Feast your eyes on the most popular sweets in Kyoto's winter event, "Randen Ensen Sweets Rally 2015!"
During this event, which runs until March 31st, people travel along the Ensen tram line, enjoying beautiful sites and sweets along various stops on their journey. Buy a sweet, get a stamp—the more stamps you collect, the better chance you'll have to win prizes like handkerchiefs and eco-bags. You probably won't get a chance to go on this old-fashioned quest to satisfy your sweet tooth, but at least you can see the top-ten best ranked sweets on offer!
Kyo-Roll "Matcha-zukushi" (macha-based) roll cake
Arashiyama's roll-cake specialty shop ARINCO is already a huge hit in Kyoto, where it's been covered extensively in magazines and other media. When you hear the words "roll cake," I'm sure you think about a chocolate-coated sponge cake with cream filling—well, you're sort of right! But this "matcha-based" cake uses ingredients steeped in local Kyoto tradition. There's red bean paste and chestnuts from Tamba and matcha tea from Uji, both combined into a delectable cream. Wrapping the cream like a present is a rich, delicious crust, also tea-based, covered with a generous helping of tea-based sauce. Three layers of tea make three big reasons to try this confection—if you can get to Arinco's main shop in Arashiyama, the only place it's available. Because I'm Japan-based, I'm sure you're all green with envy. ;-)
Fresh Mikan Daifuku
Kyoto's much-admired YOROKEN shop is already legendary for its "mikan daifuku," basically a pounded mochi ball with mikans (mandarin oranges) inside. By now they've taken the idea a step farther and arrived at something totally unique: The Fresh Mikan Daifuku, a mocha ball with a whole, fresh picked mikan inside! My mouth is watering just thinking about biting through and hitting that sweet, sour and soft center. Not to be fruit-exclusive, YOROKEN also has pineapple, kiwi, blueberry and yuzu, a special kind of Japanese lemon. For those who like extra zest along with nature's bounty, there's even cassis chocola daifuku! Just take a look at my choco-blogs and you'll know which one I'll be going after if I get to Kyoto next month.
Established during the Meiji era (1868-1912) KIN-TSUBA KOFUKUDO makes one confection so locally famous that it needn't go by any other name. "Kin-tsuba," which gets its flavor from specially-picked Hokkaido azuki-beans, has stayed popular because it is made with the same attention and care today as it was then. The beans overflow from the top of this jelly-cake, which is itself made of bean paste. Each cake is baked carefully on all six sides to give it that one-of-a-kind Kyoto flavor. The best part is that each bundle of bean-joy is only 150 yen!
Without a doubt, the most popular pastry in the Western-style confectionary PATISSERIE LULU is called simply the "Mini Chiffon." But lest the name and the appearance deceive, this isn't your ordinary "Western" cake. The fluffy baked crust you see hides a decidedly "Eastern" secret: It's filled to bursting with non-whipped "nama-cream" and beans! For those with less adventurous pallets, there's also chiffon holes (like donut holes, maybe?), plain old whipped-cream chiffon, and something called Chantilly with mini-strawberries. And this: Have you ever wanted to try a cream puff baked specially in a stoneware oven? Well, now you can! For what it's worth, they come in both "Showa" era and "Heisei" era versions. FYI, I was born during Showa (sometime between 1926 and 1989, yeah, the way latter half; don't get smart!), so I think I'll try that one. For you younger guys and gals who want to know when Heisei happened, I suggest you wiki it! ;-)
I have to admit, I do love me some warabi mochi. Most people probably know mochi as a kind of pounded riceball, which it usually is; but warabi mochi is more like jelly. It's made from bracken starch (no, I don't really know what that means) and is usually dipped in or sprinkled with kinako, which is basically soybean flour that tastes uncannily like cinnamon and is excellent when paired with brown sugar. We usually buy ours at the store, packaged and ready to chow. But shops in Kyoto, like SASAYASHOEN, tend to do things the old-fashioned way. Each block of their Kiwami-style warabi-mochi is painstakingly handmade by local craftsman-chefs, no machines involved. This attention to tradition, not to mention the great taste, must have caught on—this crafty confection has been featured on TV and was apparently ranked #1 on Rakuten's survey of the best Japanese sweets around! This warabi-mochi has a syrupy texture utterly original to SASAYASHOEN, and its flavor varies with the type of kinako dip you choose. You can try either "kuro-mame" (black bean) kinako or macha kinako; I prefer the latter, but you can't go wrong either way.
