Articles / We Had More Than One Mind-Blowing Experience in Kyoto


We Had More Than One Mind-Blowing Experience in Kyoto

Published April 3, 2024

Plus: Mark and Kathleen talk Japanese school food on Food with Mark Bittman

A meal at Uka Rokkon. Photo: Instagram/@uka6kon

This week, Mark and his partner, Kathleen Finlay, who is president of Glynwood, in Cold Spring, NY, talk to us from Nagasaki, Japan, where they visited a school lunch center that services 1750 students – plus faculty.

I was floored when I listened to this conversation. It’s basically a perfect representation of what a progressive lunch program can look like — carefully created menu, seasonal ingredients, delicious food, affordable for everyone, and eaten all together to build community and wellbeing.

Before we get to Mark and Kathleen, though, I took our next round of reader questions for food stylist Barrett Washburne (you can listen to the first two rounds here and here); we chatted about the laws around food styling, plus, weird things that are done to foods — like supergluing a turkey. —kb

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Meanwhile, in Kyoto …

Kyoto was the first “real” city we’d spent significant time in since leaving New York — now six weeks ago! — and at first it was a bit too much for us. Traffic lights! Westerners! Swarming taxis! Nightclubs! Streets filled with restaurants, pizza donuts, shops selling ridiculous things no one needs, overpriced coffee — the works. It’s an ancient city that hides many of its charms, and has to some extent been overwhelmed by tourism.

Photos: Mark Bittman

We hadn’t been able to find an affordable regular hotel, so wound up in a kind of hybrid Airbnb/hotel, which had the advantages and disadvantages of each, i.e., we could cook, but only on one burner, and the kitchen was freezing, but we also had lots of room and were in a lovely, quiet neighborhood.

Now, this might seem laughable, but for me — Mark, that is — the best part about Kyoto was shopping for food and cooking it. (I am not sure when was the last time that I didn’t stand in front of a stove for a month, but I’m guessing it was in 2007, on an extended trip to Europe.) We shopped in a “Mini Fresco,” a small supermarket, which featured more fresh fish than any supermarket in America (ok, an exaggeration, but not much of one), and a decent selection of nice-looking vegetables, as well as all the Japanese staples you might want.

What with the one burner (and only one pot, and no knife worthy of the name, etc., and the freezing kitchen), there was no incentive or ability to do anything complicated, but we did enjoy our little stews and stir-fries of leeks and cabbage and potato and a few kinds of tofu and yuba (see below for more about yuba), and a couple of different seafoods (one night firefly squid and the next some very small, very fresh shrimp), seasoned with olive oil and lemon and miso and not much else. Still, after having only institutional and restaurant food for a month, it tasted better than anything.

Photo: Mark Bittman

We met some wonderful people here, but the absolute highlight was the moss garden at Saihoji (Kokedera) Temple, close to 1,300 years old and a place that generates such a sense of peace and oneness that it approaches life-changing for (from all reports) just about everyone who visits. Truly one of the most beautiful cultivated places on earth, and worth it even if you have no time in Kyoto.

On to food. My old friend and Japan fixer Marian Goldberg (if you’re planning a Japan trip and are interested in her services, you can email her: marian@goldbergontravel.com) introduced us to Nako Matsuda (Instagram here; she is an honorary New Yorker), who in turn took us to visit Senmaruya, the yuba shop presided over by eighth generation owner Tadahiro Ochi, where we had a traditional lunch of dried yuba stew. Tadahiro-san explained that yuba, as a perishable item (it’s just the skin of cooked soy milk), was almost always dried (though I love it fresh, and he sells some fresh at the shop, which I incorporated into a couple of our dinners). The stew, therefore, is of dried yuba, which is delightfully chewy and of course mild-flavored. Given the weather we’ve been having — unseasonably cool and often rainy — this was welcome.

A yuba stew at Senmaruya. Photo: Instagram/@senmaruya_kyoto_yuba

Nako and I then went to visit a seventh-generation pickle maker — Murakamiju Kyo, run by Ryohei and Eri Murakami (brother and sister), who make mostly salt-cured pickles (shiozuki), the kind that I have become obsessed by. These are vegetables or fruits, layered with salt (different percentages for each vegetable, but not overwhelming amounts, generally less than five percent by weight) and sometimes kelp (though this is also pickled on its own), shiso, and other seasonings, and pressed for months – up to a year – until they are crunchy, sour, delicious: Think sauerkraut, but with almost anything you can think of, from turnips to eggplant to greens. I bought a load of them for immediate eating and gifts.

Photo: Mark Bittman

We had a miso lesson (more on that when we get home, because I’m going to make it) and a late-night meal in a wonderful izakaya, but the absolute mind-blowing meal on this trip was another country inn, Uka Rokkon, in a village called Higashiomi, near Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake, just northeast of Kyoto. We were brought there by sake sommelier, educator, and journalist Ayuko Yamaguchi, who introduced us to the owners, Marie and Hiroki Sugimoto, a husband-and wife team. The kaiseki was as good as any we have had, the sake sensational, and yet, the highlight was seeing cherry blossoms in the snow.

And now – on to Tokyo!