Japan on a Friday: Chasing nabe pots in Kyoto

Despite big plans to maximize my spendy 7 day Japan rail pass and hop all over the country, the allure of Kyoto was too great. I opted for the hostel-recommended walking instead.

First, breakfast. Feeling sure I could better the hostel 680 yen offering, I traipsed around the block looking for a Japanese breakfast. It does not exist except in the form of extremely expensive coffee and some basic white toast. I returned to the hostel and sheepishly took my place among the other gai-jins scarfing the unlimited eggs, sausage, toast, jelly, coffee tea, salad , cheese, cereal, yoghurt... no wonder Ks Hostel won an award.

What was meant to be a half day tour ended up a day and night half of a tour, because I was held hostage by soaring temples and shops selling all kinds of Japanese souvenirs.

The mochi shops were making a killing. People love to crunch and chew things and mochi satisfies the latter - it's like a stressball for your jawbone. I ate more than was decent of the free samples. I'm a bit worried that they can travel outside refrigeration for days. They must be utterly loaded with sugar and benzoate preservatives.

The temples were overrun with droves of baseball-capped school kids.

I made a significant purchase today - a large, stone, nabe soup pot, hand made in Kyoto, which I'd been looking for since spotting that of my Tokyo host, Miki. The shop is called Shoindo.com. There are more details about this pot here: Japanese | English. It's an example of Kiyomizu pottery, a specialty of Kyoto.

I'm not sure why Shoindo's online store shows 13,000 yen (about $US145) including tax and shipping, and I was charged 16,000 yen (about $US180) even though I was good enough to actually land on their doorstep. My hosts tell me Japan is generally honorable when it comes to pricing so this is "a bit unusual".

UPDATE: Conversations with the store owner Taniguchi-san have explained the price discrepancy:

1. My pot is apparently handmade and not the same as the almost identical ones they sell online which are apparently mass-produced. So it was 3-5 thousand yen more expensive ($40-60 more). Here's a close up of a supposedly mass produced 13,000 yen one from their online store - I have to say it's pretty similar:

2. I discovered with some dismay - since I was looking for a pot specifically for cooking - that mine has pinholing in the surface. My online discussion with About.com pottery person BethPete suggests this is considered a glazing fault, and tends to happen with handmade ceramics. She felt it could be a bit of a hygiene hazard, as food can get trapped in the holes and allow bacteria to grow. Thus, if you want a pot for cooking, you generally buy one for around 2000-5000 yen ($25-$55). Like these. This pot was sold as art, not a cooking utensil.You can see the pinholes here and here:

Others I asked, including Japanese themselves, said it's no big deal; apparently one way of 'sealing' the pot and the surface is to cook rice porridge in it. I found this tip here: "Rice porridge can be made easily - put a handful of rice, add 1-2 cups of water, boil it till rice becomes very soft and squashy. Or put cooked rice instead of raw grains. If you just want to make porridge to prevent leakage, you can boil the water in which you cooked pasta, or put a little flour and water and boil it in the pot. 

UPDATE: after cooking a few things in it according to best nabe practises, a strange series of raised welts has started to show under the surface of the glaze - but not out the other side. Anyone have more ideas on this? Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck asking the store in Kyoto, despite very patient friends to translate emails.

UPDATE Aug 2011: Ceramics restoration expert, Jareth Holub (now of Metropolitan Museum NYC fame) set my mind at ease:

Dear Lynette, those "pits" are just a minor glaze defect & I doubt they would allow food etc into the ceramic core. Also I noticed the "cracks" & I feel those are also just glaze defects. Kind of like a run/drip etc. I'd say continue to use it.

I have to say that despite everything I heard about Japan having some of the best food in the world, I have not had an outstanding Japanese meal yet, largely because you either pay Y400 ($US4.50) for rock bottom curry rice, or Y800-1500 for a pretty ordinary soup noodle or sushi set, then there's a jump to Y3500 for the start of a decent meal. There is a gap of sorts in between there.

Apparently the super spendy meals are enjoyed by wealthy businessmen who also indulge in geishas. I spotted one tonight. She was tottering down through Gion Corner at such a brisk pace I could not catch her despite darting through the crowds with my camera train on her. She disappeared down an alley. Try doing that in those elevated wooden flip flops - it's hard enough in cleats!

More at http://www.galfromdownunder.com/japan


katakanadian said…
Many Japanese YHAs serve excellent meals for a good price. Unfortunately the Hiroshima YHA is not one of them (and it's a long way from anything). I had great meals at the Matsuyama YH (on Shikoku), Nikkou YH (shabby building but great host) and the Sendai YH (NE of Toukyou and one of the most beautiful J-hostels I've been to).

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