Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Kyoto, Japan

Earlier this year, D and I were invited to a wedding in Japan.  I think we debated for less than thirty seconds, and then promptly began to research plane tickets.

The wedding took place at Matsunoo Shrine in Kyoto.  We first stopped by Taipei for a few days to visit family, and then flew directly from Taipei to Kansai.  While in Taiwan, we'd heard that a typhoon was supposed to hit Japan the same day we were scheduled to arrive, so we were a bit worried about our flight.  In the end the typhoon hit Kyoto about an hour before our plane took off, but nevertheless we were only delayed by fifteen minutes.

Upon arrival we hopped into the Haruka airport express train, which took us to Kyoto Station.  We'd decided to spend three nights in Kyoto; one at the expensive but amazing-looking Hoshinoya, and two at the cheap and convenient Hotel Hokke Club near the station.  The Hoshinoya boat dock (yes, you take a boat to get to the hotel) was a twenty-minute cab ride from the station, and the cabbie had to call someone to figure out exactly where it was, but eventually we got there.  The hotel staff greeted us upon arrival and took us into a very posh waiting room, where they served us tea and cookies and informed us that unfortunately the hotel was completely closed, because the typhoon had caused the river to rise so much that it was unsafe to cross by boat.

We were pretty bummed about the change of plan, but the hotel staff quickly offered several hotel alternatives of a "similar class".  We chose their first suggestion, the Hyatt Regency, and they sent us there in a complimentary cab.  We were skeptical about liking the Hyatt since it was an American chain, but we were much more impressed after arriving at the property.  The front area was decorated with a field of bamboo shoots, and since it was after dark they were nicely lit.  The interiors were decorated in a modern Japanese style, and the bellboys and the concierge were super helpful.  The room overlooked the garden and was giant by Japanese standards, with a king bed and a spacious bathroom.

It was pretty late by the time we finally got settled in, so for dinner we just ate casually at a nearby izakaya called Manzo Hearts.  For appetizers we had chicken karaage and agedashi tofu.  The chicken was tasty but the tofu was some of the best that I'd had in a long time.  D ordered oyako don as his main, and I ordered zaru udon, both of which were good too.  I guess we were probably pretty hungry by then, too.

The room rate included free buffet breakfast, so despite having mixed feelings about American rather than Japanese breakfast, we went down early the next morning to check it out.  It was a pretty impressive spread; there were lots of freshly cut fruit, juices, pastries, bread, muffins, cheeses, cold cuts, yogurts, granolas, and muesli.  For hot foods there were waffles, pancakes, sausages, eggs, bacon, "German-style" potatoes, and even a ham station.  Everything was so tasty that we both ate a lot despite wanting to save room for a proper Japanese lunch.

After breakfast we checked out, moved our luggage to the Hokke, and then set off for the Nanzenji Shrine.  We spent about an hour checking out the grounds, and then walked next door to the Zenrinji Shrine, which is also called "Eikando".

Nanzenji:


Zenrinji (Eikando):

Nanzenji was more highly recommended, but I actually preferred Zenrinji; there were a whole bunch of very old, very low-ceiling-ed Japanese-style buildings (we were required to take off our shoes to enter) with walls decorated with original paintings.  There were also altars and sculptures in many of the buildings, the most famous of which was the "looking back" Amita (Buddha) statue.  It was very lovely but a bit smaller than I expected.  We also walked up to the pagoda overlooking the site, where we discovered a gorgeous panoramic view of Kyoto.

It was already mid-afternoon when we left Zenrinji, so we thought we might have some difficulty finding food, but soon after entering the nearby "Philospher's Walk" we discovered a cute little shop which served some simple Japanese dishes, so we decided to stop for a bite there.  D ordered a tofu donburi, and I had warabi mochi, which also came with a tall glass of iced green tea.  Both dishes were delicious; I often forget how good silken tofu is in Asia, and I hadn't had warabi mochi since our last visit to Japan in late 2007.  We topped that off with a giant can of Calpis soda from a vending machine, and then spent the rest of the afternoon on the Philosopher's walk. It was full of temples, but we decided against actually visiting any more of them.


After chilling back at the hotel for a couple of hours, we headed out for a kaiseki dinner.  Originally we'd planned to have our fancy Japanese dinner the previous evening at the Hoshinoya, but since that'd fallen through, we'd asked the Hyatt concierge for a restaurant recommendation.  Her pick was the Sakurada, which we later discovered has two Michelin stars.

The restaurant is located in a small alley which is inaccessible by car.  The taxi driver who took us there was initially confused by our printout map, but eventually figured it out and got us there in record time.  He stopped the car next to the alley and said several things rapidly in Japanese.  Luckily I picked out "koko", "kuruma" and "nai" and figured out we'd arrived but the car couldn't go down that street.  We got out and walked until we spotted a small green awning with the restaurant name on it in Japanese.

We walked inside and D confirmed with the kimono-clad waitress that it was indeed the Sakurada.  She immediately knew who we were (guess they don't get too many foreigners) and seated us at the bar.

