This is the sixth post in the Tokyo - Kyoto - Osaka series. Other posts in this series include the intro post: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, Matsugen (soba), Sushi Iwa, and Ramen Honda (Tokyo Ramen Street), and Ryugin.
The first time I ever visited Kyoto was in high school with my mom and my sister. I don't remember too much from that trip except for a few things.
1. It cost a lot of money to visit each of the temples, so we limited ourselves to just a handful
2. There was a cool looking temple covered in gold that was worth the 500 yen entrance fee
3. We dressed up in yukata (Japanese robes) and stayed in a ryokan (Japanese traditional inn)
I had absolutely no recollection of the food.
Obviously I had to rectify that on this second trip.
In a lot of ways, Kyoto feels like a completely different world than Tokyo. Instead of the bright lights, crowded streets, and ultra-modern technology that define Tokyo, stunning Japanese gardens and beautiful temples are heart and soul of Kyoto.
It's a zen oasis away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
This ancient city was the capital of imperial Japan for over a thousand years. It is richly full of the history that made it what it is today.
There are countless temples, shrines, and gardens to visit in Kyoto. The Japanese are meticulous about keeping these historic buildings and the surrounding grounds immaculate.
It is a pleasure to visit these beautiful, extremely well-kept grounds.
One of the most famous sites in Kyoto is Ginkaku-ji, or Temple of the Silver Pavilion. Originally built as a place for the Shogun to rest, this Zen temple is most famous for its elaborate sand gardens (pictured above) and the famous two-story temple.
Yoshimasa, the shogun who built this temple, had intended for it to be covered in silver foil. However, due to various delays in construction (partly due to a war, among other things), Yoshimasa died without ever seeing it completed. The temple still stands today in that unfinished state.
A popular place to have lunch while visiting Ginkaku-ji is Omen, a fantastic, reasonably priced udon restaurant that is a super short walk away from the zen temple. I would recommend making a reservation, since lines can get very long during lunchtime (see photo above!).
We made reservations through our hotel. Although there was a bit of a mix-up when we first arrived (we were told after showing up that the restaurant did not take reservations), we eventually found someone who spoke better English who also was able to confirm our reservation.
Omen has all sorts of udon as well as appetizers on the menu.
We decided to start with a fun mochi appetizer, which consisted of three different kinds of mochi on a stick. My memory is starting to escape me, but I believe the one on the left was black sesame was a savory, red miso paste; the middle one was topped with white miso, and the right one was a green tea mochi with the same red miso.
We also enjoyed tiny, tiny potatoes on a toothpick as well as a maple leaf shaped rice cake.
Of course, the star of the show is the udon. You can choose warm or cold noodles, depending on the weather outside and what you feel like. All the components of an udon dish are served separately.
Separating the noodles from the soup is an especially good idea because the noodles don't get soggy too quickly.
Roasted sesame seeds are provided along with a mortar & pestle, allowing you to grind them and add them to your soup as you like.
Their signature dish, the Omen Udon, is actually a vegetarian dish that consists of udon (warm or cold), a soy-based dipping broth, and an assortment of local, seasonal Kyoto vegetables that are either boiled or pickled. On my plate, I had boiled eggplant, scallions, Japanese ginger, ginger, cabbage, daikon, and burdock (gobo).
Bryan ordered a Roasted Duck Udon, which came with three slices of perfectly cooked duck as well as a hot soy based broth filled with scallions (see above picture). The flavors were fine, though this one did not particularly stand out.
My personal favorite broth of the night came with an autumn special, Matsutake, a gorgeously fragrant mushroom that is only available in the fall. Because matsutake mushrooms are so expensive, this bowl was significantly more expensive than all the other dishes (closer to $30 versus the others, which were in the $12 - $15 range).
Oh but it was so worth it.
Looking back at all the ways in which I enjoyed matsutake mushrooms during our trip, I think this particular preparation was one of my favorites. It really brought out the umami and richness of the matsutake mushroom flavors into the broth. I felt like I was making the most of the mushrooms by enjoying their delicious flavors continually with each spoonful of soup.
My friend ordered the Tempura Udon which came with a side of vegetable and shrimp tempura. It was good, but again nothing particularly over the top compared to top tempura places. Of course, the noodles themselves were still fantastic.
All in all, we had a fantastic meal at Omen and the total bill was quite reasonable. I think we spent around $85 for a party of four, which isn't too bad considering the quality of the food, the fun ambiance, and the proximity to one of the biggest tourist sites in Kyoto.
It's not a surprise at all that this place is so popular.
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