Four nights in Kyoto
Part 1 of 2
Years ago, when I worked for The Shoe Company I had the opportunity to travel to Osaka to help with the installation of a digital in-store experience. We worked relentlessly about 9 days but had one day off at the end.
I decided to take a train to Kyoto. My work colleague was fearful of being left alone, so I let him tag along, warning him that I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. I walked to the closest train station, fumbled through buying tickets, and we found ourselves on a local train going from Osaka to Kyoto. We arrived at what seemed like a sleepy train station in a small quiet town. We hung a left outside the train station, walked up a hill, and found a beautiful complex of temples. We walked around for the day, and then back down the hill where we found a curry shop.
I had no sense of geography at the time and didn’t realize that we just jumped off the train at the first stop in Kyoto, not realizing we were on the outskirts of a vast and interesting city. It was still a nice break from work though.
Our train arrived at giant Kyoto station which surprised me. I still thought Kyoto was a small city. It is not. We had instructions to find a subway line and make our way to the hotel from there, but we were tired, hungry, hangry, and cranky. We didn’t want to haul our luggage through the street. We found the taxi line and fell into the back seat of the grouchiest taxi driver I’ve seen in Japan. He warmed a bit when we payed him with exact change.
We didn’t forward our luggage to Kyoto because we had reached that point of the trip where we were in desperate need of a laundry machine.
This hotel is more posh than the previous two. Our previous hotels are “business” hotels - nice, and clean, serve breakfast, nothing fancy. Maybe one nice amenity.
This hotel is priced the same but carries itself with a little more class, which made it awkward to ask to use a laundry machine while we waited for our room to be ready.
The hotel has a lounge and during the day you can order drinks and snacks. The hotel is has a courtyard layout. Rooms open onto internal balconies which surround a square courtyard, open to the sky. There is a tree, tables, and chairs. We sat in the courtyard and sipped drinks and began to feel like ourselves again.
The laundry machines you find in these hotels are festooned with instructions. A small placard with the english equivalent sits on top. These machines will wash and dry your clothes for ¥500 or just wash them for ¥300. The machines have an internal detergent dispenser, so you don’t have to hunt around for a vending machine, but they only accept ¥100 coins.
Our room was ready. The luggage we asked the front desk to hold was magically transported upstairs. We hung up our laundry on the drying rack hiding folded in the closet and confronted the fact we had to leave again for a sushi making class.
We took a left out of our hotel entrance and made our way down 4-5 long skinny Kyoto blocks (the long skinny way) to a tiny traditional building. Two ladies, both old enough to be grandmothers greeted us. We took off our shoes, washed our hands, and sat at a small table on tatami mats in a small room next to a long, skinny kitchen.
Kumiko, the eldest grandmother, laid out the plan for us with pictures and notes. We would make miso soup, a spinach salad, and a sushi roll with egg. But first we had to make dashi.
Dashi is a general term for a cooking stock. It’s the base for soups, of course, but finds its way into unexpected places, like salad dressings.
Kumiko had already been steeping kombucha leaves in water and then added bonito flakes. Like a lot of bonito flakes. A big clutching handful. Bonito flakes are whisper thin and don’t weigh much of anything, but it was surprising to see. I’ve bought bonito flakes as a topping for rice and based upon my knowledge of hipster Portland grocery store prices, Kumiko had just dropped $30 worth of bonito into a pot. I’m sure it’s more affordable here.
As the dashi cooled, we turned our attention to rice. The rice was already prepared, warmed in the rice cooker. Our hosts dumped the rice into a large, circular bamboo vessel and seasoned it with a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and water while I fanned vigorously. After a few moments of mixing the rice grains take on a glossy sheen and come down to room temperature. But never mind that, let’s make a salad.
I was put to work grinding sesame seeds into a powder - nearly a paste - in a specially textured bowl. Imagine a Mexican molcajete but handmade ceramic instead of stone.
