First stop was Kyoto as we figured it would be a great hub to branch off and explore other parts of Japan.
Finally, a real relief from the heat! We’ve never enjoyed the low 70’s more in our lives. Walking outside without being hit with the heat and humidity has never felt so amazing. It even felt chilly in the evenings! Heavenly!
We decided ahead of time that we would purchase the “Kansai Through Pass” which allows you to take the subway and bus as many times as you’d like over 3 days. We flew into Osaka with plans of buying the pass and using it to get to Kyoto. Buyer beware, when you go the ticket booth at the Osaka Airport, the $45/person pass can only be purchased with cash. After finding a loophole and figuring out how to buy it with a credit card online, we got on our way. The pass sucks. Don’t do it. They made it seem like it’s so easy and there are so many trains you can take, and say it’ll only take just over an hour from Osaka to Kyoto. It took us 4 different trains and 2 and a half hours. We quickly figured out that while you can take any of the subway lines, JapanRail, the main rail system, is off limits. Every time we looked up directions or asked someone at the stations, we were told to take JapanRail… but couldn’t. Even Google was persistent about taking JR (as it’s known by the locals).
We decided to do day trips, one around Kyoto, one to Kobe and the last back in Osaka to check it all out.
In Kyoto, we checked out Nishimi Market, a back alley walking street lined with shops, restaurants and all the street food you could ever want. We saw a German specialty, Baumkuchen, being made with the fun Japanese flavors like Matcha or more normal flavors like Strawberry. You’ve probably seen it before, the cake that is made by a rotating spit so it creates layers, but add in the matcha or strawberry flavor. (We tried both!)
We also went to the Fishima temple, you may have seen a picture of this temple before, a whole path with closely situated bright orange Torii gates that lead up to a shrine. There were many different smaller shrines and statues of foxes, which was the spirit animal of the temple. While we shared this moment with hundreds of other people, it was fun to walk through and see it first hand, even get our own picture of the famous orange Torii gates!
We expected Kobe to be filled with bright green pastures filled with happy cows being fed beer and having day long massages, but what we got was a city… just like any other. Although it did have the smell of grilled meat running through the streets. We had heard that if you want to get some of that delicious, famous meat without the large price tag that Chinatown was the place to go. Luckily it was close to the metro station we got off at and we were there within minutes. It was filled with vendors selling all different kinds of street foods, many choices of the famous beef, and so many of the delicious Chinese specialities that we’ve come to love, like Bao, but these steam buns were in the shape of animals! We had to get a few to taste! The cute Pig was filled with juicy BBQ pork with sweet adzuki beans for its eyes. The chick bun was sadly not filled with chicken, but still had a delicious creamy egg custard filling it.
Kobe beef everywhere! Dean found a place selling a Kobe steak burger and that was the winner. Sure the “steak” was about 60 grams (2ounces) but he said all that flavor packed in that small steak was amazing! When the steak was set on the searing hot flattop grill you could see the incredible marbling. The “beefy-ness” was off the charts, and it was so juicy, just a quick sprinkle of salt and pepper was all it needed. I even tried a bite and was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t hate it as I did when tasting other varieties of beef. Dean noticed that the steak did seem to get lost in the massive freshly baked bun and we wondered why it had such a large amount of onion Worcestershire relish lathered on top, almost hiding the meat. A little would have been nice but it seemed to take over! Dean just ate the beef separately to preserve that high quality beef. Overall verdict? It was good, very good, but there is some great quality Waygu beef being produced in Australia and the US that is close in taste and complexity that is much cheaper. Dean’s tip, since real Kobe beef is hard to get in the USA, stick to a place that touts great Waygu beef and save some money, but when in Kobe, try it out and check it off your bucket list!
After beef tasting we checked out some more of the city. We went to the famous Merikan Park, which was more of a finely groomed port for all the boats to come and out of. It was nice to sit and watch the water and take some pictures. It’s also the site of the “Be Kobe” sign. We weren’t sure if it meant to be beef, or the basketball star, we chose the former and had a laugh about it.
We didn’t have a bad time here, but sadly wasn’t too impressed with any of it.
FYI: There are a lot of places we don’t know the names of! We’re happy to explain exactly where they were located if anyone wants any further information! Most of the names were in Japanese.
