Kyoto and Kitcho: conclusion

This is my Friday story telling series and the conclusion to a story I started two weeks ago. Read Part 1 and Part 2

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.

Drinks, please!

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.

More sake!

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.

More sake!

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?”

Kyoto and Kitcho, Pt. 2

This is my Friday story telling series. You can read part one of this story here.

The day after we made the Kitcho reservation, Ryan called me over to Stage Right. He was sitting on a couch surrounded by his Japanese props crew who were all looking at his laptop and talking quietly amongst themselves. Ryan told me that he’d investigated the restaurant website and found their wine list. He paused to adjust his glasses and said, “They have a great cellar. The prices range from $100 to… you know…$27,000. Per bottle.”

First thought: Oh yeah… alcohol. That probably isn’t included in the $500 apiece we’re spending.

Second thought: holy shit. What does a $27,000 bottle of wine taste like?

Third thought: Probably no different than a $20 bottle because I wouldn’t know the difference. Not that we can get a $20 bottles of wine for this dinner…

Fourth thought: We’re going to be spending a lot of money on this dinner. We’re on tour so we’re champion drinkers and one bottle of wine for 5 people is nothing, even at $100.

Carpe Kitcho?

Ryan’s Japanese crew spent a large portion of their night on the Kitcho website. Discussion of the mythical $27,000 bottle of wine consumed most of the rest of our evening and all of us geared up to spend a sizeable chunk of money on dinner. I think we each said “you only live once” about 20 times that night.

But the larger and more pressing matter was transportation. All of us were slavering to ride the bullet train, which they call Shinkansen (another amazing word). In fact, Martin had only joined us because he wanted to spend his day off going somewhere on the bullet train and it just so happened we were taking it to Kyoto.

The Shinkansen is sleek and fast (186mph) and runs like alien clockwork. In the multiple decades of its existence, it’s only been as much as 37 seconds late arriving to any station and probably the responsible conductor committed seppuku over that infraction. 37 seconds! That’s incomprehensible to any person who’s trudged down into the fiery pits of the NYC subway on a summer afternoon only to discover that the train is down or the station is closed or something has been rerouted somewhere for some kind of work making you late as you run 8 blocks to the next station.

And as an aside, 37 seconds and yet they still can’t manage to update the washing machines? Really???

Anyway, the Shinkansen has reserved and nonserved seats. Reserved is first class and nonreserved is catch as catch can. The news of our dinner had spread like wildfire and all of our Japanese crew wanted to weigh in on this excursion. They insisted we go first class; and since it was Splurge-a-thon 2010, we couldn’t refuse. Plus, Ryan said he “didn’t ride in steerage with peasants and poultry.” Having ridden with both peasants and poultry in the past, I looked forward to the idea of first class anything.

But now that we’d sorted what we wanted, the ticket buying fun began. I can’t adequately describe what it’s like to try to buy a train ticket – or really any transportation ticket – in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language AND you can’t read the language. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it were as simple as “here’s the station and here’s your destination, here’s a ticket.” But it’s never that simple.

The word labyrinthine was invented to describe the Tokyo, subway/train system. There’s the subway, the Japan Railway and the Shinkansen and they all share stations that take up city blocks and have railways on 3-4 levels. The railway map looks like brightly colored spaghetti scattered with kanji like parmesan. It’s insane. It all runs beautifully and on time but the process of figuring out which station to leave from, which train to take, which station is which, what connections to make, how to get from one to another and all within our time frame took years from my life and hours out of my day.

We finally narrowed down our exiting station and Gene, Cate and I went to get tickets because we couldn’t do it online even though we were in Japan… the capital of electronics and all things technical. In hindsight we should have asked an interpreter to come with us but we’d asked around and none of the interpreters had ever taken the Shinkansen. Figuring out where to go and how to get there could potentially have taken them just as long as it did us but they would have been able to read the ticket machine screens…

Those ticket machines are crazytown. Even getting started is confusing as all the train lines have names that you may or may not know, the English translations of which are literal and there’s a fair amount of knowledge you have to have going in or you’ll never be able to wade through it all.

An hour later we finally figured it out via mangled English/Japanese, written notes and pointy talk with the ticket station operator and accidentally stumbling on the right series of screens on the ticket machine. But then the machines wouldn’t take our American credit cards! 2 people, 4 cards, the machine spit everything out for no reason.

We scrounged through our pockets and dug through our per diem envelopes and somehow came up with enough wads of yen to pay for the tickets, everyone owing everyone else some strange amount and a half hour later we had tickets, a plan and dinner to look forward to.

We paid the equivalent of an US domestic plane ticket for a round trip Shinkansen tickets. Is that reasonable? I don’t know. I was in the throes of Splurge-a-thon 2010 and had left reason far behind.

Sunday finally rolled around, we all arrived at work packed and ready to run. Last show/fast show! The show came down and we raced out of the theatre, ran 6 blocks to the subway and arrived… 20 minutes before our Shinkansen. Which is certainly better than late but annoying since we could have just made an earlier train. That might have helped later on…

But we were on time and ecstatic so we bought beverages and took pictures and futzed around and finally the Shinkansen arrived like a train from the future. Pure white, round enlongated nose, quiet and sleek with a conductor dressed in a blue uniform with gold trim and white gloves poking his impeccably groomed head out of the window in front. It wasn’t even a train from the future. It was a train from a 1940’s movie version of the future. We quietly boarded our first class cabin with all the other quiet Japanese passengers and I fell in love.

Rows of giant comfy seats in sets of two with reclining backs, power outlets, a table in front of me like an airplane, plus a table that swung out of my armrest, tons of leg room, a carpeted padded foot rest that I could adjust, massive curved sparkling clean windows with huge deep window sills and wide aisles. A tiny Japanese woman came around immediately with hot wet washcloths and another woman with a food and beverage cart followed her. The car was a quarter full, at best, and then the train started up.

Even running, the train was completely quiet inside and the ride was so smooth. The stops were so gradual I hardly felt them and I couldn’t tell I was moving until I got up or looked out the window. I had an empty seat next to me for the entire trip and the few people in our car remained completely and utterly quiet since no one in Japan uses their phone for anything except texting on any form of public transportation. No kids cried, no one talked and after a week of shows, it was the most amazing blessed glorious 2.5 hours of silence I’ve ever experienced. I would go anywhere on the Shinkansen. I’d rather ride the Shinkansen than fly. I love the Shinkansen.

Two and half hours went by in a flash and then we smoothly docked in the Kyoto station and it was 6:10pm.

The conclusion

Kyoto and Kitcho, Pt. 1

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?

Carpe Kitcho!

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, capsule.

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…*

They’re Americans.

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