Vegan in Japan, Part II: Kyoto
In October I traveled for the first time to Hong Kong and Tokyo. So far I’ve written about Hong Kong, including some great meals I had and tips for your own trip. To read about my first stop in Japan, Tokyo, go here. In the middle of my Tokyo visit, I spent two wonderful days in Kyoto, which I can definitely say was my favorite stop. I had some of the best vegan food in Kyoto that I’ve ever had. And I’m so glad I took the advice of my friends Melisser, Sean and Marc and took a trip there!
And as I said in my first post on Japan, without the Urban Housewife’s Travel Guide my trip would not have been the same. In addition, as I mentioned in my previous posts, the Happy Cow iPhone app and Vegan Passport were essential, as was purchasing a Japanese Rail Pass (thanks Melisser!). While the pass is expensive (around $300 for 5 days). It is good on all JR lines around Tokyo, as well as trains running to cities like Osaka and Kyoto (which normally run at least $100 each way). By buying the pass before you leave the States, you save even more on the exchange rate. If you are not planning to make any trips out of the city, however, I don’t think it’s worth the price.
On the Tuesday of my second week in Asia, I took a Hikari train to Kyoto. I knew that I had a lot of attractions to hit in less than two days, so I immediately hit up Fushimi Inari, the shrine known for it’s hike through a series of wooden orange gates. At around 5:30pm, I checked in at the temple I was staying at, called Shunkoin. I would highly recommend a stay there. The proprietor of the temple, Reverend Taka Kawakami, spent time in the States, and speaks perfect English. While the accommodations are simple (traditional mat on the floor, shared bathroom), they are quaint, super clean, unique… and only about $50 a night. Plus, they offer you free bikes to borrow (the most used mode of transportation in Kyoto). The temple is also located inside a larger temple, Myoshinji, so when the gates of that one close at night, the whole place is almost completely silent, and you can wander around the buildings sans crowds. It’s amazingly peaceful.
Anyway, onto the food. One word: madness. In more ways that one. The first few hours in Kyoto, before I even checked into Shunkoin, were terribly frustrating. I tried to go to Cafe Proverbs, and but it was closed. I tried to go to another restaurant that I found on the Happy Cow iPhone App, but it was also closed. By this point I was basically starving, so I resorted to a box of Ritz crackers from a 7-11. Fortunately, when I started out for dinner, I had directions from Rev. Taka and had the easiest time of finding a restaurant so far.
Out of the Urban Housewife’s suggestions I chose to go to Mikoan, an amazing little restaurant situated in the bottom floor of a house tucked away down a side street (and around the corner from the biggest shopping mall in Kyoto no less). No idea how I found it, but the HappyCow.net instructions did help. Mikoan is a hard place to describe. You sit at a little bar, where the proprietress stands and cooks your meal behind it, right in front of you. To say the place is unique is an understatement. The Beatles “White Album” was blasting when I walked in, there were cats walking around, and the whole cafe is stacked floor to ceiling with….stuff. American and Japanese posters, trinkets, figurines, paintings, books… anything and everything. The photo above really doesn’t do it justice. The food was simple but home cooked, hot and delicious. I had a traditional bento plate for about $12. I was the only one in the place so I got a chance to chat with the owner and meet her cats, including a tiny baby kitten. Quite an experience, and I’d recommend it for sure.
Following my dinner, I looked at my map and realized that Mumokuteki was not too far away. I realized all I had to do was cut down one long alley and I would (should) find it. I rushed, thinking it was further than it was, and was pleasantly surprised that I almost race-walked past it. It was here that I had one of the best desserts I have ever had in my life, hands down. Although I was wary of spending $9.50 on a dessert, something told me to just go for it, and I ordered the Soy Ice Cream Parafait. If anything calls for an OMG, it was this. I have no idea how they got soft serve soy ice cream that smooth and amazing, it was perfect. Vanilla ice cream with fruit and lychees, then a layer of soft cake, then a crunchy layer almost like muesli. Literally one of the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life. I am craving one right now as I write this. If you go to Kyoto DO NOT MISS THIS DESSERT! This is a dessert that I think would change people’s perception of veganism if they were to try it.
My second and last day in Kyoto went like clockwork. I woke up early and, at the advice of Rev. Taka, took a bicycle to Ryoan-ji Temple and then Kinkakuji Temple (also known as the Golden Pavilion) right after they opened. Both were virtually empty, and started to fill up with buses of people as I left. Ryoan-ji was my favorite site in Kyoto, it has an awe-inspiring rock garden that is hard to describe, but not to be missed. I thought the Golden Pavilion was probably overrated and almost passed on it, but I’m so glad I didn’t. It’s absolutely incredible, and another not to be missed site. I went back and grabbed my stuff from Shunkoin, and took one of Kyoto’s many buses out to see the bamboo forrest in Arashiyama.
I was totally surprised to stumble upon the Vegan Shoujin restaurant at Tenryuji Temple, the same one recommended by Melisser. I had totally written it off as being too far for me to get to during my visit. I almost skipped having a meal though because of the $50 price tag. Yes, $50. But then I figured, when else am I going to have the chance to eat a vegetarian temple meal in Japan? And it turned out to be one of the most memorable meals of my life consisting of delicate, handmade vegan delicacies including pickled vegetables cut into shapes, sesame tofu, and amazing homemade green tea mochi. Following the meal I wandered around and checked out the gorgeous bamboo forrest, before jumping on a train and heading over to check out Kiyomizu-Dera. After an invigorating walk up a steep hill lined with souvenir kiosks, the temple provides amazing views of the city. I had planned out my route to Cafe Proverbs before hand, and made it there with just enough time for a quick dinner before I caught my train back to Tokyo.
The people at Cafe Proverbs were super nice, and seemed to be really excited that I had read about them all the way from California. I started off with some pumpkin croquettes, and then a huge bowel of soymilk ramen. Both were delicious, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I had never had or heard of soymilk ramen before. I’m going to try and make it one of these days. For dessert I had chocolate cake with green tea and caramel ice cream, which of course couldn’t compare to Mumokuteki.
So, if you go to Japan, make sure you take a trip to Kyoto. I had an incredible visit, and just wish that I had more time there. I hope to go back some day, and when I do, to have that ice cream parafait at Mumokuteki!