We could have arrived in Kyoto and been at our hotel in 10 minutes had we been able to read our map. And find the north gate of the train station. Factor in the unreadable kanji, the railway tracks on multiple levels and the station taking up 2 city blocks and it’s a miracle we found the hotel in under an hour. But we did.
We arrived around 6:25 by which point I was literally panting with impatience as I watched the minutes tick by.
And then we checked in.
One at a time.
With one desk attendant.
Filling out paperwork.
Getting our passports copied.
Each one paying for the entire bill as they checked in.
Finding money. Getting change, getting directions to our rooms, waiting for an elevator…
I ran off the elevator, found my room, opened the door, thought “’oh, it’s cute,” threw everything I was carrying on the tatami mat and hit every switch on the wall trying to make the lights turn on, to no avail.
The plan, such as there was one, was to meet in the lobby as soon as possible. That’s frighteningly unspecific and I have a habit of being late to… oh… everything… always. But I had no intention of paying this money and not eating this food. So 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. Top to bottom, 4 minutes. Didn’t even get that longing look at the shower.
And then arrived in the lobby where I was the only one there.
People, this is why I’m late for everything! I hate showing up early and waiting around!!
Everyone sauntered in over the next 5 minutes and no one seemed to be a crazed as I felt (imagine that, if you will…). It was now 6:50 and there was not a prayer of us making this reservation on time. Fortunately, I’d had a brief moment of forethought and called the restaurant earlier in the day to ask them exactly how long they would hold our reservation before they put our collective first born on the chopping block. They said they would give us until 7:30. But it’s Japan and it’s all about manners and showing up late for a reservation seemed rude and so un-Japanese.
You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you just know how the chips are going to fall? You have 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 felt it could go either way.
We had investigated the subway ride to the restaurant but it involved finding our way back to the train station, finding the right train and the right platform, taking the 20 minute train ride and then walking an uncatalogued number of blocks to the restaurant. My gut definitely told me that that route would lead us into the pits of despair and dawn would find us unfed and wandering the remote corners of Kyoto.
I voted for a cab.
The girl at the front desk took a long thoughtful look at the map and the restaurant location and didn’t seem to understand where it was but when finally she figured it out she said 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.
Well, that can’t be true.
It won’t be true.
We’ll certainly never make it on the subway so we’re taking a cab and I’m eating this dinner and that’s the end of it.
I said none of these things but instead said “arigato gozaimasu!” asked her to call the restaurant and tell them we were on our way and we 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 of which I remember nothing ended 20 minutes later when we arrived at Kitcho at 7:20 and saw a sprawling low building charmingly tucked away off the road, between the river and the mountains.
The door man met our taxis, knew exactly who we were, waved us onto the winding driveway and two beautiful, charming English-speaking Japanese girls in kimonos met our taxi at the door. They bowed to each of us as we got out of the taxi, 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. So we did.
East, please meet West. Awkwardness ensues.
Here’s the hard thing about being a westerner in Japan: there are so many rules.
On my best day I’m aware of about 5% of these rules, which I try really hard to follow. But when I’m in a rigidly mannered situation like this dinner, the overarching feeling that follows me all night is that the other 95% of that rule set is hovering just out of sight and perhaps there are things I should be doing but I don’t know what they are. So I tried to be polite but I didn’t know all the things the Japanese do to be polite, so I tried to relax, but that’s hard too… You get the drift. The two cute girls did everything they could to make us comfortable but it was SO uncomfortable at the outset.
The tables were low, too low for tall westerners with long legs. Just getting down to the ground on a cushion and putting my feet under the table with a long tight skirt on was a feat of some aerobics I’ve probably not managed since. After 5 minutes I discovered that sitting on the ground is uncomfortable but there wasn’t much for it so I looked around. Straight ahead of me were glass doors leading outside, slightly cracked open and showing lanterns set in the garden. The rest of the room had the traditional paper screen walls and tatami mats but with no decorations at all except for a long brightly polished table running down the center of the room and super bright lights that reflected off the table. In no way was it a place that westerners would create for relaxation and enjoyment. It was like sitting on the floor of someone’s formal dining room under a spotlight.
One of our servers came in, bowed and showed us a menu for drinks with no prices. We ordered 2 bottles of sake, which they made themselves, and the food started coming. The first course was lobster with water weeds picked out of the small stream running right by our window followed by lobster and tuna belly sashimi to die for and eel in a broth so crystal clear and highly flavored that I wanted to bathe in it.
Gorgeous gorgeous food. Fish in sterling silver baskets on tiny individual hibachi grills, sizzling away over hard wood charcoal. Tiny little cups for condiments shaped like shells and fans, cold courses served in crystal dishes floating over ice and sheets of gold leaf, sake served in silver buckets with condensation dripping onto the polished table.
One course was a giant platter carried by two people with a whole landscape of food. Flowers in pots nestled into tiny bridges, shrimp with teensy dabs of miso lined in rows on water lily pads, small square pots of broiled octopus, a miniscule house had a ceramic roof that came off with pieces of fried flat fish inside. It was all plated tableside by our beautiful kimono clad girls who described each dish and struggled mightily with the translation. Then they poured us more drinks.
Somewhere around the 8th course and the 6th bottle of sake we started discussing the price of the sake. Which we didn’t know. Which we hadn’t asked. I jokingly said that any restaurant that charges $100 for it’s cheapest bottle of wine, probably has expensive sake. And Gene said “If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it!!” General laughter. And then Martin said “How many bottles have we had? 6? We probably want to know how much this all costs.”
A small silence followed. And a chill.
And the fruit course, which included the most amazing grapefruit custard that I would eat for the rest of my life but didn’t really enjoy since I was all of a sudden guesstimating on the price of sake.
Finally Gene asked how much each bottle of sake cost and the smiling kimono girl bowed and said “35,000 yen.”
Brief thudding silence as everyone did sake-addled math.
And then Martin said “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 and add in dinner. I figured I should just rest at $1000 per person and I took a very deep breath.
There aren’t words to describe the next 2 minutes because everyone retreated into their own little private world of 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 (powdered green tea) served in 400 year old tea bowls, our lovely servers bowed and thanked us for our presence, gave us sandalwood scented bookmarks and beautiful pictures of the restaurant and then asked us how we wanted to pay.
A couple brave souls handed her credit cards, propped their faces on their hands and waited while the rest of us paid cash. When the lovely girls returned with the cash bills, a wave of shock swept through the room.
The bills were only $600 apiece!
Turned out that the sake was 3,500 a bottle. That’s $35.
She definitely said 35,000. Dear God.
Never in my life has $600 of anything seemed like such a bargain.
There was an outbreak of relieved laughter, we threw down cash in very casual manner, unwound our long American legs so we could stand stiffly, got in a cab and rode away while all the servers and the chef bowed and waved and laughed and said “Come again” and we all said “we’d love to!”
And as we turned out of the driveway, someone said “I’m still hungry. Anyone else?”