The Nara tour consisted of three parts: the deers at the park, The Great Buddha Hall at the Tōdai-ji Temple Complex and the Kasuga Shrine. Somewhere between photographing the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) and the Shitennō guardians, my camera battery went dead. No more photography for the day, I thought. I bought some souvenirs and started walking toward the bus. That was when I noticed two children, brother and sister, I guess, tagging that their mother’s coat and pointing to a food cart.
I followed the kids and their mom walk across the park and gave the food vendor and his goodies a glance. The glance turned into a stare. I watched the vendor place skewered balls on a grill, flip them then douse them with a sauce.
Thank you to the two children who led me to the dango cart
The children in front of me were chattering excitedly in Japanese. I wanted to ask what the grilled balls were but I don’t speak Japanese so that was that. For some reason, I was convinced that discovering the food vendor and his little white balls was going to prove significant and I just had to immortalize the moment. With my camera’s battery totally drained, there was just my iPhone left for taking photos. It should do. Not that I really had any other choice.
The food vendor handed the two children one skewer each as the mother gave him the payment. As mother and children walked away, I thought to myself that if children liked those skewered balls, they must be good. Children often have an instinct for good food; it’s something I learned watching my own daughters grow up.
After catching the food vendor’s eye, I held up my pointer finger to convey that I wanted to order a skewer. I paid for it and, while walking toward the bus, I started eating. First, one ball. With my teeth, I pulled at it and let it slide off the skewer. Soft like a pillow, sticky and a bit chewy… actually more springy than chewy, and the sauce sweet, salty and savory all at the same time.
Dango wasn’t in my food vocabulary at the time. It would take plenty of research after getting home to discover what the pillowy balls with sweet-salty-savory sauce were. But not knowing what they were called did not stop me from enjoying them.
To describe them as “good” wouldn’t capture their essence. They were unassuming and uncomplicated yet the combination of the texture and flavor was mysteriously complex. If there was one food item that captured the essence of Japanese cuisine for me, it was those little white pillowy balls with their dark sauce. I adored them.
The bus was within sight as I was pulling the last ball off the bamboo skewer. I heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw my friend, Kat, a few meters to my left. She found the smoking area. Hurrah! I walked toward her as I chewed the last ball from the skewer. I located the trash bin, got rid of the bamboo skewer and lit up.
“I had that too,” said Kat, smiling broadly, referring to the skewered balls.
“Yeah? I saw some kids pulling their mother toward the food cart and I followed them,” I said.
“Me too!” said Kat.
We laughed. We do pay attention to what children do and we “listen” to them even when no comprehensible words are exchanged.
We boarded the bus and the short drive to Kasuga Shrine began. The road was narrow and packed with vehicles. It was Labor Thanksgiving Day the previous day, the start of a long weekend. In addition to the tourists, a lot of locals were visiting Nara Park too.
“Traffic is a bit heavy today because it’s a holiday,” our oh-so-delightful tour guide (Junko, I think her name was) said for the nth time that day as though apologizing for the traffic condition which, to me, was comparable to that oh-so-rare light traffic in my country’s capital and surrounding cities. I smiled to myself thinking you haven’t experienced Metro Manila traffic, girl, or you’ll be redefining what “traffic is a bit heavy” means.
To keep us entertained, she talked about Kasuga Shrine. The path leading to the shrine is lined with thousands of lanterns, she said, and they are so pretty at night. I wondered how I was ever going to photograph them in low light with my iPhone.
On a walking tour, opt for ice cream and coffee when your legs can’t carry you any farther
When the bus pulled up at the parking area of the Kasuga Shrine, I was mentally calculating the time that the walk to and from the shrine along the famous lantern-lit pathway would take and whether the sun would set sometime during the walk. No, it wouldn’t. The sun wouldn’t set for another hour and the walk was only 20 to 30 minutes. There was no way that the lanterns would be lit and the pathway illuminated in its full glory during the next 20 to 30 minutes. No chance for taking dramatic photos beckoned. I lost interest. Besides, my legs were aching uncomfortably. And… I already saw that there was an ice cream and coffee shop just a few steps away.
Kat didn’t want to walk to the shrine either. Whether ice cream had anything to do with her decision, I don’t know. Personally, I won’t deny that ice cream sounded ten times better than more walking at that point.
We entered Kaoh and checked the menu. Again, I was flustered. I wanted to order three different items but I knew I would never be able to finish all of them. I chose matcha and red bean ice cream with warabimochi and some colorful balls there were crisp and light as air. Glorious warabimochi. Fantastic ice cream. The red bean ice cream, especially.
We were happy and reasonably rested by the time the bus was ready to leave for the station where we would take the train back to Osaka.
Trading a sushi dinner for the most fantastic pork buns from 551 Horai
We planned on having sushi for dinner that night. A day earlier while searching for a smoking area at Namba Parks, we both passed a sushi restaurant on separate hunts for the smoking area. We were so impressed that we swore we would have a meal there. But, after Nara, we were really exhausted by the time the train reached Namba Station and walking all the way to Namba Parks didn’t sound like a good idea. We decided to buy dinner and dessert (I needed more mochi in my life) from the stalls at the train station and bring them to our hotel room. Because we both like dumplings, we chose a stall that sold different kinds of dumplings.
We ordered gyoza, shrimp shumai, pork dumplings and pork buns. I took photos of the stall just because. The name of the stall was unfamiliar and I thought nothing of it until days later, at home, when I was showing the photos in my iPhone to my husband and he asked what the name of the stall was. I zoomed in… 551 Horai, I replied.
Across the aisle from the dumplings and pork buns stall, I spied terrific-looking mochi. There was a queue which triggered a debate inside my head. Did I want mochi so badly that I was willing to stand in the queue for a few minutes? Or were the dumplings and pork buns enough to make me happy? The craving for mochi won.
As I stood in line waiting for my turn, I was daydreaming of biting into the dumplings and pork buns, and following them up with mochi, that taking more photos did not cross my mind anymore. Too bad because I can’t recall the name of the mochi store now and there are no photos to jog my memory.
Back in our hotel room, we unpacked the food packages and ate. The gyoza, shumai and pork dumplings were superb. But the pork buns really made my night. Neither of us knew that we were eating pork buns that have been an icon of Osaka, of the entire Kansai region, in fact, for decades.
Steamed pork buns are called butaman in Japan. 551 Horai’s butaman filling is diced pork (hand-cut by the looks of it) and plenty of roughly chopped sweet onion. The filling was delectable but it’s really the bread itself that stole the show. Elastic, springy but not airy, and just slightly chewy. Beautiful, beautiful bread.
Who knew, right? Who knew that we would discover such wonderful, wonderful food based on random decisions? We slept that night happy. Happy with our morning in Kyoto, our afternoon in Nara and the amazing food we discovered along the way.
P. S. And the mochi? Lovely. We bought three packages, finished two and kept the third in the fridge. The following night, I enjoyed the mochi with coffee spiked with Kahlua. Perfection illustrated.