For any Twitter-weary people out there, here’s a case for the defence: it helps you find amazing places to visit overseas.
During a research-binge on where to eat in Japan, I posted this throwaway tweet:
“In Japan, ham is considered a vegetable” -> OK, my attempt to find good vego-friendly places to dine at in Osaka, Kyoto will be tricky…
It was just a momentary observation, with zero expectation for a response; so it was a surprise when the ultra-knowledgable Justin Norrie tweeted back two generous, trip-worthy tips.
He suggested I buy Time Out Kyoto for recommendations because the editor is a vegetarian; this is how I find out about Tamaki, which was Will’s far-and-above favourite of all the places we dined in Japan.
Before we even ate a single thing at Tamaki, though, we were stunned by how gorgeous this machiya restaurant was – everything right down to the patterned paper folded around our chopsticks was considered and beautiful. I wondered if the elegant Wa-style fabrics adorning everything (even the chair legs!) were a reference to the fact this 19th-century timber building used to be a kimono merchant’s house.
The food was inflected with chef Hiroyuki Aoike’s background in classic French cuisine (green tea brulée, chocolate gateau), and even the simplest things (a fruit salad with plain jelly, a lychee tea) inspired moment-savouring.
We had the lunch menu but I would love to have tried the kaiseki set that is on offer at night.
Tamaki, 472-1 Kinbuki-cho, Ryogaemachi Dori, Nijo-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. This place was impossible to find, and we spent 40 minutes looking for it, all while being never more than two minutes’ walk away. Even local passers-by were stumped. Lesson learnt: if lost, always ask a shop employee as their knowledge of nearby businesses is pretty solid. From Karasuma Oike, after passing the Manga Museum, it’s a block left and then a block-and-a-bit right, but ring ahead, especially if you want a vegetarian meal, and get better instructions when booking on 075 213 4177. And look at the website, so you can blaze the shopfront into memory; it’ll make the “found it!” moment more satisfying.
Justin also tipped me off about Kanga-An: “If you’re prepared to drop Y5000 for lunch or Y9000 for dinner, you should try this place. It’s special. I’m not vegetarian, but friends who are agree it’s an unforgettable experience.”
I know a word like “unforgettable” can often be used so disposably, so it gets unlatched from any sense of grandness or memory-burning significance, but in the case of this restaurant, it is entirely, unmistakably resonant: this is a meal you’ll always remember.
Built in the 17th century on the request of retired Emperor Go Mizunoo, Kanga-An is a temple that serves fucha ryori, “a Chinese-influenced vegetarian food that’s more flamboyant than shojin ryori, its better-known Zen cousin”, according to Japan Times.
Not only that, it is so visually exquisite that it’s hard to believe. The meal started with traditional Japanese sweets and powdered green tea – we thought that was nicely presented, but that was blitzed by the two following courses, which were served on platters with rock gardens intact. I’d never had a meal that came with its own landscaping before, but this was the level of eye-dazzling showmanship on offer.
There was food camouflaged by bamboo leaves, petal-shaped lotus root, edible mini-baskets woven from konbu, colour-vivid tempura flowers, plums adorned with gold leaf, rainbow-striped tofu, pattern-cut pumpkin shells and even chestnut “husks” – the spikes cleverly made from short, stiff strands of green tea noodles (to the point of such authenticity that diners don’t realise the dish is edible).
Even after the first six courses were brought out, all the food remained untouched by chopsticks because we were so busy trying to document everything with our cameras. And, of course, it wasn’t all about visual wizardry – some of the least photogenic dishes were the most exquisite, especially the pickled ume (plum) tempura served in a Japanese pepper/ginger soup.
Not every single dish melted your mind, but the 14-course dinner was such a lottery of flavour and colour that it was worth every yen spent. The building is also quite memorable – you dine in your own room, which overlooks a traditional garden carefully illuminated with lanterns. Even washing your hands involves a certain level of water-tipping ceremony. Kanga-An is the dictionary definition of unforgettable.
Kanga-An, 278 Karasuma Dori, Kuramaguchi Higashi Iru, Kita-ku, Kyoto, (075) 256-2480. You have to book ahead though. The best instructions on how to get there can be found here (scroll to the end for details).