Through food hunting, the ancient Kyoto unveiled itself to me. During my two months at Kyoto Consortium of Japanese Studies in the summer of 2016, I encountered a variety of interesting gourmet cuisines in the historical city. These encounters were not only about the food; they epitomized the everyday life of people who consume the food, which I got to personally experience in this riveting cultural capital.
Dining hall at Doshisha University Ryoshin Building: The everyday life of a Japanese university student
Since my Japanese program took place in Doshisha University, I was luckily given the chance to try all the dining halls on campus. Besides tasting magically delicious, the food in these dining halls is also exceptionally affordable; Doshisha’s student card gives a 10 percent discount, but even without it the food would be cheaper than any fast-food chain.
The meals are, as is typical in a college dining hall, simple but delicious. Main dishes include burger meat with rice, a $4 Tataki salmon rice bowl, omelet rice, cheese curry rice, tonkatsu ramen, cold tea soba and udon, tea-soaked rice and so on. There is also a plethora of appetizers and desserts, including candied sweet potato, fried chicken, tofu, matcha cheesecake and much, much more.
The Japanese college life is also shaped by convenience. There are bento stalls outside of most dining halls, where they sell surprisingly tasty rice bowls for students who need to rush to class. Sakura ginger pork slices bowls, beef bowls, fried chicken bowls and omelet bowls all contain extremely high-quality rice paired with savory meat slices. I would buy a lunch bento for around $3, taking it to eat at the table in a classroom, near the garden or even in front of the goldfish pond, while quietly observing how Japanese college students socialize — fascinating, indeed.
Japanese-style Chinese food (Chuuka Ryouri): The life of an assimilated culture
Very much like General Tso’s Chicken in the U.S., the “Chinese dishes” in Japan often sound foreign to those from mainland China. More precisely, those dishes are the Japanese adaptation of Chinese food. These include the infamous hiyashii chuuka (Chinese cold noodles) and Shisenn Ramen (Tzechuan Ramen). The former is adapted from cold noodles in China, with tomatoes, cucumbers, egg rolls, ham slices, soup and mayonnaise mixed together with soy sauce-braised noodles. It doesn’t sound Chinese at all, but it still tastes inextricably refreshing. The latter originates from a type of spicy noodles from Sichuan Province, although the spiciness is greatly reduced. Other Japanese-style Chinese food include Tianjin Rice, which is fried rice and shrimp wrapped up in a layer of omelet and soaked in thick soup. These dishes all have instant food options, which could be purchased at Lawson’s or 7/11 at around $4.
I found it interesting to observe how a certain cuisine evolved and was reinterpreted in another culture’s context, particularly influenced by the latter’s stereotype of the former. For anyone sharing this idiosyncrasy, when in Japan, definitely give Chuuka Ryouri a try.
Shinkansen Bento: The commuting life with Japan’s cold bento culture
With the expansion of megacities, commuting has become a symbol of the modern Japanese life. The shinkansen bento, sold on the Tokyo-Kyoto line, has also symbolized this change. This bento adapts to the local specialty cuisines of the places to which the shinkansen could be traveling. They aren’t cheap — they cost around $10-20 each — but are still worth the experience. Bentos, unlike most traditional Asian foods, are usually cold. This feature eliminates the inconvenience of having to find microwaves and reduces its smell, which may disturb others. Think about how useful this feature is for local students and salarymen or white-collar workers!
Eel bowl by the Kamo River: The vibrant nightlife of this ancient yet modern city
The best place to observe Kyoto’s night view is the breeze-swept balconies of the myriad restaurants by the Kamo River. After wandering around along Gion’s shopping streets, I often crossed the bridge and came to the other side of the Kamo River. On the river bank, there were always many college couples sitting and chatting, as well as tourists and migrant workers. Dusk by the Kamo River is colorful and lively, with the deep indigo blue sky decorated by the flaring lanterns of Gion blinking amidst the bustling streets, engraving in my memories forever the vibrant, classic, everlasting night of Kyoto.
The price of the restaurants in this area tend to be high, and the food itself is not much of a highlight. However, people usually come for the view. Many restaurants host drinking parties for companies nearby, so it was also extremely fascinating to observe the social style of Japanese salarymen in such a place.