Our Poverty Air flight puts us down in Osaka and we make our way to the airport station to catch the train to Kyoto. It’s about an hour and a half to Kyoto central station, then we have to get to the North of the city with our bags, so we opt for a cab as it’s getting late and to top it off, it’s starting to rain. I know the way to where our inn ought to be, but it’s a good 30 to 40 mins walk in the dark with our wheely suitcases, so we hang the expense and choose comfort & speed.
We are now staying in a very small inn in the Gion District. This is where you are most likely to see real Geiko and Maiko (not just tourist maiko-overs), on their way to and from work in the specially designated places where they are employed. This is a bit of a glam area for us, so I was quite surprised to find a very old house/workshop that had been converted into a very small inn. Only 5 rooms and still very reasonable, so much so that we can afford to stay there. It’s just off the main granite paved Geisha/Geiko/Maiko street and up a very narrow walking lane, just 1.2 m wide. It’s in an all wooden building area and because of its location in an ancient lane, off a pedestrian street, it is one of the quietest places that I have stayed in.
Each day as we come and go from our lodgings, we see the Maiko walking to and fro between jobs and training sessions. Sometimes alone, but nearly always with a minder. On this occasion, as one of the Geiko walks right past me I say quietly, “you are beautiful”.
She stops dead and turns to me, blank faced, no emotion in her practised impasto guise at all. Her minder, a much older lady, who is walking beside her says to me. “Do you want a picture?”. Her minder takes my phone and clicks this image. They turn and walk off, straight into one of the small doorways nearby and disappear inside.
We make our way to the Nishiki street food markets one day to buy a special Japanese knife, as requested by a friend. We head for the Aritsugu knife shop. The Aritsugu family were originally sword smiths, founded in 1560, but as the need for Samurai declined they reinvented themselves as kitchen knife makers and have developed a remarkable reputation as one of the best. The current master is the 18th generation of the family to run the shop and business. They are certainly very accessible here in the Nishiki food market. The shop is alway packed and difficult to manoeuvre around in the narrow isle between the glass cabinets of beautiful trays of knives. I have bought 3 knives here over the years.
While we are wandering, we notice that there is a new sushi restaurant opened up in the street. We can’t resist and take a peek inside past the noren. It’s very stylish and restrained. We like it, so go in. There are just two seats left at the bar. It’s meant to be.
There are only two choices on the menu. 7 or 10 servings. We go for the full 10 pieces. We are served tea and a hot wash cloth. Our man speaks just a little English, which makes everything a lot easier. He asks us, “Wasabi OK”? We tell him, “Yes indeed, we’re fine with wasabi”. He makes each piece for us individually, one at a time and names the species of fish each time, once in Japanese and then in English. He also offers the advice of whether we should use soy with it or not. A couple of the servings have already been treated with a vinegar dressing and he suggests, “This one – No soy”.
The rice is perfect. Not warm or cold just right, Goldilocks rice. There is a very long tradition of making sushi rice. It has a huge history and part of the 7 year apprenticeship to become a sushi chef is learning the vagaries of rice.
The special sticky rice used to make sushi varies from strain to strain and also from the differing climatic zones of Japan. It also has slight differences from year to year and harvest to harvest. Nothing is certain. the chef has to be able to understand these subtle variations and choose the rice of the season that best suits his approach to sushi. Then there is the preparation. The age of the rice has to be taken into consideration. To wash or not to wash, to soak or not to soak. How long to boil before the long slow simmer – if at all. The real skill is however involved, not in the cooking, but in the cooling. This involves fanning the rice to cool it and the secret additions of the vinegar, sugar, salt, sometimes sake and whatever else. Every sushi chef has an opinion and a secret recipe. The restaurant develops a house style that is appropriate to the clientelle, the district, the Ken, the island and the season. These variations are all considered to ensure consistency. In Kyoto, they seem to serve it a little bit sweeter than in Tokyo, a bit like the variations in Miso. The Kyoto speciality is white ‘shira’ miso which is sweeter then the northern saltier ‘aka’ red style.
I been told that the best sushi chefs can dip their hand into the rice bowl without looking and scoop up the exact amount of rice everytime to within a gram. Then, and this part I don’t believe. He will scoop, round, pat, squeeze and swivel the little ball so that all the grains of rice face the same direction! I looked closely, my man wasn’t choosing to display this skill to me. Maybe I wasn’t paying him enough?
We enjoy or sushi with the chef’s recommendation of a bowl of sake, not too dry and not at all sweet. On the dry side of the middle range. It’s a very nice accompaniment.
We reflect on our beautiful day in Kyoto as we walk home along the Kamu.