Friday, April 26, 2013

Kyoto Cafe Culture

Japan's cultural hub, Kyoto, has long been regarded as the best place to experience the soothing art of the traditional tea ceremony and I’ll happily admit that I'm as loved up with matcha and wagashi (whisked green tea and Japanese confectionery) as the next Japanophile! But I also appreciate a good cup of coffee and a welcoming place to kick back and drink it in.

Over the last decade or so Kyoto has developed a cracking coffee culture with a brew that no longer tastes of tar and burning rubber. We are talking black gold people. The cafe spaces themselves are often situated in really cool old machiya (traditional shop houses) or converted public bathhouses, complete with traditional tiles and tap nozzles. From the bohemian to the super-streamlined - there is a long list of excellent cafes available to park your behind in – and they don't mind you lingering with a good book or your laptop either!

Here are a few of my favourites:

Slap bang in the centre of town (in the Sanjo Arcade between Kawaramachi and Teramachi streets) you will find some of the finest coffee to be had in Kyoto town at Ogawa Cafe. 
The barista flaunts his knowledge of single origin and blends by mixing it up daily. You can stand at the bar and throw back an espresso if you need a quick hit whilst shopping - or head upstairs to relax and enjoy the free wifi and iPads with your latte. The brownies are delish and the hotdogs are very good quality too if you are in the market for a quick snack.

***UPDATE! Bugger it! the Sanjo Arcade Ogawa has closed down but check out the other Ogawa cafes for decent coffee, each with it's own unique atmosphere. There's one underground at Kyoto station now too. 

Literally, a 1-minute walk, around the corner from Ogawa you will find Smart Coffee . I love the old school vibe more than the coffee to be honest – this is a real institution and I tend to avoid it when full, as it can get a little smoky. Food wise there is a limited offering on the ground floor – hotcakes, French toast and the like but duck up the stairs to the smoke free dining room for really tasty, simple yoshoku (Japanese interpretation of “western” food). Situated on the west side of Teramachi shopping arcade - just north of Sanjo arcade.

**Just a few minute’s north of that in the same arcade but on the eastern side is one of a chain of coffee shops that sells decent coffee and light snacks. I can’t, for the life of me, remember the name but it is in Japanese anyway so it probably won't help! It has a menu board out the front with images so keep an eye out for it – the bonus here is the inner courtyard Japanese garden. I’ve spent hours in a quiet corner listening to Jazz (on the old record player) while I gaze onto this private oasis.

Cafe Bibliotec Hello  is a seriously attractive café in a restored machiya. The smooth as silk, hand-chiseled wooden floors, book-lined walls, leafy palms and an outdoor area all add to a sense of welcome and relaxation.  Good coffee  - including some frou frou numbers  (I’m a fan of the white chocolate mocha below) and a range of foods from interesting salads to a very good wagyu steak sandwich and excellent homemade cake selection. The café is only just north of the very centre of town  - but just far enough away experience a sense of real calm. On Nijo dori (street) between Tomonikoji and Yanagibaba streets.

OK – so Salon de The au Grenier D’or is more about the tea and amazing cakes and desserts but the coffee is pretty good too. The service is delightful, complete with polished silverware and napkins!
There’s a gorgeous little inner garden here too. Tres lovely.  Take your mum.
On the eastern side of Sakaimachi dori  - 2 minutes walk north of Nishikikoji dori.

Another top spot for excellent coffee , for either a quick throw-down there or packaged grinds to take away and make your own, is Unir on Gokomachi street below Oike street. They also do a cheap and tasty sandwich/coffee set at lunchtime. These guys really know their stuff. Very good brew - they also sell all the accoutrement for making the perfect drop  - and if you don't know how - they even run classes.

A little further afield….

If you find yourself in the Nishijin textile area - situated roughly halfway between the imperial palace and Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavillion) you will want to know about Sarasa Nishijin (one of several Sarasa cafes in Kyoto). This gorgeous old sento (bathhouse) serves a mix of laidback ska, reggae and jazz alongside decent coffee, cakes and cheesecake - try the spiced apple and walnut cake with their hot chocolate in winter. They do a really good lunch plate too and occasionally there’s live music in the evenings. Within a few metres, either side of the cafe, you will find some funky little artisans making everything from stunning papers to hand-woven "lace" earrings, from tiny blown glass bottles to earthy ceramics. Worth the side step if you have the time. 

If you are in the vicinity of Ginkakuji (silver pavillion) its worth taking a little wander around the corner to find this gem. On the 2nd floor of a European style building, which looks very much out of place in this neck of the woods, you will find this charming cafe - Gospel - serving simple but very tasty food and homemade cakes and tarts. 
Situated on Shishigatani - the street that run's parallel and just west of the Philosopher's path or Tetsugaku no michi (which runs along the north/eastern edge of Kyoto city). If you are on Ginkakuji michi  - turn south onto Shishigatani and its just a few minutes walk to the front door. On the West side of the street. 

