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January 2018

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Pug Cafe!

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, JapanYou’re probably familiar with Japanese cat cafes — they’re popular enough that we’ve even got a couple in Toronto.

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

Well, Kyoto has a pug cafe, and yeah — it’s just as amazing as you’d hope.  Whoever came up with this is a genius, because being surrounded by about a dozen snorting, wheezing pugs is flat-out delightful.

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

It costs 1200 yen for an hour of pug time.  It’s the best 1200 yen I’ve ever spent.  That includes a small bowl of dog treats that you can dole out to the pugs as you desire, as well as some human snacks.

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

This is Purin, one of the oldest of the dogs (the owner referred to her as grandma, and based on the pug family tree they gave me, that’s literally true).  She was the wheeziest of the bunch, and the most laid back.  She relaxed next to me for most of the time I was there.

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

And I mean, look at that face.  How can you not fall in love with that face?

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

Regal, right?

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

This is Roko, my second favourite.  He was sleeping on my lap for pretty much the entirety of my visit.

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

But let’s face it, they were all great.

Pug Cafe Living Room in Kyoto, Japan

This isn’t necessarily the most solo-friendly activity, as there really isn’t all that much to do here other than be surrounded by pugs.  But for me?  That was enough.  That was more than enough.

Well, It Finally Happened

Crazy line in Kyoto, JapanI finally found a line-up for food that I didn’t have the patience to stand in.

I mean, look at that.  It’s for a well-regarded soba noodle restaurant in Kyoto, and I was excited to try it, but that line was going to be an hour, at least.  Assuming that the place was as small as many of the restaurants here tend to be, that might have been closer to two hours.

Uh, no thanks.

Gogyo Ramen

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, JapanAfter eating several bowls of ramen in Japan — most of them amazing — I wasn’t sure I could still have my mind blown by the dish.

Well, clearly I couldn’t have been more wrong, because I just went to Gogyo Ramen, and my mind?  Blown to smithereens.

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, Japan

They specialize in burnt ramen — I had heard that the burnt shoyu ramen was the thing to order, so that’s what I did.

I’ve never had anything quite like it.  The broth is inky black, and I won’t lie — I was skeptical.  Was it going to taste… well, burnt?

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, Japan

No — it tasted amazing.  It was kind of like the flavour you get from the grill on a perfectly barbecued piece of meat, only distilled down into a soup, and without even a hint of bitterness.  It was remarkable.

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, Japan

There was more stuff in here than the typical ramen — bits of cabbage, onions, and ground pork, which all perfectly complimented the intensely flavourful broth.  The noodles were satisfyingly firm and chewy, and the standard sliced pork on top might have been the best version of that I’ve ever had — addictively delicious, and so tender that the fat just melts in your mouth like butter.

Is ramen my favourite food?  Because I’m starting to think that it’s my favourite food.

Wandering Around Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, JapanI think this is one of those posts where I’m going to let the pictures do most of the talking, because Nijo Castle is pretty remarkable.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan

I think most days you can go inside the castle itself, which I guess is like a museum of sorts?  I was unlucky enough to show up on a day where the inside was closed, however the just the grounds around the castle are easily worth the 400 Yen admission fee.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan

I spent over an hour just wandering around and taking it all in.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan

The gardens are really impressive (and I’m sure they’d be even more impressive in the summer when all the leaves are still on the trees).

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, JapanNijo Castle in Kyoto, JapanNijo Castle in Kyoto, JapanNijo Castle in Kyoto, JapanNijo Castle in Kyoto, JapanNijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan

Apparently Japan is Amazing at Doughnuts, too

Creme Brulee Doughnut in Kyoto, JapanI was walking down the Sanjo-kai Shotengai Shopping Arcade (which is kind of like a smaller version of the Nishiki Market) when I saw this stand selling creme brulee doughnuts.  I literally did a double take.  I can’t say no to a creme brulee doughnut.  I’m not a monster.  So obviously I bought one.

The proprietor actually spoke perfect English, and he asked me if I was planning on eating the doughnut right away.  Well, obviously.  What, am I going to walk around with a creme brulee doughnut and not eat it immediately?  Again, I’m not a monster.

Creme Brulee Doughnut in Kyoto, Japan

So he told me he’d make me a fresh one, which was pretty much the best thing anyone has said to me in a long, long time.  He went into the back, and a couple of minutes later he came out with a sugar-topped doughnnut that he torched right in front of me.

Creme Brulee Doughnut in Kyoto, Japan

A few minutes later (as much as I wanted to eat it immediately, the idea of getting scalding hot sugar stuck to my face wasn’t particularly appealing), it was ready to eat.

It was just as good as I was hoping.  First of all, it was a cake doughnut, and: yeah.  Correct.  Cake doughnuts are clearly superior to raised doughnuts.  That’s just a fact.

Creme Brulee Doughnut in Kyoto, Japan

The crispy, crackly topping was absolutely perfect, and the filling was creamy and delicious (though a more of a pronounced custardy flavour would have been nice).  Plus, the doughnut itself was still warm and fresh.  Even if it wasn’t that great (and it was that great), this alone would have made it fairly delightful.

That Ramen is on Fire! (No, literally, it’s on fire)

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, JapanThere’s a very distinctive ramen joint in Kyoto called Menbakaichidai that serves what they call “fire ramen.”  It’s essentially ramen flambé — they finish your bowl of ramen with a small inferno of burning oil that goes up in a spectacular burst of flames.

