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The cucumbers found in the market were packed in a barrel, the ordinary, wooden kind. Dark green in color, they looked so young and fresh, thanks to the careful selection process during their peak, which required uniformity in size and shape.
These pickles were special, pickled with sake lees, the leftover solids after the fermentation process that produces Japan’s famous alcoholic beverages. Instead of merely discarding them, the sake dregs have been creatively put into good use as a pickling agent. This century-old process, also known as kasu-zuke, has been developed alongside the sake industry and has since been producing vegetables (such as melons, cucumbers and gourds) with strong flavors and a sake aftertaste. It is this process that allows them to be distinct from the usual salty or sour taste of other tsukemono or pickled vegetables.
In a traditional food market, it is hard to overlook these tsukemono. Barrels after barrels of them are displayed on some stalls in this crowded market. And they come in different varieties. One might find vegetables fermented in miso, which is fermented soy bean paste. Miso is mixed with sake to create a pickling bed where the vegetables would be buried.
Suffice it to say that the seemingly humble Japanese pickles play a big role in Japanese culinary heritage. And in Kyoto, the once imperial capital of Japan, where heritage is not only lived but celebrated, the art of producing Japanese pickles has been refined.
Say Kyoto and images of ancient Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and geisha in silk kimonos come to mind. A town with over 1.5 million population, Kyoto is a place beloved for its balance mixed of old and new. But it is also a town known for its delicious and artful cuisine, called kyo-ryori.
Food here comes in many forms, from steaming bowls of ramen to more elaborate servings of kaiseki. But regardless of dining experience, a meal is never complete without some tsukemono.
One can find several shops selling tsukemono in Kyoto, particularly in Nishiki Market. Some offer tsukemono made from kyuuri (thin Japanese cucumbers), daikon (white radish), nasu (eggplant), uri (gourd) and hakusai (Chinese cabbage), among others, that are pickled using different agents – from the most simple, such as salt, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar to the complex, such as malted rice, miso, sake lees and rice bran. Tsukemono is all color and taste. One can find beauty from the bright green kyuuri or the deep purple nasu pickled with shiso, or perhaps, in the well preserved creamy white daikon with flecks of yellow from the lemon peel.
Japanese pickles are not the only thing one can find in Nishiki Market. Situated near the Yasaka Shrine and the Kyoto Imperial Palace, between Teramachi and Shinmachi, Nishiki Market is a lively retail market where most of the daily food supply of Kyoto (from fresh seafood produce down to all things food-related, such as knives and cookware) pass through. The market is located just a few minutes’ stroll from Gion District, where geishas still entertain customers in private teahouses at night.
Dubbed as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” the market has an over 400-year history, beginning with the opening of the first shop in 1310. The area started as a fish wholesale district and evolved into a retail industry. Most of the stores in Nishiki are being operated by the same families who passed down the business from one generation to the next. Take, for instance, the Aritsuhu, which is known for its hand-crafted knives. The establishment has been operating in Nishiki Market since it moved in 1918 from its old location in Sakaimachi Street where master swordsmith Aritsugu Fujiwara founded the shop in 1560.
Exploring the long, narrow covered market that occupies six blocks between Teramachi and Shinmachi, you’ll definitely never get hungry. The busy and crowded long, narrow covered market is the perfect place to explore the culinary delights of Kyoto and find seasonal food and other specialties. It houses stores ranging from small narrow stalls to two story shops. One thing a person would notice is that most stores specialize in just one particular type of food. A stall selling tea would offer just that, just as a Japanese sweets shop would sell just mochi and other wagashi.
There are a few small restaurants and food stalls serving Japanese dishes. Some are sit-down eatery, while others are take-away counters. Try the unagi (eel), yakitori, and sumibi-yaki (a type of barbeque), or suppon (Chinese softshell turtle) if you feel like being adventurous. Those with discerning eyes, or probably those who can read Japanese, might chance upon some whale meat.
When one reaches the end at Teramachi-dori, one continues past a few meters and see a torii, a gate marking the entrance to a tiny shrine. It was consecrated in 1003 A.D. before moving to its current location in the 16th century. It is believed that praying here can bring good luck in business and scholarship. In this part, some modern food stores and souvenir shops have started to move in. But there are still a few traditional shops to give tourists a unique experience in traditional shotengai (shopping street).
Although many shops are closed on Wednesdays, Nishiki Market is open daily, around 9 a.m., and starts closing around 6 p.m. Running parallel to Shijo Avenue, it is a five-minute walk from Shijo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line and also from Karasuma or Kawaramachi Stations on the Hankyu Line.