Shinkansen Tokyo to Kyoto and Our First Okonimiyaki

by wired2theworld on June 14, 2011

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Taking the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Kyoto

Our reservation is on the 8am Shinkansen train from Tokyo station to Kyoto and it’s raining. Hard. On a nice day, without luggage, it’s about a 10 minute walk from the Tokyo Hilton to the Shinjuku station where we could have used our JR passes on a JR rail commuter train to connect to the Tokyo station. But today, the thought of fighting the crowd against the tide in the rain, with luggage, is just too much.

Fortunately, the Nishi-Shinjuku subway station is connected to the hotel by an underground walkway. From there, we can take the subway to Tokyo station and connect with the Shinkansen. We allow ourselves about an hour to get from the Hilton to Tokyo station and  make it with only a few minutes to spare,  just enough time to buy a couple of chocolate croissants at a French bakery in the station, but not enough time to buy coffee.

The countryside, as seen from the train.

The countryside, as seen from the train.

For the experience of riding the Shinkansen train, see my Japan Tips and Observations post. The train is incredibly fast and the countryside whirrs by us at breakneck speed. Views from the train are a mix of farmland, small towns and light industry. Many of the houses in the smaller villages look very close together, almost like townhouses, but I also notice what looks like a lot of community garden spaces.

On arrival to Kyoto station, we take the hotel shuttle bus to the Westin Miyako Hotel. My full review of the hotel to come in the next post.

No Name Restaurant

After getting settled in our room, it’s time for lunch and we take the hotel’s shuttle bus to the Gion stop. We wander around a bit, taking in the sights of the old town and trying to find a tofu restaurant I’d read about. We finally find it, only to discover it closed.

Scenes from Kyoto

Scenes from Kyoto

We walk around some more and then we accept a hand-out for a restaurant from a young man on Shijo-dori (don’t ask me why because normally we would never do this) . The yellow sheet of paper is mostly in Japanese (which we don’t read) but also has some English on it, advertising set lunches. He leads us down an impossibly narrow alleyway to the back of the building, around a corner and into a teeny-tiny restaurant, which has 4 tables and 5 counter seats. We sit at the counter and order a lunch special set which includes both tempura and sashimi, miso soup, rice (David gets the extra special red rice). This is definitely a “mom and pop” place and I think their son was the kid on the street, but the food was very fresh and nicely presented and prepared. Lunch, with tea, was about 1575 yen per person.

They had no cards so I have no idea of the name of this place or how to explain how to find it. Now I can see that it’s not surprising that they had someone handing out fliers on the street. Below are photos in case you’d like to try and find it.

How to find this restaurant; orange sign above entrance to alley from Shijo-dori, the grey concrete building is across the street from alley entrance, going down the alley, at end, turn left and entrance to restaurant is there.

Objects on the map may be farther than they appear

After lunch we look at the map and decide to walk toward Nijo Castle. There are some interesting old buildings with varying architectural styles near the river and when we try and take a short cut, we get sidetracked by a long covered shopping arcade (which we later figured out crosses the food market street). There are all sorts of cool shops to explore here and also little temples, squeezed in between clothing stores and food shops. By the time we exit it, the weather had started to turn cold, windy and rainy.

There's more than just ancient wooden buildings in Kyoto.

Temple inside the shopping arcade area.

More "Fun with Signs" in Japan. Anyone as freaked out by the Colonel Sanders statue as I am?

We push on, mini umbrellas bending backwards with the force of the wind, but finally abandon the task when we realized that objects on the map may be farther than they appear. What looked like a few blocks turned out to be more than a dozen more to go (after stopping and asking someone) and in the end, we hop on the subway back to the hotel where we arrive in time for a short nap and then a visit to the Club Lounge for cocktail hour.

Okonomiyaki Kiraku

There is free wifi in the lounge, and I use the time to investigate our dinner offerings. We wanted to try Okonomiyaki, a sort of Japanese savory pancake/pizza cooked on a flat top griddle. By chance, I’d come across the mention of a place which was supposed to be near the hotel. After more googling, I was able to pin it down, and we walked about 3 blocks downhill from the hotel to find Okonomiyaki Kiraku, at the corner of Sanjo Street and Okazakimichi St. They are open for both lunch and dinner (until midnight), closed on Mondays. 

The restaurant is small, 8 seats at a counter and 4 tables, but the waitress and the guys cooking behind the griddle were friendly, generous, and patient with our attempts to order. They have an English menu which was greatly appreciated, yet I think we were the only tourists in there at the time. This place  has figured out how to handle the big hotel down the street for those travelers willing to forgo the hotel restaurants in search of something different, yet maintain its own local flavor.

Okonomiyaki Kiraku

For our first experiences eating Okonomiyaki, I was very happy to have them cook it for me, but I understand that some places they give you the ingredients and you make it yourself.

We each ordered a “single”, mine with pork, shrimp and squid, and David’s with pork and shrimp. I also ordered some eggplant, which turned out to be two short Japanese eggplant, sliced in half and cooked on the griddle with some soy sauce and topped with shaved bonito. They arrived soft and perfectly cooked to the center, a little sweet from the caramelized soy sauce and nicely balanced with the saltiness of the shaved bonito.

Okonomiyaki Kiraku

Then came the Okonomiyaki, served up on the griddle in front of us to stay warm, and with a squeeze bottles of sauce (sweet soy and a mayo) to put over it. It was surprisingly filling and I can’t imagine eating a large one.

