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Hirano-ya

If you have more than a few days in Kyoto, I recommend that you head to the northwest area of the city, to Arashiyama and Sagano. Sagano is Kyoto's last rural refuge, and although its famous narrow bamboo-lined paths are often choked with tourists, it is well worth including in one's itinerary. Blessed with the backdrop of stunning Mt. Arashi (Japanese for storm) and bounded by the peaceful Hozu River, Sagano has not only bamboo forests: it also boasts important zen temples and gardens, minka (folk houses) and even a few rice paddies. Its stunning scenic beauty has inspired poets, artists and princes since the Heian era.

We've made the journey many times, usually wandering along the same paths, without a map and without paying particular attention to where we were going, at different times of the year. Arashiyama is the perfect place for such aimless meandering. In spring, the mountain is cloaked in misty swaths of pale pink from the cherry blossom trees transplanted from Mt. Yoshino by the Emperor Saga. In autumn, the mountain transforms into a brilliant patchwork of heart-stopping color. In summer, the bamboo groves provide a feeling of coolness, even as cicadas announce themselves, and in winter, misty rains often cloak the mountain in moody light. The only given to our wanderings is that we end up at Hirano-ya, a 400-year-old tea house at the end of the road.

Although the area around the station is very busy, the traffic starts to thin the further uphill you climb. The bamboo groves are indeed a sight to behold, for in some sections, they extend as far as the eye can see. The pathways are lined with neat rustic bamboo fencing to protect the groves from foot traffic. Serious photographers are often frustrated, as it is virtually impossible to take photos without at least a few people, even at odd times and on weekdays. Still, it's always an enjoyable walk. Such is the nature of travel in Japan: all beautiful and famous places are crowded, so you soon grow accustomed to being part of a crowd.

Towards the end of the trail, near Nembutsu-dera (which is worth visiting and also has a smaller and less crowded bamboo grove) the path is lined with centuries-old minka. Their moss-covered thatched roofs and smoke-darkened rafters conjure up images of a lost Japan, and feelings of nostalgia among the Japanese, even if they grew up in the city. Many of these minka have been turned into coffee shops, restaurants and quaint shops selling souvenirs. At the very end of the street is a large vermillion torii gate, and just beyond that is Hirano-ya.

Hirano-ya has been serving pilgrims on their way to the top of Mt. Atago for generations. The building is over 400 years old, and happily, much of it is still intact. The kitchen still uses the old clay kamado (wood burning stoves) and serves matcha with shinko dango at reasonable prices. These dango are made of glutinous rice, and are twisted into a unique shape. Each serving includes a selection of white and green (herb) dango, served with sweetened kinako (soybean) powder. Their subtle sweetness and soft texture are distinctive and quite famous.

The tea house also serves ayu (sweet fish) and yudofu (hot tofu). Curious to see the rest of the gorgeous building the first time we went, we opted for the yudofu, as we were not really hungry. We were taken through a gleaming darkened hallway, past a gigantic rustic Saga lantern, to a private room overlooking a tiny pond, with the mountain rising up steeply behind. This was where the ayu were kept after being caught in the Hozu River. The sun streamed into the tatami-matted room, which featured gray clay walls and an understated seasonal kakejuku (scroll painting) in its small tokonoma (alcove). All was quiet, as we were the only diners.

The meal arrived in several courses, and particularly notable were the various locally made chinmi at the start of the meal. Chinmi are small servings of precious and hard to find ingredients. That day, ours included simmered horsetail, fuki and wasabi zuke. All courses were served on beautiful rustic pottery that had an understated elegance. It is all too common to find rustic pottery in Japan that is too cute, as if it were a parody of the idea of rusticity. The pottery at Hirano-ya was the real thing.

Yudofu is a popular dish in the cold season. A ceramic pot is placed on the table and set to simmer on a portable range, and fresh tofu, mushrooms and vegetables are placed in the water and dipped into a ponzu sauce, to which grated daikon and green onions are added. Hirano-ya's tofu, locally produced, was particularly delicious: soft and subtly flavored.

By the time we were finished, darkness had descended upon us, and we reluctantly left the cozy room. Sticking our heads out from under the noren curtains, we found the street empty. All the tourists had gone onwards or back to their hotels. We strolled slowly back to the station in pitch darkness and solitude. In the quiet of the evening, the only sound was the rustling of the bamboo leaves above our heads.

Getting there:
Most people arrive by train or bus. There are two train lines and multiple bus routes connecting to the city. From Shijo Omiya station in downtown Kyoto, it is a 20-minute ride on the Arashiyama-Keifuku line. Depending on the traffic, the bus usually takes longer, but it goes to Kyoto Station.

Top: Hirano-ya has been serving pilgrims on their way to the top of Mt. Atago for over 400 years. Above: an autumn arrangement at Hirano-ya.
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