My trip to Japan happened in the early 1990’s. I had planned to meet a business contact in Tokyo, however my host family lived in Kyoto so that became my destination for the first ten days in Japan. In preparation, I read and studied about Japan for months before the trip, including taking lessons in basic Japanese phrases. I also studied and practiced Soto Zen Buddhism for many years so I had some familiarity with the culture and knew some of what to expect.
Since Kyoto was the first destination, I boned up on this unique city. It was one only a few Japanese cities that the allies did not bomb during World War II. Harold Stinson, the Secretary of War (as cabinet post was called then) had seen photographs of Kyoto in a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC issue and fell in love with the city. As a result sections of the city were centuries old. Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 until 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. The oldest surviving (fires were a constant problem then) structure in Kyoto is the pagoda at the Daigoji temple that dates to 951.
After what seemed an endless flight, our jumbo jet landed in Osaka. My host’s daughter came along as a guide and interpreter. Her father picked us up and off we went to Kyoto. We arrived in the early evening and were immediately taken to the dinning room to eat. My host family ran a busy hotel in Kyoto that included a restaurant. After a dinner that I don’t remember due to jet lag, we were escorted to our rooms. I promptly fell into a deep slumber.
At 5:00 am the large temple bell across the street from my room began tolling. It took me two hours to stumble out of bed, the bell still ringing in my ears, and stepped into the tiniest shower I had ever been in then or since. I dressed and got on the elevator to go to the dining room. Two women in traditional kimonos were on the elevator when the door opened. I remembered to give them the traditional morning greeting in Japanese, slightly bowing my head. They responded politely but I could sense they wondered who this gaijin* was? This would not be the last time this happened.
Arriving in the dining room I saw that on the far end of the room was the buffet area divided into two sections. One section contained traditional Japanese food. The other section was all “Western” food. The Japanese side contained dried fish, fish flakes, miso soup, tofu, various pickled vegetable dishes and of course rice. The “Western” side contained eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, butter, jams, orange juice and coffee. My stomach said, “Let’s do the Japanese later.” So I filed up my plate from the “Western” side. Everything tasted a little different, although I loved the Japanese bread. It reminded me of challah.
I discovered people in Kyoto like in so much of the world traveled best with a full stomach. Although they had street vendors that interested me, my first memorable food experience was in the smallest of noodle shops imaginable. Think of a restaurant the size of your grandmother’s kitchen. You have the picture. And the actual cooking area if you can call it that, was an even smaller area off to one corner facing the street. The place was located on a street next to the Gion district. This was the famous district originally built to house and feed visitors to a famous nearby shrine (Yasaka Shrine). It evolved into area for geisha (or geiko as the women in the Gion liked called themselves, “artists.”)
People were scrunched together inside like sardines but no one was complaining. All you heard was the sound of udon noodles being happily slurped into hungry mouths. My dish was udon shrimp tempura. A large shrimp was put in the middle of the bowl. It was the most perfect piece of tempura I’ve ever eaten. The noodles, well, they must have been made in heaven they were so good. And the broth was just the right combination of everything-pungent miso in a liquid that was not too heavy or too thin. The only other udon dish comparable to this that I’ve had was in a small café next to the covered market across from souk in Tel Aviv (but that’s another story).
We all left the restaurant satisfied in a way that only great food can do when filling stomach but also touching the soul. A cold March rain started as we began walking to our next adventure.
*A Japanese word meaning “foreigner,” or any non-Japanese.
Read part II here and Part III here
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin
Image: Free access via Pixabay from the Internet