Culinary Kansai: Best eats in Japan

Kani Doraku's iconic giant crab billboard in Dotonburi.

Kansai is the cultural and gastronomical heart of Japan. The old imperial capitals of Kyoto and Nara were where a delicate and refined court cuisine evolved, and in the port cities of Osaka and Kobe, innovative merchants combined foreign culinary habits with Japan's rich gastronomical culture.

Dotonburi

We began our foodie tour in Osaka, Japan's second largest city and business centre. In Dotonburi, a precinct of bright neon lights and covered food streets, tourists, salarymen and young punks rub shoulders and enjoy good food.

Kani Doraku's (http://douraku.co.jp) iconic giant crab and its moving mechanical arms caught our attention and before long, we were enjoying a kaiseki (multiple course haute cuisine set) of Hokkaido crab prepared in a variety of styles - sashimi, sushi, grilled, dumpling, soup, chawanmushi and more. And there is the orangey crab roes which you either love or hate. This was followed by cream cakes and coffee in a make-believe world of retro nostalgia, at American, a café with exuberant vintage 1950s décor.

For the adventurous seeking a numbing kick, the area has one of the highest concentration of puffer fish restaurants in Japan.

If you are seeking simple good old ramen with delicious pork broth, look out for the simple eatery with a huge green dragon above (Kinryu Ramen, 50m east from Kani Doraku). Alternatively, head for Yoshibei (http://yoshibei.co.jp), which is near Nankai Namba station and not far away, for what some claim to be the best katsudon restaurants in Osaka.

Kobe

The port city of Kobe is a 30-minute train ride away from Osaka. Every Osaka visitor comes here for the legendary Kobe beef, supposedly from Tajima-gyu breed virgin cows (or castrated bulls) which are fed beer, massaged daily and to strains of classical music. The virgin's sacrifice would cost you at least 6,000 yen (S$74) but promises fine marbled beef that melts in your mouth.

Many fine Kobe beef restaurants are found along Kitanozaka Ave. Reservations are necessary, particularly during weekends. Head for the award-winning Kawamura (http://bifteck.co.jp/en/index.html) or the nearby branches of Ishida (http://kobe-ishidaya.com).

Head uphill to the Kitano area, which used to be an enclave of foreign merchants and consulates, and is now a pleasant district of nice cafés and dessert shops. Try the popular ice cream and cheesecakes made by Kobe Rokko dairy farm (http://rokkobokujyo.com), located in the pastures in the northern plateau of Kobe prefecture.

From Osaka, we hopped on to the train across the green countryside of Nara prefecture to the highland town of Yoshino, which is famous for sakura viewing every April. The historic temples of Yoshino are also part of the Unesco World Heritage Site known as the "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range".

We spent one night at Sakoya (http://www.sakoya.co.jp), a family-run historic inn established 280 years ago. We soaked ourselves in the in-house onsen (hot springs) before an elaborate kaiseiki dinner. A night here costs 18,000 yen per person. Meals are included and we got very spacious rooms with private views of the beautiful verdant hills.

Have kakinoha (a kind of pressed sushi wrapped with persimmon leaves unique to Nara prefecture), green bean pastries and green tea at one of the many teahouses that face the pagodas and serene green hills of the Kii range.

Kyoto

Head for Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan, which was the imperial capital from 794 A.D. to 1868.

Kyoto is also one of the world's great food capitals. Kyo-ryori (Kyoto Cuisine) is the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine.

A Kyo-ryori kaiseki comprises a dozen or more courses of the most intricate and beautifully crafted small dishes aimed at showcasing the natural taste of seasonal ingredients and are prepared delicately using innovative methods. A set dinner costs between 10,000 and 35,000 yen while most of these establishments also provide bento lunch for 4,000 yen.

Look for these restaurants at Kawaramachi, Karasuma and Gion areas, especially the narrow Ponto-cho dori and nearby Kiyamachi-dori. Parts of Gion can be seedy, but establishments along the main canal in Gion are where you can spot the traditional geishas.

During summer, many restaurants along the eastern side of Ponto-cho dori offer kawa-yuka, which are open-air dining platforms built over the running river water.

Kawa-yuka in Kibune, one hour to the north of Kyoto, is even more atmospheric as one literally sits on small platforms placed over shallow mountain streams.

Visit Unesco-listed Tenryu-ji Temple (http://www.tenryuji.com) in the western suburbs of Kyoto. Enjoy the temple's world famous vegetarian cuisine in simple but dignified dining rooms next to the elegant traditional garden and ponds. The imaginatively prepared courses cost between 3,000 and 8,500 yen. After lunch, one can explore the Arashimaya district, in particular, the famous bamboo grove to the north of the temple, and have heavenly macha ice cream shake in one of the many cafés nearby.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies to Osaka's Kansai International Airports twice daily and Jetstar flies the same route four times a week.

All the cities in the Kansai region are well-connected by national and regional railways, and Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto have extensive subway systems. The Kansai Thru Pass, which comes in 2- or 3-day versions (at 3,800 and 5,000 yen respectively), allows easy unlimited transfers on many of the local railways, subways and buses.

TRAVELLER'S TIPS

The standard of most food establishments in Japan is high. If the well-known restaurants you want to visit are full, you can usually find fairly high quality offerings as well nearby.

The best time to visit Yoshino is during the cherry blossoms (sakura) season in April. The inns in Yoshino tend to be fully booked by the previous December. Do make your reservations early.

The temples of Kyoto are serene and elegant places for quiet contemplation. Be respectful and avoid speaking loudly during your visit.

The Kansai region is home to five World Heritage Sites: Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area, Himeji Castle, Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, and Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto alone comprises 17 separate monuments.

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