A Personal Geography of a New York City Breakfast

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The night is fading as my preferred time to be awake in the city. The morning has that new feeling of home, both because of age (thirty in three months, how’d I grow up this fast?) as well as the fact that I’m one of the many who work in lower manhattan, repeating those morning rituals on city blocks with strangers. 

There is a real promise in breakfast that I’m beginning to love, from preparing it at home to indulging in a deli sandwich in the park. As I get older, I’m struck about how the city is here for everyone at different points of their lives, at different times of day even, with all our cumulative experiences defining the same place but often never converging. New York might be a place for the night revelers always (I hope so) but the morning is a quiet, other side to the city, a slice of the day that can we enjoyed liked nothing else. 

My personal breakfast geography begins with a simple breakfast at home,usually.  What is better than your apartment, that sanctuary against the city, with the ritual of making a meal and brewing coffee? My kitchen breakfast is toast and coffee eaten with the radio on either in the kitchen standing up (less time) or in the living room, on the couch with a book. The weekend is reserved for to crepes (Brian) pancakes (me), or eggs with arugula and toast (both of us.) During the week, I only make it through one cup of my french press, knowing that by Saturday I’ll be able to drink the entire pot. 

I drink coffee all over the city, from everywhere. I mean it.  I drink coffee from the deli that I can only purchase in quarters pilfered from bedside jean pockets to fancy cups lingered over in coffee shops on my route to work or as a reason for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. While I drink a cup high and low I don’t have a favorite New York City coffee shop, I think the ability to find it everywhere is the most charming. Lately I particularly like to splurge on a cortado from Toby’s Estate, with the hidden Strand in the back, since it’s near to my office and makes me feel a little bit like Aziz Ansari. 

On my way to work, if i’m feeling lucky, I’ll indulge with an everything bagel, not toasted because they’re fresh in the morning. I take mine every time with veggie cream cheese.There are so many bagels and I’m terrible at the game of best-of but I’m a standard girl with Terrace Bagels and Murray’s bagels because they cross paths with my life. If not a bagel, it’s two eggs and cheese with bacon on a roll from whatever deli crosses my path. Currently my deli is called 666 deli! What an omen, I think.

Many days are just bananas from the fruit sellers, an unexpected joy of living in New York City. When you can get fresh fruit all over, such a regular street companion, I tend to stop noticing how frequent fruit sellers are. The local fruit man by work always promises me he’s giving me the only good deal on blueberries and bananas in town. I think he might tell that to every customer, but a girl can dream. 

There is much to be had in the quick, fancy breakfast, too. The pursuit of a perfect chocolate croissant keeps me eying pastry counters, popping into coffee shops to see what they’ve got. All bets are off if they’ve got a a chocolate almond croissant. I’ve recently discovered though that the pretzel croissants at City Bakery are an amazing savory morning twist on the sweet croissant tradition.

On a weekend morning, especially in the summer, I love to split a Breads Bakery babka in Union Square with Brian. Actually, everything at Breads Bakery is out of this world indulgent.

But really, is New York the capital of brunch? If I’m being honest, I like to skip out on brunch. I’ll take a diner truck stop special over most brunches unless it’s Miriam in Park Slope because nothing convinces me like Mediterranean meets middle eastern food to stop and eat saucy eggs. In our corner of the city in Ditmas Park Brooklyn,  I’m less a fan of brunch (too much waiting) than a good coffee shop breakfast. Our local stop is Quathra on the charming strip of Cortelyou, where you can linger with coffee and a plate from their breakfast menu without the rush and crowds of brunch. There back garden is perfect for summer. I’m a waffles or spicy eggs girl there too.  

Anyway, I’m here for breakfast. I like to trace my way around the city in mornings.

 

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Sushi Yasuda

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When Brian turned thirty this past January we looked high and low for a few indulgent things to do in New York City. The thing is, so many of the fancy restaurants don’t keep my interest for very long. Give me a plate of dumplings or slice of good pizza and I’ll be more happy than I am with tiny plates of foraged mushrooms at every-other-farm-to-table-restaurant or upscale Italian joint in the city.

