Friday, January 23, 2015

Kobe Gavly in Kyoto Station -- Kobe Beef in Burger Form

After my encounter with a Wagyu A5 burger at Blacows in Tokyo last November, I wanted to see if Kyoto had a burger that could compete at the same level.  I took my chances with the web -- googling "best burger in Kyoto" and one of the names that came up was Kobe Gavly.

It was very convenient that Kobe Gavly was situated on the 10th floor of Kyoto Station.
Although I thought it somewhat strange that it was right in the middle of  Ramen Koji or Ramen Street.
I could eat ramen all day, every day but perhaps some people need a break now and then.
Most specially,  western tourists who probably need a burger fix after days and days of Japanese food.

According to its colourful poster, Kobe Gavly burgers are made with Kobe Beef and other highly selected meat from black cattle.  Now Kobe Beef is one of the best and most expensive beef in Japan so perhaps it can measure up to Blacows' Wagyu Grade A5.

The basic,  regular sized single patty burger costs Y800, slightly cheaper than Blacows' which costs Y1000.  You can bump this up to a double patty sandwich by paying twice that amount.
The most expensive item on the menu is not a burger --  the 100% Kobe Beef steak sandwich
is Y2040.
For non-beef eaters, there is a chicken burger and even a shrimp burger.

Since Kobe Gavly is housed in a small kiosk, I was sure the burgers were not prepared in the same manner as Blacows'.
They would not be hand ground upon each order but would have been pre-formed and pre-frozen.
In addition to our burgers, we ordered mushroom soup and potato wedges.
The food presentation was quite nice -- the burgers came wrapped in waxed paper holders and everything was neatly placed in a woven basket.
The Gavly burger came garnished with 10 kinds of fresh vegetables and at first glance, it looked like a  salad had sprouted in the bun.
Where's the (Kobe) beef?

Upon closer inspection, there was indeed a beef patty lurking underneath all that greenery.  The patty was rather round, like a big meatball and quite smaller than the soft sesame seed studded bun.

I finally got  a bite of Kobe beef, albeit in burger form.  I may be a lapsed vegetarian but the  10 vegetables distracted me from the "meat" of the matter, pardon the pun.
How did it measure up to Blacows?  The Gavly burger was juicy but somehow, not as mouthwatering and flavourful as Blacows.
I was looking for that rich umami kick that Blacows delivered with every beefy bite.
That settles it!
Best burger in Tokyo beats Best Burger in Kyoto!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Enchanted by the Beauty of Byodo-in Temple in Uji, Kyoto

Rome was not built in a day as they say so I knew I would not be able to accomplish my goal of seeing all of Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites on this trip. But I knew I could add a few more to what I had already seen.

It was nearly 4 in the afternoon when we boarded the JR Nara Rapid Express from Kyoto Station which would take us to Uji, a 15 minute train ride away.  
Our destination was Byodo-in Temple located in this suburb of Kyoto.  As it was winter, closing hours were earlier than usual and we wanted to get there before the gates closed.

The temple is a good ten minute brisk walk from JR Uji Station.  As we waited to cross the intersection, I was surprised to see a familiar scene from The Tale of Genji, placed on top of an arch.  
Later, I learned that the last ten chapters of this famous novel were set in Uji.

We met tourists walking back from Byodo-in.  The road leading to the temple is lined with small cafes, restaurants and souvenir stores but there was no time to stop and browse.

Well, I did stop for a few seconds to snap this photo of a stone cat in front of a shop's door.

This is the Phoenix Hall or Amida-do, the most distinctive structure in Byodo-in, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.   Amida-do stands on an island in the middle of Aji-Ike pond.
It is one of the last surviving examples of architecture dating back to the Heian period of the tenth century.  The temple garden is also acclaimed as one of the best examples of gardens from this period.
The central hall of Amida-do is flanked by two corridors, one on each side.  It is said that the structure resembles a bird with its wings outstretched in flight.
The statue of the Amida Buddha or the Amida-Nyorai inside the central hall is surrounded by smaller bodhisattvas.  Faith in the Amida Buddha centres on the knowledge  that he comes at death to escort our souls to heaven.  That is a beautiful and comforting thought.
Can you see the tiny gold light in the middle of the centre pavilion?
At sunrise and at sunset, natural light strikes the face of the Amida Buddha, creating a transcendent, ethereal glow.  

