After a good time spent at the Kyoto aquarium we had to pick up our bikes, that for some reason we left near the central station, and pedal all the way to Higashiyama-ku for the tea ceremony with Atsuko.
Arrived at the historic area, we parked our bikes and continued on foot, stopping at the Ghibli store and having a fresh drink while watching the sun go down on the other side of the valley.
After a soul cleansing ceremony, our bellies were starting to rumble so we headed out with Atsuko leading the way across the summer matsuri packed Kyoto for a magnificent dinner at Anji, a traditional Japanese Izakaya.
We entered in what seemed to be a private house door, but what expected us inside was anything but. Upon entry, and always assisted by our host, Atsuko, we were asked to remove our shoes and put them in a cabinet that covered one of the walls. By the way, we couldn’t have gone in without her — there’s very little room for foreigners in places like this and they have no interest in making them more accessible for that audience.
There were no empty tables on the ground floor so we climbed two flights of very steep and narrow stairs, and were seated at a table for 4 and handed a menu. The table had very short legs — kotatsu-style —, meaning you actually seat on a pillow on the floor and your legs go under the ground. The menu was exclusively in Japanese. We knew then we were on our way for a great time.
Atsuko very carefully explained the concept of an Izakaya — think Japanese tavern ambiance where everyone shares dishes and has a good, relaxed time — and then proceeded to enlighten us on the options we had. We quickly delegated all decision powers to her and she started ordering dish after dish after dish.
And drinks. Cold beers and sodas with an entire frozen lemon or orange inside the glass.
As for the food, we had mochiko appetizers (sweet and savory), fried flounder (and its bones), fresh eel, teriyaki-style grilled fish (specialty of this particular spot), a large plate of sashimi (salmon, tuna, octopus, sea bream, scallops, squid, etc.), and an actual charcoal grill on the table where we had all sorts of vegetables and dried fish bubbling around.
After slurping and devouring every last bit on our dishes, and chatting for a while, we looked around and realized this was not the atmosphere we were used to in Japan. Most of the meals we had witness until then were lunches in big cities, were it is customary for people to go by themselves and be done in 5-10 minutes to get back to their work desks. It’s not unusual for salarymen to simply grab a sandwich or noodles at the nearest 7-Eleven and go back up to work either. Only after work people actually get together and have a few drinks and chat over a plate or two of food. And more often than not, that leads to even more drinks and more chatter.
On our left, a small group of young guys were drinking away and cracking jokes; on our right, a large group of salarymen was having a farewell dinner for one of their soon-to-be retired colleague — soon enough there was loud laughs and booze flying around in all directions.
Even if just for a little while, it was cool to see the true spirit of Japanese people come out and be celebrated with very few boundaries. Delicious food in good company, what else can you ask for?