Monday, August 15, 2005

Fine dining in Kyoto

What better opportunity to experience Japanese fine-dining than a farewell party for a couple of visiting professors! And the menu, if you please:

1. Stand outside the well-preserved machiya (merchant's house) waiting for the rest of the party to show.

2. Finally venture through the outer courtyard and into the reception area. Remove shoes and place in lockers provided, and find out you could have spent your last 15 minutes seated in comfortable waiting chairs like everyone else, or milling around and admiring the darkening view of the garden.

3. Allow yourself to be led into the inner corridors, where you are shown to an exquisite tatami room with an expansive ikebana arrangement in the center and two long tables on the sides adorned with meal implements and the first course in covered woven baskets.

4. Be the only person to order wine instead of Asahi. Open the basket when the others do, and collectively gasp at the delicate arrangements of sashimi, puddings, compote of sea urchin lying within the basket.

5. Find out that this is only the first course and indulge happily. Feel a bit woeful about the ice-cold red wine, and wonder if you should have ordered sake instead.

6. Receive plate of things to dunk in the hotpot, of soya bean milk.

7. Receive main course - an unexpectedly understated sushi plate.

8. Discover the best thing since air-con: plum wine or umeshu.

9. Arrive at an epiphany. that Japanese fine dining is less about the food than the presentation (the excesses, the impressions), and, as the evening wears on, an excuse to drink a whole lot of beer and lose inhibitions.

10. Tumble with the other inebriated folk through the restaurant's subtly-lit landscape garden in the moonlight on a tour of its mini-bridges, tricking streams, hanging willows, and imported limestone plunge pool. Try to shut out images from the Blair Witch Project. Find out this very fine machiya was built and owned by the man who engineered the canalization of the Kamogawa, the banks on which the house sits.

11. Realize that drinking on a Monday sets a really lousy precedent for the rest of the week.

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