Friday, August 14, 2009

Due notti e un giorno a Kyoto

Iwao Takizawa, whom we were to meet for dinner, had translated into Japanese 'Letters from Wolfie', a book by Matt's mom about a boy who volunteers his dog for service in the Vietnam War. Over the last several years, the two had conducted a lively correspondence, with subjects ranging from the Iraq war to Japan's buraku. Matt had contacted him before our trip and asked when we might meet. Afterward, we would get urgent-sounding emails from him asking, "When will you be in Kansai?" Well, it was hard to say, since we were playing this thing by ear. In Tottori we finally had our plans finalized, and told him when we'd be in Osaka and Kyoto. Great, Iwao wrote, meet me in Kyoto at 6 at the City Hall and I'll take you to my favorite restaurant. We had hoped to find lodging by then, but the ride had taken longer than expected. We barely had time to wash off a bit at a public restroom.

Iwao was waiting in the dark suit and glasses he said he'd be wearing. (He had just returned from Tokyo from the funeral of a famous professor at University of Tokyo.) After introductions, we started walking. Kyoto is famous for its haute kaiseki cuisine, with some restaurants so exclusive that only known customers are allowed entrance. Though we didn't know it, we were headed for one.

We were warmly greeted at Kyoshiki (meaning the four seasons of Kyoto) by women dressed in kimonos. They saw our bikes, and as if this happened all the time, insisted we should leave them in the garden just inside the outer door. We tried to refuse this offer, pointing out that our shabby bikes would be just fine out on the street. But they would have none of it, and Matt ever so carefully wedged the bikes between the even more carefully groomed plants.

We entered and were guided to a private tatami room. We left our shoes outside and entered. A glass door separated our room from an interior garden; the room itself was (need I say) tastefully decorated with paintings of nature. Matt thought he would show off the seiza sitting he had been practicing at home, but the okami could probably tell he wouldn't last 15 minutes, much less the entire meal. Saying "please, be comfortable," she persuaded him to sit cross-legged with his back against the floor-level chairs that are typically reserved for old folks with bad knees, and westerners. Here you can see Matt and Iwao just before the meal:

Iwao explained that we were to have several small courses, each in a different style. We had read about this type of meal in our guidebook, but didn't really expect to try it. As you will see, we weren't going to be disappointed.

We started with some cold appetizers:

It's hard to explain exactly what the little cubes were. They were all prepared with fish; the leftmost one contained fish eggs in a gelatin, and was particularly delicious.

The second course was sashimi:

The white fish in the center of the bowl was hamo (pike eel), which was in season and only eaten in Kansai. Hamo was going to recur throughout the meal. As we later learned, it is a difficult food to prepare---removing its many small bones takes time.

A clear soup followed:

Clear soups are considered to be works of art, where the ingredients are as carefully presented as a painting. Here konnyaku noodles float underneath hamo wrapped in yuba. (Konnyaku is a jelly made from the root of a plant, often known as devil's root tongue. An interesting post about this can be found here. Yuba, or tofu skin, is made by skimming the dried top layer from a vat of hot soy milk.) Oishi!

The next course was yakimono, or grilled food.
Here is anago served with okra and seaweed. Anago is a salt-water eel, less fatty than regular eel.

Then, a baked dish:
Iwao explained to us that the most elegant way to eat this fish was to take small pieces off it with the chopsticks (easier said than done), and dip them in the sauce we were given. I ate all the bones, too, and Iwao finished also the head!

A simmered dish followed:
Hamo simmered with eggs and shiso.

As a small break between this and the next important dish, we had a little sesame cake:

The next course was an elegant tempura of asparagus in hamo:
These pieces were to be dipped in a broth, where we had previously dissolved a small amount of grated daikon, supposed to help the digestion. My enthusiastic stirring of the daikon into the soup earned Iwao's remark "more delicately!" -- Every gesture must respect the meal!

A miso soup was served with the tempura:
This was a delicate dashi with miso, green onions and myoga, an aromatic flower bud, seen earlier on the baked fish.

The last savory dish was a trio of pickled vegetables:
In keeping with the overall restraint, these pickles were less strong than usual.

Finally, we were served the traditional green tea:
The okami prepared one bowl of tea in front of us, using a bamboo whisk to mix the matcha (green tea powder) and water until a layer of foam was formed. Then she came back with two more teas, served in cups of different color and slightly irregular shape. Matt commented that they were wabi-sabi. Almost, Iwao said: His was wabi, mine was sabi, and Matt's was too green and bright to be either. She also brought us some red bean sweets to finish the meal.