We were served the following courses in quick succession:

a light (savory) genmai tea, with puffed rice balls:
shrimp and two kinds of mushroom, served with ume flowers, taro stalks, and sake:
white fish garnished with a dab of ume paste and citrus rind, gingko nut tofu, and matsutake mushroom, in a light broth:
a sashimi dish of what the waitress described as "flat fish" (tasted like squid but less chewy), tai, and maguro, with purple shiso leaves, cucumber, ponzu sauce (for the white fishes), and soy sauce (for the tuna):
fried and breaded mashed lotus root in a gooey salty sauce, quite heavy:
grilled barracuda, baby lotus, "pumpkin" (tasted like sweet chestnut), edamame, what tasted like stalks of rhubarb, saba sushi, and mountain yam with vegetables (maybe chard?):
whole fried sweetfish with lots of egg inside, served with a sauce of "tade" and daikon:
crab and tofu (very gooey like cheese) served with kabocha and radish spheres and tomato gazpacho:
eggplant and duck meatball topped with ginger:
ochazuke with pickled veggies (cucumber, eggplant, radish), edible flowers, shiso, tai (with wasabi) in peanut sauce, and minced ume:
three kinds of grape, Japanese pear (with pomegranate seed), milk panna cotta topped with mango sauce, and a glass of pineapple juice:
a lily bulb jelly (very sticky, like mochi), with hot matcha green tea:
genmai tea (this time very light and not salty):
There was only one waitress who spoke English, but her English was quite impressive.  There was also an older couple seated to our left who kept marveling at her ability to recall obscure food names.  The older woman finally introduced herself as having spent several years as an exchange student at Stanford twenty years ago, and asked if she could take our photo for us.  We said yes, of course.

At the end of the meal, we were given souvenir chopsticks and went on our way.  As we exited the restaurant, we were greeted outside by the manager and an older man who appeared to be the chef.  They asked us if everything was "oishikatta", and I didn't know the proper response so I just said "oishi" which means delicious.  We all smiled and bowed at each other for a bit and then D and I went on our way.

The next day was spent at the wedding ceremony, the first reception (for family, coworkers, and close friends, about 80 in all), and the second reception (for friends only, also about 80, of which 10-15 overlapped with the first reception).

We took a taxi to the Matsunoo Shrine, arriving early so that we could look around a bit.
Unfortunately no photos were allowed during the traditional Japanese ceremony, but the bride wore an elaborate white kimono with what looked like a very heavy headpiece, and the groom wore a traditional black Japanese outfit.  We all removed our shoes before entering the shrine area, which was really nice compared to having to wear heels!

Before the ceremony, we were ushered into a waiting area where the bride's guests and the groom's guests were separated, and given instructions on what to do during the ceremony.  Luckily our part was quite simple; some bowing and clapping at the appropriate times.

As the ceremony started, we all walked (barefoot) in a line to the the altar area, and were seated to the right and left of the couple in a long line.  The couple performed a variety of rituals, including tea drinking, some ceremony with tree branches, and touching a stone turtle (not sure of its significance).  Afterwards we all walked back, put on our shoes, and took lots of group photos.

Once the photos were done, it was off with our shoes again, as we were directed upstairs to the reception ballroom.  The bride, groom, and their parents formed a receiving line and greeted us as we entered, and then the speeches began.  I would say the speeches were longer and more formal than American wedding toasts; they were given primarily by "important" people such as company presidents, and focused on praising the couple.

Next, the bride and groom took a mallet and broke open a giant barrel of sake, which was served to all the guests in souvenir wooden boxes:
Soon afterwards, the food was served.  I was really, really impressed with the quality and quantity of the food; it was like having a kaiseki dinner at a wedding reception. Each dish was separately plated, and everything was fresh and served at the right temperature.

the menu (which we couldn't read, but looked impressive):

lobster salad:
sashimi course:
assorted vegetables and mushrooms:
a whole lobster!
steak:
palate cleanser:
sushi:
hamaguri (clam soup):
sakura rice:
milk-flavored panna cotta with fruit:
more fruit:
wedding cake:
Halfway through the meal, the bride and groom disappeared to change outfits, and then when they came back they visited and lighted a candle at each table. The costume change was impressive; the bride's hair and makeup were completely redone, and the groom changed into a light Western-style suit. After we all finished gorging ourselves, there were some additional speeches, from the father of the groom, and from the groom himself, thanking all the guests for coming. Then, the couple and their parents assembled into yet another receiving line, to wish all the guests goodbye as they left. We hung out in the waiting area for a little while afterwords, chatting with some other guests (luckily a few spoke English and a few others spoke Mandarin), and then we were off to the second reception, at a restaurant called With You. When we arrived, we discovered there was a sign-in desk, where guests were paying money. We quickly took out some of our remaining Japanese yen, but when we gave them our names we were told that we were "taken care of" and that we didn't need to pay. However, we were given some props and instructed to hold onto them for "later games".

The first thing that we saw was more food. Both D and I were stuffed and unable to eat anything, and it looked like the few other guests who had been at the first reception were too, but the rest of the people happily tucked into the spread. The food was served family-style and it was clearly not as fancy as at the first reception, but still looked quite good.

The activities were much more casual at this reception; first the bride and groom repeated their candle-lighting ritual, and did another cake cutting, and then there were some speeches, but this time the speakers were quite drunk and probably very funny (everyone else was laughing, at least). We also played bingo and some other games, and overall it just felt like a big party. Things wrapped up a little before midnight, and we exhaustedly hopped a taxi back to our hotel.

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