I’m going to do something a little different on Friday and post stories and long form essays. This is one of my favorite stories and it comes in three parts. Enjoy!
I spent three weeks working in Japan, a country that makes no sense to me but I love it. I love it because their toilets play music, blow air and have jets of water shooting in all directions and yet coexist with washing machines that are tiny and borderline medieval. You manually fill the washing machines! Using a hose! Then you watch your 2 T-shirts (full capacity load) swish around for 3 minutes before you drag the soapy dripping mess into an extractor to spin all the water out. While it spins you drain the washer and refill it to rinse and then drag your 2 t-shirts back into the rinse water. Then there’s more watching and rinsing, and then more dragging and dripping to extract, after which it takes about 4 years to dry in the doll sized dryers! Laundry must require clearing their schedules in the early AM and eating something fortifying half way through because they’re going to be at it until the sun goes down. How do they get anything else done?
The dichotomies continued in the city. We stayed in Tokyo’s Ropponngi area, which is equivalent to New York’s 5th Ave, all high-end shopping and business people busily going about their business. I assume someone sent out a work uniform memo because the men wear black or navy suits (mavericks wear grey and are probably chastised behind closed doors) with light blue ties and white shirts. Women get navy blue jackets and skirts with nude hose and navy shoes with about a 1.5” heel. ALL OF THEM. I’ve never seen any group of people so homogeneous outside of an actual uniform.
By contrast to the busy bees, we worked in the Shibuya area famous for Harajuku girls and fashion that’s off the chain. 2 seconds in Shibuya and I walked past girls with blue hair wearing traditional kimonos, girls dressed in catholic school garb with Doc martens and contacts that turned their eyes purple with vertical pupils, boys with dyed red hair sculpted a foot off their heads in anime influenced hair styles wearing slim black Rat Pack suits and boots with stacked 5” heels that look like architecture or sculpture and possibly someone dressed like Little BoPeep complete with gold ringlets and a white beribboned staff. Too much is never enough in Shibuya.
With only three weeks in this fascinating country, I really wanted to visit Kyoto. If Tokyo is massive urban center overflowing with food, fashion and insanity, I had romantic notions that Kyoto was a quaint medieval city where geisha still walk amongst the common man in Gion’s perpetual twilight over cobblestone streets lit by lanterns… it’s pretty clear that Memoirs of a Geisha did a real number on me.
Incidentally, I do love the word Kyoto. And the word Gion. Lovely aromatic words.
Anyway, I bought a guidebook and made plans to spend one of my precious 3 Mondays off in Kyoto. Four of my friends – Martin, Ryan, Cate and Gene – had similar notions about Kyoto (without the twilight and lanterns, I think); so we all decided to go together.
We picked a Monday and Gene found our hotel, a delightful Japanese invention called the capsule. The online pictures looked like a space age hostel, 10 meters square with a futon, where everything is white, clean and tightly organized into utmost efficiency. There were LED lights in the shower! What’s not to love? We could get rooms en suite or tatami “rooms,” like larger cleaner versions of sleeper bus bunks for extra cheap. Cate said she loved sleeping on the bus so she’d probably also love a tatami room and the rest of us booked en suite rooms and started looking at entertainment.
I’d read in my guidebook about a world-class restaurant called Kitcho with 3 Michelin stars serving food kaiseki, a kind of Japanese tasting menu. I thought “lanterns, geisha, twilight and amazing food? I’m in, in, in and so in!” It took a minute and a half to talk the rest of the group into it so we found the website and got the details:
Kitcho diners are served in private rooms facing classical Japanese gardens.
Meals are at least 3 hours and 10 courses, all of it fresh and seasonal, most of it caught or picked on the grounds of the restaurant.
Only 10 groups of people are served per night on staggered schedules.
You set your own price for the meal and are served food of a quality that matches the price.
The bidding starts at 42,000 yen per person (roughly $450)
Well, alright then.
None of us are big spenders but we were working and getting per diem so it kind of felt like free money. And we were in Japan for about 12 seconds working like crazy for most of it; plus we all loved food and it was a once in a lifetime experience. We can so we should. Right?
I asked one of our interpreters to call Kitcho for us and make a reservation for Monday night. She listened quietly on the phone, nodding, and then said “arigato” about 4 times before telling me they were booked Monday. On a whim I said “Please ask about Sunday.” It was a stretch but we only had a matinée and maybe we could make it down there in time for dinner. She nodded at me, yes, they had space on Sunday. Their latest seating was 7PM. I said “Book it.” We could take the bullet train and we’d get there in time. No problem.
Kitcho wanted to know our price range and we decided on $500 apiece. Then they asked about our hotel arrangements. Why do they need this info? I don’t even know but we’d already gone through this while booking the capsule hotel because they wanted to know what airline we were coming in on and where we stayed before we got to them.
At any rate, this part of the Kitcho/interpreter negotiations was a long conversation. Roughly translated it went like this on the interpreter’s side:
The capsule hotel.
Yes, where the businessmen stay.
Well, they’re foreigners who are here on business.
Yes, the capsule hotel.
Yes, $500 apiece for dinner.
*Pause pause pause…*
Ok, they’ll be there at 7. Arigato!!
I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that people who make reservations at their restaurant don’t usually stay at hostels. Those silly Americans and their taste for novelty!
Once we had the reservations, 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 I did the math on getting to Kyoto in time for dinner and it went a little like this:
Matinee show comes down at 3Pm. We get out the door in 10 minutes, run the 6 blocks to the subway, catch a subway to the bullet train station and find our way around the bullet train station in 5 minutes. We take a 3:45 train to Kyoto that gets us in at 6PM, run the 7 blocks to the capsule hotel, check 5 people in separately in under 10 minutes and spend 10 minutes changing clothes and looking longingly at the shower after all that running. Reconvened, we catch a cab to Kitcho in the outermost portions of the city and arrive panting on their doorstop by the stroke of 7.
What could possibly go wrong?
Doing this math was slightly disturbing and I needed another opinion so I wandered over to Stage Right and found Ryan. After I explained the math to Ryan, he looked at me quietly for a moment and then shrugged and said “We might have thought through this a little more carefully. But since we didn’t, we should probably go first class on the bullet train! And maybe I should buy a new shirt…”
And so commenced Splurge-a-thon 2010.
You can read Part 2 here and then the conclusion
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