We once again had the included breakfast in the hotel, complete with serviceable coffee and the friendliest staff I can ever remember at a hotel. We walked quickly to the Keihan Railway station, which is a commuter train that runs frequently. We took it 3 stops and changed at Tofokuji (which is yet another temple we will probably skip) for the JR Nara line, which we used our pass to ride. We ran for it and made the train and had a very pleasant ride through the suburbs to Nara.
I keep trying to assign differences to Japan and Japanese people that I notice but no one else seems to agree. Maybe I’m just trying to find differences where there are none and people and places are fundamentally the same everywhere, with only smaller or more superficial differences. I guess that’s something I need to decide for myself.
We walked through downtown Nara from the station towards the park. We stopped at a cafe that Jake had found on the 2nd floor of a little building. It was like an old living room, with a record player and an older woman who made us serviceable coffee. I mistakenly ordered an iced coffee and it was as bitter as usual, so I had to add some simple syrup. The coffee was served in nice tea cups.
We walked a couple of blocks to the Prefectural Government Office, where there’s a free observation deck with a great view of the city and Nara Park. There was almost no one else up there except for a bureaucrat enjoying a peaceful lunch. We enjoyed the view and then descended (with a quick stop in the bathroom, where I witnessed one government worker brushing his teeth and another washing up) and walked through a very cool active construction site to Yoshiki-en, one of two gardens between Kofukuji and Todaiji, the two main temples in the area.
Yoshiki-en is free for foreign visitors, unlike its neighbor Isuien, and arguably nicer, as there’s oddly less of a crowd. I enjoyed the walk through the pond garden, moss garden and flower garden (not many flowers but a few!) and then we walked back towards Kofukuji temple. Along the main street are tons of deer, possibly Nara’s most famous attraction. They’re docile but really aggressive and a lot of tourists come to feed them and play with them. I found them pretty gross and honestly not that cute. They’re still dirty animals and pretty annoying so I mostly avoided them.
The main building of Kofukuji temple (I kept getting it confused with Tofukuji in Kyoto) was under construction. Japan is undergoing a ton of restoration work in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Even though the Olympics will be held in Tokyo, the country is preparing for an influx of tourists (even more than usual), so a lot of the temples and sights are under construction.
We walked through the merchant district with some nice design shops to Hiyori, where we sat in a brightly lit back room and ate set menus made with local vegetables and grilled fish from a nearby river. The set was wonderful, with a ginger soup, cabbage gratin, little veggie bites with different greens and sauces, miso soup, rice (maybe wild rice), tempura, a taro ball and a little white fish that was served whole. I messed up removing the bones and had to eat carefully but everything was delicious. We also were served mochi with a sesame powder for dessert, which was good but dry.
After lunch we walked back to the main street and up towards the Kasuga-Taisha shrine. The paths were full with people and deer. Jake bought cookies (which are sold all over) and fed some deer. The deer become extremely aggressive when fed and follow you around. We saw them go for people’s bags and even hands. I avoided them as much as possible.
We walked up to the shrine, where the paths are lined with stone lanterns. It was a huge, old and important shrine (one of eight UNESCO sites in Nara) but felt extremely touristy. A sign offering the chance to “experience Japanese culture” for only a donation of 500 or 800 yen irked me.
We walked out the north side and up a much quieter path towards Todaiji temple, which is an important Buddhist temple complex in Nara. We stopped to see a couple of subtemples, one of which, Nigatsudo Hall, had a wooden veranda with a good view, and a covered staircase down. The sky was pretty nice, and it was a good day for a walk through the park, even with the deer.
We walked down through an old stone street to the main Todaiji hall, which houses the world’s largest indoor bronze Buddha (Daibatsu in Japanese). The building was monumental in a way most temples I’ve seen have not been, and the wooden structure was striking and ornamental. It was also filled with school groups, which is also a striking sight, with the boys in their black uniforms and white sneakers and girls in blue wearing long skirts. We made our way through the groups and entered the main hall, where I gazed in awe at the almost 50-foot tall Buddha. The statue was cool to see and certainly lived up to its reputation, but the even more amazing part for me was seeing the building (even if it was a smaller, third iteration that is 33% smaller than the original building, if that’s even possible) and the intricate designs that join the Buddha inside.
It was getting dark and we had seen enough for the day so we returned to Kyoto via the Kintetsu line (Kintetsu Railway Co is the largest railway system in Japan other than the public Japan Railways Group). The train was a local and not as nice as the Nara express, but got us back to Kyoto quickly (we passed a couple of beautiful temples I glimpsed out the window), and we changed to the Keihan line and quickly got back to the hotel.
When we walked in, the front desk informed us that they had been able to make us a reservation for 8:30 at Giro Giro Hitoshina, a kaiseki restaurant I had read about and wanted to check out. Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, famous especially in Kyoto, and is comparable to Western haute cuisine and generally characterized by expensive and elaborate tasting menus that run hundreds of dollars. Giro Giro offers an untraditional (I guess that would be modern) take on kaiseki, and for under $40 a person, plus drinks.
