A soft serve cone covered in edible gold leaf?! You bet we ate one. Cos if you're gonna add bling to your street snacks, it may as well be the 24 karat kind. It's no coincidence we found this beauty in Kanazawa which translates as "marsh of gold" in Japanese. They've been making gold leaf here since the late 1500s. Today the city is responsible for 99% of all gold leaf produced in Japan. The gold leaf that covers the famous Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion in Kyoto was sourced from Kanazawa.
Our trip to Kanazawa only took thirty minutes from Toyama. You can get there from Tokyo in about 2.5 hours thanks to the newly extended shinkansen, or bullet train, route. Before the Hokuriku Shinkansen commenced in March this year, the journey to Kanazawa from Tokyo took over four hours and at least one train change. It's a huge leap forward for tourists to what has long been considered one of of Japan's secret treasures.
Fishmonger at Omicho Market
Our first stop in any city is always the local market. Omicho Market is huge with about 200 stalls undercover. Peaked skylights overhead give a sense of the outdoors while providing cover. The market has a long history behind it. The original Omicho Market commenced trading in the mid-1700s.
Most stalls focus on fresh produce. There's a dazzling array of fresh seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables. The place is teeming with tourists by midday.
There are plenty of locals that shop here too. Stall holders are adept at dealing with both.
Prawns with roe
We're immediately drawn to the sight of prawns with visible stockpiles of roe.
Eating fresh seafood at the markets
Your hotel or ryokan may not have a kitchen, but the great thing we discover at Omicho Market is the number of seafood stalls that will sell you items to eat - raw or cooked - on the spot.
Skewered prawns for grilling 500yen / AU$5.50 for two
It means a visit to the market immediately turns into a seafood crawl, our eyes darting from one stall to the next as we're tempted by a non-stop array of snacks.
Extra large scallops the size of an iPhone
Extra large scallops are so huge they look cartoon-sized. We have to hold up an iPhone next to them to get a sense of scale.
Blowtorching the steamed scallops
Scallops this size can't be passed up. We join the gaggle of tourists and add our order. They're steamed for a minute or a two in a huge bamboo basket, then blowtorched under a watchful eye until they brown at the edges.
Steamed and blowtorched giant scallops 600yen or about AU$6.60
The scallops are presented whole, complete with roe. You need at least four bites to get through this, a tricky operation given the disposable chopsticks provided. It almost feels like a meal in itself. The disc of scallop flesh at the centre is the grand prize. It's luxuriously tender and sweet.
Botan ebi prawns with roe
A few stalls along we spy botan ebi, or spot prawns, swollen with a precious carriage of eggs in pale blue.
Sashimi prawn with roe 350yen / AU$3.80 each
They'll peel the prawns for you to eat on the spot, the crystal pink prawns yielding a sticky sweetness that's accented by a gentle splash of soy. The huddle of prawn eggs have a salty edge. The texture is what makes these so memorable, these perfect spheres rolling around your tongue until you claim each one with a pop.
Oysters? They've got 'em here by the truckload. They're magnificent specimens that loom large on beds of ice.
Watching these being shucked is a performance in itself. The bivalves are expertly prised open with efficiency and minimal fuss.
Removing the oyster from the shell
Rinsing the oyster in water
Always a fan of au naturel, I ask if I can have my oyster unrinsed so that I can relish the natural seawater within. The staff are aghast at the thought. "No rinse, no eat!" the man declares with stern authority. They laugh among themselves at the ludicrous suggestion.
Raw oyster 1,000 yen or about AU$11
and uni sea urchin roe 800 yen or about AU$8.80
My iPhone 6 is about the same size as the oyster, thrust toward me with a smile. It's a beautiful beast that is creamier than we expect. There's still good flavour within it too, even with the mandatory baptism in water.
Fresh sea urchin
I can't resist the fresh sea urchin either, eaten straight out of the shell. The petals almost quiver with butteriness, almost collapsing at first contact with your tongue.
Fresh bamboo shoots
We end up stopping at Omicho Market every day we're in Kanazawa. It's constantly busy with people and each visit, we always discover something new.
Rockmelon juice served in the melon itself 1,000 yen / AU$11
The fresh juices served in the original fruit are oh so cute, although even we can't bring ourselves to pay AU$11 for a liquefied miniature rockmelon!
