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Warm-up Your Body & Heart
Winter Recommendations in Kyoto
Onsen & Hotpot meals
For the winter visitor, no trip to Japan would be complete without experiencing a Japanese onsen hot spring and nabe hot-pot cuisine! Kyoto is well-known for its cold, damp winters though heavy snow is not common. But winter is not without its pleasures. Kyoto area's onsen and nabe are two traditional options for getting warm and having fun.
Hot Springs & Public Bath Houses
Typical entrance curtain of sento in Japan; Ume-Yu
Taking a hot bath is a time honored Japanese tradition. Whether at home, at a sento (public bath), or in an onsen (hot spring), the Japanese love to soak the hours away. Natural onsen are numerous and highly popular across Japan. There are many types of hot springs, distinguished by the mineral content of their water. Different minerals provide different health benefits. But most of all, soaking in hot water is sure to relax your body and mind.
The ultimate hot spring experience is spending a night or two at an onsen ryokan, a Japanese style inn with hot spring baths. A typical onsen ryokan visit starts with a bath before dinner. Then a beautifully arranged Japanese-style dinner, featuring local specialties, is served in your room. Many guests take another bath before sleeping and one the next morning before breakfast. If staying the night is out of your price range, no worries: many onsen offer reasonably priced day-trip plans that include lunch and bathing, or experiencing a sento public bath will be another way to deepen your understanding of Japanese culture.
Kurama Onsen, Spa
Photo courtesy; Kurama Onsen, Spa
If you have any spare time travelling around in Kyoto, and if you are a lover of wild nature or hot spas, it is recommended that you hop on the local Eizan railway that goes deep into the northern part of Kyoto City from Demachiyanagi Station and head for Kurama onsen! This outdoor spa, set on a forested, mountain slope at the north end of the narrow Kurama valley, is a special place where you can relax from the stress of your busy life. Outdoor bath course: Adults: 1,000 yen; Children: 700 yen (4-12 years old). For the ''day trip course,'' besides the outdoor bath, you can also enjoy indoor baths (standard, bubble bath and sauna) and able to relax in the lounge room; Adults: 2,500 yen; Children: 1,600 yen.
Open: 10:00-21:00 (the outdoor bath closes at 20:00 during winter); From Demachiyanagi Stn., take Eizan Railways to Kurama Stn.; Tel: 075-741-2131; *Babies still wearing diapers and who has tattoos on the body are not allowed in the bath; www.kurama-onsen.co.jp/
Just a short walk from the large intersection at Horikawa and Gojo Street, there is a red brick building; this is Gokou-Yu. On the first and second floor is a spacious conventional Japanese public bathhouse which is one of the largest of its kind in Kyoto. A jet bath, electric bath, herbal bath and bubble bath are all on the first floor while the second floor offers a unique bath whose water contains minerals of the rocks from Bad Hofgastein in Austria as well as a sauna and cold water bath. Such a variety!
For an additional 650 yen, you can try the bedrock bathing. Lying on the special rock bed will let you reach perfect relaxation so some people often can't help falling asleep! (50 min.; advance reservation required). Dining space is also available.
Open: 14:30-24:30 (Sun.: 7:00-24:00); Closed: Mon. & 3rd Tuesday of the month; Adults: 430 yen, Children (4-12 years): 150 yen; www.gokouyu.net
An alternative style of sento can be found at Ume-Yu. When he was 19 years old, Minato, the owner of Ume-Yu, fell in love with sento. In total, he's been to about 600 so far all over Japan including about 200 sento in Kyoto alone. He had a part-time job at Ume-Yu during his student days and when he heard that Ume-Yu was closing, he contacted his old boss and asked if he could give keeping the business running a shot. Thanks to his boss's positive response, Minato has made his dream come true - He became an owner of Ume-Yu in 2015 and has created something special out his love for sento and his beliefs.