We hung out for a while at the hotel and then left a bit early to grab an onigiri for a snack. We stopped at Nokishita for a third night in a row (hey, it was on the way to the restaurant), where for the third night in a row we were both delighted by an inventive gin cocktail. Jake’s was made with cacao-infused gin, and I had one with bamboo gin, ginger beer, lemon juice, white miso, soda and Japanese pepper that had a lot of umami and I finished in a couple of sips. We were the only people there (contrary to how crowded it was the night before), so I struck up a conversation with the owner, who introduced himself as Tomo. We chatted for a while about drinks; he was curious about what people like to drink in New York (I said whiskey but also gin and mezcal and obviously lots of beer and wine) and I asked him about the idea for this bar.
He also told me that he infuses his own gins, about 10 at a time, but gets the bases from local distilleries like The Kyoto Distillery. I was curious what he would make out of a regular gin and tonic, and he surprised me again, with a G&T made with green tea gin and a nice tonic that I couldn’t make out. The green tea added just a subtle hint of flavor, so it was still instantly recognizable as a gin and tonic, but more complex. We had to get to dinner, but I got his card and thanked Tomo profusely. He seemed genuinely happy that we liked his designs so much, and I told him he should come to New York and bring his cocktails with him.
We got to Giro Giro a few minutes early and were immediately seated at the bar, albeit in the far corner. The place is informal, and I was glad we were seated at the counter instead of the toned down upstairs dining room, even if we were shunted to the corner. I ordered a shiso shochu, which was wonderful and flavorful, and watched the chefs work their magic. The three of them worked in perfect harmony, and Jake and I didn’t talk for a couple minutes as we watched them do their thing.
The first course was a piece of radish tempura with wasabi and snow crab, a nice first bite to whet the appetite. Then the real fun started. The second course was a seasonal plate with 5 bite-sizes dishes: buckwheat soba with salmon roe, a fried oyster with pickled peppers, snow crab mousse, a piece of a sushi roll with squid and mackarel, and tofu mixed with spinach. The snow crab mousse was the real showstopper, but all five were interesting and tasty.
I don’t normally love tasting menus or similarly fussy food. I like a big, juicy steak or a perfectly al dente cacio e pepe. But I couldn’t help myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the 8-course menu at Giro Giro. The chef near us made small talk but eventually warmed up (as much as I think he was capable of) and chatted with us on and off as he gently fried tempura and produced gorgeous rice balls.
The third course was yellowtail sashimi with cooked seaweed, flowers, orange radish, spinach, shiso leaf and a vinegar soy sauce. The sashimi was flavorful, the cooked seaweed was deliciously new, and the flavors mixed together wonderfully. The next course was a butterfish soup, with broccoli rabe, butterfish, thin pickled daikon, lemon, tomato, tofu with scallions, and a heavy, rich broth, that was flavorful and not too fishy. It was soothing and more filling than I expected.
The cook spoke decent English and I asked him for a local sake recommendation. He chose a delicious Danso, and I got to choose a cup to drink out of, one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I was rushed so I quickly decided on a blue cup with a cracked kind of pattern and purple line around the rim. Suffice to say, I was happy with my choice, and the implement truly enhanced the drink.
The fifth course was my favorite: roast beef with kumquats, burdock, micro greens, Japanese sweet potato tempura, pumpkin sauce and spicy yuzu pepper. The yuzu pepper was hot and addictive, the sweet potato was one of the best I’ve ever had, with a deep flavor I can’t exactly explain, and I spent as long as I could savoring each bite.
The following course was smoked tuna topped with vinegar jelly and leafy greens on a bed of sweet onion. I really like tuna in its smoked iteration, and the jelly kept its texture and didn’t soak the greens. The second-to-last course had a grilled rice ball with snapper in a red turnip starch soup (if you can call it that, it was seriously thick and starchy), with a little assortment of pickled veggies on the side to add in.
Last but certainly not least, the waitress brought us tea that I almost thought had bonito flakes in it but was just a really rich tea, and a dessert plate. The dessert was milk bread French toast with white miso ice cream, miso paste, shiso leaf, and one blueberry and one raspberry, topped with cracker pieces. The French toast was soft and chewy and the ice cream went perfectly with it. I even tried the blueberry and raspberry, and didn’t hate them. I wasn’t going to but they seemed firm and fresh and I thought I would try. A momentous occasion, to be sure.
The meal was wonderful and memorable, and the best part was that it didn’t cost a fortune. After dinner, we wandered around for a while trying to find a lively bar, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere worth entering. The nightlife here is really weird, and I can’t quite get a handle on it.I was still a bit hungry (one of the problems with tasting menus), but we ended up just heading back to the hotel and getting to bed, as dinner ended kind of late anyway.
Not full but very satisfied,