Deep fried frogs legs
Sushi counter at Uouma inside Omicho Market
Within the market are various small restaurants including ramen, udon and sushi. We pick Uouma based on the theory that a queue of locals outside is a reliable endorsement.
The restaurant is a cosy set-up of six stools around the sushi counter and two larger tables that seat 12 people at most. We end up waiting about thirty minutes for a seat.
Kaisendon sashimi on rice 1400 yen / AU$15.40
Kaisendon is the main drawcards here, big bowls of sushi rice with an assortment of sashimi laid over the top. It's like a deconstructed sushi bowl, where you get to control the amount of rice you have with or between each slippery slice of sushi.
Sushi combination 1800 yen / AU$19.80
The brief menu includes a couple of sushi board options too, starting at about AU$20 for 9 pieces with nigiri sushi with six mini sushi rolls.
Toro tuna belly on the deluxe sushi combination board 3100 yen / AU$34
I went with the most expensive dish on the menu, a thirteen-piece extravaganza for AU$34 that still seemed reasonable given the seafood included.
Ama ebi or spot prawn with roe nigiri sushi
I don't really know where to start at first, like a kid in a candy store with a selection I want to simultaneously eat everything all at once as well as savour each one slowly. I meander my way through firm slices of plump salmon, a thick slab of toro tuna belly in the palest shade of pink, and a curl of raw spot prawn that sang with sweetness.
Nodoguro blackthroat sea perch nigiri sushi
"Nodoguro," whispers the waitress as she motions towards one specific piece of sushi. The blackthroat sea perch (also known as a rosy sea perch) is an elusive and prized sea creature, adored by the Japanese for its fatty and tender flesh. It's a treat to try this hard-to-find fish.
The sushi rice, too, is well formed and perfectly seasoned.
Crab with mustard battleship sushi
A trio of gunkan-maki or battleship sushi carries three of my favourite cargo. Sea urchin has a briny creaminess and the glistening orbs of salmon roe provide bursts of pleasure but my highlight is the crab, smeared with its own guts or crab mustard, that gives a thrilling hit of pure crab intensity. It's just like sucking a prawn head - all the goodness is in the guts.
Queuing customers outside Uouma
Sweet potato soft serve 350 yen / AU$3.85
And there's time for a soft serve at the markets too. The sweet potato soft serve is impressively smooth. There isn't a strong taste of sweet potato, but it melts on the tongue like a dream, piled up high in a waffle cone with plenty of crunch.
Pork cutlet curry with udon noodles 930 yen / AU$10.20
Lunch on another day finds us slurping down udon in a basement of a major shopping centre.
Paper bibs for splash insurance
We love how they provided paper bibs for everyone ordering the curry udon, a lake of sweet Japanese curry crowned with a juicy crumbed pork cutlet deep-fried until golden.
Pork cutlet over rice with cold udon noodle set 950 yen / AU$10.45
If Japanese curry isn't your style, you can still pig out on katsudon, the pork cutlet laid on a bowl of steamed rice and then draped with a sweet and salty mixture of egg and dashi stock that's immediately comforting.
Cold udon noodles
A side serve of cold udon noodles - ready for dipping in a mild sweet soy - makes for a carb-o-licious set meal.
Tonkotsu ramen 680 yen / AU$7.50
One cold night we're drawn into the warm inviting booths at Musashimaru Ramen. The tonkotsu broth is just what we need to warm our toes, the rich pork broth topped with pork slices, a boiled egg, fish cake and pickled bamboo shoots.
Gyoza 500 yen / AU$5.50 for ten
The gyoza here prove to be some of the finest specimens we encounter during our trip, their lacy edges extending like a fancy doily.
Underneath the golden blanket is a silky dumpling skin, wrapped around a huddle of seasoned pork mince.
Clam ramen with extra butter 896 yen / AU$9.85
I go with the clam ramen that evening, a clear seafood stock packed with clams that are plump and juicy. Requesting an extra pat of butter feels mandatory.
The noodles are noticeably thicker here, almost square if you examine them head-on. They hold up well against the flavoursome stock. It's a terrific dish overall, resplendent with fresh clams, a slick of butter and finely chopped shallots that bring everything together.
Sushi boxes at the department store food hall in the basement
We stalk the local department store food hall, marvelling at the wall of sushi bento boxes that start from AU$5. If you head to these basement floors in the early evening, most of these will be reduced to half price. We ended up having several supper time sushi parties courtesy of end-of-day bargains.