I was instructed to chop up blanched and drained spinach. The spinach had been rolled up in a bamboo sushi mat to drain. It was still bright green, but now tender and lost some of that vegetal bitterness that raw spinach has, while still having a little bit and crunch in the stems. I chopped the spinach and Kumiko marveled at my knife skills. In that I can use a knife. I’m sure her experience with teaching Americans to cook brings in all skill levels, but mostly the zero-skill level.
The ground sesame seeds became the oily base for a salad dressing. To this we added mirin, dashi, and vinegar and tossed in the chopped spinach. We tasted a bit. The double-umami of the dashi and the sesame seeds was rich with a nice depth. But there’s no time for that. We had to make omelets.
We clambered out of tatami-mat-room and into house slippers and into the kitchen. I was put to work beating three eggs with light soy sauce (as to not discolor the eggs), a splash of dashi (it’s in everything), and a little mirin. Kumiko heated three little rectangular pans with oil and showed us how to wipe down the pan with a folded paper towel held with long chopsticks. She placed a ladle of egg into the pan, tilting it back and forth until the bottom of the pan was coated, waited for just a moment, and then deftly rolled the omelet down the pan, from the far end to the handle end. Pushing the rolled omelet to the top of the pan, she wiped down the pan with oil again and added another ladle-full of egg. This time the omelet roll became a sort of handle to roll the rest of the omelet up. Then it was our turn. I mangled mine a bit. My wife amazed herself with her perfectly rolled omelet. A very proud moment.
By now the sushi rice had cooled and we sat back at the table to roll our maki. We included long strips of cucumber, crab, and our omelet rolls, now bisected lengthwise to fit into a roll better.
Kumiko heated up the dashi broth, added miso, tofu, and seaweed and we had ourselves dinner. We sat at small table eating and chatting. We finished with tea and a tiny scoop of ice cream and rambled back into the dark tiny streets to find our hotel.
By now, our jet-lag is manageable. I still wake up at 3am, but I’m able to return to sleep. I’m still up way to early, but at least I’m sleeping through the night. Breakfast won’t be served for another two hours, so I shower and dress and head out to the 7-11 for coffee. This 7-11 has a robot cashier. There’s still a real human working behind the counter, but his job appears to be to manage the money robot.
The money robot asks you questions and you give it money and it gives you a receipt. This is one of the first places which make it easy to pay with a credit card, so I do that to preserve my Yen for future use. Armed with coffee I return to find that the hotel has just now placed out their morning coffee service.
This hotel serves a “western breakfast” which is a disappointment for me but a relief for my wife. She has not acclimated to a breakfast of not-breakfast foods, while I realize I can have grilled fish and rice any time of the day or night.
They have French toast and a bagel sandwich on the menu. She gets French toast, I regret my decision. The Japanese takes on some western things is fantastic while other things miss the mark. The bagel, for example, seems to be taken for a shape of bread and not a flavor or texture. The French toast is a buttery, eggy pillow of pure delight.
We have a little time to kill before our onslaught of tours begin so we go wandering in search of a coffee. We stumble into a small coffee shop and give it a try. The place is run by a husband and wife team, and they are serving pizza toast! Breakfast number two? Why not?
We split pizza toast and an egg sandwich and drink two cups of coffee. We read and journal and enjoy our coffee as the locals spill in. I smell a single cigarette on the air.
When I was here 10 years ago, people smoked like chimneys. I joined in too when I was out at bars with colleagues. I’m not “a smoker” but I grew up in North Carolina. I never took up the habit, but I know how.
Something which is hard to express or capture is that the smell of a single cigarette is a delight. It’s calming, invigorating, ritualistic, and meditative. But 2 cigarettes is disgusting.
Now smoking on the street and most places in Japan is banned. Privately owned businesses may allow smoking, but few seem to. This local man with his coffee and cigarette must have been a time traveler with bad information.
We had a cancelation of one tour or another, and our travel agent couldn’t let that be. At the last minute we were booked for a guided tour with a British ex-pat named Duncan. Duncan’s mother is Japanese and learned enough Japanese in college to visit. His visit eventually became permanent.
