One of the greatest adventures you can have in Kyoto is visiting the tiny restaurants found along the Kamo River in the Gion District. The eateries here keep their culinary secrets hidden behind hermetic facades, tinted windows and closed doors. In fact, restaurants are often hard to spot. Most likely there is a Noren (traditional curtain with slits) above the door, and sometimes a humble lantern sheds a dim light on a small menu.
I stand in front of a mysterious establishment, trying to imagine what it looks like inside as I muster all my courage to enter. I slide the door open and a server immediately addresses me with a confusing phrase in Japanese. A few heads turn towards me. Did he just say “sorry, we are full” or “I’ll be right with you”? Judging by the way he’s looking at me, I gather there’s no room for me. Back to square one! I go through the same scenario several times, until finally a smiling waiter offers an inviting gesture that signals me in.
The restaurant is lit by just a few candles. I sit at the bar. While possibly holding the menu upside down, I use my chopstick to point at indecipherable characters to order... something. Who knows what!? I certainly don’t. A bowl of ramen appears in front of me (phew!). It has meat, fish, eggs, mushrooms and a mysterious jelly of some sort. Is it a veggie? Something from the sea? Some sort of paste? The more I think about it, the less sure I am. Either way, it doesn’t taste that bad!
My focus on this mystery jelly thing is interrupted by the waiter placing some sake on the table. The tiny glass is served inside a wooden box that’s filled with a transparent liquid. I assume it’s water, to keep my drink fresh. When I order a second glass, all becomes clear. The waitress generously pours sake into my glass until it overflows into the box. I guess I was getting more drink for my dollar.
I was a little bit tipsy by the time I asked for the bill, but I had a full belly and a happy heart. This adventure was not an easy one, but it was definitely worth it!