Showcasing culture and cuisine

In stark contrast to Tokyo’s big-city bling and buzz, Kyoto is where to head if you want to draw deeply from Japan’s cultural well and its commanding showcase of traditional cuisine.

A sure-fire way to immerse yourself in the sheer magnificence of Kyoto’s foodie scene is to join an expertly guided tour.

I enlisted the specialists at Japan Wonder Travel and joined their Nishiki FooDrink Tour. My three hour exploratory began in the heart of Kyoto’s shopping district on Shijo-dori, lined with luxury boutiques and elegant department stores, where immaculately coiffured women are attired in kimonos.

Running parallel with Shijo-dori, a block back, is the show-stopping foodie mecca of Nishiki St, home to the 400-year-old Nishiki Market. This vast and venerable covered emporium, which stretches for 400-long metres, is understandably acclaimed as the kitchen of Kyoto.

Before we plunged head-first into this market frenzy, bursting at the seams with 130 specialist stores, our guide Tatsuya (right) led us to a stunning doughnut shop, adjacent to the entrance. Mai Doughnuts has a fostered cult following amongst Kyotoites, who flock to munch on their soy milk doughnuts, which are much lighter and fluffier parcels of deliciousness, compared to their Western contemporaries. And they’re not saccharine-sweet.

Tatsuya then led us into the head-spinning trading throng of Nishiki’s cavernous wonderland, which was teeming with the collision of wide-eyed camera-toting tourists and seasoned locals, concertedly going about their shopping. They know the place inside-out, as if it was their own pantry.

From the eels arranged on beds of ice like necklaces or woven baskets brimming with fresh chestnuts, the culinary offerings are a triumph of food art. All of the fresh fish is packaged, so it doesn’t smell.

Grilled squid, tempura, rice balls… even the most humble of items are royally displayed like treasures. The signage left me completely baffled, but most shops are only too happy to let you graze on free samplings.

Tatsuya’s advice? Try everything — it won’t kill you. Some of the market shops are old-timers, like Uchida, which has been selling pickled vegetables here, like eggplants, radish and pumpkin, for 80 years.

Miki Keiran is famed for its fluffy dashi maki (omelette) made with kelp stock. We snacked our way through the market with hearty, voracious intent, sampling hamo (daggertooth conger eel), fried fish cakes, yuba sashimi and omusubi (high-quality rice balls) and peanut rice crackerballs!

We sampled sake in a shop run by the same family across 18 generations! And then there’s the green tea, iconic of Kyoto. Matcha powder is used to make the tea and Matcha mania has transformed Kyoto’s confectionary, with a stunning array of Matcha-laden sweets, including mochi and jellies.

Tatsuya also ushered us into Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine, a gorgeous little shrine that is dedicated to the Shinto god of learning. We noticed students popping in, to ring bells, clap hands and pray for good grades or to pass a test. The shrine is more than a thousand years old! With more than 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto’s cultural reverence runs deep.

A superb accommodation option is the Kyoto Tokyu Hotel (above), which embodies the refined charm and traditional design qualities of Kyoto throughout its property. Centrally located in the old city, the hotel upholds the spirit of miyabi, an aesthetic ideal akin to isolated elegance.

There’s a restful, serene ambience throughout the hotel, accentuated by a glorious waterfall garden in the central courtyard. The staff, as you’d expect, are incredibly gracious, warm and attentive.

Featuring sleek, sophisticated décor inspired by nature, Kyoto Tokyu Hotel offers an authentic flavour of Japanese hospitality, with all of the creature comforts and luxuries you’d expected from an upscale hotel.

Be sure to dine at Kazahana, which exudes a nostalgic ambience with its classic Kyoto specialities. Offering all day dining, including a sterling buffet breakfast, Kazahana features an open kitchen with chefs cooking before your eyes.

Kyoto Tokyu is a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. For the very best deals and seasonal specials, check out the new iPrefer app, which includes member rates and rewards or book direct at www.preferredhotels.com

I zipped my way to Kyoto from Tokyo on one of Japan’s silky-smooth Shinkansen trains. Pre-purchase a Japan Rail Pass, which delivers excellent value for money, total flexibility and travel convenience. Contact Rail Plus, the experts in rail, to secure a pass to suit. www.railplus.co.nz

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