Ahem, but sushi, I’m ready to burn a hole in my pocket for sushi.  Elegant fish prepared piece by piece is exactly the kind of thing worthy a big milestone. So after a bit of a research, we decided that Sushi Yasuda was perfect for marking an entire new decade.

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Sushi Yasuda is one of the top sushi restaurants in Manhattan even if Mr. Yasuda has moved on. It’s tucked away on a nondescript block near Grand Central. The simple layout has an understated elegance, the kind of light and minimal restaurant I’ve already created fantasy narratives about visiting Japanese business travelers stopping in for dinner.

For the full experience, the kind worthy of splurging for because that’s what you’re going to do here, we sat at the bar for the Omakase set where the chef prepares the sushi meal piece by piece for you. There was no set menu or price when took our spot at the warm colored bar. We didn’t even order drinks, instead sipping green tea that is generously refilled by attentive waiters. The only question we were asked was what we didn’t want before the chef began. I decided I didn’t want to try sea urchin, but Brian did, fish being one of the few times he’s more adventurous with food than me. When we weren’t supposed to use soy sauce he let us know, which I loved, because of course we’re woefully unaware Americans. Often he’d set down a trio of fish, my favorite being variations of salmon. He’d note for us if something was flown in from Japan. Each bite was velvety and rich, the right balance of fatty fish to sushi rice’s slight sweetness, with a hint of wasabi underneath.

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The older Sushi chef had a sweet smile, a bit of a quiet wit. He laughed when he asked us if we were finished after what felt like a million years marked in single pieces of fish. When the bill was paid we left,  it was lightly raining in the city but warm for a January so we decided to stroll across town, thinking we’d probably never dine that well again because to be honest, some roundtrip plane tickets are cheaper.

Sushi Yasuda
204 East 43rd Street
New York, New York 10017
212-972-1001
www.sushiyasuda.com

 

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Favorite Bookstores of Brooklyn

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Word / Spoonbill & Sugartown / Powerhouse Arena / Idlewild / Unnameable / Bookcourt* / Greenlight / Community Bookstore / Terrace Books / Freebird

I have a habit of keeping visual notes of the best things, from what I’ve eaten to days I’ve spent. Bookstores in New York City are on the top of my best things list in life. Even if they’re fewer than before–I still miss the old Rizzoli space, sigh!– they’re still numerous enough to keep me happy. I often just plan a weekend day with Brian around ending up in a bookstore. After sketching my favorite Manhattan bookstores, it took me a while and an illustration class project to get them all down.

My favorite of the favorites is probably Unnameable because it’s the right mix of new and old, as well as in the perfect location for meandering around stores in Prospect Heights. Who doesn’t want Ample Hills AND a book on a Saturday bike ride? A close second is Community Bookstore in Park Slope because it’s cat is on the cover of a Japanese book about bookstore cats. I love a bookstore cat.

*update Feb 2017 Bookcourt closed! But soon enough Emma Straub is opening Books Are Wonderful in the ‘hood.

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Ruminating on Tokyo Street Style

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Am I turning into one of those people, those Americans, obsessed with Japan? Every time an artist I follow on Instagram makes it to Tokyo I go crazy with a fury of likes, wistful stares at rain-soaked alleys of izakayas.

It’s no wonder that though my trip was last fall, I keep sketching and thinking about what I did, saw, and ate in Japan. Just recently I remembered I bought a few style magazines in the airport for all the wonderful Tokyo street style images. I’ve been sketching the silhouettes of Harajuku-styled women from their pages lately.

The best street style was of course found around Harajuku and then Shibuya. But I also just enjoyed the understated everyday look of Japanese women. Observing the culottes, the exaggerated shapes, the love of back packs and sneakers was enough of a reason to wander the city, stopping on benches, lingering in department stores.

Thankfully Kinokuniya by Bryant Park stocks a million and one Japanese fashion magazines.