Duncan greeted us in the lobby of our hotel. We said our hellos and headed out to see the city. It was, to be honest, a relief to speak fluent English again. I was jealous of Duncan’s ability to move in and out of Japanese. Whenever I travel I try to act like a local. But that’s just impossible for a 6’ white guy in Japan.
Duncan led us away from the hotel through the narrow streets of Kyoto. We ducked into a small neighborhood template. Duncan made quick conversation with a woman preparing to tend to a monument in the tiny graveyard adjoining the main building. He explained how the upkeep and maintenance of graves is the money maker for most of these Buddhist temples. There is a fee the burial and periodic refreshing of the monument including prayers and and maintenance. During the more significant visits an envelope of cash might be slipped to the priest as a gift. As the older population dies and the younger population skews more and more secular, these small temples may not survive.
We leave the temple and walk across the river, found a coffee shop, and zig-zagged through tiny streets. The homes became more and more historic. More wood, less concrete, finally all wood. We stopped by the home of a “Miz Wada” who runs a small art gallery out of her home. We tiptoed into the reception and gawked at the artwork. Paintings on silk. Quite beautiful and very expensive.
Duncan made introductions, and we were encouraged to sign the guest book…with a brush and ink. I scrawled out a vertical Michael Barrett as best I could in the little registration book. My wife, the genius, painted only her initials. We escaped into Miz Wada’s garden and back to the street.
Now up in the hills, we were sort of at the back door of the Chion-in temple next to its enormous 74 ton temple bell. We learn that this temple is the “headquarters” of this particular sect of “pure land” Buddhism - the same as the tiny neighborhood temple we visited. The large temple forms a sort of financial and structural umbrella for all the smaller neighborhood temples. If your small local temple needs a new roof - well that’s not a standard roof. Those tiles are made by hand. You need a guy. The big temple has a guy.
We visited the main temple structure, removed our shoes and stepped inside. We were lucky enough to stumble into a small ceremony, and kneeled to listen to chanting for a few moments.
There’s a striking similarity between these temples and other sacred spaces I’ve visited. The layout is different, the deities are different, but the spaces work in the same way. A portal into the space seems big from the outside, but gives way to a cavernous enclosed space. Unless you’re looking into a tapestry of storm clouds, you can’t really tell how deep the sky is. Even when you can get a sense of depth from layers of clouds, the scale isn’t clear. Is that cloud the size of a bus? A house? A mountain? But a giant room with a ceiling and walls gives you a profound but ironic sense of the infinite. By walling off a big chunk of space, you can start to feel how much more space there could be. It’s an architectural magic trick and it works in a Buddhist temple just as well as the in the nave of a cathedral.
We leave the temple through its tremendous gate and make our way through town. Duncan checks the time and realizes we’re too far from our next stop, steps into the street, and knocks on the window of an empty cab. We all pile in. Duncan and the driver are engaged in some involved conversation as I look out the rear window at the posh shopping district we’re driving through. I’m thinking about department stores and temples and how they work on similar principles.
We’ve arrived at our next location, but thanks to the taxi ride we are a bit early. There’s a supermarket here, so Duncan gives us a tour. We pick out an apple and grapes and then wander the store. So much fresh fish! All cleaned and cut and ready to lay on a bed of rice for dinner. Duncan lets us know that when he was a bachelor most of his dinners were just that.
Duncan led us to our next stop, the Matsui Sake Brewery where we met brewmaster Jorge, a New Yorker of Spanish heritage . Jorge and Duncan go way back. Jorge went to tie a ribbon on a previous tour, and then came to find us at the bar. He gave us a run-down of what we would see and we left the bar, put on plastic booties and hair nets, and ducked through a heavy plastic curtain into the belly of the brewery for a lesson in rice polishing.
You know how brown rice is brown and white rice isn’t? That’s because the brown, fibrous husk is ground off of brown rice to create white rice. The brown part of rice may be healthier, but it doesn’t make for good sake. Sake rice is polished to remove the brown outer layer, and then polished further to remove the outer layers of the rice grain. The rice dust which is ground away from the grain is reused to create rice crackers.