Inside is several baths including shallow, deep, cold water, electric, herbal, and sauna. The interior has a rather Western style decor with a white ceiling and walls, and a tiled floor. Minato and his staff members will make you feel at home in his special sento. If he's not busy, have a chat in English, Japanese or Portuguese.
Open: 15:30-23:00 (also open 6:30-12:00 on Sat. & Sun. only); Closed: Thurs.; Adults: 430 yen, Children (4-12 years): 150 yen. *Shampoo & body soap are free; People with tattoos are allowed to enter.
Nabe is a hearty way to sate your hunger during the cold nights of winter. Everything is prepared right at your table, meaning that you are both the cook and the guest, which is especially fun for groups of friends or people who want to get to know each other better.
There are a wide variety of nabe hotpot dishes in Japan. Every region has their proudly tasty nabe dish representing the local specialties and culture. Which ingredients you cook in which soup is totally dependent on your preference. Enjoy nabe in your style!
Photo courtesy; Chiriri
Shabu-shabu is one of the popular Japanese nabe dishes cooked in a special pot that heats up quickly. It gets its name from the Japanese onomatopoeia for ''swish, swish,'' as each piece of meat is lightly swished around in boiling broth before eating. Unlike other types of hot pot, where the ingredients are cooked together before serving, shabushabu ingredients are served raw and cooked tableside during the meal.
The traditional broth for shabu-shabu is a simple dashi made from kombu seaweed, with no additional flavors added since the meat and vegetables are dipped in sauce before eating. Shabu-shabu is eaten with a variety of thinly sliced meats and fresh vegetables. Paper-thin slices of beef and pork are most common. Tofu is another good protein option that is also suitable for vegetarians.
An evolved style of Shabu-shabu nabe can be savored at Kyoto Tsuyu-shabu Chiriri. Here, the big difference is hidden in their special dipping soup with its special seasoning (instead of dipping into ponzu or sesame sauce). When thinly sliced pork belly meat is dipped in boiled water, it takes on the appearance of a white flower blooming (meat makes a kind of ''frizzy = chiri-chiri'' shape). This is where the shop's name came from! While eating, the meat will melt and spread its flavor in your mouth.
Kyoto Tsuyu-shabu Chiriri Main Shop: Lunch: 11:00-15:00; Dinner 17:00-22:00 (until 21:00 on Sun. & national holidays); Closed irregularly; On the west side of Muromachi, north of Marutamachi; Tel: 075-222-5557; www.chiriri.co.jp
Photo courtesy; Okutan Kiyomizu
Yu-dofu, one of the most well-known and respected regional delicacies of Kyoto, is guaranteed to warm you up in cold weather. The light, simple taste and smooth texture of tofu is just perfect for everyone. Extremely soft, silky tofu is cooked in a lightly seasoned broth (usually slightly flavored with pieces of sea kelp). The hot tofu is removed from the hotpot, then dipped in citrus flavored sour soy sauce and eaten with a simple relish such as chopped green onion and a pinch of grated ginger.
Fine garden view at Okutan Kiyomizu; Photo courtesy; Okutan Kiyomizu
Okutan Kiyomizu, said to be the oldest yu-dofu restaurant in Japan, was established more than 400 years ago and is located near Kiyomizu Temple. Their tofu is freshly made daily in the old traditional way using quality fresh well water which lets you savor the condensed umami of the soy bean itself. And the special broth extracted from dried kelp over many hours makes the best match for the tofu.
Scooping up the boiled tofu and dipping it into the special soup will give you a chance to experience the truly pure taste of the tofu itself. Okutan is a highly recommended restaurant as you can have beautiful moments while enjoying their gorgeous garden as well as the excellent tofu meal.