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A Late Winter Trip to Paris

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A life of Francophilia

I never left the country as a kid. Our family vacations didn’t even extend to Canada despite living in New England. Instead, we drove from our house to Cape Cod or to New Jersey.

The first time I actually left the country though was to Paris when I was twenty-four. Brian and I persuaded a family friend to let us stay in their tiny apartment right by the markets of Rue Monge. A free place to stay in Paris is always a thing you take someone up on, even if you’re broke.

Ever since, I’ve been (not-so-secretly) fixated on France. Not because I’m particularly a skilled being a francophile. My french begins and ends with cordial interactions in stores and a taste for ye-ye pop tunes on spotify. I think it’s just that feeling of first leaving the country, emerging into that lost aura of a lack of language, that sticks in my gut.

Though we travelled with friends who hadn’t been to Paris before, it felt like a a different kind of trip for me, like a return where I could be nostalgic but also feel changed, ignoring the touristy things I didn’t feel compelled to do, returning to places I went to before, all while assembling a scrapbook in my head.

Arriving

This return to Paris happened serendipitously because we found incredibly cheap one way tickets to Paris on Wow Airlines (yes that is a real airline name that flew us across the Atlantic.) The flight was 99 dollars one way, though it involved a particularly interesting connecting flight in the dead of early morning in the Icelandic snow. I’d totally do it again for the right circumstances, but might just fly NYC to Paris direct next time. It would be a fantastic way to just get to Iceland, though. Think backpacker-style when booking. I excel at packing in a carry-on now!

Staying in Paris

We rented a unique duplex apartment-meets-house in the 11th arrondissement, with many beds and two little garden terraces.

Bastille meets Oberkampf felt local, like a not-so-touristy place to call home for a week. There were several Parisian-style brasseries and cafes situated on Rue Voltaire, ones where you could sit without much hassle with a single espresso, a single glass of wine. Nearer to the actual Bastille, ambling down side streets,  you could find small stores, coffee shops, and a larger variety of food and nightlife that felt more New York City than Paris.

The neighborhood buzzed with the life of regular Parisians, not tourists. Though right near the attack sites of last November, it was not sullen. People were eating, drinking, and lining up for baguettes like you’d imagine.

Near the end of our trip, a student protest roarer up Rue Voltaire with a few break-off individuals smashing bank windows. We followed the protest a little bit, strolling blocks behind, watching the gendarmerie block off streets. After stopping in a cafe to use a bathroom, a woman behind the bar switched to English to explain that students protesting were normal. Welcome to France she said to me, handing over an espresso I bought to use the toilet, a bit sardonically.

Our Week

Walking, Viewing & Arting in Paris 

Walking Paris, even in the mid-40s weather, is a must. On foot you can play it off like you’re a local, seeing both streets with halal butchers alongside grand Haussmannian apartments of the Latin quarter.

We walked all over the city,  from Bastille to the Seine to the Marais to the long stroll from the Louvre to the Arch du Triomphe, to the metal chairs of the Luxembourg Gardens, even up the hills to Sacre Coeur. Parisian doors in Saint German des Pres captivated me as we strolled by. We even walked right into Notre Dame, in a jet lag stupor before it closed, still awe struck.

Skipping both Versailles and Louvre–what iconclasts–two of us end up doing a magnificent tour of the Palais Garnier old opera house. On the tour we were even invited in to view the controversial Marc Chagall ceiling while the stage crew set up for the evening’s show.

D’Orsay was the only big, classic Parisian museum I wanted to stop in, even though I’ve been before, because I’ve got a soft spot for Cezanne and Van Gogh and that old train station clock view.

The quizzical Musee Carnavelt is free and a pleasantly strange place to meander, focusing on the urban history of Paris with a flair for the weird.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery was a neat irregular destination to take in during a morning walk. Come for the famed graves, stay for meandering the paths of moss covered stones. If you come early during the week, it’s mostly empty.