Byodo-in Temple, aside from being a UNESCO World Heritage site is also commemorated by the image of the Phoenix Hall on the Japanese ten yen coin.

The Amida-do is a glorious sight -- this reflection of the hall, along with trees, clouds and blue sky, on the still, green waters of the Aji-Ike pond had me rooted to this spot.

Another noteworthy sight  is this replica of the temple bell.  The original is kept in the temple museum.  The bell is a National Treasure and considered as one of the top three bells in Japan.
This replica stands in a red pavilion atop a small rise, overlooking the rest of the grounds.
I briefly wonder if the original bell feels cooped up, hidden inside the museum?

From the bell tower I look out onto the mountains surrounding the temple.  It is late afternoon and the setting sun creates a beautiful backdrop.

A thoroughly modern underground museum houses the rich and extensive treasures of Byodo-in.  
Because it is built into a small hill, it is effectively camouflaged and hidden --  its sleek concrete design does not clash with the traditional architecture of the Amida-do.  

Remnants of red maple leaves cling to nearly bare branches.  The cold wind is picking up and it's time to head back to Kyoto.  Besides, the temple is about to close.

Amida-do is really beautiful no matter which side you view it from.  This is a photo I took of the back of the structure, as I came down from the bell tower.
I am reminded of  Kinkakuji --  Kyoto's temple acclaimed for its striking beauty.  
But I feel that Kinkakuji  is impressive only when seen from a distance, from a particular spot across its pond.   As you get closer and when you turn back to look at it, it becomes just another brightly painted structure.  
Amida-do to my mind is awe-inspiring,  viewed from any and all angles.

As I walk around the Amida-do, I can see how well maintained and lovingly preserved it is.
It seems unparalleled in its beauty ...  I cannot bear to tear my eyes away.

One last farewell look as we leave Byodo-in.  Thank you Buddha, this visit was indeed a gift.

Christmas Eve at the Kamo Shrines of Kamigamo and Shimogamo in Kyoto

The day before Christmas dawned bright and cold in Kyoto. We bundled ourselves up and headed off to go shrine hopping.

From Kyoto Station, we took bus number 9  and got off about 200 meters from Kamigamo-jinja.
We crossed over this narrow and rather shallow portion of the Kamogawa or the Kamo River.
Kamigamo means "upper Kamo" and thus, the shrine is located upstream.

There are literally thousands of shrines and temples in Kyoto -- it would take me years to visit them all.    But, Kamigamo-jinja is special because it is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Kyoto and is even older than the city.
Along with its twin shrine, the Shimogamo-jinja, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are 17 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto -- I think visiting all 17 is a realistic goal for me to accomplish.

The pathway leading to the shrine or the sando struck me as quite unusual as it was bordered on each side by a wide expanse of lawn.  Because it was winter, the grass was brown which actually added to the  perception of vastness of space.

New Year is a time when the Japanese visit the temples and shrines.  Kamigamo-jinja was getting spruced up for this event.

The path led us this shrine building called the Hoso-dono, noted for the twin cones of perfectly raked sand.   These cones are used in purification rituals in the shrine.

At the side of the Hoso-Dono is the clear Omonoi stream -  flowing silently and serenely.
The building beside it is where other shrine rituals take place.

This tower gate or ro-mon leads to the Honden or the Main Hall of the shrine.
A small red bridge takes one across the shallow waters of the Omonoi.
The deity Kamo-Wake-Ikazuchi-no-kami or the god of Thunder is enshrined in Kamigamo-jinja.  Thankfully, it is a sunny day and he does not make his presence felt.

A wooden  horse rearing on its hind legs stands outside the Ro-mon.  It is said that the tradition of horse racing started at this shrine and thus the horse is a sort of mascot for Kamigamo-jinja.
Once or twice a month, there is even a ceremonial white horse (a real live one) that is brought to the shrine.

From Kamigamo-jinja, the logical next destination is its "partner" or other half -- Shimogamo-jinja.  The bus stop has old wooden benches to sit on while waiting for your ride.

Shimogamo-jinja or "lower Kamo" is about 3 kilometres south of Kamigamo-jinja and is older by a hundred years.   The same kami or deity is enshrined at Shimogamo-jinja.   It is located within Kyoto's oldest forest -- the Tadasu-no-mori or "forest of truth".  

A bright red torii stands guard at the entrance to one of the shrine buildings.  

