Kyoto

Sunday, October 27, 2013

I have this new(ish) file called “Writing Scraps,” or “DubScraps” for short. It’s an electronic home for the sentences and paragraphs that don’t fit anywhere else…yet. With the addition of much of this original post–an intro that was off topic, an unrelated story–the file’s word count has doubled. I keep these words for the same reason a person keeps a stash of ketchup packets. One day I might need them. This whole paragraph probably belongs to DubScrabs, too, or maybe in the electronic trash can, but I’ve given myself a deadline and I’m sticking to it. Shall we get on? Good.

What struck me the most about Kyoto was the serenity in everyday life, the meticulous and intentional presentation of everything from potted plants to espresso, and the mixture of hospitality and deeply honored privacy that is very much the Japanese way. I was lost a lot, but it was never a problem. I tried to capture what I saw, but the most unforgettable moments were too fleeting, and not meant for a camera anyway. I won’t forget the short exchanges with kids in uniform on their way home after school, the trio of businessmen I shared the counter with at a ramen spot, the irenic woman who sat diagonal from me during one lunch, quietly eating a nest of soba while reading the paper, or the seconds of eye contact with a geisha in the back of a taxi, her driver looking just as becoming in his white gloves and suit.

Yashi owns IchiEnSou, a great guesthouse in Gion, and Soba and Soon Young help him run it. Olga and I met in the guesthouse’s common area, the same room that houses the staircase to the attic, the kitchen, and a few clusters of wooden tables and chairs. During the day, we traveled separately to different corners of the city, and about the time it’d get dark, we’d find ourselves back in the common room where we’d swap stories about what we’d seen or eaten, both of us full and tired but hungry enough to go for dinner. We’d saunter down the block and get as far as the yakitori bar on the corner, and we’d order chicken livers or grilled eggplant skewers and beer, our warmup. One night Olga took me to her friend Yoshi’s restaurant, En Boca. They’d met in the Czech Republic years earlier when Yoshi was a guest at Olga’s hostel, and have stayed in touch since. Yoshi made us a drop-dead gorgeous salad of cucumber coins, oily shitake mushrooms, rosy-bellied radishes, yellow kiku petals, and smoked mackerel sashimi with silver skin and wispy veins that he filleted to look like butterflies. He swept the salad along the curve of the plate in a crescent and tucked in a fan of smoked leaves ripened with fall. We ate that while he topped a pizza in quarters with 1) basil pesto, lotus root, and pine nuts, 2) mozzarella and shitake, 3) mozzarella, crushed tomato, and basil, and 4) mozzarella and seaweed pesto. He floured a wooden paddle and sent the pizza to the brick oven. In less than two minutes it was cooked. Yoshi traveled to Naples to study pizza, and one bite of his crust is all it takes to feel the effects that trip had on him. He could have slathered his pie with soggy cereal, for all I cared. It may seem counterintuitive to eat pizza in Japan, but it’s the fusion of rustic Italian and intentional Japanese, of provisions and harmony, that make Yoshi’s food special. It is also his commitment to the connection with nature through food, which he views as one of our last.

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Chris and I met while we were both a little lost, but it turned out we were headed in the same direction. We made plans to have dinner at Kanesho, a covert spot at the end of an alley (by measurement, more of a hallway) behind a very small sliding door. You’d never find it on a whim, and we almost didn’t find it with a map. We slid the door aside to find a full house of heads all turned in our direction. A tall, silver-haired man was standing in the corner over a grill. He had one arm curved to his hip like the handle of a teacup and the other around a smoke-stained fan, flapping at the coals.

Reservation? He asked. We didn’t have one. But we could come back at 8:30, so we said we would. An hour and a tasting of sake later, we sidled up to two open seats at the counter. The young guy behind it helped us through the menu we couldn’t read, and we learned later that he was the older man’s son.

As Koske’s father hung out by the grill, Koske would glide through the rest of the tiny restaurant, washing a few glasses or refilling a beer mug gone dry. When an order of eel was ready, Koske would scoop rice into a bamboo steamer, then fold in a drizzle of tare (eel sauce) and sesame seeds before mounding it into each dish. His father would slide the eel off the skewer on top of the rice, and Koske would deliver the goods. These two did a dance back there, and it was addictive to watch. At Koske’s advice, we ordered unadon (grilled eel over seasoned rice in a bowl) and unaju (grilled eel over rice mixed with dried seaweed in a box). With the nudge of chopsticks, the crispy skin split apart, and the flesh collapsed into oily flakes with bones so inscrutable, you couldn’t feel them.

In Arashiyama, I rode a bicycle into the unknown without a map (and if you ever plan to visit Kyoto, I highly recommend you do the same) foremost because I needed both hands to steer, but also because I believe it is a virtue to be graciously lost, or rather, to admit to not knowing exactly where you are or where you’re going, but believing where you are is good enough for now. (A daily practice, that one, and a hell of a challenging one, too).

Every place has a formula for engaging the senses. Kyoto is cocoa, vermillion, and weeping willow green from the trees that flank the Takase Canal and the Kamogawa. I’d recognize it by the chime of electronic bells at crosswalks and the metro, the staccato delivery of yes and thank you, the click of bicycle wheels and the way the whole city is able to muffle regular urban clamor and turn it to music. Kyoto tastes like sweet, whipped miso and grated yuzu skin, and feels like the tingling of a single sansho berry the size of a peppercorn after it pops in your mouth.

Other highlights: pickle tasting at Nishiki Market, The Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, The Golden Pavilion, shopping for local ingredients at grocery stores, lunch at a diner in Nishijin, the women who drank pink champagne, Emi’s cooking class, a train ride to Kansai airport with Soon Young.

Recommended restaurants (many of these were also recommended by Yashi at IchiEnSou):
en boca (pizza) :: 075-253-0870 :: Ikesu-cho 406 Kyoto City :: lunch 11:30-2:00 dinner 5:00-10:00

Mimio (pork ramen) :: 075-525-3304 :: 354 Kiyomotocho Shijo Agaru Hanamikoji Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City :: dinner M-Sat 7:00-2am
detailed walking map from Shijo Station here.

Kanesho (unagi) :: in a tiny alley off of Nawate-dori in Gion. Best to stop at the sake bar inside Jam Hostel (around the corner) first for a sake tasting and marinated miso and ask for directions to Kanesho. Jam’s address: 605-0079 Kyoto, Kyoto, Higashiyama-ku, Tokiwa-cho, 170

Grelot (French bistro) :: across from IchiEnSou

Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) :: on the corner of Yamatooji-dori and the same alley as IchiEnSou