Efish – is an open, modern café/design store on the river’s edge in the southern part of town. It is a little out of the way unless you are wandering between Kiyomizu temple and Kyoto station - but the food is light yet wholesome ‘westernised’ fare  - in decent portions. Refreshing drinks. In the warmer weather the glass wall is opened up to let the breeze flow through –much appreciated in Kyoto town’s humid summer.
Café Cheka  was my local for a while – I miss it so. A tiny, ethereal café located on the street that runs along the north wall of the zoo – and very close to the Heian Shrine. Seek it out if you are temple hopping in the Sakyo- ku area. Choose one of the stunning little cakes in the glass cabinet downstairs then head up to the second floor to order your coffee. The charming waitstaff will deliver your cake to your table as your coffee arrives. So civilised. Sit at the window bench and watch the world do its thing.

There are plenty of average cafes in Arashiyama’s tourist hub but a little off the main drag is a wonderfully light and breezy café called Sagano yu. Very stylish yet relaxing with French style bowls of coffee. Lunch is good value too and there’s a little homewares shopping to be had on the second floor.

PS- use google translate for the Japanese sites!

PPS   - As I said - they are a few of my favourites but there are so many more - check a few of them out below:

Okazaki Eats
Kyoto nama chocolate teahouse and cafe
Niti cafe and bar
Papermoon Cafe
Cafe Pilz
Sarasa Pausa
Cafe Rokuyosha

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Big Feed

My heart feels a little bit broken today. It always feels that way when I speak to Kay Richardson of The Big Feed. A little bit fractured,  torn... yet enriched and hopeful at the same time.

I'm not a parent but I do believe it is still my responsibility, every adult's responsibility, to make sure kids get fed as well as possible.  If we dare to bring them into this world we owe them, at the very least, quality of life and a country, indeed a planet,  that can provide real food and an education on how to choose, store, prepare and even grow it! It's pretty basic.

I only realised about 10 years ago that I am part of a minority in Australia.   Now that sounds ridiculous I know - on both counts, I'm a bit slow perhaps. Of course we all understand on some level that there are people who live under very different circumstances, we hear about it on the news, read about it in the paper, maybe learn about it at school - but my life never really connected with "that" world. The world outside my safe, tiny bubble. None of us who live a 'fortunate' life really want to believe that there are parts of Australia (possibly only a suburb away, perhaps the house next door) where real food or any food at all is a luxury. It is frightening. And it should be.

I've travelled the world and eaten in fancy restaurants, I grew up in one of the wealthiest suburbs in Sydney - I had loving parents who fed me well and encouraged my enthusiasm for food and cooking from a young age. I've been successful in my career (which is heavily entrenched in food and food culture) and have great friends and a loving partner.  I've been most fortunate in many, many ways - and have a sizeable arse to prove it (now that's another issue!)

One day a friend of mine was sharing a story about his company taking a group of underprivileged kids on a day out. They had a simple lunch of sandwiches yet the kids were completely blown away by what they were eating - they couldn't believe the 'feast' that was served to them. My friend, curious as to why a few sangers would gain so much attention, asked one of them what they normally ate at home.  His reply was "red soup".  "Do you mean tomato soup?" my friend asked. "No, its what's left in the pan when mum and dad eat the frankfurts".  On hearing this story I felt like I had been kicked in the guts. I felt completely naive and more than a little bit blinkered.  This information poked a pinhole in my dark, designer sunnies and allowed the light to pierce through my eyeballs into my brain. Fuck. Once the information was comfortably inside me it sat there like a cold stone in my belly and has remained there ever since.

Enter Kay Richardson. This astounding woman has many similar stories to tell. Too many. Only today she told me of a community in a country town where The Big Feed is helping out.  Young, struggling mothers were paying what little money they had for supermarket "baby water" and pureed food in squeeze packs  - unbelievably they had never been taught to mash a veggie.  They had no idea it was more economical to feed their children by cooking seasonal fresh veggies, or that every child who consistently sucks on bags of puree in their formative years is not taught how to chew - leading to issues as they get older. And they certainly didn't realise that handing over that baggie meant that the child was missing out on interacting with their parent or carer during what are some of  the most important, nurturing, intimate, connective moments in their childhood, in their lives. They were just feeding their kids the best way they knew how.  But all that is changing now they are armed with information.