CoCo Curry: Seeing this spot right around the corner from our hotel was a welcomed treat after our long trek into Kyoto from the airport, especially since the only other restaurant we saw had Golden Arches. Having Japanese curry in Japan was a must! When you hear curry, you think Indian style, but Japanese curry is a rich curry thickened with a roux with similar spices of an Indian yellow curry but using soy sauce as well. This place had a feel of a Denny’s or any all American diner, except they all speak Japanese and the menu is filled with all things curry. We started with salad, Caesar for Dean and a House Salad for me with the most amazing sesame dressing I’ve ever had! For dinner, I chose the Chicken Katsu curry, a pan fried chicken breast on top of a pile of rice in a huge bowl of Japanese curry. Dean chose the same thing, but with pork instead of chicken. Delicious and filling! The best curry we’ve ever had? No. Dean makes a MEAN Japanese curry… but I guess that’s what happens when you marry a chef 😉Nevertheless, we gobbled it up and at around $10/person for our meals in addition to two salads, we were very happy. Most supermarkets with a decent Asian section will have a Japanese curry cube section, head there and make your own! If they don’t and you want to try it out, Dean would be happy to explain how to make one.
Ramen: Unfortunately, we couldn’t tell you the name of this place, but it was conveniently located steps from the metro and in the perfect location to pop in after visiting the Fishima temple. This was our first taste of Ramen in Japan! Rich broth filled to the rim with tender noodles, green onion and sliced pork. I got some chicken on the side and the whole thing was the fuel we needed to continue exploring Kyoto. FYI, ramen varies widely by region, and is nothing like the stuff you buy for 6/$1 at the supermarket. It’s like comparing a little Debbie Swiss roll to a bakery made cake!
Kyoto Station, Porta Dining: We heard that the Kyoto train station had an awesome food hall on the 11th floor.. after many escalators and dancing LED stairs we realized it was more like many mini restaurants with a high price tag. Luckily, we had noticed Porta Dining on our way up, so after much disappointment on the 11th floor, we went down the many escalators to the basement of the station, through what turned into a mall and then into the dining section. Again, many different little restaurants but the price tag was more affordable and the atmosphere was less stuck up. We enjoyed it so much here we ate twice! The first place we checked out was known for its Okonomiyaki, the traditionally savory Japanese cabbage pancake. While the base is always the same, there are many varieties you can get. Dean chose a version with pork and mine was coated in cheese. Delish!
(Speaking of Okonomiyaki, there is a traditional Osaka style restaurant in Kyoto that has high ratings called Issen Yoshoku, we were hoping that TripAdvisor would send us to a gem, but the Kyoto style pancake is more like a crepe or omelet filled with a variety of fillings like fish, jellies of some sort and the tiniest piece of beef you can imagine. After ordering without fish (or beef for me) we were quite underwhelmed. The flavor was nothing more than soy sauce and very expensive for this classic Japanese street treat. Tourist trap or a restaurant resting on its laurels and using kitschy dolls and decor to lure people in? Either way, if you find yourself in Kyoto, skip it. Sorry, rant over)
The next time we came to this dining area, we chose a place with delicious looking Udon noodle soups. I got one made with curry broth and udon noodles. Not the thick curry like CoCo Curry, it seemed to be mixed with broth. It was topped with tempura fried cheese and a side of chicken. Perfect! Dean had some Japan bucket list foods that he got to check off here, obviously Udon noodles, but upon closer inspection of the Japanese menu, he saw soba noodles offered as well. The classic Japanese buckwheat noodle with a flavor that can only be described as a bit nutty, then dipped in a light soy sauce, topped with some wasabi and the crunchies of fried tempura batter made it amazing! Oh, and he loved his udon noodles too!
Tiger Gyoza: After a long exhaustive search for “what to eat tonight” we decided on Tiger Gyoza in Kyoto on our final night there. Sure, not really Japanese but still amazing, and the 20 minute wait at the door must’ve been a good sign! A gyoza is a little dumpling, like a ravioli or pierogi, they are usually steamed then either pan fried or served simply steamed. We picked a few, knowing they’d mostly be pork, (heaven for Dean!) Fried pork dumplings with greens, “JAM-JAM” pork pan-fried dumplings, pan-fried beef and pork black dumplings and finally something for me, cheese grilled dumplings! Or so I thought… Dean loved his, tender wrappers hugging perfectly seasoned pork, or beef with different textures! I was really excited for the cheese dumplings, until we saw it being brought to us. A massive amount of cheese sauce being poured on top of steamed PORK dumplings! More gyoza for Dean, I had some ramen noodles, easier to pick out the pork in that. Still a great meal overall.