KYOTO, July 9 — With many temples, shrines and other landmarks being declared Unesco World Heritage sites, Kyoto is a haven for history and culture buffs. Of course, the influx of tourists also means enjoying most of these heritage sites can be quite a challenge unless you don’t mind braving the crowds.
Or, if you prefer a more relaxing experience, why not head out of the city centre and into the outskirts for a different side of Kyoto? How about a walkabout in north-east Kyoto where, instead of tourist-invaded shrines, suburbs share space with Nature?
With this in mind, we start our trek early in the morning. Our destination: the peaceful neighbourhood of Ichijoji Akanomiyacho. Commuters board trains and buses taking them into the city centre or even other cities outside of Kyoto such as Osaka and Nara. We have the luxury of walking in the opposite direction, for a spot of breakfast.
Recognisable by its blue-grey front door against weather-worn white walls (a colour motif continued inside), Akatsuki Coffee is a true minimalist café. Beyond its décor and palette, this minimalism is buoyed by the owners’ brevity with words and their quiet passion for their respective talents. (Also, the young married couple live in the house behind the café so no commuting for them either; that’s how minimalists live, yes?)
The husband is the barista, making beautiful cups of coffee using beans by local roaster Weekenders Coffee. Whether it is a delicate drip brew or a cappuccino, each cuppa is crafted with precision, judging by the look of concentration on his face.
The wife is an expert baker so Akatsuki Coffee always has the lovely just-baked fragrance of breads and cakes. Her raisin-flecked carrot cake is great with milk coffee while her light-and-airy cheesecake pairs well with an equally light drip coffee.
She also makes fresh sandwiches or salads for lunch.
With only three tables and a few counter seats, Akatsuki Coffee is a cosy, little coffee shop. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Coffee and cake settling in our bellies, it’s time to explore further. How rare to be in a part of Kyoto that’s pristine and free from buses full of rowdy tourists! We head west towards Kita-Oji Dori, a pleasant walk through tidy rows of houses.
Residents may be surprised to see new faces but they smile at us all the same.
From Kita-Oji Dori, we turn north-west until we reach Takano River. The waters are clear and shallow, making it a safe area for families with small children who love getting their tiny feet wet.
There are also plenty of young people courtesy of the Doshisha University and Kyoto University nearby. Picnics and barbecues on the pebble-strewn banks are common when the weather is nice, as are romantic walks beneath the shade of leafy trees.
Fortunately for those of us who don’t fancy getting our feet wet, there are carefully placed stepping stones at certain intervals along the river for safe passage. Very few can manage a direct crossing, however; most can’t resist stopping midway to take a picture of the river or a selfie. Some of the larger stepping stones resemble river tortoises; we don’t see any real tortoises though.
That little disappointment aside, we really can’t complain because the gentle Takano River is a hotbed of animal life. The most obvious creatures aren’t even found in the waters but up in the sky!
Graceful, speedy kites soar and swoop with the thermals. These hawk-like birds of prey are opportunistic hunters; some even scavenge from picnickers! Some perch on television aerials while others chase intruders, defending their territories.
Watching these noble raptors circling one another, almost showing off in mid-flight acrobatics, is better than any Nature documentary in the confines of our home. This is “live”, and this is life. And we can’t help but feel more alive, more in the moment too.
The locals, we notice, aren’t quite as enraptured by these flying marvels. They’re more interested in the bounty waiting in the river. Young boys and their fathers roam the river banks, looking for the perfect spot to cast their rod. There’s certainly fish here; we can see them in the shallow waters.
Besides these amateur anglers, other “professionals” abound, with far better success rates. There are mallards and mandarin ducks; the latter in monogamous pairs. The little egret is another familiar sighting, easily sighted thanks to their snowy plumage and webbed feet the colour of yellow galoshes. These riverbirds feed well here; the tranquil waters of Takano River provides in abundance.
From the river, we continue along Kita-Oji Dori in a north-west direction towards the Shimogamo Higashitakagicho neighbourhood. Here, hidden away in an inconspicuous part of town is a home restaurant that specialises in vegan ramen. Ramen is huge in Japan, of course, but vegan renditions of these beloved noodles are few and far between.
Vegan Ramen TowZen is owned by chef Yonegawa-san, whose family are specialists in traditional tofu cuisine. His take on tofu or soy products is decidedly less traditional, though still unmistakably Japanese.
To enter the restaurant, we find ourselves entering an actual home — a machiya, to be exact. This classic Kyoto-style townhouse is full of charm and the tree-lined pebble path with larger stepping stones reminds us of the banks of Takano River that we have only left behind minutes ago. This is a serene, calming space.
Inside, colourful children’s drawings and paintings line the wooden walls. There is a counter space where you can watch the action in the open kitchen.
Alternatively you can also sit at the low tables, on cushions on tatami mats the way the Japanese do. We choose the counter space because the cooking process is always a joy to watch, particularly when the chefs are so passionate about their craft.
The base of all good ramen is the soup, naturally. Yonegawa-san has created broth from soy milk and reduced it so it’s of the same richness one expects with a meatier tonkotsu (pork bone) broth, for example.
There are two main choices of ramen — the musashi, which has mushrooms and yuba (tofu skin) with thin egg noodles, or the tantanmen with soy “meat” and with thicker organic, eggless noodles.
The tantanmen is spicier and should please fans of fiery noodles — though they’re happy to reduce or increase the heat level to accommodate guests — but the stand-out, for me, is the musashi, which is a bowl of pure umami thanks to the tender mushrooms.
To make it a complete meal, we opt to make our ramen a set with the addition of a yuba donburi (tofu skin rice bowl) topped with a thinner soy milk broth. For dessert, the healthy philosophy continues with hemp charcoal and sesame ice cream being the most popular order. A sweet ending to a wonderful walkabout, far from the madding crowd!
15-1 Ichijoji Akanomiyacho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm; Sun closed
Tel: +81 75-702-5399
Vegan Ramen TowZen
13-4 Shimogamo Higashitakagicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 11:30am-3pm & 6pm-10pm
Tel: +81 75-703-5731