I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles
– lyrics by Cole Porter
With an average August temperature of around 33.5C and relative humidity that can edge up to near 70%, Kyoto, sister city to Paris, can be unbearably hot in summer — yet there are many ways to love it when it sizzles.
We recently had occasion to go to Kyoto for a Friday business meeting and decided to stay on to enjoy the weekend. On past occasions, our advance planning usually included abundant visits to beautiful gardens and Buddhist temples. This being the middle of summer – when it’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach 39C – our better sense told us that garden and temple walks might not be the ideal itinerary.
Unlike Paris, which has sparse air conditioning, Kyoto is filled with frostily air-conditioned museums, galleries and restaurants, so we decided to focus our weekend on food and art. Well, okay, we also planned to throw in a little shopping. It turned out to be the perfect way to pass summer days in this baking-hot, sub-tropical city.
As afternoon is the hottest time of day in Kyoto, we opted to have our big meals at lunchtime in cool, air-conditioned rooms. After arriving from Tokyo on an early morning Shinkansen bullet train, we went directly to our meeting. By lunchtime we were ready to be wowed. Lunch at Gosho Ungetsu was the perfect choice.
We’ve been enjoying Gosho Ungetsu and its kappo-style kaiseki cuisine for many years and we’re always impressed by the warm welcome there. We were seated in front of a small counter with six seats,”hori-gotatsu” style, on the floor with a sunken area for our legs. There were perhaps a few other guests in private rooms, but it was clear that we could expect personalized, attentive service. We were offered a small pour of local Kyoto sake to whet the appetite, served with a cluster of perfect dried kombu.
The first course was seasonal hammo fish poached and served cold in the traditional manner with ume plum paste and a perfect green fava bean lounging on the side, presented with a dollop of edamame and tofu crème. It inspired us to order a tokkuri, or carafe, of sake that quickly arrived, tucked into a ceramic dish filled with ice.
The next courses were more cold dishes. One dish of shiromi, white fish, sashimi accompanied by scallions and a dish of vegetables included a truly memorable, single vineyard cherry tomato.
Then came a dish of yuba, a Kyoto tofu curd specialty served hot from individual hibachi grills, followed by ayu, or sweetfish, another typical Kyoto specialty, served grilled over charcoal with a dipping sauce made from aromatic Japanese herbs. Next was a warm tangle of potato and shiitake mushrooms with fragrant herbs, followed by a light, crisp Kyoto-style mixed tempura.
A young chef emerged to show us the prized part of the meal, donabe gohan, or rice cooked in a clay pot over a wood stove.
The pot was taken back to the kitchen, and the rice divided between our two bowls and topped with katsuobushi, shaved, dried bonito. The rice course was served with Kyoto-style red miso soup and pickles.
The last of the 10 courses was a perfect dessert of Japanese sweets. We’d been enjoying Tsukino Katsura sake throughout the meal and asked for more information about the brewery, making a note to one day visit Masuda-san, the 14th generation owner of the historic brewery located in the city’s Fushimi district.
One of the more charming traits of Gosho Ungetsu is that it has resolutely stayed out of the internet age, neglecting to create a website, so most customers find out about the place by word of mouth.
Although we craved a nap after such a fine meal we persevered and headed to the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (MoMAK) to enjoy works from the permanent collection of nihonga (Japanese style painting), yoga (Western-style painting), prints, sculpture, crafts (ceramics, textiles, metal works, wood and bamboo works, lacquer and jewellery) and photography from around the world.
Near the museum, we opted for some late afternoon retail therapy, visiting one of our favorite smaller galleries in Kyoto, Imamura Art Gallery. There are always shows here by young emerging artists and ceramicists, at reasonable prices.
The next morning, we visited another of our favorite galleries with a mind towards our lunch destination. We love poking through the ceramics stores near Kiyomizu Dera temple and have been visiting Ikkyaku Gallery for more than 20 years, always certain we’ll be carting home a small or large treasure. This time, Ikkyaku didn’t disappoint and we discovered two striking pieces by a local ceramicist: a lovely serving bowl and a rice cup.
No Kyoto sojourn with an art and food theme should lack a three-starred Michelin meal. We’d heard about chef Yoshihiro Murata’s ryotei, Kikunoi, and were pleased to learn it serves a 5,200 yen kaiseki “bento box” lunch in a special garden room. We opted to sit at the counter and view the lush garden over our leisurely lunch.
The bento was preceded by a dish of edamame tofu and a selection of fresh sashimi. The main attraction came next, a wooden box filled with small dishes nestled in sections containing sashimi, seaweed and dishes involving mainly tofu.
The rice course was served with perhaps one of the finest tai chazuke – snapper placed in red miso served with rice on the side– I’d ever tasted.
Japanese sweets rounded out the meal, served with tea and an invitation to linger and enjoy the garden. We staggered out into the afternoon sun feeling pampered and well fed.
We’d now reached culinary heights and it was time to look for a fine art encounter to match. We walked down from the hilltop seclusion of Kikunoi to the area around Sanjo bridge, with the intention of making a stop at Naito Rikimatsu Shoten, the 200-year-old store selling everything from cleaning brushes such as hemp-palm tawashi scrubers and bamboo brooms to brushes of horsehair, goat hair and deer for artists and craftsmen. There is no signage but it remains a landmark in Kyoto; crossing over Sanjo Bridge it is the second store on the north side of the street. No matter how hot or cold it may be in Kyoto, it remains a “must visit” for us.
At Zokyodo Gallery we discovered an exciting young artist, Takahiro Hara. A disciple of the painter Antonio Lopez, he has spent many years studying and working in Spain. Zokyodo Gallery always has new discoveries that make our heads spin!
As the sun was setting and Kyoto was cooling off, we taxied to Sokyo Gallery for a show that featured some top Japanese contemporary ceramics, especially works by women artists including Eiko Kishi, a sculptural ceramicist who works out of a studio in Kyoto near the Philosopher’s Walk.
We were now ready for a light dinner and to meet friends at Tempura Endo Yasaka. The restaurant is located in a typical Kyoto building in the traditional Gion district, housed in a 90-year-old former ocha-ya teahouse built in classic sukiya style. We’ve known Endo-san since he opened the restaurant, well before he showed up in Beverly Hills, California to wow the natives with a restaurant that is almost impossible to book. He now owns several Kyoto restaurants as well as the US outpost. Our favorite is still this gorgeous honten, or original establishment. We’re always impressed that he’s usually around to greet people, and extend the same warm hospitality to guests no matter if you’re a maiko (apprentice geisha) out with a patron, a politician or a visiting guest from the West.
We entered through a beautiful lantern-lit passageway to be greeted by women wearing summer kimono in beautiful pale blue colors. They welcomed and fussed over us with typical Kyoto hospitality until we were comfortably seated. We chose the tempura bar rather than a private room so that we could watch the action. Our meal lasted over two hours as we sampled the freshest seasonal vegetables and impressively fresh fish, perfectly fried in front of us behind the copper hood covering Endo’s tempura pot. Our two favorite parts of the meal were the opening salvo of corn, a specialty of the house, and the closing slush of palate-cleansing frozen grapefruit sorbet.
We sat happily napping the next morning as our Shinkansen train raced through the heat back towards Tokyo, knowing that we had found the perfect way to deal with the sizzle and not let our Kyoto holiday fizzle.