But the view from Tour Montpartnasse is worth the wait at dusk. You can see the sunset, staying for the Eiffel tower to glitter at night. Paris, you win, you’re so beautiful, I get it. 

Shopping & Neighborhoods to Meander

My favorite shopping was a trip to the northern edge of the city, near the ring road that marks the boundaries of banlieue, to Marche Puces de Saint-Ouen. I’ve never encountered quite an antique and vintage market that rivals it before. Besides an array of classic french vintage, ceramics, and old bric-a-brac, I enjoyed just exploring the cavernous tunnel of tables.

The streets of the Marais were the best for meandering cafes, shops, and admiring Parisian architecture. Bensimon, that French brand known for minimal tennis flats, has a flagship shop in the Marais, too.  On the edge of the neighborhood is the a curated and designer department store Merci Paris, which is worth a look at the very least for their used bookstore cafe where you can relax as others buy expensive but beautiful things.

Canal Saint-Martin was also a neighborhood full of smaller shop to stroll through, with Artazartthe best art bookstore I’ve been too located right on the canal for sitting and hip people watching.

An unlikely recommendation is the grocery meets department store Monoprix. Check out their French made soaps, they’re about a euro each, making them a perfect budget gift. The beauty department is noteworthy as well as the fact that most of them are also grocery stores. Stock up on butter at Monoprix!

Eating and Drinking

The everyday food of Paris is the food I like the most, the cheap things you can buy on the street or at the generale alimentation: crepes, croissants, macarons, bottles of wine, chocolate mousse, oh and yes the bread.

On the topic of delicious, heavenly bread, I will admit that our group ate 15 baguettes in a week. We liked them that much. You can read for days about finding the best baguette in Paris, but every single one of them is worth ripping into, so who cares which boulangerie you’re getting them from. The smartest tip seemed to be finding the local bakery that had a line in the morning or afternoon, with a peaking view of the actual kitchen in the back so you’d know they were baked on premises.

French butter, the kind just a little salt and bought at any old grocery store, takes a baguette to another level of heaven. Add grocery store 8 euro wine and you’re golden.

A bit fancier than the grocery store but also similarly everyday are the markets of Paris. On our last full day we ate an indoor picnic of cheese, bread, and spreads from the Marche Bastille. I think I’ll be forever chasing the salty texture of the green olive tapenade we bought from a friendly vendor who chatted us in perfect english about his brother in New England.

Local to the Marais, I would recommend the very un-french Cafe sudeois for a taste of Swedish Fika, a cafe full of cakes upon cakes that I could eat again and again. That fresh cream is definitely a good idea, trust me. And lastly, the very-Parisian Jewish Las du Fallafel might be the falafel I’ve ever had, and reason enough to visit the Marais over and over.

But seeing as we were in France, the best actual French meal we ate was had at neighborhood gastropub known for riffs on traditional tartares called Les Deux Cigalle. It’s was a welcoming,  tiny spot with an inviting menu in Montparnasse. Brian ate a tartare but I ate a giant, delicious burger, feeling like a true American in Paris. Turns out Parisian loves burgers, too, so I feel a bit hippier than I had expected now.

Besides that French meal, I really just enjoy the tried and true French cafe, with a waiter who will ignore you yes but who will also let you simply order one glass of wine, or espresso and a croissant for breakfast, nothing more. There’s nothing as pleasing as being able to linger, ordering a chocolate mouse and a large beer because why not.

I think New York City could use a little less rushing in-and-out every day, especially on the weekend when you feel like you’re about to be stampeded for breakfast. I could use a perched table for watching the street any day.

See you next time, France. I’m keeping notes.

 

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Turkish Delight from Kalustyan’s

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I may take for granted that while living in New York, I can find almost any food on any old regular day, no matter the time. I do just that by stopping to buy turkish delight, a sugary gummy confectionary often studded with nuts and flavored with rosewater, in the evening at my local bodega-turned-grocery-store.  Somehow the eastern European owners stock it, tucked away in bins next to cheerios and vitamin water.