YAOINO FRUIT PARLOR
Even in a place like Kyoto, things do sometimes change—but Yaoino Fruit Parlor has a proud 120-year history in the area, where piling on the fruit by ordering fruit juice along with your fruit sandwich has become a Kyoto tradition unto itself! You can get a fruit sandwich/mixed fruit juice set for just 810 yen, or go even further into fruitiness by adding a mini parfait; that set costs 1,188 yen, a bargain for cornucopia-lovers. Whatever you order, you are sure to experience tasty bursts of natural, fruity goodness. The Ichigo (Strawberry) Sandwich (pictured, 864 yen) is an awesome to-go treat, but you better hurry: It's only available during the winter and spring and will apparently stop selling in May. I guess fruit—like everything—really does have its season!
[Pic of Namafu Manju]
As a long-term Japan resident who once called Kyoto home, the traditional "manju" snack has a special place in my heart. The most famous one is called "momiji manju," named after the momiji maple leaf for which it is shaped. Inside the often thin and always delicious crust, sometimes made of pounded rice and sometimes not, some kind of mashed bean paste can usually be found. Kyoto's storied TSURUYA CHOSEI shop holds true to that tradition—there too, it's all about the beans! Not only that, but the ingredients combined with them to get that perfect, magical taste. This shop's signature Namafu Manju is of the pounded-rice variety, and has a marshmellowy texture that I never get tired of! Inside there are myriad variations on the bean theme, from "Koshian" to "Miso-an" (you guessed it, the same type of bean used for white miso soup, this one of a special Kyoto variety) and "goma-an," a blend of beans and powdered sesame-seeds that is surely divine. Top off the refined feeling by wrapping each one in a traditional bamboo leaf, and you've got a peace of heaven. Try the always-popular "Ubaou" and "Rikyushin," or the newest offering, "Kyo no Shiromi Castella Kinkaku," which I guess is named after Kinkakuji Temple. That would make it almost golden!
THE DARI K (Hannari Cacao)
Think "chocolate" in Kyoto and chocolatier "The Dari K" immediately springs to mind. The Dari K eschews traditional "couverture" processes used for most confectionary chocolate, whereby (according to Wikipedia) extra cocoa butter is traditionally added. Instead they contract with farms in Indonesia to buy cacao beans direct and wholesale, creating their very own home-grown recipe containing no less than 100% pure cacao chocolate! If you're a chocolate freak like me, I would highly recommend checking it out. The Dari K makes wheat flour-free chocolate, chocolate truffles, "nama-choco," and Kyoto-style "Hannari Cacao." "Hannari" means "elegant" or "refined," a sentiment I don't doubt given The Dari K's pedigree. Maybe it's no surprise that cacao sake is also popular! I certainly wouldn't mind taking a drink.
The legendary shop CHOGOROMOCHI HONPO, established in 1587 near Tenmangu Shrine, was popular with the locals—including one Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a prominent mover-and-shaker who also happened to be a former samurai! So Chogoromochi has a distinguished history to go along with its distinguished taste, created by the combination of its uniquely thin skin wrapped delicately around a ball of an bean jam, as tasty as the best chocolates I know. Try it and eat like a samurai! If you get there anytime between 11 am and 3 pm, you can add to the ambience by savoring a cup of Japanese tea inside the shop itself.
Kyoto's popular Western-style homemade confectionary, "Mushu Crème," can be found near the quiet residential area of Miyama, along Kyoto's Arashiyama Highway. On any given day, the shop may carry as many as 40 different kinds of cake! The most popular ones are the "Ichigo (strawberry) torte and the seasonal cakes. Savor everything from simple chocolate cake to cream puffs and decorative cakes, all locally famous for being delicious! See a sign with an old guy drawn on it, and you'll know you've arrived.