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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Kansai Culinary Rivalry


Korean PotOf the three main cities in western Japan, Kyoto is famed for its history, temples, and traditional wares; Kobe for its openness, modernity, and foreign influences; and Osaka for its down to earth sense of humor, business acumen, and food. Osaka is the foodie capital of Kansai, or so locals would have it.

In Kansai dialect, Kyoto was said to be a kidaore (着倒れ))city: the locals spend every cent and more on clothes. Osaka on the other hand is a kuidaore(食い倒れ) town: Osakans are said to bring ruin upon themselves through gluttony. And that is because Osaka is the preeminent place to eat in Kansai, if not Japan, or so they say.

I beg to differ.

Though Kobe does not have the sheer number of restaurants that Osaka does, its Chinatown alone would, in a culinary ranking, place it above Osaka, which counts as its local specialties "octopus dumplings" on a stick (takoyaki) and egg pancakes filled with vegetables (okonomiyaki). Kyoto, with its staid, even unfriendly, reputation, brings to mind traditional teahouses that won't serve the artistically aranged and outrageously expensive kaiseki ryori to ichigen-san (first timers - someone without the requisite introduction; i.e., everyone but the fabulously wealthy and connected). Nonsense.

That is the tiny, enclosed--and increasingly marginalized--world of the Gion and Pontocho districts of Kyoto. The rest of the city, however, is welcoming, the service is as good as anywhere in Japan, and the sheer variety of food and restaurants is second only to Tokyo, which has ten times the population of Kyoto.

For nibbling, Nishiki food market is as good as it gets. Take a stroll down the center city food market--and eat till you drop. Similarly, the basements of Daimaru and Takashimaya and Isetan's Kyoto branches are a gourmand's paradise. And free.

For dining out, Kyoto has a huge variety of food: great French, Italian, Chinese, and yes, of course, the traditional kaiseki ryori. What Kyoto has that no other city in Kansai or in Japan are machiya restaurants and outdoor dining on decks by the Kamo River in the summer.

Korean CurryThe former are the great townhouses of years past that have been restored and turned into boutiques and restaurants. Made of beautiful wood and paper, these buildings alone are worth the price of a meal. The latter, the kawa doko (river decks) that are set up from June to September along restaurant row on Pontocho, are the perhaps the best dining experience to be had in Japan. With the mountains in the distance, the river flowing below, you eat outdoors under the stars in the center of town.

Kyoto also has a lot of funky, hard to describe restaurants. On Sunday, I took friends to Somushi, an organic Korean restaurant on Sanjo just down the street from the Starbucks on Karasuma-Sanjo. The curry was a feast for the eyes and stomach. The decorations and interior were a masterpiece of Korean design and ornamentation. The outside of the building is enclosed in a traditional wall. The door--and every feature in the restaurant down to the toilets--is lovely, a rough-hewn slab of wood that glides open automatically as you enter. Soothing music is piped in over invisible loudspeakers as you eat. A fantastic if not unusual experience experience in Kyoto.

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