My Bulgarian sister-in-law whom grew up eating Turkish delight marvels at its prevalence in the city, from my neighborhood all the way to Brighton Beach, because elsewhere you’ve got to go looking.

I mistakenly forget it’s not normal to eat candy of the world whenever you’re feeling the sweet tooth. The nougat ones, milky white and studded with pistachios, are my best friend.

 

But the truth is that for the best selection of Turkish delight and almost anything else you’ve longed to try and cook with, there is no other place to look than Kalustyan’s in Murray Hill,the Middle Eastern and Indian speciality food and spice emporium operating in Manhattan for forty years. Or as it’s colloquially known, Curry Hill, because of all the indian restaurants that dot that section of Lexington Avenue.

I first came across Kalustyan’s in the back of a cookbook with instructions on just how to find what you’re looking for when the local grocery store doesn’t even stock Goya beans.  Since then, it’s been a yearly pilgrimage spot for me to pick up hard to find dried beans, a beloved prepared spice mix of Ras-Al-Hanout among the other world food items for my kitchen. Not to mention the copious amounts of Turkish delight which is bountiful and the bane of my dentist.

Come to Kalustyan’s to try Turkish delight but definitely stay to try grape leaves or hummus at the cafe, while stocking up on their own brand name of spices.kaluystans

Kalustyan’s
123 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10016

 

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Sketching, Spending Time at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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I love going to The Met but never in a large amount of unstructured time. It’s because I’ve finally been back in New York City long enough that I find a particular joy in repeat patterns of my own city life and in also knowing my limits with any cultural activity.

Almost three years back and I want to be an old lady, shuffling past everyone to see exactly what I want and nothing more. I want to complain about tourists under my breath while also being a tourist for a Sunday. I want to be too tired to see too many galleries, asking for lunch and an afternoon cup of coffee by the time I’ve gone up and down the main stairs twice. I want friends to tug me along to what they want to see until we can see no more, knowing that my hunger will triumph when you reach those immense front steps, warm or cold air hitting at once.

The hot dog stands out front are my forever friends. Once, drawing one of them, they came over to look at my notebook.

 

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It’s all about knowing my mood while there. It’s about finding favorite galleries and repeating them I move on.

I love finding the Chinese Court most times, even if I’m really looking for the bathroom. If you know your way around The Met, I commend you. I’m perpetually lost inside. On the way, though, I like to stop to take in those immense Buddhas, considering with respect the simple question: how did they get these in here?

The stark arts of the Northern Renaissance will always have a sway. I’ll stare at Netherlandish portraits over and over, both because they’re funnily giving you a side glance with shaming eyes and because they’re just so viscerally real. They look like real people, like the people on the streets, I always think, except in lots of black and white cloaks which is actually not that wholly different from New Yorker’s black wardrobe today.  

Portrait of Madame X  by Sargent is a favorite. Maybe it’s my New England yankee in me. I remember going into Boston to see Sargent’s work, both my artist mother and grandmother admiring his work. Perhaps a proto-feminist narrative lurking behind that falling dress, that scandalous barren shoulder, keeps me looking.

Another favorite is in the captivating Islamic galleries. The repeat patterns of the Iranian prayer niche, a mosaic of stunning color from 755, is arresting. It’s also a moment place to stop and consider how such scared, ancient items make their way into a museum in New York City, and what cultural exchange could (should?) look like under other circumstances.

I walked right past Woody Allen and Sun Yi back in December, right smack dab in front of the museum. I think might be the most New York  moment I’ve experienced yet. Goodbye its over for me, I’ll never have another Met moment like this. But I’ll keep coming back. I’ve got rooms to find before I die.

 

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Dumplings of Sunset Park, Brooklyn

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Sunset Park is about a twenty minute bus ride from my apartment, a ride that jostles through Bangladeshi, Orthodox Jewish, Chinese, and Mexican enclaves of the borough,  You’ll pass halal butchers with live birds, kosher bakeries packed on a Sunday afternoon, dim sum joints and dumpling houses easy to miss if you’re not looking, tacos stands and mango sliced on street corners with hot sauce. It’s a microcosm for all the recent immigrant patterns changing and shifting the food landscape of Brooklyn.

