By Anna Mindess
As my fingers squish the yeasty mulch of rice bran, miso, salted water, seaweed and red peppers according to the instructions of a master pickle maker — who only speaks Japanese — I realize this experience could never happen without a generous group of volunteers, the Kyoto Free Guides, who combine practicing their English with kindly taking tourists to visit the gardens, temples or tearooms of their lovely city.
On a trip to Tokyo with my teenage daughter several years ago, I had discovered the Tokyo Free Guides, who helped us explore Harajuku –– the hip young clothing street for her — and a tucked away gem of a teahouse for me.
This time I’m in Kyoto for two weeks, while my husband is teaching at a university, and I want to appreciate the legendary food of this ancient city, not only by sampling its specialties, but by learning how to make a few of them.
When I contacted Tomoko Yoshihara of the Kyoto Free Guides by email and listed my interest as food, Tomoko was intrigued. Turns out I was the first person to ask about pickle-making or soba-making classes. Tomoko was happy to oblige, as tour guide and translator.
And we begin our day with a pickle-making class at the venerable Kawakatu company — where I happen to be the only student. After salting some daikon, cabbage, eggplant and cucumber, I bury them in my tub of rice bran mush, as directed by the instructor, Mr. Akazawa. He explains that after taking my container home, I should keep it covered, mix up the rice bran mush or nukadoko everyday and specifies how long it will take each veggie to become properly pickled. The problem is that the tub weighs over 10 pounds and there is no way I can lug it around on the bus all day. (Tomoko and I have another class scheduled for the afternoon in wagashi [sweet] making.) No problem, says Mr. Akazawa, Kawakatu will be happy to deliver the tub of pickles to my door tomorrow morning –- and they do.
Before our afternoon class, Tomoko helps me lose my fear of getting lost in Kyoto, as we effortlessly jump on one bus after another. After a simple lunch, she takes me on a side trip to see a kimono fashion show at a textile center (plus some wiggly silkworms).
In the wagashi-making class, we learn how to encase a marble of red bean paste with pearly white mochi (it’s harder than it looks). Since it’s Springtime, we press the mochi ball with a spiral form to leave a circular imprint that we accent with a tiny pink petal. Tomoko says this represents a fallen cherry blossom in a pool of water. We sample our sweets the traditional way: with a bowl of matcha green tea.
Traveling around Kyoto with Tomoko is a delight, not only because of her GPS-like knowledge of the city, but in the quality of our conversations. As strangers, who may never see each other again, there is a safety that allows for instant intimacy. (Not easy to achieve in a country with the proverb Iwanu ga hana, means “Not-speaking is the flower” or “Silence is golden”.) We easily chat about our families, our frustrations and hopes and bid each other warm good-byes.
A few days later, I meet another Kyoto Free Guide, Ririko Yoneda at Nishiki Market, a long covered hall whose sides are lined with fish sellers, pickle peddlers, dried fruit dealers, and tofu vendors, many offering free samples. It’s the best place to savor the range of Kyoto’s locally produced fabulous foodstuffs. As we stroll down the market aisle, ogling its wares, I am thankful that Ririko has thoughtfully prepared a mini-dictionary so she can answer my inevitable “What’s that?” with the appropriate “conger eel” or “turban-shell”.
Then we head to a restaurant where we cook our lunch of okonomiyaki on a hot grill. It’s a thick pancake made of cabbage, egg, ginger, green onions, flour and your choice of meat.
After lunch, Ririko and I take an old-fashioned tram to a little soba shop run by Mr. Umehara, who gives me a lesson in making these famous buckwheat noodles. Although Ririko is a fine interpreter, the young soba chef and I find that words are not really necessary, as I attempt to copy his movements mixing, kneading and rolling out the stiff dough. He charmingly resorts to drawing in the flour to explain that my circle needs to become a square and then a long rectangle. Not surprisingly, it requires a lot of muscle. The hardest part is cutting the noodles into uniform skinny strips with a huge, heavy knife, an art that I gather takes months or years to master. After my labors, Ririko and I enjoy a plate of cold cooked soba noodles that we dip into a sauce enlivened with wasabi and green onions. Then Mr. Umehara brings over a pitcher of milky liquid. Ririko explains that this is yu, the cooking liquid from the soba noodles. We pour a generous amount into our dipping sauce bowls and the resulting soup is the perfect capper to our afternoon soba snack.
And at the end of the day, as Ririko sees me back to my tram stop, she offers to come with me to the market so I can get the necessary ingredients to enjoy my soba noodles at home.
Kyoto Free Guides is more than just a wonderful free service to help foreigners get to know the beautiful city of Kyoto. The personal touches, thoughtfulness and generosity of its guides allow for discussions of cultural comparison that foreigners rarely get to engage in with host nationals.
Tomoko and I actually forged such a bond that we have kept in touch. When I started collecting food idioms for a blog post detailing food idioms in a dozen languages, she generously supplied me with a few in Japanese:
Sansho ha kotsubu de piririto karai, Sansho (a Japanese pepper) is small, but hot enough = Even though a person is very small, if they are cheerful and have talent, you can’t ignore them.
Mochi ha mochi ya, Rice cake, rice cake maker = Each field has an expert.
Tomoko recently informed me that she has achieved her dream of becoming a licensed tour guide. She still works with Kyoto Free Guides, but if you want something more extensive, please see her website: Kyoto Private Tour Guides
About the Author:
Anna Mindess writes about her passion for exploring the connection between food and culture in her blog, East Bay Ethnic Eats. She is also a frequent contributor to KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Oakland Magazine, Berkeleyside.com and other local publications. She lives in Berkeley with her husband.
Photos courtesy of Anna Mindess