THE WATERCOLOR GLOW OF RED and white lanterns washes over Pontocho alley as dusk slips silently into night. We had set out to find the perfect setting for our final dinner in Kyoto, but after being brusquely turned away from our first pick (no reservation) we find ourselves wandering. The restaurants all appear nameless, their doors hidden. The tiny rooms we pass are filled with diners and brimming with conversation. To my ears the words are an indiscernible murmur, but I imagine they speak of an Old Japan that even then was colored by change.
With no knowledge of written Japanese, we pause only at places that include pictures on their menus. We soon realize, however, that whether or not a restaurant uses photos is indicative of its atmosphere and caliber. Those that seem the most refined or traditional rely solely on the printed word to list their dishes. And so we feel our options whittled down to a potentially embarrassing/unappetizing meal at an upscale establishment or a more common experience if we play it safe.
Just as we consider exiting the alley to seek food elsewhere, a small, simple menu outside the doorway of an aged wooden building catches our eye. There are only a few things printed in English and no descriptions. But the name of one dish touches on the fading memory of a meal I once ate as a child — sukiyaki.