Sunset Park is home to Brooklyn’s Chinatown, too. There are two other Chinatowns in New York City of course, the oldest and most well-known Manhattan enclave as well as the currently expanding Queens’ community in Flushing. Brooklyn’s Chinatown formed in the 1980s with a mix of Cantonese speaking immigrants and more recent Mandarin speakers. It too shares new growth in common with its Queen’s sibling.

Walking 8th avenue in Sunset Park centers you on the main thoroughfare of Brooklyn’s Chinatown from where you can observe busy cafes, banquet halls, video stores, fishmongers, and grocers where (if you’re like me) you can stop to look at prickly durian fruits hanging from awnings with both reverence and trepidation. And of course, you’ll pass by many nondescript dumpling restaurants beckoning you to eat more than you’d expected was humanly possible.

I’m not an expert when it comes to Chinese food and Chinatowns–full disclosure–but after reading Edible Brooklyn Dumpling Tour of Sunset Park I thought I’d use dumplings as my guide to eat and draw a day’s worth of Sunset Park.

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The first stop was Great Taste Dumpling which is supposed to have some of the best and cheapest dumplings in Brooklyn. The inside was sparse and barebones but every seat was taken when we arrived, a testament to how good the owner’s 4-for-a-dollar dumplings are. We ordered boiled pork and chive dumplings and sesame pancakes stuffed with pork with several pours of the vinegar soy sauce poured into reused sriracha bottles to make everything that perfect bite of savory and salty. The owner of Great Taste is friendly and fast.  I found an article about the dumpling house’s purveyor from Open City quite poignant, speaking to the pleasure but obscured hard work behind the food immigrants sell,

Next, we kept our hungry stomaches going by settling down at Kei Feng Fu Dumpling. Similar to Great Taste, this dumpling house was minimal but packed. While we were there a church group ordered around a hundred dumplings which the small staff didn’t even blinked at. We opted to try pan-fried pork dumplings and another sesame pancake,. These dumplings were  of the  cheap 4-for-a-dollar and delicious variety as well.

To change up our the dumpling palate, we ended the crawl at He Yi Yiao Chi, which is hard to recognize as a restaurant with so many car ads plastered to it’s outside but don’t be fooled, it’s worth it. Inside, we ordered six pork ting buns for 3.00. Each bun was light and fluffy on the outside, with a dark savory pork filling inside. Six buns with hot sauce and vinegar soy sauce was more than enough to fill our savory cravings for the day.

Though we couldn’t leave without satisfying a sweet tooth so we stopped by a Chinese bakery to grab a slice of honeycomb cake, something I’ve never tried before but it had an irresistible but strange texture with a deep molasses sweetness.

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A First Time Trip to Kyoto

 

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kyoto_travel_guide_intro Setting Out for Kyoto

We traded the lights of Japan’s largest city to spend some time in the county’s old capital. With two weeks of travel planned in Japan, give or take a day on either side for the leg of the flight, making the Kansai region our second stop made the most efficient use of our time during a first trip to Japan. Looking back on our brief, wondrous trip,  I’m glad we didn’t overextend our ambitions for exploring more of the country. Kyoto was an easy next step but turned out to be a beautiful contrast to Tokyo.

The Shinkansen train ride was a special delight, a bucket list dream for me as a train fan. We stopped before the train departed to pick up a sushi bento box at a neighboring department store depichika, buying paper cups of coffee from the train car attendants while on the ride. As I had observed all over Japan, the train was a mix of a new, shiny future with touches that felt like near relics of the past. We reserved seats on the right side of the train to see Mt. Fuji on but the clouds had their way with obscuring our view.

