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.
The previous day had seen us wandering from shrine to temple, carried by our feet on an expansive tour of Kyoto’s spiritual history. After all that trekking and transcendence we decided our final full day in Kyoto would be best spent closer to street level. We began with a stroll through Nishiki Market alongside restaurateurs and homemakers buying up fresh-caught fish, miso and dried shrimp flakes. I treated myself to a second breakfast with sticky rice and pork wrapped in a banana leaf and opened my eyes a little wider at a delightful coffee stall serving careful hand-drip brew. The sky was a crisp blue, the bite in the air softened by sunlight.
Neither one of us had been sleeping well. It had nothing to do with our surroundings — the hot baths, cloud-soft futons and and surprising quiet of the city should have been enough to send us deep into slumber. But a kind of lingering malaise, the hooks of worry and doubt over careers and situations, had clung to us even as we departed Korea.
It was in the tiny housewares store that the dreaming started. Janice gushed over cute wooden spoons and teacups; the voice of Julie Delpy, breathy and feminine, wafted over the stereo on bright vibrations of guitar. Now, I’m not the kind of person who generally spends much time imagining the elements of their perfect home. But something about the tablecloths, the mugs, the pictures of apartments filled with wood, light and air sent me swimming through a fantasy of barefoot Sunday mornings — summer birds and trees at the window by the breakfast nook. The many concessions we had made in our living arrangements and the constant, intruding competition for space that characterizes the Seoul bustle had worn us thin. We wanted a sanctuary, and we wanted it decorated.
We settled for a cup and a small Christmas ornament, both wrapped in tissue paper and set aside for this imagined space. I could see Jan’s heart ache a bit as we left the shop, but we bought a calendar filled with images of its wares inhabiting the homes of others. (We taped it up when we got home; a portal against the beige wallpaper.)
The hours flowed slowly: paging through palm-sized Murakami novels in the original Japanese at Junkudo bookstore; purchasing a blue cotton cycling cap that came down over my ears (perfect for chilly spring days) at a rare cafe doubling as a men’s clothing and vintage bike shop; napping back at the ryokan. For the first time in a long time, the day felt simple and whole.
I couldn’t have been much older than eight when my mom first took me to Akasaka, which inhabited a vaguely Asian-looking building off Pacific Highway outside Seattle. The details have become fuzzy with time but I can imagine I had done some begging after watching the second Karate Kid. Not that it took much; she had always supported my adventuresome eating. I was the opposite of my father, who grew up in Virginia on meatloaf and canned vegetables and had expanded his diet over the years only after much plying.
Underneath the restaurant’s turquoise roof, I tucked into tofu pillows and slurped glass noodles for the first time. Sukiyaki. The staccato consonants emerged from my young mouth awkwardly, excitedly. A burbling pot filled with vegetables, meat and a sweet black sauce. That meal transported me — felt so authentic that I would brag about it at school like I’d been to Tokyo.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I found out Akasaka was actually owned by Koreans.
In the restaurant off Pontocho Alley, the memory of that meal came back to me. A glass of chilled sake sat on the table as our hostess, dressed in an elegant but subdued purple kimono, sprinkled sugar crystals into the pot along with thick shoyu. She cracked for us a raw egg each, and once the beef was done instructed us to dip it in the yolk and enjoy. Which we did, immensely.
Despite our limited capacity for communication, we were still able to learn that this establishment had been standing for more than 100 years. The kinds of stories, the quiet human history that had unfolded over meals here was beyond our imagination. And yet, simply by virtue of coming in touch with such a place, my mind began to wander back along all the paths that had brought me to present. From a young boy in suburban Seattle to someone grown and out in the world — 5,000 miles away from home.
When we left the guesthouse the next day, Itoii and a woman who also worked at the front desk followed us out carrying a banner we can only guess read sayonara. We smiled and laughed at the unexpected gesture, then asked to hold the banner ourselves and have a picture taken. “It seems like you’re doing advertising for us,” Itoii said as the shutter snapped.
I shook his hand and said we hoped to return soon, thanking him for his hospitality with a sincerity that was intended for the whole of the city.
As we stared up at the high crosshatched ceiling of Kyoto Station, Janice and I considered taking a jaunt to Nara to explore the deer park before making our way to Osaka. But with our packs further weighted by gifts and our time in Japan trickling away we decided just to head straight there. A short shinkansen ride, a couple subway stops and a quick check-in later, we stepped into our room at the Ramada, facing the upper edges of the buildings that surrounded us.
Not long after we had dropped our things we ventured away from the hotel and wandered well into the evening. We passed through Umeda and down towards Minami, where we ate fresh takoyaki (dumplings with diced baby octopus) from a vendor along the famous Dotonbori street. As the sky gave way to night, the city’s grayness — its dense concrete and grit — was bathed in a buzz of neon. Covered shopping arcades filled up with young people. The automatic doors of pachinko parlors slid open to reveal rows of men, zombie-like, sitting in front of gambling machines that whirred and clanged like a hellish orchestra. It was indeed Blade Runner-esque, to borrow a description from LP, and miles away from what we had experienced in Kyoto.
Still, there was something calming about it. The strangeness of the city invited us to float aimless through the streets — to the bubble tea stand in Amerika-mura and past Chanel, and again towards Dotonburi to catch one final gleaming look at the Glico man, a four-story electric signboard that has become a landmark. And when our legs were tired, we did our exploring at the convenience store — picking out a tall can of Kirin, a bag of Japanese popcorn and pear-flavored soda. Back in our room, we snacked with our bodies under the covers, resisting sleep and the thought that this trip would end.