I’m going to admit to a number of romantic notions about Kyoto being a quaint medieval city where it’s perpetually twilight, the streets are cobblestones lit by lanterns and geisha walk amongst the common man in Gion. I think Memoirs of a Geisha did a real number on me. Plus I love the word Kyoto. And the word Gion. Lovely aromatic words. And then my Kyoto guidebook told me about Kitcho, a world class restaurant with 3 Michelin stars serving food kaiseki style (Japanese slow food) and I thought “Lanterns, geisha, twilight and amazing food? I’m in, in, in and so in!”
Dinners are at least 3 hours and 10 courses, all fresh and seasonal, most of it caught or picked on the grounds of the restaurant and served in private rooms facing Japanese gardens. You set your own price for dinner with the bidding starting at 42,000 yen per person, or roughly $450. Gulp. Ok, well, none of us are big spenders but we were getting a per diem and were not paying for hotel rooms, so it’s free money. Right? And we’re in Japan for what feels like 12 seconds working like crazy for most of it; so, we should treat ourselves. Right? Plus we all love food and it’s a once in a lifetime experience and we can, so we should. Right? Carpe Kitcho!
We booked a reservation and then we read the fine print that we owed the restaurant the money whether we ate the meal or not. There were no cancellations without penalties. Then we did the math on getting to Kyoto in time for dinner and it went something like this: work ends at 3pm, we run 6 blocks to catch a train to get to the train that gets to Kyoto at 6PM giving us 1 hour to run 7 blocks to the hotel, check 5 people in separately, change clothes and look longingly at the shower after all that running before catching a cab to the restaurant in the outermost portions of the city, arriving panting on their doorstop by the stroke of 7. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?
First hurdle, train tickets. All of us were slavering to ride the Shinkansen (another amazing word), which is sleek, fast and runs like alien clockwork. I can’t adequately describe what it’s like to try to buy a train ticket in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and you can’t read the language. Figuring out which station to leave from, where it’s located, which train to take, what connections to make and how to get from one to another within our time frame took years from my life and hours out of my day. But after lots of mangled English/Japanese, writing and pointy talk we finally got our tickets.
At 3pm we raced to the subway, caught our connecting train and arrived just in time to see the Shinkansen glide in like a train from the future. Pure white, round elongated nose, quiet and sleek with a conductor dressed in a gold trimmed blue uniform and white gloves poking his head out of the window in front. It wasn’t even like a train from the future. It was like a train from a 1940′s movie version of the future. The first class cabin with its rows of giant comfy seats, huge arm rests, acres of leg room, big windows and wide aisles is the dreamiest train car I’ve ever seen. The ride was quiet, smooth and I had an empty seat next to me. Glorious. I love the Shinkansen. I will go anywhere on the Shinkansen. At 6:10pm we smoothly docked in the very modern and unmedieval Kyoto station and I was jolted out of my blissful Shinkansen induced reverie and into the madness of finding a hotel in a new city.
We could have been at our hotel in 10 minutes had we known where we were going, been able to read our map and found the north gate of the train station. Factor in everything written in kanji, the railway tracks on multiple levels and the station taking up 2 city blocks and it’s a wonder we found the hotel at all. But we finally arrived around 6:25 and checked in one at a time with one desk attendant, each of us filling out paperwork, getting our passports copied, finding money to pay for the bill, getting change and directions to our rooms, waiting for an elevator, practically panting with impatience…
I found my room, opened the door, threw everything I was carrying on the tatami mat and hit all the switches on the wall to make the lights turn on, to no avail. I found my dress in the half twilight (hey, it’s twilight and I’m in Kyoto! It wasn’t pure fiction after all!), dressed in the twilight, put on makeup in the twilight, changed my shoes and ran out the door. 4 minutes max. Didn’t even get that longing look at the shower. And then arrived in the lobby and was the only one there.
I paced and muttered for 5 minutes as everyone else sauntered in by which time it was 6:50 and there wasn’t a prayer of us making this reservation on time. In a brief moment of forethought I had called the restaurant to ask them exactly how long they would hold our reservation before they put our collective first born on the chopping block, and they said they would give us until 7:30. You know that feeling you get when you know how the chips are going to fall? That gut feeling you’ll make it or that dread feeling that you won’t? I wasn’t getting those feelings. I was right on the fence and truly thought it could go either way.