Though it seemed like business travelers used the train route the most frequently by the number of suit-clad individuals we counted near us, there were many types of Japanese people on the train. The everyday faces highlighted the absolute ease of to travel around the island nation.The train hugs near to the coast too, situating just how most of the Japanese live near the water in dense networked cities. The train window framed the grey, green, and mountains on the horizon, a slice of Japanese life inbetween Tokyo and Kyoto.

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Staying

We arrived in Kyoto and hailed a cab outside Kyoto Station, the first and only one we used in Japan. We (believe it or not) mostly enjoy long walks while traveling. Not that the experience wasn’t first rate, though. The driver rushed to get our bags, wearing the well-known cab driver gloves, even stopping during the ride so he could call our host for us to figure out the exact directions since we could hardly communicate with him in English.

The little details made an everyday interaction–a cab idling outside a train station— feel just a bit deviated, emblematic of how I felt about a lot of Japanese culture: familiar but changed, ever so slightly. The cab driver drove us through tiny old city center streets to a restaurant where we would pick up our key for the apartment.

We rented another apartment with Airbnb for an easy, central stay. The apartment was a studio with futon style mats with a balcony, located in Gion. Gion is a nightlife district known for a beautiful street called Shimbashi Dori. It’s home to traditional teahouses and omakase restaurants, with picturesque walks amongst machiya townhouses never destroyed in the war.

Many people congregate near a bench on Shimbashi to catch a Geisha en route to an appointment in the early evening. The fascination with Geisha is a little strange for me—potentially wrought with cultural stereotypes I’d rather not engage in without more historical specificity–but we strangely enough ended up seeing a Geisha by chance one evening while strolling for dinner. It was a flash and then she was gone, a brief introduction to something I’m out of depths in.

Since Kyoto is more spread out than Tokyo and with fewer train lines, as well a region possessing what is likely 2,000 temples and shrines far and close to the city center, we picked a well-known neighborhood near the river figuring we could at the very least walk to what’s closest to us then strategically plan how to see farther sites. Though we didn’t rent them, biking around the city and along the river would have been a perfect late summer way to explore greater Kyoto.  We enjoyed walking the gridded and flat streets of central city, though, using train lines and buses when need be.

Upon settling in I could already sense that Kyoto had a very different tone than Tokyo.  The mountains in the mist, hovering around the city, greeted us on the apartment balcony like an emblem of their differences.

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IMG_701120150918_133429 20150918_121946_001 IMG_7128 IMG_7171 IMG_7185Our Kyoto Itinerary

Kyoto is the old capital of Japan. It is home to history, traditional Japanese architecture, and hundreds upon hundreds of Shinto and Buddhist temples and shrines to encounter.  I felt more of the environment and the people in the change from Tokyo’s cosmopolitanism to Kyoto’s historical sense. It’s appeared a slower, smaller city that reminded me more of Boston compared to New York City, with a similar collegial charm. Kyoto’s low buildings and traditional machiya immediately provided an architectural contrast with much of Tokyo’s grey mid century modernist facade.

Sites of religious practice were everywhere to say the least– from alleyway shrines to other-worldly Zen temples set in hillside hamlets. The Japanese also seemed more than comfortable with this seamless integration of their economic life blending into religious devotion: not only were foreigner’s respectfully mixing in sites of national religions practice, everywhere you went the Japanese were also touring their own heritage. Often we’d catch an everyday business woman or man on a stop on for a quick devotion, be it in a shrine next to a Pachinko parlor or in a larger temple hovering on the periphery of the city. Though we expressed reserve in temples, not looking to offend by misunderstanding, we always felt welcome alongside them.

We paired down our to-do for the trip based on the sheer inability for us to see everything, focusing on selecting a few must sees, then allowing time to just hang around Central Kyoto’s neighboring districts.

We made sure to go to Fushimi Inari Shrine, a shinto shrine with hundreds of red-orange torii gates in Southern Kyoto, that requires a train ride farther from of the city center. Inari being the god of rice, there were thousands of fox statues with grains of rice in their mouths throughout the hike. We hiked the gates in the rain which while a bit muddier than I expected actually meant for us that there would be fewer intrepid tourists.  It was a transcendent experience in a downpour. My city girl canvas sneakers squeeked as rain belted the large tree leaves and the ground. Every minute or so you’d find some respite venturing between gates, up a hypnotic route to the top.

