11 February, 2013

Review: Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide

Cover Illustration by Clifton Karhu

Kyoto is a beautiful city, full of history and spirit. I spent just one memorable weekend there during my stay in Japan, a week-end at the New Year.  Though it was spiritually renewing -- I walked the Philosopher’s Way through peaceful woods beside a small stream and breathed fresh air as I gazed down on the shrines and city from above -- it was also a hungry one.  Because it was the holiday we couldn't find much open and had to subsist mainly on snack foods from little groceries.  How I then would have loved to have The Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide with its listings, all conveniently in English, of dozens of restaurants, housed in the attractive old townhouses known as machiya. With telephone numbers and Japanese addresses included and a Japanese-speaking friend along, I'm sure we could have found more places to try and ended up a bit more well fed and content.

  The Philosopher's Walk
© 2003 David Monniaux: Wikipedia

In fact, this book was the kind I eagerly sought while in Japan, and found all too rarely, a book for English readers living in country.  It takes many years to become fluent in reading Japanese, so this kind of book by someone with an intimate knowledge of the country is prized.  Judith Clancy has done a great job of making her expertise available to the visitor to Kyoto with this travel guide, in a small edition to fit easily into a bag or backpack.

The most practical thing about this book is the Index by Cuisine at the back that categorizes restaurants by type of foods.  This is great for planning meals ahead. I only wish she had included Vegetarian Friendly as one of the headings, as this would make the daunting task of eating out in Japan for vegetarians a bit easier. Kaiseki ryori sometimes has vegetarian dishes and it should also be a popular choice for overseas visitors since it is a speciality of Kyoto (and Japan), but it also is not marked out, being bundled under the category of Japanese.  If one has time to go through all the listings under this category and read about the restaurants, there are some included, but many people are looking for on-the-fly convenience in a guide book.

Visitors from abroad may be surprised at the range of foods available.  Those living there know that the Japanese do a great job at Italian and French foods and these are also among the most popular for locals. Foods such as ramen, udon, and soba bowls are ubiquitous all over Japan, much-loved for quick lunches.  Most mid-priced restaurants have lunch specials called "Set" (Seto)  meals, usually miso soup, a bit of salad and or pickles, a bowl of hot rice and an entree, or a plate of something like curry or spaghetti, and green tea.  These can be good, economical choices.

All the photos in the guide are in black and white. The photos of The Beauty of Machiya by Ben Simmons don't suffer from this, as it lends mood and texture to the lovely interiors, but the small photos of the restaurants included with each entry are a bit blurry, dark and similar and I feel that for those unfamiliar with Japan, they will be not much use in identifying the places people are searching for. I know colour shots add to the price of the book but I wonder if there could have been a better solution?  Perhaps there could be included a login for a website with colour pictures -- and even a Kyoto Restaurant Guide App.

Stone Bridge press has put up a Pinterest collection of photos of Kyoto Machiya that includes some of the restaurants, with lots of beautiful shots of architectural details of the houses but far better for the book's use as a guide would be a comprehensive restaurant index mirroring that in the book.

I noticed that the maps were all in English/romaji.  Though it is very useful to have the street names, it would be even better if they were paired with the Japanese kanji, though I confess I don't remember if the street signs in Kyoto feature romaji (English letters) signs now.  If so, this would not be a problem.

For architecture buffs there is plenty of description of the highlights of each building with historical details, an informative essay on Machiya culture, and that beautiful mood-setting photo essay by Ben Simmons.  Although I doubt that I will get to return to Japan in the near future, I enjoyed reading the book for its ability to carry me back to sights dear to me in memory.  I thank Judith for all the work she put into making this so.  May there be many more such books to bring a bit of ease and delight to the English-speaking traveller in Japan.

The Japanese government might want to take note to support these kinds of projects, because with the high difficulty of travelling in Japan for non-natives, every bit they can do to make it easier will help bring more tourists.

Sources for the book: (Kindle Editions are available and can be read on a pc with free software.)

At Amazon.com (America)

At Stone Bridge Press (California)

At Amazon.co.jp (Japan)

English ordering help page at Amazon.co.jp

Also By Judith Clancy this great-looking book that I discovered while writing this article and have put on my wish list.  I was hooked by the Look Inside excerpt.


PLG said...

Thanks for your great comments and for paying attention to our little book!

Re color photos. Yes, that would've blown the price skyhigh. But, in our ebook edition all the photos are available in color, so if folks haven't bought the book yet and are planning a trip, getting it on ebook gives everything in color and is completely searchable and takes up no space in the suitcase.

Re the maps in Japanese. Probably beyond our ability to make a bilingual map. Note that addresses in Japanese are given for all restaurants at the end of each entry, the intent being to give the taxi driver all the instructions needed. Many major street signs in Kyoto are in English.

Thanks again!

SBP Editor

vegetablej said...

Hi PLG ( Stonebidge Editor):

Glad to hear about the ebook and Kyoto street signs.

I think this book will be useful to readers both inside and outside Japan, especially hungry ones.