Fried school prawns
Marbled wagyu AU$275 per kg
The meat cabinets are another world of marbled beef glory too.
Karaage fried chicken delivery bike for Koozzy's in Kanazawa
I was more than a little excited to find a bike with karaage, or fried chicken, number plates. We made a mental note to order delivered fried chicken from Koozzy's but unfortunately ran out of time and stomach space.
Bikkle yoghurt drink by Suntory
And our stalking of Japan's ubiquitous vending machines - they're everywhere - unveiled Bikkle, a yoghurt drink similar in taste to Yakult but with less of a cloying sweetness.
One of the many bridges over the Asanogawa River in Kanazawa
We walked everywhere in Kanazawa, taking in the bridges over the Asanogawa River...
Myoryuji commonly known as Ninjadera or Ninja Temple
and visiting Myoruji, more often called the Ninja Temple. No ninjas ever lived here, but the myriad of secret security measures at this Buddhist temple originally built for Lord Maeda Toshiie, gave rise to the ninja-associated nickname.
The building itself is a tour of clever deception and ingenuity, including hidden additional floors, secret staircases and doorways, sliding doors with hiding places and booby traps for unwanted visitors.
The tour is hosted by Japanese guides but folders with photos and English translations of what the guide is explaining are provided. Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside either.
We also end up at Kanazawa Castle.
The former moat of Kanazawa Castle
The castle was first built in 1580 but has been destroyed and reconstructed seven times since then.
Kimonos in the garden
Adjacent to the castle grounds is Kenrokuen, once the private garden for Kanazawa Castle but now a sprawling 11-hectare estate that is today regarded as one of the top three gardens in all of Japan.
Soft serve machine
There's a modest entry fee to enter the garden (about AU$3.50). There's also a souvenir shop before you enter where we're immediately distracted by the promise of soft serves.
Green tea and vanilla swirl soft serve 400 yen / AU$4.40
The oldest fountain in Japan, built in 1861. The fountain uses natural water pressure from the Kasumigaike (Misty Pond) up the hill
Kenrokuen has been cleverly landscaped so there is always something to admire regardless of the season. The grounds are big enough so there's always somewhere quiet to escape the crowds, and the design and details are beautifully harmonious and well-considered.
The teahouse on Hisagoike Pond
Kenrokuen garden originated around Hisagoike Pond
Kasumigaike Pond. The centre island represents perpetual youth and longevity.
Paths and greenery
Sakura cherry blossoms
We spot our first sakura or cherry blossoms here. The cherry blossoms arrived two weeks earlier than normal this year, so we're excited to catch sight of these still in bloom.
Sakura cherry blossoms hang downward
Sakura cherry blossom soft serve 500 yen / AU$5.50
And then we find sakura, or cherry blossom soft serves! They have real cherry blossom petals embedded in the soft serve, adding a subtle complexity of slightly bitter cherry flavour with a touch of cinnamon.
Sakura cherry blossoms in pink and white
Ryokan kaiseki dinner
If you do get the chance, it's worth staying at a traditional ryokan during your time in Japan. We stayed at Nakayasu Ryokan for three nights, sleeping on traditional futon mats that were rolled out for us each night. We had a private bathroom but I ended up using the shared onsen bathrooms. You wash yourself using a hand-held shower hose while sitting on a stool and then soak in a shared hot tub afterwards for complete relaxation. This is all done in a communal bathroom (male and female facilities are separated), butt naked with whoever happens to be in there at the same time. The initial terror is eclipsed once you get into the hot tub. The water temperature is perfect, and all your muscles relax into putty.
But it's the kaiseki meals that are the best part about staying at a ryokan. It feels like a royal feast with seasonal dishes served on a never-ending parade of exquisite crockery. Our breakfast was included each morning and we opted for two dinners during our three-night stay.
DINNER DAY ONE
Our group scores a private dining room for meals, accessed by a sliding door after you remove your shoes. The first dinner is an eye-popping extravaganza that included whelks (tender with a gentle chew), sweet crab and more of that amazing hotaru ika or firefly squid served with a zingy mustard sauce.
Hotaru ika firefly squid with mustard
Jibuni, a local specialty stew made with chicken, shiitake and bamboo simmered in dashi
Beef and vegetable hotpot cooked at the table
The majority of dishes are cold but there's always one component that is cooked at the table. We have a beef and vegetable hotpot on the first night, the waft of caramelising onions making us even hungrier as we ate our meal.