There is a mossy stream that flows under the bridge -- the image of rocks, moss, still water and red bridge create another wabi sabi impression for me -- one of impermanent, imperfect beauty.

This massive tower gate leads to the shrine buildings and to the Tadasu-no-mori forest.

A temizuya is located right past the tower gate.  It is my first time to see one made of bamboo and leaves.   The water for cleansing flows out of bamboo spouts.  It's very green and natural -- perfect for the forest environment surrounding the shrine.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Butagumi Dining -- Top End Tonkatsu in Roppongi

While I have found the best tonkatsu (for me, that is)  in Tokyo (that would be Akashi in Shimbashi where then Dentsu President Takashima san took me to lunch), my search for other memorable tonkatsu experiences continues.  
On this last trip,  I googled "best tonkatsu in Tokyo" and came up with quite a few recommendations.  

The one that I chose to visit was Butagumi Dining.  Butagumi's original store is in Nishi Azabu but it's not as convenient as this small branch in the basement of the North Tower of Roppongi Hills.
Butagumi Dining is easy to find and is even near the subway exit.

The place is not so big -- there is counter that seats 12  and a few booths in the back.
We chose to sit at the counter so we could see how the pork cutlets are made.

Tonkatsu lovers favor Butagumi because of its unique promise  -- they serve premium quality pork from all over Japan, and even Iberico pork from Spain.  If this were beef, you can say that Butagumi's pork is akin to wagyu Grade A5.
In the main store, you can choose your tonkatsu from numerous varieties from the best pork producing areas in the country.  
However, here at Butagumi Dining, they only have the "standard brand pork" (which is still of top quality) and one premium "brand" that is served only at dinnertime  -- to my mind, that's the "pig du jour".

Today's special is "Tokyo-X" and the card says that the pig came from Tokyo Prefecture.  
Was it raised somewhere in the backyards of Shinjuku?  Or maybe Shimbashi?  
Did it live in a pen or in an apartment?  I guess I'll  never know. 
The menu card also states that this pork is "SO GRATE!".   That settled it!
I ordered  the "pig du jour" ... Tokyo-X.    I was in hog heaven to see that only rosu or pork loin is offered.   This is my preferred cut for tonkatsu as it incorporates juicy, lovely, umami laden fat along with lean meat.   Oink, oink!

We had a ring side seat to the action in the open kitchen. The chef was so near me, I could have leaned over the counter and stolen a cutlet from his tray.
It was like being in the audience of a cooking show,  I watched as he took each cutlet --  floured it, dipped it in the egg wash then dredged it through the bread crumbs.  He did everything himself, including keeping an eye on the deep fryer and making sure that each cutlet came out a uniform golden brown --  perfectly cooked to the last second.
This man is a master chef in my book!

All the aroma of frying pork is enough to turn one to drink!  Yebisu Beer  in the house!

The chef fried up each order one by one, no crowding in the deep fryer so while waiting,  I read up on how to properly eat tonkatsu.  Aside from the usual sauce, Butagumi recommends the use of their special seasoned salt -- and yes, I tried it and it greatly enhanced the flavour of the pork.

This is Butagumi Dining's  hirekatsu or fillet tonkatsu.   It looks like a small golden log of pork goodness.   However,  I never order hire because I find the lean meat too ordinary -- not worth the cholesterol and calories at all!

And here at last is my "pig du jour".  Butagumi's Tokyo - X rosukatsu.
How did this "premium brand pork" taste -- could I actually tell the difference between this and a standard brand pig?
Well, it was certainly juicy and very tasty (and yes,  I ate all the fat)  but it also had just the slightest hint of "pig essence" which was not at all unpleasant.  This "essence" added to its distinctively rich taste.
I'm tempted to go to the original Butagumi to try how other premium pork varieties taste.

But that's for another day -- for tonight, Butagumi Dining was a great tonkatsu find.
Even in this small branch in the basement of Roppongi Hills,  the superior quality of their premium tonkatsu shone through.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Walk through Nara's Woods -- the Sacred Deer, Kasuga Shrine and Todaiji Temple

The first time I saw Nara was 45 years ago when my mother took me on my first trip to Japan.  
I vaguely remember deer and a very large Buddha.  I hadn't been back since then so this Christmas, 
I thought a return trip was in order.  Nara after all is just one train ride away from Kyoto where we were staying for the holidays.

