Japan during the Cherry Blossom festival is marvelous. If you cannot get there during cherry blossom time, there are still dozens of places to visit and things to do to make your Japanese adventure a memorable one. Along your planned stops, make sure you stop at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. It is an amazing little open air market that you absolutely should see. Here is why.
In the heart of Kyoto, Japan, there is a section of five street blocks set aside for this open air market. If you could picture a farmer’s market Japanese style, that is what you would find here. There are dozens and dozens of shops selling fresh produce, fresh seafood, fresh meats, and freshly made food to purchase and consume as you walk.
If you want a little more of the exotic, you can even try things like fried and skewered scorpions, or some really ancient and traditional dishes with ingredients that are considered “delicacies” by the Japanese people. You can also buy fresh flowers (when in season), and many different Japanese-made products like cosmetics, perfumes, purses, home décor, etc. Most people who come to the market make a complete day of it, and then take home fresh ingredients to make dinner in the evening.
This Kyoto market is almost as old as the city itself. It is currently celebrating its seven-hundred-tenth anniversary, being open and in operation for seven centuries. Some of the oldest shops and oldest families operating those shops have been inside Nishiki Market almost since its inception.
With over a hundred shops and restaurants, you can understand why there are no set hours for everyone to be open and available to the public. Some keep their own hours and set times based on traditional mealtimes in Japan. Others may open their shops at the “recommended” hours of nine in the morning until six in the evening, closing only on Wednesdays.
What to eat
There is so much food cooking and being served, as well as food prepared ahead, it may be difficult to choose just one thing to consume. However, if you make a full day of your visit, you can easily choose two things on which to snack, and two full courses (if not three!) to purchase and eat. Without a doubt, try some of the following things.
Wagashi are Japanese sweets, encompassing ice cream and mochi, or sweetened soybean paste in cake form. A particular ice cream flavor that everyone loves is the honey flavor. It is sweet and light, and you can taste the honey on the back palate. Another favorite is the black sesame soft serve. It is a very strange color and texture for ice cream, but it is surprisingly good. Red bean paste mochi are the favorite treat for Japanese children.
Baby Octopus on a Stick
It sounds weird and even looks a little creepy, but these tiny little octopi are fried to a tender crisp and chew up easily. If you love calamari, you will like these snacks. Some are also stuffed with a boiled quail’s egg, in case you want something a little more “breakfast-y”.
Dashimaki and Tofu Donuts
If you get to the market bright and early and you have not eaten breakfast yet, spring for the dashimaki and tofu donuts. Dashimaki is eggs turned into a loaf combined with the soup stock of most Japanese dishes. The soup stock adds a lot of flavor to what would ordinarily be a loafed egg omelet. The tofu donut is a light, sweet pastry that caps things off right. In Japan, drink tea, not coffee, if you do not want to offend your cooks.
The Japanese have been pickling meats, vegetables, and other edible items for a long time. Their method of preserving food by pickling creates a more unique pickling flavor you cannot get anywhere else. Rice vinegar is the main ingredient, which is nothing like the vinegar used by Germans and other Europeans for pickling.
Without a doubt, you have to visit the Aritsugu shop. It is four-hundred-fifty years old, and it makes the finest knives and swords in all of Japan. Once commissioned to make swords for the Japanese Emperors, shoguns, and Samurai, this family-owned business now makes beautiful weapons and cutlery for the public. While you cannot bring them home in your carry-on, you can ship home whatever you buy.
Don’t forget to stop at shops selling the finest silks and silk kimonos, Japanese parasols, and a variety of perfumes, purses, and leather goods. You can find something for everyone you know at this Kyoto market. If you are not shopping for others, you can buy a lot more for yourself, since most items are quite affordable by American pricing standards.