The girl at the front desk took a long thoughtful look at the map and the restaurant location and told us that it would be at least a 30-40 minute cab ride. And she was against it. Too long. Too far. Too expensive. You’ll never make it on time. Take the subway instead. I definitely had a gut feeling that taking the subway and walking an uncatalogued number of blocks to find a restaurant we’ve never seen would instead lead us into the pits of despair and dawn would find us unfed and wandering the remote corners of Kyoto in heels and long dresses. So I smiled, said “arigato gozaimasu!,” asked her to call the restaurant to tell them we were on our way and went and hailed a cab. Sometimes it’s good to be an American because “can’t” isn’t in our genetic makeup.
A cab ride through maddeningly long traffic lights finally ended at 7:20 when we arrived at Kitcho, a sprawling low building charmingly tucked off the road, between the river and the mountains. The door man knew exactly who we were and waved us on to the winding driveway where two beautiful english-speaking japanese girls in kimonos met our taxi. They bowed to each of us and assured us that we were in no way late or imposing on their schedule. They were simply waiting for us and the chef was waiting for us and dinner was waiting for us, and would we please take off our shoes and come right in.
East, please meet West. Awkwardness ensues.
The hardest thing about being a westerner in Japan is feeling that an entire societal rule set hovers just out of sight and there are things I should be doing but I don’t know what they are. The two beautiful kimono girls did everything they could to make us comfortable but it just was so uncomfortable at the outset. The tables are too low for tall westerners with long legs, sitting on the ground gets uncomfortable, the room is quite bare, the table is highly polished and the lights are bright and reflect off the table. It’s like eating in someone’s formal dining room. Under a spotlight. Cross legged. Drinks, please!
We ordered 2 bottles of sake, which they make themselves, and the food started coming. Lobster in a sauce with water weeds picked out of the small stream running through the garden and right by our window followed by lobster and toro sashimi to die for and an eel soup in broth so crystal clear and highly flavored that you wanted to bathe in it. More sake!
Grilled fish in sterling silver baskets sizzling away over hard wood charcoal in tiny ceramic hibachi grills, delicate little condiment cups shaped like shells and fans, cold dishes served in crystal floating over ice and sheets of gold leaf, sake served in silver buckets with condensation dripping onto the polished table. Gorgeous, delicious, amazing. More sake!
A giant platter carried by two people with a landscape of food: potted irises nestled into tiny bridges, shrimp with little dabs of miso lined in rows on water lily pads, small square pots of broiled octopus, a small house with a ceramic roof that came off and contained pieces of fried flat fish, all plated table side by our beautiful servers who described each dish and struggled mightily with the translation. And then poured us more drinks.
Somewhere around the sixth bottle and the eighth course we started discussing the price of the sake. Which we didn’t know. Which we hadn’t asked. Someone jokingly said that any restaurant that charges $100 for it’s cheapest bottle of wine, probably has expensive sake. And someone else said “If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it!!” General laughter. And then someone else said “How many bottles have we had? 6? We probably want to know how much this costs.”
A small silence followed. And a chill.
And the fruit course, with an amazing grapefruit custard that I didn’t really enjoy since I was suddenly guesstimating on the price of sake. Finally we asked how much each bottle of sake cost and the smiling server bowed and said “35,000 yen.”
Brief thudding silence as everyone did sake-addled math.
“Well, that’s $350 apiece. I think we’re done with the sake.”
Ryan was frozen mid-sip when that number came out. He put his glass down, sighed and said “Well, I kind of figured I’d spend as much on alcohol as I did on dinner.” Cate had her sake glass in her hand. She heard the number, took a careful sip, looked at me with big eyes and whispered “That just cost $80.” I tried to mentally split the price of six $350 sake bottles amongst 5 people adding in dinner, figured I should just rest at the $1000 mark and took a very deep breath.
The next two minutes were pretty quiet as everyone retreated into their own little world of private finance and I’m sure some very dark and dirty deeds were considered. But by the next course we all rallied, because what are you going to do? You already drank it! Too late now… lesson learned for later… small chuckle, small sob, etc. etc. We finished the meal with matcha served in 400 year old tea bowls, the beautiful girls bowed and thanked us for our presence, gave us gifts and pictures and asked us how we wanted to pay.
We handed her credit cards, propped our faces in our hands and waited. When the girls returned with our bills, waves of shock swept through the room. The bills were only $600 apiece! What?! The sake is 3,500 yen a bottle. That’s only $35! What?! Never in my life has $600 of anything seemed like such a bargain.
Outbreak of relieved laughter, casual quick signing of bills, unwinding of long American legs, standing stiffly, getting in cab, riding away while everyone bows and waves and laughs and says “Come again!” and we all say “We’d love to!”
And then as we turn out of the driveway, someone says “I’m still hungry. Anyone else?”