This meal was definitely one of the best of my life -- I rarely had some food prepared, presented and served with so much care.

The eventful evening wasn't finished yet, though. Because we arrived so late, we didn't have time to reserve a hotel. But Iwao had an idea: He was the caretaker of a house in Uji, 15 minutes by car from Kyoto. The house was formerly owned by Senroku Uehara, a historian and former president of Hitotsubashi University. When he died, his daughter lived in the house for a few more years. After her death, the new owners were about to demolish the house and replace it with something up to modern standards. However, Iwao said, the house still had electricity and warm water. Most importantly, it held the scholar's lifetime collection of books. Would we like to stay there? How could we refuse this offer?

The only problem at this point was what to do with the bikes, as we would need a car to go to Uji this late. Iwao had another idea, and said we could leave them at the Kyoto branch of the newspaper where he had worked for many years. He called a friend of his (who turned out to be also the real estate agent of the house in Uji), and this kind person came to pick us up with his car. Once at the newspaper building, Iwao managed to find somebody who opened the doors for us, and we left the bikes at their storage. We then left for Uji.

The house was very large, built in the 1970s, and had indeed a very peculiar feeling. In the entrance hall, the wallpaper was starting to detach from the walls from the humidity. The hallway was divided by shelves, used for storage. A loft was visible from the hallway, filled with shelves and shelves of books. The most incredible room was the largest one, where we ended up sleeping. One wall was blue, and had Chinese-style marionettes hung on it.

The other wall was completely covered by shelves of books. There was one more room completely filled with shelves of books, and two more rooms that probably were dining and living rooms, now used as storage.

Iwao showed us around, then found some blankets and a futon in one of the closets and gave them to us. He then left, saying he would be back the morning after with three students, coming to help him classify all the books that were going to be taken somewhere else before the house was torn down.

Once alone, we spent some time just wandering around the house. The books were a fascinating treasure. Most of them were in Japanese, but some of them were in German, French, and there were even some in Italian. They were all very old, mostly about history, but also religion, and literature. Some of them had clearly never been read, and their pages were still attached to one another, uncut. There were also some LPs, jazz and classical music. I imagined the scholar sitting on the floor at the small table in this room, surrounded by his books and listening to his favorite music. Would he have imagined what was going to happen to his realm? What would he have thought about us, young gaijin peeking through his books and possessions?

We couldn't resist snooping around more of the house. The kitchen was full of surprises. Inside the many cabinets, each shelf was filled with boxes, each containing a beautiful cup, bowl, serving dish, or similar. Most of them were probably gifts that had never been used. It was impossible to look at them all, and we had to stop after a while. In a dusty corner, Matt found a glass jar of what he thought were ancient pickles. (The next day, the real estate agent surprised us by confidently opening the jar and taking a deep whiff---the jar wasn't of pickles, but rather homemade plum wine.)

Iwao had told us that we could take anything we wanted -- but what could we have carried in the backpacks, our only luggage? So, sadly, we left to stay the kitchenware, the poster of Communist Cuba, the books, and the marionettes, which Iwao specifically offered to us. We just went to sleep on the futons on the floor, the windows open to let some fresh air in, surrounded by the strange atmosphere created by the dusy books and boxes, and spied on by the marionettes hung on the blue wall, waiting to see if we were going to take them with us instead of leaving them there, destined to who knows where after the house's demolition.

Iwao arrived the morning after, as expected, with the real estate agent and three young women -- the students who were going to help him catalog the books. He had brought us breakfast, two bento boxes containing a large variety of sushi, omelets, and even some small pieces of ham. Moreover, he gave us two more boxes for lunch. These contained a special type of sushi, each piece wrapped in an persimmon (kaki) leaf, prepared with a special technique that would have allowed the fish to last for a few hours without refrigeration. We thanked Iwao profusely -- his kindness was hard to believe. We left the house directed towards Kyoto, after making arrangements with him so that we could see each other once more in the evening for dinner.

In Kyoto we found our hotel as usual, by asking at the tourist office for a place at the highest price we were willing to pay. We were sent to a nice Japanese-style hotel run by an old couple. We got there at lunch time, so we gratefully ate Iwao's special sushi and finally left, looking forward to explore Kyoto at least for one afternoon.

The hotel was close to the train station, and we knew we had to do at least two stops during our walk before getting back there, where we were going to meet Iwao for dinner: we had to get our bikes, stored close to the City Hall, at the newspaper building, and we had to go back to Kyoshiki, the restaurant where we had dinner the night before, because I had left my watch there.