The most premium sake is created from rice that has been polished down to a tiny ball. The outer layers of the rice grain contain starch and some fiber. As you get closer to the germ you get less and less fiber and more and more starch and protein. Jorge held out containers of unpolished, somewhat polished, and very polished rice. The very polished rice was a tiny sphere compared to its unpolished giant football cousins.
Jorge showed us stupidly large rice cooker used to cook the rice. It’s just like your home rice cooker, but big enough to repurpose as a hot tub. When 60kg of rice (or so) is cooked it’s transferred to bamboo trays to cool down to an optimal temperature in a a sort of proofing room. When the rice is at just the right temperature a special mold called koji is spread over the rice. Koji is the same magic dust which creates miso and soy sauce from soy beans. The koji begins to break down and digest the starch, creating a primary byproduct of sugar.
The rice is added to a giant fermentation vat with water. Yeast is added. The koji and the yeast work together to break the rice down into a thick white porridge. And it smells amazing.
After the right alcohol level is reached the rice pudding is forced through an accordion-like contraption containing several layers of filter. From here it goes right into the bottle. Matsui specializes in fresh, unpasteurized sake. You are unlikely to find this in the US. When they’ve produced enough fresh sake to distribute throughout Kyoto and surrounding regions, the rest is pasteurized for wider distribution.
During this entire lesson, Jorge is animated and impassioned. Gesturing widely around the facility and making disdainful cracks about winemakers and their lack of precision. His expertise is formidable and it has to be. How else would a white guy join a 300 year old family business?
Now that we know everything about sake it’s time for a test flight. Jorge pours us each two glasses of sake. Each sake has the same temperature (cool, but not cold), made from the same rice, the same water (sourced from a well under the brewery), and the same yeast (Jorge tells us the name and official number of the yeast, but I forget). The first sake, from minimally polished tastes of green apple and green grapes. Slightly vegetal and bright. The second sake, from maximally polished rice, tasted deep like ripe stone fruit. I tell Jorge that maybe the first would be better with food, and the second is perhaps better for just sipping. He pats me on the head and tells me I’m smart. Actually, he just unloads a wealth of detail, tells me I’m not wrong but consider this as I drain my sake and try to learn.
We try more sakes including an unfiltered “pearl” sake which looks like milk but tastes like a satin cloud. Jorge has yet another tour stacking up. As he’s a native English speaker he gets to take all the foreigners on tour. We say our goodbyes and realize our next guide was waiting patiently for an opportunity to pounce.
Maki is quietly beautiful, fashionably dressed for business, and is On A Schedule. We collect ourselves and head out the door while Maki hails a cab to take us to the Geisha district.
Maki is a professional tour guide and licensed (apparently guides need licenses) and knows things about Kyoto. But her superpower is that she’s close friends with geishas and has learned their secrets.
Following Maki down some tiny traditional streets into these beautiful old neighborhoods she explains the significance of these particular lanterns with these particular crests. This is a geisha neighborhood. All those lanterns? These are restaurants, bars, banquet halls, which host geishas and their clients.
Maki is speeding down the streets and I finally understand why - there is a narrow window at around sunset when geisha leave their homes to meet clients for a banquet. If you dawdle you will see nothing.
We learn that an apprentice geisha is known as a maiko; maiko have the more elaborate costume. Elaborate hair, robes with long sashes, etc. Established geisha are geiko, and tend to wear a wig (rather than support that elaborate hair naturally) and have a more subdued kimono.
We see about 10 geisha on their way to work. Maki made certain we understood that we have been incredibly lucky to see this many out on one night.
Geisha are micro-celebrities. People stop and stare, whisper, and try to take surreptitious photos. The geisha float by on tiny steps as if they are on a higher plane of existence.
We snapped pictures surreptitiously, walked through the quaint old neighborhood, crossing a bridge over an impatient stream and back into the heart of modern, busy Kyoto. Maki flagged down a taxi and we sped back to our hotel to drink free happy-hour wine and talk about the day.
…Continued in part 2