Sunday, April 11, 2010

Weekend in Nara: A Foreign Food Frenzy

I feel a bit sheepish writing yet another post about foreign foods. I'm probably supposed to be writing a detailed piece on the origin of the soy bean and recount how I spent several days carving a slab of tofu into the shape of a samurai before immersing it in soy sauce and serving it to a geisha. But I eat plenty of delicious Japanese food in Kanazawa, so when I blast off to a bigger city for the weekend, I'm all about fulfilling my foreign food cravings.

One thing I really miss about home is cafe culture. In Seattle I spent a fair amount of time hunkered down in independently owned coffee shops, sipping lattes and playing Scrabble, while the ironically tattooed baristas noisily foamed milk and contemplated their facial hair. As the rain continues to fall in Kanazawa, I long for a cozy cafe to read my book in at 9 o'clock at night. Turns out Nara is just the place to do this. The city has a number of adorable little cafes; all bright, colorful and modern in that shabby chic meets Ikea catalog kind of way. It is all a bit ironic (maybe even more so than a hipster tattoo) since Nara is famous for being one of Japan's oldest and most historical cities.

My friend Kate and I decided to indulge in both the old and the new Nara: we photographed ancient temples and gawked at Japan's largest bronze Buddha statue & then frolicked off to munch on organic doughnuts and Israeli falafel.

Third Place Cafe

I have never been able to muster up much excitement for a muffin. "Muffin shmuffin!" I've always thought. Actually, I have never thought that. But I've just now discovered that it's really fun to say out loud. Anyway, when muffins come in flavors like black sesame, matcha (green tea) with black beans & walnut my interest has been piqued. The owner of Third Place Cafe says her muffins are American inspired, which is to say huge, and she bakes them fresh all day long. My black sesame was still steaming when she popped it into a paper bag for me to take home. I longed to lounge around in the European feeling, sunlit, cafe but alas sightseeing called.


The people behind Floresta are pretty smart. They positioned the doughnut case right in front of the shop's wide open entryway, so that you can't possibly walk by without being magnetically pulled in by the enchanting little o's. The doughnuts are made with organic, natural and free range ingredients and they actually taste healthy. Yes, healthy doughnuts, an oxymoron for certain. That is, unless you tuck one away for the next morning. Whereas my "natural" doughnut was tasty eaten on the spot, my Early Gray flavored one released its hidden greasiness overnight and left a nasty, oily film in my mouth. Kate and my favorite thing about Floresta? A message written on the company's brochure: "The owners wish to provide safe and delicious doughnuts for everyone." Amen. Dangerous doughnuts are a serious problem and it takes a lot of courage to be proactive, really step up to the plate, and actually do something about it.

Falafel Garden

Traveling with a vegetarian isn't for the weak. Especially in Japan where nearly every dish is spiked with dashi, a fish based broth. Yes, vegetarians are nice people (well, sometimes), and perhaps they have higher morals than I do (I eat animals, but I recycle, OK?!), but getting in between me and my dinner is serious business. So I was seriously excited to stumble across Falafel Garden while doing some pre-trip restaurant research. Kate and I talked about Falafel Garden for the week leading up to our trip, we talked about Falafel Garden on the train ride to Nara and we talked about Falafel Garden while sitting in Falafel Garden. The quality of this highly anticipated meal could make or break the trip. The familiar panic set in while I scrolled the large menu. I only had one shot to get this right. Would only a fool order the grilled eggplant and baba ganoush pita sandwich? Should I get a falafel since the place is called Falafel Garden? I finally decided on the chicken shwarma sandwich and threw in a side of hummus for good luck. It worked. The chicken was super juicy and flavorful, the pita was packed with fresh veggies and each bite was smeared with the creamy hummus. Turns out I didn't only have one shot to get it right. FG does take-out, so I was able to enjoy an incredibly drippy, overstuffed falafel sandwich on the train ride home.

CafĂ© Wakakusa 

Absolutely starving, and therefore too hunkry (hungry + cranky) to track down another restaurant from this super helpful guide, Kate and I took a chance on a no-frills okinomiyaki joint whose name may forever remain unknown. I had been unimpressed and uninterested in the popular savory pancake for several months, but this little greasy spoon unexpectedly restored my faith. Full bellied and rehydrated, we were able to continue our cafe quest and ended the night at Cafe Wakakusa. Inside, everything from the walls to the floor to the cafe owner's pants and shirt were different shades of vivid green. I decided to stick with the trend and ordered a matcha latte. Kate was entranced by her mug of hot chocolate, topped with zigzags of chocolate sauce. A fashionable couple (is there any other kind in Japan?) came in, slurped up big bowls of yummy looking pasta, and left. We listened to soft Japanese lounge pop (a band which I now love and still can't find mention of anywhere online) and I begged the owner to open a second branch in Kanazawa.


This now (mostly) concludes the food portion of this post. Here are a collection of photos from our weekend trip in Nara, a quaint, easy to navigate city outside Kyoto that is now one of my favorite places in Japan. We also took a side trip to Akame Shiju-hattaki Falls, a beautiful forest about an hour outside of Nara for a day of hiking and waterfalls.

Nara's most famous temple, Todai-ji, was built in 745 and houses Japan's largest bronze statue, a 15 meter tall Buddha perched on a lotus flower. In person, it is truly a beautiful and mesmerizing piece that is hard to walk away from.

The cherry blossoms were already blooming.

Nara is famous for a huge, sprawling park that is home to thousands of free roaming deer and just as many moss covered stone lanterns.
Class photo day! 

 One of Akame Shiju-hattaki's 48 waterfalls.

Every city, town and village in Japan seems to have it's own culinary specialty, even if it's just a very slight variation on a popular national dish. This old gal is serving up one of the best sweets Kate and I have tasted in Japan. It's a delicious twist on taiyaki, typically a little fish-shaped cake made of pancake batter and filled with adzuki bean paste. In this case the batter was sweet potato puree. It was soft, creamy, sweet and earthy. Perfect with a cup of tea, or in my perfect world, a glass of milk.


  1. What are those lil pancakes shaped as? Little people? Yum! Now I wish we would of been able to stop in Nara after our Kyoto trip, looks awesome!

  2. Love it! Oh and hahaha on you being the foreigner taking pictures of cherry blossoms. :-)

  3. So, completely unrelated to this post....have you seen a silly movie called Ramen Girl? It stars Brittany Murphy, so, to speak ill of the dead, you really can't expect much...but it was a charming story about a girl in Japan who learns to make ramen...I don't know you at all, but I totally thought of you the entire time I watched it!

  4. Smuttle: Yes, little warriors I think! Delicious little warriors.

    Moonrover: Dude, it is SO not just a foreigner thing! Japanese people are obsessed with cherry blossoms. They only last about 2 weeks at best, so they are as camera happy as I've been!

    Kim: I suppose I have to see this movie. You are probably the 4th person who has recommended it to me!