Join an intimate, guided shopping trip through the bright chaos of Kyoto’s Nishiki market. Come on an empty stomach, with an open mind prepared to try everything once.
Arigato Japan’s specialty is food. From cooking classes to walking tours, they know how to delight the palate, while making memories. Already a popular choice in Tokyo, they’ve now expanded to Kansai, with several tours in Kyoto and Osaka.
I recently joined their Nishiki Market Day Tour, following the guide as he took us through this inner street in Kyoto with the air of a friend who is excited that you’ve come to visit and keen to show you his favourite spots.
Our guide, Toshi Kanda, is a man of many parts. He has the look of a dapper concierge: his hair cut short but stylishly. He spent years in the southwest of the US, in part following a dream to be a cowboy, and decades shepherding his family cinema business until at 60 he looked for a sea-change away from the stress of management. He carries a canvas bag, and before the tour even starts, he takes from it some presents for us: disposable pocket warmers for us to clutch, and some home-made rice balls to snack on.
Nishiki market is a shotengai, a covered street that runs between a long line of shops. Shotengai are all across Japan and were centres of the community, where friends met and interacted directly with merchants and their products. In modern Japan, most shotengai house more empty, shuttered shops than actives ones. Nishiki, however, is renowned for its fresh food, and is sometimes called the “kitchen of Kyoto”. Chefs mingle with home cooks around the seafood and pickles. Light from the busy shops gives it a golden glow, that is definitely two parts nostalgic, as tour participants enjoy a piece of Japan’s history that is losing out to online shopping.
Toshi began filling his canvas bag with bounty from the market. First salted eggs, fresh from the chicken, and a famous egg roll with dashi seasoning, for later. Sensing we might be hungry already, he found us a table at Kona Monja and served up some tiny donuts, fresh from the oil, and yuba, tofu skin, with a tiny side of wasabi.
We visited a shop selling nothing but chopsticks. All kinds of chopsticks, from all kinds of wood. There were long, pointed ones for delicately pulling fish away from the bones; portable chopsticks that are screwed together; and sets of couple chopsticks for souvenirs or weddings, either traditionally made so the wife’s chopsticks are smaller, or made with modern ideals of equality to be the same size.
Toshi, however, dislikes the term, “chopsticks.”
“They are not chop sticks, they are not for chopping wood. Let’s use the Japanese word, hashi, which means bridge. These are a bridge between you and your food. They are a bridge of life.”
Toshi likes to act as a bridge between people too: between the guests on the tour and Japanese culture; between visiting foreigners and the traditional merchants in Nishiki; and between lost tourists asking for directions and their destination.
“I’m an ambassador.” He laughed, “Though I don’t give out visas.”
Arigato Tours has connections with 12 stores within Nishiki market. We wandered through a second-hand kimono shop; bought knives at Aritsugu, a company that once made samurai swords; got tipsy trying shots of locally made sake; and sampled food almost everywhere we paused, munching on chestnuts, or trying Japanese pepper, while Toshi explained its history and translated questions from the group to the local sellers.
Of course, Nishiki is a shopping street, and people on the tour picked up packets of sesame flakes, yuzu drinking jams, and really sharp knives. For those looking for an experience rather than souvenirs, rest assured that there is no pressure to buy from either the guide or the merchants.
In fact, Toshi bought food for us.
“Do you want to try?” He asked as we paused by a stall selling little octopuses on a stick, legs curled up charmingly, like a lollipop, or a candied apple; and what looked like tiny bats on a stick but was actually sparrow yaki-tori.
“Sure,” Said one of my fellow tour participants, “Try everything once, right?”
“Right! Two please!”
Our chance came at lunch, and while I can recommend the octopus for those who don’t mind a chewy texture, a sparrow is just all bones. Tiny, hollow bones…
Luckily, lunch was Kobe beef, with Kirin beer to wash it down.
“This restaurant really focuses on the ingredients.” Toshi explained, “It’s all local, some of it bought in the market this morning.”
Arigato Japan definitely has focused on the ingredients when making this tour. From a chatty, knowledgeable tour guide, to the perfect balance of delicious food, and once in a lifetime food; experience, history, culture, and shopping.
For more visit their site: Arigato Japan.
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