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The ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto, was spared from the second world war bombings and has managed to preserve this fascinating country’s history which stretches back thousands of years: even today, “the city of a thousand temples” presents a mix of modernity and tradition which makes it an irresistible destination for tourists from all over the world. And right in the old city centre, close to Shijo Dori (Shijo Street), just a few steps away from the banks of the river Kamogawa and the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace, since 1310 the Nishiki Market (also known as Kyoto's Kitchen), has occupied a narrow covered city street that crosses 5 blocks and comprises 130 stalls of food specialities and examples of local craftsmanship.
Despite being visited every day by thousands of people, the Nishiki Market in Kyoto offers a relaxing atmosphere that is far removed from the common perception of markets as being noisy and chaotic places; its delicate colours, goods neatly arranged on the stalls, the patterns of fabrics used for making up kimonos and the sound of precious knife blades as they hiss on the grinder are sensations that accompany visitors along this long passageway, offering an authentic experience for the eye, nose and palate.
Yes, indeed, because apart from the various restaurants serving varieties of traditional food (from the Emperors’ aristocratic cuisine called Kayseki Ryori, to the vegetarian Shojin Ryori of Buddhist monks), there are also numerous stalls which prepare street food and simple dishes of Obanzai home cooking. Most of the traders will be delighted to offer you free tastes of Tsukemono, the popular and delicious pickles of Kyoto, containing daikon, ginger, onion and several types of cabbage and root vegetables; but you will also get to taste ice-creams made from soya aromatized with matcha tea, black edamame and numerous spices such as Schichimi, in actual fact a mix of seven different spices and, naturally, many varieties of fresh or dried fish and sushi.
Of the various stalls, all numbered according to their place in the market, here are some which offer delicious and unusual food: stall 50, at Konnamonja’s, you can enjoy fragrant tofu doughnuts served piping hot in a cornet. Chuo Beikoku, at stall no. 107, sells uncooked rice from the most economical to the most expensive and refined qualities. Here you can also buy some excellent o-nigiri, steamed rice balls covered with nori (seaweed) or sesame seeds. Pop some in your backpack to eat later as a snack during your visit to the temples or enjoy them on the spot at the back of the stall washed down with some hot Japanese tea. Right next door, at Kanematsu’s stall 108, you will encounter the atmosphere of a luxurious vegetable concept-store where you can buy precious “matsutake” mushrooms but watch your pennies: these mushroom, which only grow in the pine forests of Japan, cost around 20,000 (yes, twenty thousand!) dollars a kilo.
At stall 49, run by Fuka, taste the Yuba skewers also known as tofu-skin or the Fu: little grilled morsels of wheat gluten aromatized with seasonal fruit and served with sweet miso. Motchisukiya at stall 99 is the paradise of mochi: sweet or savoury, grilled or served in soup, these glutinous rice balls are packed with the flavour of traditional Japanese food. Before leaving the market, treat yourself to a shopping spree at Yamadashiya: follow the aroma of roasted tea leaves as far as stall 16, and select a “genmaicha” green tea tossed with popcorn bits, so that you can share a whiff of Kyoto’s fragrance with your friends back home.