It seems to me that good travel experiences require one of the following three things – a willingness to take risks, some modicum of planning or research, and dumb luck. If you get two out of three, you’re in great shape. If you manage all three, you’re golden.
On our first night in Kyoto, we hit the jackpot. After what seemed like hours of wandering down the many dark alleys of the internet, Janine found a ryokan that would take us. Ryokans are basically traditional Japanese inns. We would have gone for one of those fancy pants places in which kimono-clad women appear out of nowhere to bring you your slippers, some shakuhachi master is tooting his flute beyond some hidden paper screen somewhere, and they serve you a meal that takes forty two hours to prepare and eleven hours to eat, but everyone was booked. It’s probably all for the good, because those places ain’t cheap.
Instead, Janine found a perfectly nice joint, called the Ryokan Sawaya Honten on the outskirts of town, but within walking distance of a number of cool temples. We had a nice, big tatami room, and they served a nice Japanese breakfast (not for everyone, to be sure, but when in Rome and all that sort of thing). What they didn’t serve was dinner, and when we arrived we were hungry. The nice fellow at the desk gave us a map of all the places to eat in the neighborhood, pointing out his favorite – a place that serves kaiseki dinners – basically, multi-course affairs that can be pretty elaborate.
We wandered around the neighborhood and we just couldn’t find what we were looking for, which made a lot of sense, because we had no idea what that was. Finally, almost out of desperation more than anything else, we peered through the window at the kaiseki place. It was really lovely inside – there was a row of stools in front of a beautiful long wooden bar and a tiny room in the back and not much else we could see. A chef was meticulously plating some interesting looking dish for the lone couple at the bar. It looked intimidating, but we were hungry. It also looked delicious. And it looked really expensive. We poked our heads in sheepishly, almost apologetically. These kinds of situations make me kind of nervous. We needn’t have worried. “Hello! Welcome! Come in! Two for dinner?” the nice lady said.
“Yes,” I replied in Japanese, “two people for dinner.” My Japanese is about kindergarten level, but I can muscle through simple transactions like these. The chef wasn’t expecting even that and was visibly startled at my response. This always confuses me. People speak to you in Japanese and are surprised when you understand them. Howzat?
Anyway, the chef, a relatively young looking fellow, seemed charmed and he handed us a menu and explained that there were three dinner sets,with the first one starting at about forty five bucks. Seriously? I asked the nice fellow to please bring us the cheapskate set and he didn’t seem to mind.
Well, forty five bucks bought us nine absolutely impeccable courses of some of the most beautiful fish and vegetable combinations I’ve ever seen. There was a box that had some squid, a thingy of mixed chopped tuna, a shot glass of kelp swimming in some kind of sweet liquid, a little grilled fish, a small bowl of raw fish with pearls of barley, and a gooseberry. It sounds weird, but it was glorious. There was a bowl of fish consumme with a round fish cake dumpling – it was basically a Japanese gefilte fish soup, if gefilte fish soup could make you sing and dance.
There was another clear fish soup that was served in a teapot, and we poured it into little tea cups that we sipped from. We had a tuna sashimi that was pink and unctuous and fatty and so tender that if you had no teeth or gums you could just snort it through a straw. I suspect it might not pass muster with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I will find some way to make my penance later. Oh, and we had house-made tofu topped with a sesame cream and a dollop of sea urchin. It may be one of the best single dishes I’ve ever had. It was perfect in its simplicity and like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
There was more sashimi, steamed fish, and a bowl of slithery white fishy stuff that I really liked that I later found out was cod sperm. Somewhere along the way, we added sake to the mix, and the chef poured us these glasses of flawless sakes that tasted like melted glaciers, then pointed out that the guy who made the sake was sitting right next to us, and he turned out to be a terrific guy as well. It was a party! – serendipity the likes of which we may not experience for a while. The chef started the restaurant when he was twenty seven years old, and he’s been at it for eleven years. I can’t imagine what kind of nerve it took to open a place with this kind of audacity in a city like Kyoto at such a young age, but I’m glad he did. If you’re ever anywhere near Kyoto, run, don’t walk, to Rakuzen Kakinuma. When we left the restaurant, it was like we were leaving an old friend’s house. The staff ran out into the street to say goodbye, and I think they meant it. We liked it so much we brought our friends Paul and Megumi back the next night to recreate the magic, and I swear it was even better the second time.
And so let that be a lesson to us all. Janine’s good research found us a nice place to stay, but there’s no way in hell we would have found this restaurant without wandering the neighborhood and simply poking our head in. It’s on nobody’s list. It has a total of one review on Trip Advisor. But taking the first bite of our first dish is one of the most memorable moments of our trip. So that’s our lesson for the day, kiddies. Bon appetit.
Next time – Some of the many things I love about Japan.