When you want to see a  historical place such as Nara, it is always better to be in the company of a professional guide -- one who can not only navigate you through the vastness of the place but more importantly tell you about the history and significance of what you are seeing.  
For this Nara trip, we were once again accompanied by Tours by Locals guide par excellence Chieko san, who has seen us through quite a number of tours.  Because of that,  she has become more than a guide -- she has become a friend.   
Our journey started at Kyoto Station with a forty minute train ride on the Kintetsu  Direct Express.  

It was a Tuesday morning and thankfully the train wasn't full.  There was plenty of room to stretch out and view the passing scenery.

From the Kintetsu Nara Station, Chieko san herded us all aboard the Nara City Loop Line which passes through  the main tourist stops.

The Loop Line is very convenient for seeing all the major points of interest.  For today, Chieko san had carefully planned the route for us -- we would start with the Kasuga Taisha shrine and make our way to Todaiji Temple to see the Daibutsu or the Great Buddha.  Our stop was just a few minutes from the train station, at the entrance to Nara Park from where we would walk to the shrine.

But first things first ...  I made a mad dash across the street to buy some biscuits for the deer.  
Deer are plentiful in Nara.  They are considered as sacred animals as it is believed that in the early days, a white deer descended from the mountains to protect the ancient capital.  
Since then, they have multiplied to a couple of thousand and have complete run of Nara Park.
While they are tame and very used to humans, they also expect that the humans will hand them a tidbit or two.

Tourists are asked to not give the deer anything but these deer biscuits which are sold throughout the park.  Each small pack of ten thin wafers costs 150 yen and can go very quickly, particularly when you are assaulted by a pack of hungry deer.

The deer reminded me of my big labrador retrievers -- there is no end to their appetite and they will eat as many biscuits as you can give them.

The biscuits probably give off a faint aroma as these deer knew that we had quite a bit of them hidden in a bag.  Here is one sniffing our stroller, trying to find our secret stash.

Some of the  deer, particularly the bigger ones can be quite aggressive and will poke and push you if they know you have biscuits to give.  This particularly overbearing one has grabbed Chieko san's coat and is holding it hostage.  
Chieko san told us to show the deer our empty hands and say "Nai" in a loud voice so that they would leave us alone.  

A sign along the way warns visitors  about the possible consequences of too close encounters with the deer -- they can grab your bag (which they did to a paper bag hanging from our stroller), bite you, kick you and yes, even knock you down. I did get a few nips but thankfully no damage was done, except for a getting quite a bit of deer saliva on my coat.

We passed this posse of deer hanging around a snack shop -- lying in wait for some hapless victims.
I made sure the biscuits were well hidden and we gave them a wide berth.

Deer aside, Nara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of Japan's first permanent capital.
It is really one of the must see places in the Kansai region.

We passed through this torii along the road to Kasuga Taisha shrine.  A lone deer stood right under the gate, watching us as we passed through.  His thoughtful gaze made me think that he was truly a descendant of that first sacred deer that came down from the mountains, hundreds of years ago.

Right after the torii is the temizuya or water pavilion where visitors "purify" themselves for their visit to the shrine.  This ritual is called misogi and is meant to cleanse the body and the mind before coming into  the presence of the  deity.  To perform misogi, one rinses each hand and then rinses the mouth, spitting the water out into the drain built for that purpose.
Naturally, a huge deer is the main feature of Kasuga Taisha's temizuya.

As we walk to the shrine, I am reminded of Okunoin or the cemetery in  Koya-san.
It must be the forest atmosphere, the air of serenity and the many stone lanterns that line the path.
Kasuga Taisha is famous for these lanterns.   According to Chieko san, they number more than two thousand and  have been donated by the faithful through the years.

Most of the lanterns along the path are moss covered and very old.  There is a space for a candle in each lantern and I try to imagine how beautiful this place is when they are all lit up.

We finally come to the main shrine of Kasuga Taisha.  A plaque informs visitors of the deities enshrined in Kasuga Taisha and that since the eight century all the way up to today, sacred rituals continue to be conducted in this shrine.

More lanterns, this time done in bronze hang from the main shrine at Kasuga Taisha.
Chieko san said that the lanterns are lit up only twice a year -- one in February and another in August, during the Obon Festival.

As we make our way from Kasuga Taisha through the woods of Nara Park, we pass more deer.  
As they have  parked themselves beside a no-smoking sign, I presume they are the non smokers, enjoying the cold, clean non-polluted air.

