My First Untold Experience in Kyoto
Having been born in Kansai, I spent a good portion of my formative years in the Southern regions of Japan. Even after I moved abroad, I frequently returned to Japan to visit my grandmother and extended family. Through my regular visits, I came to develop a profound love for Kyoto, the quintessential city symbolic of the harmony between the modern and traditional elements of Japan.
One summer, when I was back visiting family, my aunt, a Kyoto local, asked me to come spend some time with her so she could show me around her hometown. While I happily accepted her generous offer out of my love for Kyoto, given that I was already well-acquainted with the Kansai region as well as the major areas of the ancient capital, I did not initially think that there would be any new experiences I would be gaining by having my aunt show me around the city. Fortunately, I was proved otherwise on just my first day with her.
The best way to find secrets is to go out for a walk in the local streets. It's even better when you have a guide with you!
The evening started with my aunt and I going for a walk around her neighborhood. She took me around local attractions, stopping every now and then to take pictures of me standing next to quaint shrines and explaining the unique mountainous geography of Kyoto and its influence on the region’s culture. As I listened, intrigued at the numerous fun facts she was sharing about her city, she declared it was time for dinner at a place she knew.
Discovering an Overlooked Restaurant
We walked through numerous alleys and narrow streets before my aunt told me we had arrived. I looked around to see we were in what appeared to be a residential area with rows and rows of normal Japanese houses. She pointed to a house on the right and gestured for me to go on ahead. As I stepped into the establishment wondering if we had arrived at the right place, I noticed a small sign with the restaurant’s name printed on it. I found this odd as I, along with most others, would likely have assumed it was one of the many residential houses had I been walking through the neighborhood on my own.
These narrow streets have many hidden shops and restaurants that are full of character.
Once inside, I was met with warm lighting and the delicious waft of tempura and nimono. I looked around, taking in the restaurant’s cozy interior evocative of a traditional Japanese house. The chef, dressed in a simple yet elegant yukata, came to greet us by the door, asking us to put our bags down and make ourselves comfortable. We made our way down the hall to the living room. There was one small table with tableware set up for just my aunt and I. Our chef asked us to sit and handed us oshibori to clean our hands while she made her way to the kitchen, an open space connected to the dining area we were in. We could see her plating our first dish of the night, crisp seasonal vegetables arranged beautifully with fresh sashimi.
The Importance of Word of Mouth
While savoring our authentic course meal, my aunt explained that she had first found out about the restaurant through a friend who had also found the same way. I learned that the chef here managed the restaurant on her own and only took one booking each night. I found this, paired with the inconspicuous sign on her front door, to be an interesting concept, unlike any other restaurant I had been to before, now sensing that I was partaking in a unique dinner experience.
With little to no signage, you'd never know the incredible local experiences that await just behind the doors.
As the evening progressed, the chef served us one dish after another and took the time to explain each one from the reasoning behind the unique combination of flavors to the source of each ingredient. She also gave us insight into the history of the restaurant and her career as a chef, as well as how she got to know my aunt who had come to be a regular client over the years. I came to understand that the chef prioritized deep, personal connections in serving her meals to customers as opposed to trying to attract as many people as possible. I left the restaurant with a full stomach and a warm feeling in my chest. I was no stranger to authentic Japanese food but this culinary experience had strayed from and exceeded my expectations at every turn.
Deep Connections: Understanding the Secrets of Kyoto
Just as I turned to thank my aunt for treating me to such a special dinner once we left the restaurant, she told me that we had one more stop to make before calling it a day. We walked 15 minutes down the quiet streets of the neighborhood and arrived at a bar. Once again, a small, cozy space, but with elements of more eccentric design. The bartender warmly greeted us, while two other customers already sitting at the counter gave us a polite nod. As the bartender warmed up the atmosphere with jazz music and small talk, it was only a few minutes before the other party began to join in on our conversations. They shared that they were local to the neighborhood and regulars at the bar. Considering the location and inconspicuous sign, I sensed that this bar was also a spot that most people outside the community would not easily stumble across.
Tamago-yaki, Japanese rolled omelette, is a classic izakaya dish. Every bar will say they make the best one!
During our conversation, we covered a wide range of topics. We talked about how I ended up in this part of the city, the youth culture of Kyoto, and our music preferences. At one point, a customer asked if I wanted to join her in singing a song by the famous band Arashi using the karaoke machine at the bar. It was a classic that we both liked and everyone knew. I happily accepted, albeit shyly, and we proceeded to sing song after song with everyone else joining in between small talk, bringing the day full of heartwarming surprises to a close.
Japanese izakayas are less about the fancy course meals, and more about the great sense of community while eating homemade otsumami (food that goes well with drinks).
Rediscovering Kyoto Through Personal Connections
With my familial roots in the Kansai region and existing familiarity with its culture and customs, I had subconsciously assumed that I had already covered much of what there was to see and experience in Kyoto. However, exploring the community through the eyes of my aunt took my understanding to a new level. Even for seemingly ordinary activities like going out for dinner or spending an evening at a karaoke bar, her company and subsequent connections acted as a gateway to more authentic, personal interactions with people of the local community, revealing a side of Kyoto I had yet to fully discover.
Finding the Hidden Gems of Kyoto with a Local
In conclusion, my day with my aunt in Kyoto unfolded as a delightful journey through the hidden gems of the city, showcasing a side that often goes unnoticed by many. The intimate restaurant and the cozy bar, both known to locals, added layers of depth to my understanding of Kyoto's cultural richness. It was a reminder that even in places I thought I knew well, there were untold stories waiting to be unveiled.
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