Okutan Kiyomizu: Open 11:00-16:30 (L.O. 16:00); Until 17:30 (L.O. 17:00) on Sat., Sun. & Nat'l holiday; Closed: Thurs.; Reservation preferable; On Yasaka Street, between Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka; www.tofuokutan.info
Miso nabe with full of local fresh vegetables and chicken; Photo courtesy; Ohara-no Sato
Miso-nabe is a hotpot whose soup is flavored with miso (salty fermented soybean paste). Any ingredient goes well with this savory Japanese taste soup. Ohara-no Sato is a traditional Japanese-style ryokan inn located in Ohara that serves fine Kyoto cuisine and offers excellent bathing facilities. They offer delicious miso-nabe (from 3,600 yen) with Kyoto's chicken and local vegetables as the key ingredients. Ohara-no Sato is also famous for its more than 100 year history of making special homemade miso in the rural village of Ohara. Their specialty miso is made without additives, in the old traditional way.
Savory miso nabe hotpot will warm you up!; Photo courtesy; Ohara-no Sato
Their nabe menus of course use their special miso. ''Miso & Collagen Nabe (from 4,200 yen)'' is a nabe broth containing plenty of collagen in the miso flavored soup along with seasonal vegetables, juicy chicken from Kyoto and savory gyoza dumplings. The miso flavored nabe is simply a favorite taste loved by Japanese.
Open-air iron pot bath at Ohara-no Sato; Photo courtesy; Ohara-no Sato
Ohara-no Sato has indoor and outdoor bathing areas (men and women separate). Since Ohara is considerably colder than central Kyoto, snow is common in winter. Soaking in a hot bath surrounded by snow is an unforgettable experience.
Ohara-no Sato: Lunch & hot-spring set plans available from 4,200 yen/person; Open: 11:30-15:30 (last entry by 14:00); Take Kyoto Bus #17 or #18 from Kyoto Stn. to Ohara (60 min.) via Shijo Kawaramachi and Sanjo Keihan.; Tel: 075-744-2917; www.oohara-no-sato.co.jp
Fatty, juicy buri is such a delicacy of winter; Photo courtesy; Amanohashidate Tourism Association
In the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture facing the Japan Sea, winter is a longanticipated season to enjoy their exclusive buri (yellowtail) and kani (crab). The Japan Sea along the north coast of Kyoto Prefecture yields some of the finest buri in Japan (considered to be tastiest in the winter months). Buri-shabu is like shabu-shabu but instead of beef, thin slices of fatty and fresh buri are used. The soup broth in the pot is made by boiling kelp with a fair bit of Japanese sake. A number of ryokan inns and restaurants in Miyazu City serve buri-shabu made with freshly caught buri.
Amano Hashidate in winter ; Photo courtesy; Amanohashidate Tourism Association
Amano Hashidate, one of the three most beautiful places in Japan, is located in Miyazu City. This legendary land bridge, said to have been formed by two of Shinto's most powerful deities as a way to reach heaven, is 3.6 kilometers long and covered with 8,000 graceful pine trees. Miyazu is the place that is both filled with abundant nature along beautiful shore lines as well as blessed with plenty of fresh sea foods; Many traditional onsen hot springs are scattered everywhere and visitors can enjoy meeting and chatting with the friendly local people - Another great destination from central Kyoto city.
Hana Yumi in the Yuhigaura Onsen, Miyazu City; hanayuumi.com
Photo courtesy; Amanohashidate Tourism Association
Miyazu City: Take the Limited Express train from JR Kyoto Stn. to Fukuchiyama Stn. and then take the Kyoto Tango Railways Miyazu line to Miyazu Stn.; There are many accommodations and restaurants serving buri-shabu in Miyazu. For more information, visit their website: Amanohashidate Tourism Association: www.amanohashidate.jp
Enjoy Nabe to the Fullest!
Don't fill your stomach completely with the nabe hotpot food because the last, but probably the best, part of the nabe dish comes after you empty the hotpot! Usually, there is still some soup remaining in the hotpot after all the ingredients have been cooked and consumed, and actually, this soup is the most tasty and rich as extracts from all the ingredients cooked in the hotpot are concentrated together. The most common way to enjoy the soup is to add steamed rice to make a rice porridge (zosui) with tasty soup. Or adding rice cakes and noodles such as udon and ramen is also recommended.