As we walk from Kasuga Taisha to our next destination, we pass through Wakakusa-yama or Mount Wakakusa.  The picture does not do it justice, it's quite a lovely place.

Wakakusa-yama is the site where the annual grass burning takes place, sometime in January each year.  This ritual has been going on for hundreds of years.  It's actually a bit more than just grass burning --  the entire mountain top is set on fire and the blaze can be seen for miles around.
Just the type of festival a pyromaniac would enjoy.

As it is past noontime, we decide to stop in a small cafe called Shirogane right across Wakakusa-yama.  Strangely enough, it's empty on this Tuesday afternoon -- completely devoid of tourists and visitors.

There is a gift shop for souvenirs and we do some browsing and buying while waiting for our orders to arrive.

Chieko san said that  Nara's specialty is porridge but there is none available that day.
I opt for a bowl of nisshin soba or smoked herring with buckwheat noodles.  It reminds me a lot of our local tinapa and is a light and delicious meal.

Fortified with food, we set off towards Todaiji Temple.  Along the way, Chieko san takes us to Nigatsu-do Hall, which is up on one side of Wakakusa-yama.  It  reminds me of  Kiyomizu-dera in the eastern hills of Kyoto.

Like Kiyomizu-dera, you have to climb up steep stone steps to get to Nigatsu-do's balcony to enjoy the spectacular view of the city below.

Before we reach the main hall of Todaiji Temple, we stop by this large bronze bell which is the second largest in Japan.  This dates back from the tenth century although its pavilion has been rebuilt and reconstructed since that time.

We finally make our way to the Daibutsu-den,  the main hall of Todaiji Temple -- home of the Daibutsu or Great Buddha of Todaiji.  The Daibutsu-den is hidden behind a fence and this heightens the effect on the viewer  -- you are momentarily stunned once you enter and see it in all its glory. Standing alone in the middle of the empty field, the Daibutsu-den is a magnificent sight.

The Daibutsu-den is the largest wooden structure in the world although what we see today is just two-thirds of its original size. These  scale models show the size difference between the original on the left and the existing structure on the right.

Once inside the hall, you see the towering 15 meter tall Daibutsu or Giant Buddha as it sits serenely on top of a pedestal of bronze lotus petals.  This pedestal is all that remains of the original and dates back to the eight century.  The bronze Buddha has since been recast and is no longer the original statue.  
The Daibutsu has such a tranquil and peaceful face -- despite the number of visitors in the hall,
I found it impossible not to feel stillness and quietude in his presence.

While making my way through the Daibutsu-den, I came upon this man who had stacks of tiles behind him.  A sign said that for 1,000 yen, you could donate one tile to the continuing reconstruction of the buildings in Todaiji and could even write your message on the tile.
I knew immediately that it was 1,000 yen that I wanted to spend.

I have enjoyed visiting many temples and shrines in Japan and have learned much from these experiences.  The small donation seemed a pittance compared to the priceless gifts of grace, serenity and insight that I know I had gained from these visits.  
The sign said that you could write your wish on the tile but I decided not to.  
Chieko san asked me "But what do you wish for?"
I told her Buddha knew the wish in my heart.

The visit to Todaiji's Daibutsu-den marked the end of the day.  As we exited, we saw more deer but they seemed placid and tamer than the pushy ones we had encountered earlier.
Perhaps being so near the Daibutsu also had a calming effect on them.

We made our way towards Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden structure that marks the southern entrance to Todaiji.  Like the Daibutsu-den, it is a large and imposing structure and if you were entering from this side, it prepares you for the grandeur that is to come.
It is just past 2 p.m when we exit through Nandaimon and we meet a lot of tourists who are just starting to arrive.

We've spent more than five hours going through Nara Park,  from Kasuga Taisha all the way to Todaiji Temple.  This map shows just how far we've walked -- we managed to cover almost all of the section in green.
But I don't think that any one of us noticed the distance nor felt it -- the entire walk was a wonderful experience made even more meaningful by Chieko san's informative and interesting commentaries.

Finally, here is my photo with one of the more well behaved deer in Nara.
He didn't try to grab my drink nor did he try to mooch for any biscuits.
He just stayed patiently beside me and kept me company.
Cheers, my deer!
Thank you for a lovely day in Nara.