The Haruka Express departed for Kyoto from the Kansai International Airport (KIX) precisely at 7.29 am. “Welcome to the world of clockwork punctuality,” I told myself. As the train sped to Kyoto via Osaka, the Japanese culture consumed me with great curiosity. This was only the beginning of my five-day Japanese food encounter within the Kansai region specifically in Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Shiga, and Sakai.
DAY 1: KYOTO
Once in Kyoto, we walked to the Kyoto Century Hotel to store our luggage to hunt for food and authentic Japanese culture that still pervades in Kyoto. It is difficult to leave out Kyoto from any itinerary that covers Central Japan since Kyoto is the hub of traditional Japanese culture and the place where travellers take in the essence of Japan.
Our first destination in Kyoto was the Fushimi Inari Taisha, the head shrine for Inari, the Shinto deity of rice, fertility, agriculture and industry. Walking past thousands of vermillion-coloured tori gates within the temple grounds made travellers feel like being on a pilgrimage surrounded by kimono-cladded tourists and businessman in suits praying for good luck. To avoid the crowd, it is advisable to come as early as 6:00 a.m. for the chance to recreate the scenes from the popular Memoirs of a Geisha movie.
- On the first floor of Kyoto Tower Sando, you can buy products of Kyoto like sweet and cosmetics as souvenirs for your family and friends.
- There is a Muslim prayer room on the second floor of Kyoto Tower San-do, located in front of Kyoto Station.
- Kansai Tourist Information Centre is available on the second floor of Kyoto Tower Sando and has luggage storage and forwarding services to your next destination.
- Most halal restaurants require at least three days of advance booking.
Muslim-friendly Kaiseki Ryori at Hirashin Ryokan
After observing Shinto rituals, I enjoyed my first Japanese meal, known as kaiseki ryori at Hirashin ryokan (Japanese traditional inn). The kaiseki ryori is a traditional Japanese multi-course haute cuisine comprising starters, main courses, shokuji and dessert. Each dish served during different kaiseki course represents different cooking method. For example, the soup (suimono) is a clear broth garnished with vegetables, tofu or seafood.
The sashimi is thin-sliced raw fish meat normally served with shredded daikon (Japanese radish) accompanied by soy sauce and wasabi. Then, there is this dish made by boiling, simmering or stewing vegetables and meat known as nimono.
Other dishes are grilled fish or meat (yakimono), deep-fried dish (agemono), steamed dish (mushimono) and vinegared dish (sunomono). The shokuji set consisting of rice, miso soup and pickles is often served at the end of the main course before dessert. Besides catering to the halal market upon prior reservation, this establishment also offers the opportunity for diners to watch the maiko (apprentice geisha) elegantly performing the kyo-mai dance in ornate kimono while indulging in the Kyoto-style cuisine. Don’t forget to take memorable pictures with the maiko and geiko-san (a full-fledged geisha).
Address: Takoyakushidori, Takakura Nishiiru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8141, Kyoto Prefecture
For halal courses, please book in advance.
Kimono Dressing around Kyoto During the maiko show, I noticed her exquisite kimono and hair ornaments. It was like a dream came true when we were then brought to Kyokomachi Kimono Rental to dress-up in kimono for the women and yukata for the men. Imagine strolling down the streets of Kyoto especially around Higashiyama and Gion in kimonos like a true geiko…
But first, wearing the kimono is a delicate work that takes years to master. I can attest to how complicated the process is to dress up in one, but once you are all done up, it is all worth the time and effort. After the wearer selects the desired kimono pattern, her hair will be styled first before the other parts of her body are garbed in kimono. With white socks, traditional Japanese footwear and drawstring bag, I wandered around Gion pretending that I was one of the characters in the once popular Japanese television series ‘Oshin’.
Address: 104, Tatsumi-Cho (Higashioji-dori, Matsubara Agaru), Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Access: From JR Kyoto Station, take the municipal bus No. 206 to Kiyomizu-michi bus stop and walk towards Kyokomachi Rental Shop.
Design Pocket, Kyoto Tower After our brief kimono session, I was introduced to another form of art that is deeply entrenched in Japanese food culture: the realistic mouth-watering plastic food, commonly displayed on many restaurant windows in Japan, tantalising passers-by to stop and look. Foreigners also find these plastic food replicas helpful so that they can anticipate what would their order look like. At Kyoto Tower Sando, I learned to make the plastic food version of a Japanese dessert called matcha parfait. Making the plastic food requires basic cutting tools, paint brushes, airbrush guns, hot glue guns and a coat of varnish to make it glisten. You can also buy plastic food as souvenirs.
Muslim-Friendly Dinner Course at Rantei @ Kyoto Century Hotel
Our taste buds were treated to an eight-course kaiseki dinner at Rantei, Kyoto Century Hotel, which has been certified as halal by Kyoto Council for Sharia and Halal Affairs, Japan. Salmon trout and daikon radish roll with grilled sea urchin on soft-boiled egg and ginkgo nut rice cake made a superb intro, followed by yuba bean curd, shrimp and yam wrapped in seaweed garnish. Then, we were served with sumptuous food one after another such as simmered chicken, eggplant in yuzu sauce, crab fried with rice cracker breading, and halal beef shabu-shabu.
DAY 2: SHIGA
In line with the Japanese tourism campaign of ‘Hands-Free Travel’ (travelling without being encumbered by baggage), we had our luggage sent directly to our next hotel, Biwako Hotel, using the forwarding services offered by Kansai Tourist Information Centre. Then, we took the one-hour bus trip from Kyoto Station to Mount Hieizan, which lies on the border of Kyoto Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture, home to Enryakuji Temple, the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Besides visiting one of the most important monasteries in Japanese history, we also savoured the healthy shojin ryori at Enryakuji Kaikan, a temple lodging. Shojin ryori is a meal eaten by Buddhist monks in Japan that follows the principle of not killing animals for human consumption and abstaining the use of pungent ingredients such as garlic and onion.