Watching the guys cook was fun; they weighed and measured everything before  putting it on the grill. We watched as they made another dish, like a very thin crepe, covered with about 2 cups of sliced green onions or small leeks, and when they cooked down, covered with another crepe. This was served up to the guy at the counter next to us, who offered us a taste of his meal (it was excellent) and the line cook pointed out what it was on the menu (some sort of vegetarian dish).  Along with 2 beers, 2 Okonomiyaki and the eggplant, dinner was about 3000 yen.

Okonomiyaki Kiraku

Like food and travel? Want more? Make sure you check out the Wanderfood Wednesdays round up.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave from The Longest Way Home June 14, 2011 at 8:17 am

I really like the street views of Japan. Especially the girls in those erm “kimono’s? Well, the dresses with the little padded thing in the back! It looks so different to other countries in terms of everyday walk around wear.

The bullet train, if I guess correctly, sounds better than it is? Too fast for looking out the window to enjoy? Maybe I am wrong.

Still not sold on Japanese food though. I have a feeling I might starve over there! Heavy pasta eater here :)

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2 wired2theworld June 14, 2011 at 8:52 am

I love the kimonos too, and while they are certainly more common there, the majority of women wear modern clothes. Still, some of the kimonos, especially for formal events, are absolutely stunning.
I really enjoyed the bullet train, and yes, while it goes very fast, you can still see things, just not like a slow train.
No way would you starve! First of all, I know you like noodles and there is no shortage of ramen and udon and all manner of noodle there. In addition, “western” food is also very popular, so you would have many, many options.

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3 lucy June 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Loving your report! I always love seeing women in kimono. The Japanese have a different idea of which colors and patterns “go together” and the fabrics are always amazing. Love that woman’s purse in your photo above.

I’m getting hungry! We used to have exchange students and often they’d make okonomiyaki for us. They sell the mix in packets, so its very easy to DIY at home.

Dave..Japanese love French and Italian food. There is no need to eat Japanese food in Japan, unless you love it!

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4 Janis June 14, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Wow, great post. Felt like I was there with you!

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5 Kent @NVR June 15, 2011 at 6:59 am

The eggplant looks wonderful; honestly, I wasn’t expecting some of the food you’ve highlighted in your posts. I think I had a very narrow view of Japanese food.

Another country and another bullet train. It seems so smart. Here’s hoping we get a few here in the U.S. at some point.

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6 wired2theworld June 15, 2011 at 7:39 am

Kent- I’ll be the first to admit I knew very little about Japanese food before we went. I did a little research and tried to seek out something new to try each day and was really amazed at the variety and quality. Sure, there are things in each culture’s cuisine which won’t appeal to every palate; in Japan they like things which have a texture I can only think of as “snot” :-), but then again, other cultures find our peanut butter here in the US gross. I think there is something for everyone there, beyond sushi and ramen, and I was pleasantly suprised.

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7 Akila June 15, 2011 at 7:55 am

Love these pictures Kristina! The food shots are lovely. Personally, we tried both okonomiyaki cooked by them and by ourselves, and we much preferred it when they made it. On the Shinkansen, we ended up just not looking outside because it was a bit motion-sickness-inducing to speed by so fast.

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8 wired2theworld June 15, 2011 at 8:18 am

Akila, it was one of the tofu places you had recommended that we were trying to find that day. Unfortunately, we never made it back there and didn’t get any special tofu meal while in Kyoto. I guess that means we just need to go back!

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9 Jacqueline June 15, 2011 at 8:28 am

Another lovely post. Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in the world. My Mother and I ate (by chance) at one of the oldest and best shabu-shabu restaurants there. Here’s a little-known fact about kimono: the fabric from which they are made is very expensive. Unlike Western fabric stores where you buy just the yardage you need for a given pattern, kimono fabric is sold only by the BOLT. So, when you see someone walking down the street in kimono, it is definitely a sign of wealth, but not in a flashy sense. It’s a sign that they care enough about the tradition to make that investment.

The food is more diverse than most of us realize, too. And the texture, though I wouldn’t call it snot, is soft and one that Westerners don’t often eat, save for jello or oysters. But Dave, don’t fear, you will find all kinds of noodles everywhere. One ramen shop who specializes in pork broth, the next make udon by hand, the next serves a kimchi ramen people love, etc. etc.

I was amazed at the the Shinkansen’s smooth ride. Eating from the tiny bento carts and getting to my destination hundreds of miles away on time, stopping smoothly…makes me laugh when I’m on any US subway or train.

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10 wired2theworld June 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Jacqueline- Thanks for the info about the kimono. We saw some stunning ones, as well as fabric on sale and yes, it was very expensive , even on sale. As for the snot comment (sorry), I was referring mostly to natto (fermented soy beans) which have a sticky, slimey texture. And oh yes, the ramen, SOOOO good there!

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11 Jacqueline June 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm

No worries. People say the same about oysters but I love those. Natto is not my thing, have to say.

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12 wired2theworld June 15, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I love oysters too! But there was something about natto that just wasn’t gonna work for me either.

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13 John October 11, 2012 at 11:22 pm

We’ve just eaten there recently and kept returning. The food is very good and the hosts give such a welcome that you will feel like old friends.
Salmon, tofu and asparagus with cheese is not on the English menu but believe me, you will return for this dish. It is delicious.

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