Cooked beef, onion, carrot and broccoli
Clear consomme with prawn ball
The surprise highlight is the consomme, beautifully clear and pure in taste, with a fragrant prawn ball floating in the middle.
BREAKFAST DAY TWO
Breakfast Japanese-style with fried mackerel
A traditional Japanese breakfast usually involves fish, rice, pickles and seaweed sheets. The inclusion of fresh fruit is a welcome addition. We relish the fatty slab of mackerel and admire the textural contrast of simmered tofu skins with sticky mountain yams and the wobbly chew of konnyaku jelly.
Mountain yams, rolled tofu and konnyaku jelly
BREAKFAST DAY THREE
Japanese breakfast with grilled salmon
The next morning's breakfast features a slab of grilled salmon, simmered lotus roots and fish cakes.
The low set table and hard-backed chairs
Fish cakes, lotus roots and simmered tofu
Umeboshi pickled plums and vegetables
DINNER DAY THREE
The dinner spread
Our final dinner includes crab gratin, sashimi and grilled golden eye rockfish. Dressing in our yukata robes for dinner is half the fun.
Crab gratin, beef nabemono, grilled yanagibachime fish and dried fish snacks
Beef nabemono is tonight's hot dish, a tasty mix of tender beef slices simmered with an assortment of enoki, shiitake and chestnut mushrooms.
Grilled yanagibachime or golden eye rockfish
BREAKFAST DAY FOUR
Japanese breakfast with grilled hachime fish
We're sad to leave on the last morning, commemorated with grilled hachime fish, more fish cakes and sweetened honey beans that I enjoy eating one by one.
Grilled hachime fish, similar to cod
Higashi Chaya District
Kimonos in the old district of Higashi Chaya
We also go hunting for geisha in the old district of Higashi Chaya, the former tea house area where geisha - known in Kanazawa at geiko-san - can still be seen.
Teahouses by the river
Many of the tea houses have been converted into tourist spots and souvenir shops, but if you squint your eyes and ignore the crowds you could almost imagine the sound of wooden geta shoes clip-clopping their way past in days gone by.
Former chaya or tea houses where geisha used to entertain guests
Bamboo shutters that prevent passersby seeing in
We don't spot any real geisha, even when we return later than evening, but we do hear music and the tinkle of laughter from a few houses. The bamboo shutters maintain complete privacy so we can't see in.
Soft serve with gold leaf 891 yen / $AU9.80
But we do cave in and order a gold leaf soft serve at a store aimed squarely at tourists. It's a tremendous sight to behold, especially when the carefully applied gold leaf sheet starts to pucker from the moisture of the soft serve, tightening around the curves of each swirl.
Every passerby stops to stare at the glittery sheen. We can barely believe the luxurious sight that's about to be eaten ourselves. And you know what? It was amazing. The gold leaf is more about visuals than taste - the gold leaf just dissolves on the tongue without any flavour - but the soft serve itself is a wonder of incredible creaminess. It's smooth and silky and intensely milky.
Kanazawa. Thank you. You were a wondrous treasure indeed.
>> Read the next Japan 2015 post: Nagano snow monkeys
<< Read the first Japan 2015 post: Toyama black ramen and firefly squid
Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate > Tokyo
Musashimaru Ramen ラーメン武蔵丸
34-2 Shimotsutsumicho, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
+81 (076) 232 2234
Open Monday to Saturday 11am-3pm and 5pm-11pm, Sunday 11am-9pm
50, Kami-omicho, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
Stalls open approximately 9am-5pm (many closed on Wednesday)
Market map in English
Uouma at Omicho Market 魚旨
19-3 Shimotsutsumicho, Omicho Market, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
1 Kenrokumachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
Tel: +81 (076) 234 3800
Open 7 days 8am-5pm (7am-6pm March to October 15)
Entry fee: 310 yen
Myoryuji 妙立寺 also known as Ninjadera or Ninja Temple
1 Chome-2-12 Nomachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
Open 7 days 9am-4.30pm (4pm in winter)
Entry fee: 800 yen
Reservations required on Tel: +81 (076) 241 0888
1 Chome-10-31 Owaricho, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture 920-0902, Japan
Tel: +81 (076) 231 3128
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5/31/2015 03:03:00 am