Kitayama is five stops on the subway from downtown Kyoto, but it might as well be a million miles away for the tourists who trudge around the city in search of Kyoto tropes: temples, shrines, teahouses and geishas who are more than likely tourists dressed up for the day.
Sure, Kitayama (literally “north mountain”) is not without its attractions, among them Kyoto Concert Hall, Kyoto Botanical Garden and the Garden of Fine Arts, the latter designed by Tadao Ando and featuring a life-size replica of “The Last Supper.” But I went north not for supper but for dessert: rare cheesecake, Linzer torte, macaroons, pancakes, mascarpone, whipped cream, dacquoise, carrot cake. The list goes on. And on. It’s a good thing I have a sweet tooth.
I spent two afternoons in Kitayama recently in search of cake shops, cafes and patisseries, and finding them was the easy part. Discovering why Kitayama has become a sweet center proved a little more elusive.
Pastry chefs, waiters and waitresses alike had pretty much the same answer wherever I went: Kitayama is “bourgeois,” “fashionable” and “cultured.” True enough. Kitayama-dori, a long tree-lined avenue, cuts through this well-heeled residential neighborhood. The Botanical Garden occupies a large swath on the south side; elsewhere it’s a mix of boutiques, galleries, restaurants, wedding venues and, of course, cake shops. While the answers weren’t exactly diagnostic they did remind me of what a very wealthy lady may or may not have said a propos confectionery: “Let them eat cake.” The rich, it seems, like their afters.
I chose a Saturday afternoon to commence my sweets tour and started at Malebranche (075-722-3399; www.malebranche.co.jp), undoubtedly the aristocrat in the neighborhood. Opened in 1982 in Kitayama, one year after the subway came online, Malebranche is by now a Kyoto institution with outlets throughout the city.
The Kitayama bakery and cafe could double as a wedding chapel: an all-white interior, chairs that could have been swiped from a palace, and when we eventually sat down to eat cake on came Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” up there as a wedding favorite just after “Here Comes the Bride.” I say eventually because Malebranche was, as expected, packed — the seating area is small — but thankfully they took our phone number and our order and we were free to go until a table was ready.
I had a number of recommendations on my list. Running Room Cafe (075-703-1025) was not one of them, most likely because it has only been open about a month. It’s a small cafe, adorned in white; the owner is a trail runner and the menu reflects his hobby. There is a choice of smoothies as well as pancakes, the latter of which stems from his other interest: Hawaii.
I hadn’t done any running but I figured I would reward myself anyway. I went with an order of pancakes topped with macadamia nuts and mascarpone. The pancakes were magnificently fluffy — I imagine they don’t hold back on the eggs — and worth working up a sweat for.
Running Room gets its bread from Tocoha bakery (075-723-8330; yaplog.jp/tocoha), located all the way next door. While waiting (there’s a theme developing here) I popped next door and got a takeout banana croissant, which I polished off later that evening. Hours later it was still delicious.
Before being summoned back to Malebranche I popped into Second House (075-701-2223; www.secondhouse.co.jp), another Kitayama institution. The slogan of this retro-styled cafe is terse: pasta and cakes. There’s actually more of the former on the menu than the latter. I went with carrot cake covered in crushed almonds and topped by a tiny little carrot made of sugar. Sweet and playful.
And then it was back to Malebranche. The confectionery here is artisanal and relishes its Kyoto roots: I had the Shin Matcha Opera Cake, a layered green-tea cake. My companion had Hokkori Black Bean Kinako Cake, shortcake embedded with black beans and topped with kinako (roasted soy flour). This was luxurious and experimental cakery. And so ended the first day.
I returned to Kitayama on a weekday. My first stop was Cafe Salon (075-703-3307; www.cafesalon.com), a few streets north of Kitayama-dori. Until the end of June there is a wonderful exhibition of plants and trees from Botanical Shelter, a landscape design service. The suspended bonsai tree, roots showing, nearly stole the show.
I say “nearly” because the rare cheesecake was the highlight of my return trip. It comes with maple syrup and blueberry jam and is deservedly the most popular sweet in a great lineup. Next I was back on Kitayama-dori, heading east to ClienTele (075-706-5600; www.rakuten.co.jp/clientele) Open 16 years, it’s a cute little patisserie with a great range of sweet treats and an atelier-like seating area upstairs. I had two dacquoise: green tea and ginger. Dacquoise are less sugary than their more famous counterpart, the macaroon; the ginger one nearly kicked me back downstairs.
Heading home I stopped into Papa Jons (075-711-6401; www.papajons.net) for vanilla cheesecake and Shinshindo (075-724-3377; www.shinshindo.jp) for Linzer torte — a nice balance of light and heavy between the two. For those rare birds who still read books (made from paper), Papa Jon’s has a shelf displaying second-hand ones for purchase.
I survived my day trips with my sweet tooth intact, but I think I can take a break for a while. Kitayama, I will return, at a later date.