Autumn is one of the best times to enjoy Kyoto in all its glory. The weather is generally mild and the city’s historic temple grounds and gardens are transformed into a kaleidoscope of fiery autumnal colors. It is also the season to sample some of Japanese cuisine’s most beloved ingredients, such as matsutake mushrooms,
It is impossible to predict when nature will perform its magic on the maples, gingko and beech trees that adorn Kyoto’s famous architectural sites and surrounding hills, transforming them into a blaze of colors. But visiting the ancient capital between mid-November to early December is usually a safe bet.
So, we left Tokyo on a mid-morning bullet train in early December and arrived at Kyoto station just in time for lunch. To immediately kick off our visit in gourmet style, we had booked seats at Wakuden in the Isetan Department Store, right at the station, which is a convenient place to have a first-class Japanese meal before setting off to explore the city’s many wonders.
Wakuden (http://japonica.info/kodaiji-wakuden-kyoto-kaiseki/) is, strictly speaking, not a native Kyoto restaurant, but has its origins in the western coastal city of Kyotango.
Nevertheless, with three formal restaurants in the city and a total of three Michelin stars, Wakuden is considered a Kyoto establishment and one of the best places to enjoy Kyoto kaiseki, or multi-course cuisine. While it lacked the evocative interiors of its two sister restaurants, Wakuden Kyoto Isetan offered a pleasant atmosphere with its large, light room and a striking view of the city surrounded by low mountains.
Our Y6,500 lunch (the minimum order required for a lunch booking) started with a very small serving of sake to cleanse the palate before enjoying a dish of sawara (Spanish mackerel) layered with thinly sliced lotus root and served with komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) in a light broth. At first bite, I knew I was in Kyoto where the seasoning is distinctly light and has an elegant, clean taste.
The sea bream kaburamushi – a dish in which a turnip is steamed, grated and formed into a ball and wrapped around a piece of white fish – was perfectly seasoned, as the best Kyoto dishes are, with umami flavor wafting through the broth without a hint of saltiness. The sea bream was unbelievably soft and a pinch of wasabi gave the dish a bit of a kick.
This was followed by grilled ebi-imo, a kind of taro potato popular in Kyoto cuisine, with gingko nuts. The outer crust of the taro, which was seasoned with Japanese pepper-infused soy sauce, was surprisingly crispy while the inside had a creamy, soft texture. Ebi-imo, which means “shrimp potato,” is named for its curved shape and stripes, which make it resemble a large shrimp.
I have a weakness for goma-dofu, or sesame tofu, so I was particularly happy to see it served in the next dish. The unusual choice of shirako — fish milt, or semen — as a base for the sauce was challenging for me as I find its taste and texture cloying. But the overall effect was light, creamy and, admittedly, delicious.
Then came a bowl of hamaguri, or hard clam, cooked in dashi with Shogoin daikon – a kind of long, cylindrical horse radish that originated in the Shogoin district of Kyoto – which provided a pleasing contrast of taste and texture. After that, the meal ended with rice cooked in a dashi broth with crab meat.
And since it was the tail end of autumn, we were served an eye-catching wedge of very ripe persimmon for dessert.
Having satisfied our appetites and saved enough energy for a vigorous walk, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to Nanzenji temple, which is famous for being the world’s most important Zen temple.
Originally built in the 13th century, Nanzenji has been destroyed by fire multiple times, first by the Buddhist monks of Mt Hiei who were jealous of the rise of Zen, and rebuilt no less than three times. Its present structure dates from the 16th century.
Although Nanzenji and its gardens are famous for their autumn leaves, we were slightly late for the colors. Still, the bright foliage stood out beautifully against the dark hues of the temple buildings and western-style aqueduct on the grounds, which was completed in 1890 to bring water to the area from faraway Lake Biwa.
Next door to Nanzenji is the splendid Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple, which is renowned for its maple trees.
The temple itself is spacious with glittering decor and a famous Amida Buddha, whose head is turned sidewards as if looking behind him.
Legend has it that the statue was originally front-facing but turned its head one day towards Eikan, an 11th century head priest for whom the temple is named, and said, “Eikan, you are late.” The pose represents the mercy of the Amida waiting for people who are late to the faith.
From Eikando, we followed the Path of Philosophy, named after a philosophy professor who walked the path on his daily commute to his office at Kyoto University, to our last stops of the day – Shinnyodo and Kurodani. Both temples are little known, quiet areas mostly visited by locals.
We enjoyed the peacefulness of the temple grounds and the impressive architecture.
Shinnyodo is famous for its autumn colors, which accentuate the beauty of its majestic pagoda while Kurodani’s pagoda, which was built in the 17th century, is an Important Cultural Property.