It’s a popular place — I showed up at around 2:00 PM assuming there’d be some kind of mid-afternoon lull, and I still wound up waiting about half an hour.  They have a system where you take a number and then can wait in a heated tent, though even that was packed.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

Aside from the various side dishes, there’s just one thing on the menu here: the fire ramen, which is a basic shoyu (soy sauce) ramen topped with slices of pork and a whole bunch of green onion.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

You’re not allowed to take pictures of the flambéing — they had a series of phone-holders hanging from the ceiling, which allowed everyone to get their own video of the fire (most people took them up on this, including me).

They also make you wear a full-body bib, and insist that you lean back with your hands behind your back during the flame-application; I just figured they were trying to make a bigger show of the whole fire thing.  But no, it’s basically a mini explosion in your face, so if you were leaning forward and trying to take a picture, a hospital visit would be in your immediate future.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

And after all that?  It’s fine, I guess.  I’ve certainly had worse ramen, but the flavour of the broth was pretty basic, and the noodles were just average.  I’m really not sure that the fire does all that much, though there is a pretty big pile of green onions on the soup and they had a really mild flavour; I’m guessing the mini inferno very quickly burned away the rawness.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

Still, it’s pretty clear that this place gets by mostly thanks to their gimmick.  It’s a pretty great gimmick, though.  It’s a hell of a show.

Amazing Shrines and Temples in Kyoto

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, JapanThere are over 1600 temples and 400 shrines in Kyoto, which is readily apparent when you’re walking around the city.  It’s hard to walk more than a few blocks without stumbling onto a temple or a shrine, and when you’re on the outskirts of the city, they’re absolutely everywhere.

The more famous ones are certainly worth seeing, though they tend to be packed with wall-to-wall tourists, which does diminish the experience somewhat.

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

I discovered some of the shrines and temples I liked best just by randomly wandering around the city.

That’s the only way you’ll find quirkier shrines like this one, which was rabbit-themed.

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

More rabbits:

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

Here’s another one I randomly stumbled across.  It’s hard to argue that it’s any less impressive than the more tourist-friendly temples, and I only saw a couple of other people while I was there.

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

I’m not one of those travelers who looks down on anything touristy; I have no problem staying on the beaten track if it’ll lead me somewhere memorable, even if I’m the millionth person to do it.  But there’s an amazing sense of serenity to being alone at a place like this that’s completely lost when you’re surrounded on all sides.

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

And then there’s probably my favourite temple that I went to in Kyoto, the Honen-in Temple.

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

This one I actually did read about (which is why I know the name for this one and not the others), but for some reason it doesn’t seem to be nearly as tourist-filled as some of the more popular ones.

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

I have no idea why.  It was pretty amazing.

Shrines and Temples in Kyoto, Japan

Amazing Octopus Balls in the Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, JapanIf heaven exists, it probably looks something like the Nishiki Market in Kyoto: a seemingly endless street market filled with one vendor after another serving up delicious-looking food.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

If it’s food-related, you’ll probably find it here.  Aside from all of the enticing prepared food, there’s a smorgasbord of various meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables  — it’s a one-stop shop for all things food.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

I came here without anything in mind, basically just looking for whatever stall looked the busiest.  And there was no contest: this bustling takoyaki stand was clearly where it was at.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

For the uninitiated, takoyaki is basically a ball of dough with a piece of octopus in the middle, typically served as street food.  They had a few different varieties, including one with cheese, which I had no idea was even a thing.  Obviously that’s what I got.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

I like takoyaki, though it’s never really been my favourite.  Most of the ones I’ve tried have been one-note doughy, with a rubbery piece of octopus inside.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

The ones here, on the other hand, were delightfully crispy on the outside, creamy and a little bit gooey on the inside from the cheese, and contained a surprisingly tender piece of octopus.  The sweet sauce on top does a great job of balancing out the savouriness of the balls.

Takoyaki is an Osaka specialty, so I’ll obviously be getting them again when I go there, but they’re going to have a very, very hard time living up to this.  Takoyaki perfection.

Everything Will Be Fine

Omen in Kyoto, JapanI was  wondering if the food in Kyoto could possibly live up to the non-stop greatness of Tokyo; well, my first meal in the city– an insanely delicious bowl of udon noodles — was here to pat me on the head and let me know that everything was going to be okay.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

Omen, a restaurant with three locations in downtown Kyoto, specializes in udon noodles that you dip into a bowl of broth.  You can pick from hot or cold — I heard that cold is where it’s at, so that’s what I went with.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

They present you a plate of immaculately presented veggies, a bowl of toasted sesame seeds and other spices, and, of course, the noodles and the broth.  There’s a little sign on the table that helpfully tells you what you’re supposed to do: you add a little bit of the sesame to the broth, a bit of the vegetables, then you mix it up, dip some noodles in there and enter noodle heaven.  Then you begin the process again.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

The combination of all of the various tastes and textures — the crunch of the veggies, the chew of the gloriously perfect noodles –is awe-inspiring.  If this is the calibre of food they’re serving up in Kyoto, things are clearly going to be just fine.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

Post-Monkey Noodles

Enza Cafe in Nagano, JapanThe bus going from the Jigokudani Monkey Park to Nagano station isn’t super frequent, so after getting my fill of monkey business, I had a little bit of time to kill.

Enter: Enza Cafe, a small restaurant that specializes in ramen near the beginning of the monkey trail.

Given its proximity to such a well-traveled tourist spot (and its status as one of the few restaurants in the area), I didn’t have high hopes.  But since I didn’t have anything better to do while I waited for the bus, I figured sure, why not.

Enza Cafe in Nagano, Japan

I ordered the basic ramen, which they make with chicken broth rather than the more standard pork, and it was shockingly good.  It wasn’t quite up there with the best bowls I had in Tokyo, but from what you’d think would be a tourist trap, it’s amazing: rich, flavorful broth, springy noodles, and perfectly cooked egg.  It was the perfect capper to a very memorable morning.