In preparing the shojin ryori, the monks use the ‘rule-of-five’: every meal has five colours (green, yellow, red, black and white) and five flavours (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). The colours and flavours are drawn naturally from the pure ingredients without the need of flavour enhancer. The usual shojin ryori dishes are vegetable tempuras, tofu, fried soybean curd, dried tofu, fermented soybeans and konnyaku, a thick gelatin-like food made from the konjac plant. Though the meal sounds simple, shojin ryori is deeply satisfying.
From Enryakuji Kaikan, we walked to the Hieizan Sakamoto Cable Car Station to ride the longest cable car route in Japan at 2,025 metres long. The ride takes approximately 11 minutes, affording travellers to enjoy the view of Lake Biwa from above. The nearest public transportation from the cable car station is Keihan Electric Railway Ishiyama Sakamoto Line at Sakamoto Station, which is a 15-minute walk to get there. From Sakamoto Station, we continued the journey to Hamaotsu Station, where we took a taxi to Otsu Uochu to consume a delicacy unique to Shiga, which used to be called ‘Omi’ over 1,000 years ago.
In Shiga, travellers should try the sukiyaki (Japanese hot pot dish) at Otsu Uochu, which serves Omi chicken, which is a type of free-range chicken found in Shiga. The Omi chicken is bred by Shiga Prefectural Animal Farming Technology Centre through the interbreeding of three different types of purebred chicken. The Omi chicken has tasty lean meat because it roams freely and not confined in cages.
My first experience eating sukiyaki was nothing like my imagination. While the sliced chicken slowly simmers on the table together with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin, the ingredients are then dipped into a small bowl of raw eggs after being cooked in the pot and eaten. Other ingredients normally cooked in sukiyaki are seared tofu, leek, mushrooms and wheat udon and mochi.
After our hearty lunch, we boarded the cruise from Otsu Port to enjoy the scenic view of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. At the size of about 670 kilometres squared, Lake Biwa or Biwako functions as a reservoir for the cities of Kyoto and Otsu. We took the south lake route cruise that led us to Yanagasaki Lakeside Park Port. Along the way, we passed by Okishima, the largest island on Lake Biwa that is inhabited, and Takeshima island, which appears to change shape when travellers see it from different angles. Travellers can choose different choices of cruise routes served by Biwako Kisen Company, depending on their interest and time.
Farmer’s Market Ohminchi
For a city that promotes agriculture and organic farming, a visit to the farmer’s market Ohminchi is a must. Ohminchi is one of the largest direct-retail farm-produce markets in Shiga where all the organic products harvested locally are on sale. Besides shopping for fresh produce, travellers can also take part in the seasonal farming activities such as picking blueberries and digging sweet potatoes. Upon request, Ohminchi also caters for halal cuisine and sushi-making activities using halal products.
Before leaving this organic farmer’s market, be sure to try the gelato from the café.
Address: 2785, Sumoto-cho, Moriyama City, Shiga
Funa Sushi at Shiseian
Little did I know that I would be discovering the origin of my favourite food, sushi, on my first trip to Japan. In Shiga, the traditional dish called funa zushi is believed to be manifestation of the oldest sushi dish in Japanese history. Funa zushi is fermented sushi made of crucian carp caught in Lake Biwa. Due to the pickling of the carp in steamed rice and salt, lactic acid is produced, giving the carp a sour taste.
With the pungent smell protruding our nostrils, we must say that savouring the dish is an acquired taste, similar with other types of food that possesses strong distinct aroma. The owner of Shiseian (the establishment that serves the dish) took out the wooden tub where she stores the carp in fermented rice. Funa zushi can be eaten either directly or as a condiment to accompany other products of Lake Biwa. Funa zushi is also believed to contain properties that help those who consume it maintain healthy body and youthful look, as in the case of the Shiseian owner, who looked way younger than her actual age.
Back to the Biwako Hotel where all the rooms are lake-view, we enjoyed teppanyaki dinner with a choice of Omi beef or prime steak fillet. When the teppanyaki chef was about to start preparing our teppanyaki dishes, he firstly bowed to us who were eager to watch him cooking live. After asking our preferences on our cuisine, the teppanyaki chef executed his cooking prowess with finesse. Watching the chef attending to the food with strong focus and skilfully cutting the ingredients down to the same size made us eager to devour the dishes he prepared for us.
The Japanese-styled omelette, tamagoyaki, was prepared when we watched the chef rolled several layers of cooked egg on the iron girdle. After watching another round of live food preparation, we wolfed down the teppanyaki grilled eel and kumiage yuba bean curd served with a bowl of locally grown salad. The mouth-watering juicy steak fillet and Ohmi beef sirloin were delicious. The excellent food and visual gastronomic delight was the perfect way to end our day in Shiga.
Recommended Stay in Kansai Region
- Kyoto Century Hotel | 680 Higashi Shiokoji-cho, Kyoto Japan | 5 minutes’ walk from JR Kyoto Station | Room prices range from RM600 to RM1,500 per room per night
- Biwako Hotel | 2-40 Hama-Machi, Otsu, Shiga | 5 minutes’ walk from Keihan Hamaotsu Station | Room prices range from RM350 to RM1,200 per room per night
Catch Part II of this story in Issue 13.2.
Gaya Travel Magazine expresses our heartfelt gratitude to Kansai Gastronomy Tourism Promotion Council Office, Japan Railway Company, Keihan Group, Don Quijote Group, Sakai Tourism and Convention Bureau, and Wendy Tour for making the writer’s Kansai region food trip possible.