By early evening, it was getting slightly chilly and dark so we headed back to Hiiragiya, where we were to stay that night. One of three celebrated Kyoto ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, Hiiragiya is slightly easier to book than Tawaraya, which is directly across the road.
Although it is not particularly luxurious, we enjoyed the traditional architecture and atmosphere of Hiiragiya, which dates back to 1818 and was beloved by famous writers, such as Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Prominent overseas guests include Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor.
For those who like their creature comforts, the drawback of staying at a traditional inn is sleeping on futon laid out on a tatami-covered floor. Only one room at Hiiragiya has western-style beds.
Our room provided only basic amenities and the washbasin was next to the entrance, rather than the bathroom, perhaps due to an ill-considered renovation. The in-room bath was a traditional one made of hinoki (Japanese cypress) and the small, dimly-lit bathroom with its wooden walls and tiny window looking out onto a small garden, was very atmospheric.
What we liked most about Hiiragiya was the exquisite Kyoto kaiseki served in our room. Among the multiple dishes in our 10-course meal, the stand-outs for me were the soup of white miso, kurumafu (baked wheat gluten), shirako and spinach and the kaburamushi, which we had been served at lunch as well. Hiiragiya’s kaburamushi was slightly sweeter than the one we had at Wakuden and to my delight, came with gingko nuts.
One of the highlights of our leaf-viewing Kyoto trip came the next day when we visited Toji, a temple within walking distance of Kyoto station, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the day of our visit, the pagoda stood majestically against the autumn sky framed by fiery maple leaves, its image highlighted by the red of the leaves reflected in the shimmering pond.
After a day of chasing what was left of Kyoto’s autumn beauty, we were ready for a sumptuous meal at Godan Miyazawa.
Miyazawa, who hails from Kanagawa prefecture, honed his culinary skills first at sushi restaurants and then at famous Kyoto establishments, including Wakuden, before opening his own kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto at the age of 32.
One of the pleasures of sitting at the counter at Godan Miyazawa is watching Chef Miyazawa skillfully prepare the food, which is served on exquisite plates and bowls. But the highlight was undoubtedly the multi-course feast we were served.
Our last day in Kyoto took us to Nijo Castle, although by that time most of the brilliant foliage had faded, and then Arashiyama, on the western outskirts of the city.
We were not expecting much autumn color remaining in Arashiyama, either, so were delighted on our arrival at Houkyoin Temple to be greeted by a symphony of yellow, orange and red leaves in the temple’s beautifully manicured garden.
As it is not well-known, Houkyoin, which was built by Emperor Shirakawa (1053-1129), offers a welcome respite from the crowds that often besiege the Arashiyama district, particularly around the famous bamboo grove, which is a short walk away.
Our final stop in Kyoto was a restaurant in Arashiyama, which we had heard so much about that we could not resist trying it, despite the rather hefty price for lunch, which came to just under Y50,000 for two, without alcohol.
Tempura Matsu is so named for its original designation as a tempura restaurant, but since its reincarnation as a kaiseki restaurant it has served outstanding seasonal dishes using ingredients sourced from all over Japan.
With its low ceiling, wooden beams and lampshades that look like they belong to another era, the place felt more like a casual eatery than a high-end kaiseki restaurant.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed the retro style and homey atmosphere as we sat at the counter watching the chefs deftly assemble one dish after another.
Our lunch began with a mushroom soup that was based on konbu or kelp broth. Rich with umami flavor, it helped to warm us up on a distinctly chilly afternoon.
Next came crisply fried tile fish in a sweet and sour sauce garnished with slices of piquant leek. The tile fish was pleasingly crunchy and light.
The sashimi dish featured several different cuts – mackerel marinated in vinegar; the most tender squid I have ever tasted, which was perfectly complemented by the accompanying salt and wasabi mustard; fugu, or pufferfish, which we dipped in ponzu sauce made with soy sauce, yuzu, a Japanese citrus , vinegar and mirin, a type of rice wine, and seared Spanish mackerel, which was seasoned with a citrus gelée.
Our eight-course lunch included only one tempura dish of shrimp and lotus root. While delicious and expertly fried, the real highlight of the meal for me was the mushroom soup.
Tempura Matsu definitely lived up to its reputation and we were not surprised to learn that Alain Ducasse, the French chef with multiple Michelin stars to his name, had visited and that it was the place where Jakucho Setouchi, a famous writer and Buddhist monk, who passed away last year at the age of 99, usually celebrated her birthday.
Having enjoyed some of Kyoto’s finest cuisine as well as its colorful seasonal transformation, I headed home, firm in my belief that autumn is indeed one of the best times to visit this ancient city.