So we started walking towards downtown. On our way there we saw quite a few interesting things. The first was a Buddhist temple, in an area somewhat far from the main temple area of Kyoto.
We entered the gates and we found out we were allowed to enter, provided we took off our shoes. The inside was huge, covered with tatami mats smelling wonderfully of wood and hay.
Nobody was there, and we set there quietly, medidating for a while in front of the images of Buddha.

It was a powerful experience.

After the temple, we saw a small hamono, or cutlery, store. An old man was sharpening a knife on a water stone, and seeing our interest in the shop, he invited us in. We entered, and Matt, ignoring for the moment the knives on display, asked about the sharpening stones piled up along the wall. The communication was a little hard, but we managed to understand each other with gestures and an electronic Japanese-English dictionary that the man owned. He showed Matt some very fine artificial stones, but Matt insisted he wanted to see some natural ones. He showed them to us, even though he made it clear that they were too expensive. While we were talking, his wife arrived with coffee for us. The man showed Matt how to treat a water stone, how long to immerse it in water, and finally how to use it.

The man was very interested in us, and asked us where we came from. He took an atlas and asked us to point where exactly the places we named were. He then proudly showed us a postcard from the Pacific northwest of the US, sent to him by a friend of his. He also noticed we were carrying an umbrella, which was completely broken: we had just bought it a few hours ago at a 300 Yen store, because it was raining really hard -- however the umbrella broke almost immediately from the wind, and we were carrying the handle separately from the rest. The man pointed at the Chinese sticker and laughed at it. He then looked for a word on his electronic dictionary, and after some suspense he showed to us the translation of what he was thinking: "Junk"!

Matt ended up buying one of the artificial sharpening stones, and the man gave us a two gifts to go with it: a mostly worn down natural stone and a very tiny knife, which he sharpened for us!

Here he and his wife are posing for us:

We left with yet another cherished memory of Japanese hospitality, and walked on toward Nishiki market, in a more crowded part of Kyoto. The market proved to have a great variety of very good food. Here are different kinds of high-grade rice:
And here is an amazing array of pickles. Here we bought some pickled gobo (a root called 'burdock' in English) and ume, which we brought on the plane to the US.

After the market, we walked back to Kyoshiki. As soon as the okami saw us, she knew what we were looking for, and gave us a small package containing my forgotten watch and, unexpectedly, a coffee table book with pictures of Japanese antiques and art. It was a gift, she said, from the restaurant for us. We were truly impressed by such kindness, especially since the book was probably worth more than the watch. Here is the okami, saying goodbye for good, at the entrance of the restaurant:
And here are my watch and the book. The watch will never have a nicer package than this!

It was getting late, so we went to the location where we thought our bikes were. We walked for a while around there, but were unable to find them! So we ended up running to the subway, and using it to get back to the train station, just in time to meet Iwao for dinner.

He brought us at the top floor of the building built around Kyoto's central train station: it's new and beautiful, and the top has a gorgeous view over the station and Kyoto. We entered one of the restaurants upstairs, and Iwao ordered three complete dinners, insisting we tried three different ones.

Matt's main dish was soba:

Mine was cold udon:
And Iwao's was sushi and tempura.
However, it quickly became clear that Iwao ordered his dinner for us. He kept insisting we take from his, because, he said, he could have that food any day. He also ordered some extra tempura and a beer. Japanese beer, Iwao said, was made good by the great abundance of good water. When the beer was polished off, he ordered sake, and when that too was gone, he asked Matt what was to be next. Matt suggested whisky, so Iwao ordered instead shochu, a distilled sake.

For mysterious reasons, the dinner became more informal than the one of the night before, and a different, more down-to-earth Iwao emerged. He talked about about life, love, society and philosophy. At the end, he refused again letting us pay for any of the dinner.

As Iwao took us by cab to our parked bikes, we were a little sad not knowing when we would see him again.

So, we are almost at the end of our story in Kyoto and in Japan. The next post will tell you about our last day and a half in Japan, and some more about Japanese home-made food and what we learned from the trip.

It took us a while to finalize this post, even though it was almost ready about a month ago, because in the meanwhile we packed all our stuff in Berkeley, took a road trip across the US, and moved to Canada. Anyway, we would like to dedicate this post to Iwao and thank him again for his hospitality in Kyoto and Uji. The house in Uji has since been demolished, and we were the last two who stayed there. Iwao recently wrote an article about our visit to Japan. Here it is:

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