main meal which we cooked was Tsukune, which was a minced chicken dish. We used several elements in the dish, including ginger, soy sauce, mirin and Hikiji, one of the many types of seaweed used in Japanese cooking. It had a great “teriyaki” style flavour to it, but it was definitely a more refined flavour than what you get at your regular Japanese eatery place in Australia.
While we were cooking, and Taro-san instructed us, he answered any questions we had not only about the food, but about general Japanese life and things to do in Kyoto. While I really enjoyed the cooking experience itself, I found Taro-san’s insights into Japanese culture and general lifestyle equally as fascinating. It was wonderful to be able to chat with a local about Japan, without any form of language barrier between us. As I’ve said previously in the blog – I love being able to see a city from a local’s perspective. And while Taro-san didn’t exactly lead us around the city showing us the sights and sounds, I found the conversations I had with him about Kyoto to be invaluable.

After we had finished cooking, it was then time for the even more enjoyable part of the class – the eating part! Yoshiko-san, Taro-san’s wife, had laid out the table in a wonderfully ornate manner, just like at a Japanese restaurant. We all said “itadakimas”, and then tucked into our freshly cooked meals. Needless to say, it was all delicious. We chatted away over our early dinner about everybody’s experiences so far in Japan. The other class members had gone to some really interesting places in Japan that I hadn’t gone to yet – definitely adding them to the “next time” list!

Then, we thanked Taro-san for the wonderful afternoon, and then headed back out into the cold, wintery air of Kyoto. A long, peak-hour bus trip later, and we were back at Kyoto station. We decided to get some bento boxes for dinner, which we kept for much later in the night – we were still so full from Taro-san’s food!

Overall, I can’t recommend this cooking class enough. Don’t expect to go in and cook “Kaiseki” (Japanese haute cuisine) – expect to experience how people of everyday life in Japan prepare and cook their meals, as well as a fantastic insight into the modern Japanese household.

Tomorrow: Kyoto, and its fascinating temples!

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