Gion where we slept was a superb base for exploring both food and temples. There were several temples in walking distance to the our apartment, including Chionin and Yasaka Shrine.  If you cross the Kamo river near Gion there are several busy alley streets with cheap food, teeming with expat nightlight as well as hip vintage stores and cafes tucked away. Just walking the neighborhoods off either side of the river in all directions from Gion turned out to  be a pleasant way to explore. We came across several antique stores off the beaten path this way. Venturing more southern of Gion, we discovered Cafe Arabica which brewed a great cup of coffee.

Nishiki Market alongside with the arcade area in downtown Kyoto offered the similar feel of Tokyo but with the added benefit that you’d discover a shrine right after you had just been trapped in a loud pachinko parlor. There is nothing quite like witnessesing a contemplative ceremony in an area full of shopping and modern life.  We spent a few days exploring this area, stopping in Nishiki market for food and to observe the hawkers.

Walking on Sanjo and into the neighborhoods north of Gion but on the other side of the river, ending at the Imperial Palace Gardens, provided a quieter stroll around residential Kyoto. Here we observed more of what a calm day to day life in Kyoto might be like. There were several Japanese boutiques and good restaurants tucked away in this area that I’d loved to visit again, like Cafe Bibliotek Hello.

Another farther expedition was going to the otherworldly Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Though busy with tourists, the sacred bamboo forrest is nonetheless awesome to walk through, like a stroll on another planet’s forests. Afterwards we went to  Tenryuji temple, a quick walk away, which is the head of an active zen buddhist sect. The temple is situated right near the mountains, incorporating the backdrop breathtakingly into the zen garden grounds. I’ve never seen moss treated as a central element to gardening until Japan. The area near both called Sagano is beautiful too. We spent a while just lounging near a river, watching wooden boat cruises passing by.

We made two day trips out to Kyoto. The first was to Osaka. known for it’s dinning scene, so we could stroll around Dotonbori while sampling the cities’ well known street food, great for budget traveling. The city reminded me of the lights and commotion of Tokyo but it was nice to be able to venture there and back to Kyoto in less than a few hours.

The second day trip we took was to Nara, the even older-er capital of Japan before it was moved to Kyoto, home to the largest buddha in Japan and (of course) sacred deer that roam around a reserve. We spent most of the time with the deer. The most memorable moment was sitting in the a park’s cafe, lounging on the table sipping Asahi dry beers, while deer came in and out of the restaurant, perching next to us as friends.

We left Kyoto with another day and half in Tokyo before flying home, a bit burnt out of being away but also awe struck with Japan. Kyoto was a quiet but lively and livable city. It was full of everything at once, a glimmer at another side to Japanese life and history.

 

 

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Batata Pita Bar

batata

 

My love affair with falafel started with Mamoun’s $2 sandwiches, enjoyed hastily between college classes.  But as of late my favorite is falafel variety is found at Batata, an israeli-style falafel cafe located on a sleepy strip of good restaurants and shops on the border Kensington and Windsor Terrace . Batata, which means sweet potato in Hebrew, is quickly becoming a beloved spot of the neighborhood with what I’ve read is true to Tel-Aviv style falafel.

Batata’s crispy sweet potato falafel plate is my beloved standard. The plate’s sides offer a colorful mix of vegetables, pickled and lemony, with velvety hummus and tahini smoothing it all out. The schug–a middle eastern style hot sauce, — is piquant and fantastic. I always ask for pickles on the side of the plate as an extra because the world needs more pickles, please.

Other favorites on their menu are their schwarma sandwiches and the schnitzel with waffles.  And I really enjoy saying the word schnitzel, too.

Batata Pita Bar
3021 Fort Hamilton Pkwy
Brooklyn, NY 11218
b/t 3rd St & 2nd St

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