As I wrote this it occurred to me that, sadly, it isn't just those in lower socio-economic areas who raise their kids on processed food from the supermarket - and I'm not just talking about the odd occasion where convenience takes precedence for whatever reason... Perhaps a little off topic but nevertheless it is clear that many of us could do with more education when it comes to growing our children.

I can't think of anything more important to do in our time on earth than to feed and educate the children who enter it - clearly there is the matter of survival on a most basic level but ultimately we need to grow them into healthy, stable, empowered adults -  who can continue the cycle - not only to feed their own kids but to teach them about food, and about what it takes to keep us and our planet healthy in that respect. Because without this basic education we are not well equipped to go about the business of doing everything else that makes the world go around.

Kay and the amazing folk at The Big Feed are tirelessly, relentlessly, selflessly doing whatever they can to foster change in our communities and they are starting with the kids.  And it is a struggle. They need our help - whether it is a donation or simply helping them raise awareness on some level.

If you would like more information on how you can help, and it really doesn't take much, please head over to The Big Feed. You will be amazed at how much these guys have already done but they have big plans for the future and they need your support.

Even if you simply pass on The Big Feed's site details to your social media, friends or family - you are helping to feed our kids and the generations to come.

Do I feel guilty about the life I have lead. Honestly?  Not really - that's just the scenario I was lucky enough to be born into and it would be pointless to start analysing my past, which cannot be changed, when time is of the essence and my energies are better utilised by helping to move things forward.  If you connected with this post at all and have a few minutes spare I urge you to take a peek at The Big Feed. Even if you say the words out loud, or place them in your memory bank only to mention this special bunch of people to a friend over coffee   - you could be doing something towards causing a shift in consciousness.  And that is a good start.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Gourmet tour of Japan October 20 -31 2013

I'm more than a little bit excited to announce that I have been invited to co-host, what promises to be, a truly fun & culture-filled foodie tour of Japan !

I met the lovely Sally Lynch of Taste Trekkers about 5 months ago and we hit it off! So much so that she invited me to co-host one of her tours. Who could refuse??  The woman is a hoot!! And besides, it's not like I'd take much convincing - any excuse to return to Japan...

The tour starts in Osaka and quickly scoots on down to Kyuushu - the southernmost of the 4 main Japanese islands where the intimate group will have the opportunity to experience life outside of the bigger, busier Japanese cities and regular tourist areas. After some quality time soaking up country life,  ancient castles and Wagyu we will head north-west to my second home - beautiful, elegant Kyoto. We will spend a few days checking out some of my favourite foodie /cultural hotspots and we'll take a  side trip to my dear friend's rustic sake brewery in the neighbouring prefecture. We may just have to taste some!!

I can't wait! (not just for the sake...). 

Wanna come along???
If so - head directly over to Taste Trekkers and take a peek at the itinerary

Now the first person who BOOKS THIS SPECIAL TRIP after reading this post should let Sally from Taste Trekkers know how you found her. Once that person has paid in full I will send them a signed copy of my latest book "Zenbu Zen - Finding Food, Culture and Balance in Kyoto" published by Murdoch Books in October 2012 - it's the perfect pre trip read! Not that I'm biased or anything.

I so hope to see you in Japan!

Jane x

Friday, April 19, 2013

Talking Zenbu Zen with Simon Marnie

I'm a little bit excited to be joining Simon Marnie this Sunday 21 April 2013 on his wonderful weekend brunch programme on ABC 702. 

Tune in at 11am to hear us gas-bagging about all things Japanese and Zenbu Zen!
Can't wait!

Jane x

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Burger wars ( Kyoto )

A couple of posts back I wrote about the fact that when you live in Japan you occasionally crave  something other than Japanese food.  Burgers seem to have taken off in Kyoto recently and we've sussed a couple out that we'd like to pass on to you.  

 GRAND BURGER serves up this pretty specimen above. 
It wasn't bad at all and if you are in the area North East of Gosho (the Imperial Palace) it's a happy choice with friendly service and all the basic condiments you need. 
They also have a fairly well stocked bar for a burger joint. 
Someone's happy....
As you can see, it's easy to order if you don't speak Japanese.  

***OUR PICK!!!!  Now TOM'S BURGER BAR is a little bit north of the town centre but absolutely worth the trip if you are looking for a truly delicious burger in Kyoto town - it might not be as picture perfect as Grand Burger but the succulent patties are full of quality beef flavour and the whole package is an absolute cracker.  If we'd lived in this neck of the woods we would have formed an unhealthy addiction. 
Yep -there's the charming, and very F-ing funny, Tom in the background - say hi from me when you visit!

