錦市場 The Kitchen of Kyoto

After class today I took a trip south on the train to Gion-Shijo with no real destination in mind – it was sunny so I figured I should make use of the daylight while it lasted. Upon arrival in Gion-Shijo I realised I’d forgotten my Shuin book, and I was reluctant to go to a temple without getting a stamp – it seems I have become a collector. Instead I turned West, towards Shijo, a busy shopping district, and hunted down Nishiki Market.

If you read any guidebook on Kyoto, there will be some mention of Nishiki Market (錦市場). This market is just north of Shijo street and sells any Japanese food you can think of. As soon as I stepped into the very narrow street I was cocooned in smells of cooking and spices – there are plenty of stalls selling food to eat straight away, not just groceries to cook at home, so there is an intense cooking smell.

I took a stroll up and down the market, taking in the wide variety of shops and small restaurants and snapping pictures when I thought the owners weren’t looking (it feels rude taking pictures of stalls when you don’t intend to buy anything off them). It turns out its currently the ‘End of Year Market’ (according to the 歳の市 sign hanging at the start of the market), I’m not sure if this means there is something special going on as this was my first time but I’ll be sure to note the difference when I go next year.

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The market has a long history; the area Nishiki, where the market is located, is special in that the groundwater under the market remains under 15 degrees (centigrade) all year round. As a result merchants have been using it to keep fish fresh since the 8th century, creating a market above the water. The market’s scope broadened gradually, becoming the supplier of fish to the Imperial Palace in the 16th century, and eventually branching out into fruit and vegetable produce alongside meat and fish.

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Throughout the 20th century, the survival of Nishiki Market was uncertain; Kyoto Wholesale Market opened in 1927, providing cheaper fish in bulk, and Nishiki’s groundwater was slowly depleting. Several shops were driven out of business or had to move in order to survive, but the result was a market dedicated to quality and freshness in order to compete with the cheap fish of Kyoto Wholesale Market. This means that while the prices at Nishiki may be higher than elsewhere, the quality is excellent and the shops often go back many generations, passing down traditions and knowledge.

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Most product at Nishiki Market is grown or caught locally – the freshwater fish are caught at the nearby lake Biwa (琵琶湖) and the vegetables are grown in the Kansai region. There is a focus on ‘Kyoto Yasai’ (京都野菜) or ‘Kyoto Vegetables’ – vegetables that are prominent in Kyoto cooking and are specialities of farmers near Kyoto. These Kyoto Yasai include aubergine, spring onions and bamboo shoots. They also seem to like everything pickled or dried – you can get almost anything in pickled or dried form. For more information on Kyoto Yasai this is a pretty good article.

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Kyoto’s sister city is Florence, Italy (since 1965), and so Kyoto’s Nishiki Market is twinned with Florence’s Mercato Centrale. As a result you can find some pasta and Italian foods if you look carefully and apparently the Mercato Centrale has some stalls with signs in Japanese. Though both markets mostly stick to their own style of cooking and produce, it’s a nice gesture of goodwill and cross-cultural cuisine.

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I simply couldn’t go to a market full of amazing food and smells without eating something. To be honest most of the food I saw I didn’t recognise or couldn’t name, so I decided against buying something odd, and settled for a grilled squid on a stick for 180円 (95p). To some that might still be pretty alien, but I found it absolutely delicious. It was really tender and the sauce was slightly sweet. I probably could have eaten ten of them but I restrained myself.

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If you visit Kyoto I would strongly recommend Nishiki Market – you can always just go for the half hour it takes to walk the length of it. It’s also a great place to go if it’s raining because the whole market is covered. The market is open from 9 – 5, but on Wednesdays and Sundays a lot of the shops are shut, so bear that in mind. You could also combine it with the Teramachi shopping arcade to the Eastern side of the market for a day of rainy-day shopping – you could even throw in some purikura!

京都 A Cure for Rainy Days…

So recently the weather here has been not-so-hot and pretty damp. I’m not really complaining as I’d rather it be a bit chilly and rainy than hot and humid but it does mean the traditional sightseeing activities of Kyoto aren’t on the menu. Luckily ice cream is always on the menu. One of the best things to do on a rainy day in Kyoto is to go to one of the thousands of restaurants, cafes and ice cream parlours. I must confess I have eaten ice-cream for three days in a row now and I’m not asking for forgiveness.

Japan seems to carry this stereotype of being non-dairy. People say that Japanese are lactose intolerant so you can’t find milk, ice cream or cheese. This is totally untrue. Yes, Japanese cheese is not to be trusted – mostly rubbish and expensive and occasionally mixed with fish (there are things that look like cheese strings in the convenience store which are a mixture of processed cheese and fish. Yup. Also the Philadelphia I bought suspiciously doesn’t seem to go off until next year and is weirdly thick…) Other than cheese, Japan excels in the dairy department. There is milk available in both convenience stores and supermarkets and they sell Häagen-Dazs ice cream too! However, this is not a tale of cheap convenience store ice cream. No, this is a tale of Karafuneya.

Karafuneya (かれふね屋) is an ice cream cafe in Sanjo (三条) near the shopping districts. What struck me the first time I laid eyes on it was the gigantic ice cream in the window. I’m talking 2 ft tall. Of course, like all window food in Japan, its made of plastic, but it gives you an idea of how big this monster is. The picture doesn’t do it justice. It’s also 50,000円 (£278), slightly out of my price-range. Thankfully there is also a wall display of the hundreds of normal-sized ice creams you can try. These are by no means tiny but aren’t quite so colossal. They have a huge variety of sundaes which includes traditional chocolate and strawberry; more Japanese flavoured green tea and sesame; and then the downright weird that is pork cutlet and fried prawn.

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I went to this Mecca of ice cream on both Friday and Saturday. The first time I had a chocolate and banana waffle sundae, which seemed to have a whole waffle cut up into it. As I’m an idiot and thought I’d still be hungry I also had a katsu sandwich (fried pork) with chips, which proved to be too much (the picture on the menu suggested it would be small, this was a lie) but still delicious. This is definitely a place to go to for lunch, not just for the sundaes. The chips are the best I’ve had in Kyoto, hands down – thin and really crispy. The second trip I had a ‘strawberry festival’ which, as you would expect, was overloaded with strawberries and strawberry ice cream. It was glorious.

The ice creams range from about 700円 (£3.90) to 1000円 (£5.60) and are pretty good value considering how huge they are. Chips are 460円 (£2.60) and worth every penny – the portions are huge and I would eat them all day if I could.

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So if the weather’s not in your favour when you’re in Kyoto, Karafuneya is definitely a solid choice. Another option for the sweet toothed is ‘Sweets Paradise‘ which I went to today. As you can guess, they specialise in cakes and ice-cream. Just over an hour of all-you-can-eat (食べ放題) is 1,530円 (£8.50) and so worth it. I would suggest booking if you go at lunchtime because its pretty popular. They are also based in Sanjo. They have soft serve, chocolate fountain, a wall of cakes and even pizza and pasta. I took a picture of my first plate but quickly succumbed to just eating everything without stopping to document it. Perfect for a rainy day or if you’re just craving cake (or both).

Photo 02-11-2014 12 52 24 pmEPhoto 02-11-2014 1 07 39 pm Thus ends my confession. I ate too much and it was glorious. I will now return to eating udon and okonomiyaki (japanese pancake-type thing, will explain in a separate post) cooked on my crappy single hob in my room. Hopefully more exciting touristy posts coming soon, don’t worry!