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Treats and traditions on the trail in Kyoto

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Special To The Japan Times

I stood under the looming Shinto torii gate with my guide Mish Haddad, an expert on Kyoto culture with a passion for the local food. Our goal was to both hike and eat our way along the Kyoto Trail from Fushimi Inari Shrine (Marker 1) to Kiomizudera Temple and end at Ginkakuji Temple (Marker 47).

Unknown to most tourists, the Kyoto Trail passes through three World Heritage Sites while allowing you to experience some of Kyoto’s best-known edible delights. From street food to haute cuisine, eating is undoubtedly one of the sybaritic pleasures of a visit to Japan’s ancient capital.

First we headed up through Fushimi Inari, gliding by street stalls set up along the walkway selling classic Japanese festival foods served on a stick (corn cobs, skewered meat, etc.), and sweets such as yaki dango (grilled mochi rice cake dumplings), baked dorayaki (red bean pancake) and my personal favorite, ichigodaifuku (mochi with strawberry).

Ascending through the vermilion arbor of 1,000 torii, we stopped only once to buy some dried ginger snacks from a stall located along the seemingly endless stairway. At the first rest stop, called Yotsutsuji, you can buy ameyu, an ancient health drink particular to the Kansai region and made from malt sugar with ginger.

Now on the Kyoto Trail proper, the markers led us past Senyuji Temple and down into a residential area, then back up into the forest. Here we stopped briefly on a wooden bench to eat our dried fruit and contemplate the calls of the Japanese bush warblers. It was so peaceful it was almost impossible to imagine the roaring city that teemed just below us.

At Marker 19 we turned down into UNESCO World Heritage site Kiyomizudera Temple, entering behind the pagoda. We sidled past quaint and crowded tourist cafes serving matcha tea, zenzai sweet red bean soup, tokoroten jelly and sake. After slaking our thirst with the pellucid waters of the Otowa waterfall, Mish said, “I’ll take you to a secret place for lunch,” so I followed as she nimbly dodged through the crowds until we were outside the Kiyomizudera complex. We descended stone steps to Sannenzaka (three-year slope). “If you fall on these steps, bad luck will haunt you for three years,” she warned, so I began to tread more carefully.

Although our destination was situated in a high pedestrian area, it was barely noticeable and looked more like a private home than a restaurant. An unassuming sign hanging on the gate bore the kanji for Akouyachaya.

Stepping inside this chazuke restaurant, the atmosphere was convivial. There was no English menu. Chazuke is a food from the Heian Period (794 to 1185), made by pouring tea (whether “standard” or hōjicha) over rice (white or with red beans) and myriad toppings chosen from the ingredient bar such as: tsukemono (Japanese pickles), umeboshi (sour plums), nori, sesame seeds, salted and marinated fish and shiokara (pickled seafood). It was also a chance to indulge in another old Japanese favorite: okayu rice porridge.

Having worked up and satiated a generous appetite, we eventually waddled out of the restaurant and disappeared among purveyors of gourds, fried croquette vendors, tofu hawkers and sweet shops selling Kyoto’s famous yatsuhashi treats (in flavors such as black sesame and cherry blossom).

Such times are good opportunities to observe the Japanese tradition of omiage: buy a famous treat for the next Japanese person you’re going to meet up with. They’ll be thrilled!

“But the classiest Kyoto omiage,” Mish informs me, “is Malebranche’s cha-no-ka,” a langues-de-chat sandwich cookie with a white chocolate center, flavored with regional Kyo-Uji okoicha (strong tea).

Back on the trail, we ducked into Shoren-in at Shogunzuka Dainichido Temple with its famous glass tea house (designed by Tokujin Yoshioka) and karesansui dry rock garden.

You can end this 18-kilometer hike by following the route down to Keage Station (Marker 29) near the Heian Jingu torii gate, or continue another few kilometers to Marker 42, where you can dip down to Nanzenji Temple to engage in the gentle meditation of a tea ceremony. Refreshed and nourished, pick up the trail again and follow it to the top of the Romon-no-taki waterfall. The path follows the waterfall down to Ginkakuji Temple, the Silver Pavilion, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

From here we strolled down the delightful Philosopher’s Path, back past Nanzenji Temple, and tiptoed into the world of multi-course kaiseki cuisine at Okakuen, where the placidity of their grand Japanese garden dulcified our every bite.

At the end of our hike now, we decided to further gourmandize at Mo-an, an original wooden teahouse cloistered in the forest just a short walk from Ginkakuji, down Shirakawadori Street. Here, we reflected on our journey with hōjicha cheesecake and caramel pudding while taking in Mount Daimonji in the distance.

This is the second of a six-part monthly series exploring the cuisine found along Japan’s famous hiking routes. The next part will appear in the last week of September.