I had come to Kyoto because of the photographs and the possibility that some ancient Japan could be incubated in a modern city. But when I had arrived, the city of Kyoto seemed like just another hot metropolis. I had had one desire in Tokyo–to find good food–and nothing was different in this second city. However, I had less time: only 24 hours in Kyoto.
24 Hours in Kyoto
Because stumbling around Tokyo without much of a plan–beyond eating sushi at the Tsukiji fish market–had proved successful, I shunned guidebooks and maps, asking instead to be pointed in the right direction in Kyoto. The first person I had asked sent me to the Shijo station, where I emerged from the subway with an appetite. In order to find good eats in Japan, narrow streets often offered wonderful results. So I walked down an alley, which brought me to the doors of Ippudo, a ramen shop that has extended its secret recipe across the world. The line was out the door.
When I took my seat at the bar, skipping over families of five, I ordered the Akamaru Modern, the restaurant’s “original tonkontsu broth enhanced with special blended miso paste and fragrant garlic oil,” as well as five crispy and juicy pork dumplings. There’s little more that I can say about this already over-analyzed soup that probably has been hashtagged more times than any other Japanese food, but to marry tender slices of pork belly, delicious noodles, and a narrow alley in the city greatly improves 24 hours in Kyoto.
After this, the alley continued toward the red- and yellow- and green-ceilinged Nishkiji Market, where handsome storefronts sold everything from body cream to fish parts. I ordered green tea ice cream and licked my way to the temple at the end of the path. It was busy. In fact, the charming temples of Kyoto, which had been captured in photographs and served as my inspiration for visiting the city was the thing I hated most about the city. All of these beautiful temples mixed into the urban world were overwhelmed with people.
I left for the geisha district, (or at least I believe it was the geisha district. It was daytime and there were no geishas in sight; all of the sliding doors of the wood-framed houses were shuttered.) I had been told that the walk from my hotel, near the Kyoto Station, to this area of the city would take hours. But I took the stroll back, choosing the smallest lanes, which offered a much more beautiful and empty Kyoto.
That night I made my way back to the geisha district of Gion, figuring that maybe this was the time to see the famed ladies, but I got myself side-tracked. Another local had redirected me to Pontcocho. It was more dark and charming lanes of wooden facades, paper lanterns, and much mystery. I zigzagged on a search for sushi, but it was mostly noodles and beef.
After a good half hour of meandering, a hostess invited me into her establishment, but I asked if she could point me toward a sushi place. She suggested a shop around the corner, where another line reached out the door. Regardless, a seat at Sushi Tetsu opened quickly and after the chef turned off his flame gun, quickly blasting some mackerel with a stroke of blue heat, I ordered pairs of sushi, which back home would have been three times the price for just a single, fishy slice. For only 200 yen (about two bucks), the chef, who worked with gusto and speed, while remaining both fraternal and efficient, laid couples of fatty tuna and belly salmon on the long green leaf set before me. I kept having him mark me down for another 200 yen, happily ordering halibut and mackerel, scallop and various hues of jack (from yellow to amber). For the first time I tried mantis shrimp and sea bream. Ringed with seaweed came rows of roe from the red orbs of salmon to the orange paste of spicy cod, and then sea urchin and belly tuna followed. Even in Kyoto, hours from the market, the sushi was fantastic.
I thought that would be it for meals. On my final hour in the city, I checked my bags and went for a stroll up Karasuma, figuring I would stretch the legs before a day’s journey. But when I came to the first major intersection about 100 meters north of the Kyoto Station, I spotted a tour group and made a quick turn. It brought me toward another line, fifty meters east of that intersection. Everyone was waiting for Kyoto Katsugyu to open up. I joined them and feasted on deep fried wagyu beef that kept a crisp, flaky exterior, while the meat remained a beautiful reddish-purple hue. Tender and juicy, it was served with a variety of dips and accompaniments, like, pickles, cabbage, barley mixed with rice, and bitter miso soup.
Kyoto was more crowded than I had expected and it was a city that had modernized too far, contrasting too severely to properly preserve its charming past. But it was also more delicious than I had expected, too.