Note to self: A 6:30 AM wakeup call is pretty unpleasant after a full-day celebration and the Tokyo Fixer’s final evening. Also, packing the night before would have been a real time-saver… It was, to say the least, a struggle, but we made it downstairs where we met up with Etsuko Nakamura, the tour guide we introduced in this post (met through John Gauntner), who will be undoubtedly be our saving grace in Kyoto and Osaka.
We boarded another bullet train, this one from Tokyo to Kyoto. Chao was pretty much comatose, but managed to keep his eyes open for the panoramic, postcard-worthy views of Mt. Fuji from our train car (above).
Yuba! Yuba! Yuba!
We arrived in Kyoto and quickly changed trains for Otsu and Mt. Hiei, where we were meeting up with Sachiko and Noriko Yagi, friends we met at the 2010 Worlds of Flavor Conference. We reached out to them while planning our trip to let them know we’d be visiting Kyoto, and they were kind enough to invite us out to their yuba factory, Hiei Yuba, for a private tour and an incredible lunch.
The company is named for nearby Mt. Hiei, located on the border of the Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. The yuba produced at Hiei has an equally distinguished reputation, recognized by chefs across the world as the best yuba. If your customer list includes Nobu Matsuhisa, we’d say you’re doing well for yourself.
Feeling incredibly lucky that we met Sachiko San back in November, we were treated like royalty at the factory, given an all-access tour of the facility and the process behind making yuba–even allowed to make our own yuba! Nothing like some good ol’ hands-on learning.
Let’s step back a second. A lot of you might be asking the same question (or, if you’re not, you could still do with a little education): What’s yuba? It’s a traditional, healthy food common in Japan; in essence, it’s tofu skin. After about 15 minutes of boiling soy milk, a skin is created on the surface, which is then skimmed off and can be eaten as is or after being dried. Eaten fresh, it has a delicious, creamy texture that really can’t be compared to any other ingredient, perfect on its own or with a little soy and wasabi.
The history of yuba goes back some 1,200 years, when the famous Japanese Buddhist monk Saicho brought yuba, tea trees, and Buddhism to Japan. At that time, it primarily served as vegetarian sustenance for Buddhists and members of nobility. It was reborn a delicacy during the more recent rise of Japanese gastronomic culture, and these days, it’s a vital ingredient in Japanese cuisine, especially here in Kyoto.
Well, now that we’re all up to speed on yuba, we’d like to say what a pleasure it was to spend a few hours with Sachiko San and everyone else at Hiei Yuba–educational, fun, and you have to try their yuba.
Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji
After that, we were off to the company’s namesake: Mt. Hiei. Setting aside the fact that Mt. Hiei is pretty breathtaking, it’s also home to the temple of Enryaku-ji, a Tendai monastery and an important landmark in the history of Japanese Buddhism. As it happens, Sachiko San has special access to Enryaku-ji, and arranged for us to have a Kaiseki-style feast (formal, multi-course Japanese meal) and a tour upon our arrival. (Yes, at that moment, we were even more grateful that we’d met Sachiko San.)
Still not done with our yuba-filled day, we were excited to find that one of the main ingredients in the majority of dishes served at Enryaku-ji just so happens to be yuba from Hiei Yuba. Each dish was beautifully presented and delicious (see photo above, right), showcasing a variety of preparations and complements to yuba. If we’ve ever thought that vegetarian food had to be boring, we’ll admit that we were very, very wrong. On top of all that, it was probably the most pure, healthy meal we’ve ever had (certainly something to feel good about based on the amount we’ve consumed since starting our blog).
After lunch, we had a private tour of the temples of Enryaku-ji, including the main temple. There were no photos allowed inside the temples, understandably, so that’s something you’ll have to go see for yourself. Unable to snap pics of the main event, we focused our photography skills on things like cool statues, ourselves with our tour guide (above, left), or the one on the right of the seemingly endless, impossibly steep stairs we had to climb (totally worth it).
The Tail End of Nishiki Market
After a good long culture session, we made our way back to the train station and grabbed a train to the heart of Kyoto. It was getting late, late enough for another meal… but we held ourselves back for a bit and headed to Kyoto’s renowned Nishiki Market, known as Kyoto’s Kitchen. It’s where all the chefs buy their ingredients (in other words, something we wanted to see), but it was about to close, unfortunately. Still great to see the market with some action, though:
Dinner at Daiuyasu
We turned to the trusty Tokyo Fixer, who’d emailed us a recommendation for dinner in Nishiki Market: Daiuyasu. This quaint, family-run oyster/fish bar is situated right next to their market stand. So even if the stands were closing down (which they were), we could eat wares from one of the vendors, right alongside their stand. Not bad, eh?
Following our usual routine, we grabbed seats at the bar and started with grilled oysters and fish. The oysters had that just-plucked-from-the-ocean taste, the scallops were perfectly cooked… Even better, they have it set up so you can watch them clean the fish and throw it on the grill, right in front of you (removing any doubt from your mind that this is going to be tasty as hell).
Having endured an unhealthily early wakeup call and an epic day on only a few hours of sleep, a couple of beers took their toll quite nicely. We headed back to the Kyoto Westin and crashed before the door swung closed, knowing the next day (a) another early one and (b) filled with sake brewery tours and tastings (not that we’re complaining).