A few more Kyoto Burger related tips :

1.  I was not expecting it at all but the popular CAFE REIMS right in the heart of town, also does a great burger/shake etc alongside a whole range of other foods. I'd mistakenly believed it was a bit of a tourist trap, a place for teens and lazy/cautious travellers to hang out etc and that the food wouldn't really be a focus - but I was wrong. Must check out some of their other grub when we are back in town - we were eyeing off our neighbours meals  - Japanese, French or American it all looked pretty damn fine. 

2. One burger joint that keeps popping up in local restaurant/cafe/bar guides is Diner 58 and, as it was situated in our street, we gave it a shot on more than one occasion. It was disappointing each time. Although the burgers were HUGE, they had no flavour. At least the meat had no flavour - the other ingredients seemed fresh enough but the house sauce, in which my burger was swimming, tasted like nothing I've ever eaten before - if I were pushed to describe it I would not be able to say anything positive... and you know what they say "if you can't say anything nice...." so I will keep my trap shut. We have been told since then that the Fried Chicken is their specialty and to avoid the burgers ( even though they are clearly the intended hero?!) . I must admit the milkshakes are ok too. I really think it is simply a young person's joint, ie young Japanese that are impressed by all things American and perhaps want to hang somewhere that is serviced by a couple of cool dudes in Hawaiian shirts. Which I get. I was young and almost cool once. I think it is probably best for hanging out at night with the gang -  sipping tropical cocktails and snacking on fried chicken and other nibbles. But the burgers?? Really? we tried... 

3. I don't normally advocate fast food joints but I know that when you are travelling sometimes you just need grab something quick and easy so.... Mos Burger is a fast food joint that does a range of burgers on compressed rice "buns"  - as well as the usual suspects - so it is very handy for gluten intolerants. Over the 30 years I've been travelling or living in Japan I've eaten the odd Mos burger and I HAD found it to be one of the best fast food burgers around. But the outlet on Shijo Dori in Kyoto's heart is below parr. I don't recommend it unless you are in a real hurry or it's late and you are too drunk to care!.  There may be another Mos burger outlet in Kyoto which does a better job - but the shijo store (on the south side of shijo street between Kawaramachi and Karasuma streets) is highly inconsistent. Just on the topic of Fast Food burgers in Japan - which I became more aware of after meeting my burger loving partner  - Freshness burger (and I've only experienced one in Kobe) does a very good job!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Carrington Hotel

According to the locals the Carrington Hotel, in the Blue Mountains' village of Katoomba, is haunted. Paranoid or paranormal?? 

The majestic building, built in 1882, is a joy to walk around and sipping cocktails in the bar is a charming experience -but I must say .. there was a rather spooky energy. The hotel was derelict for about 6 years in the 80's until some clever folk purchased her and brought the place back to life. It really is stunning but... I'm not sure if I'm brave enough to stay the night... are you?? 
Take a peek inside....
** Just as an aside - behind the hotel is the FABULOUS Carrington Cellars  - an emporium  (I'm reluctant to call it a bottle shop because it is so much more!) packed with really well considered, interesting wines.  great nibbles and gourmet pantry fillers for packing holiday home kitchens - check them out!  This is the view from outside the store ... not too shabby.

Apple Bar - Bilpin

A little while back I posted about the stunning Mt Tomah Botanical Garden and suggested that if you were in the area you would, basically, be a fool if you didn't travel a further few kilometers to the wonderful Apple Bar - serving up some of the best food in the greater Blue Mountains area. (in fact it is my current pick - no-where else compares at the time of writing).
I've very much enjoyed lunch here on two occasions and had it not been for some of the better heeled clientele I would have greedily licked the plates. Punchy flavours are consistent across the menu and  the expertly cooked wood fired pizzas and grilled numbers are a highlight ( in an already very well lit bunch!). 
Both the menu and venue sport a relaxed yet elegant, modern-country style and the talented, established chef-owner seems to be cooking the kind of food I imagine he'd really like to eat and doing it very well. I think of it as really freakin' great home cooking.  A chef's home cooking perhaps.... It's simple but bloody good - using sublimely fresh and quality produce.
A definite crowd pleaser. Well a crowd that appreciates really good grub.   (a bit like this bloke below....yet another happy customer who very  much enjoyed his snags).

And who can pass up some cinnamon spiced churros with chocolate parfait style ice cream and dark caramel sauce to finish with??  We were really full but couldn't say no and wow - it hit the spot we didn't even know we had. 
All this damn fine nosh is supported by some great local ciders, beers and wine. In fact they have a full licence so even if you want to stop off for a drink on the way through you are welcome. But I warn you - you WILL want to eat something so you might as well pull up a table! 
The Apple Bar is situated in the heart of Apple growing country, hence the name, and they are proud to promote the local product  - and, might I reiterate, a fine selection of boozy apple cider.