Feeling fed in an unknown city
In Kyoto, I (Jessica) started to falter. I was getting tired of Japanese food. The cloying smell emanating from the restaurants, a mixture of uncomfortable umami plus something sweet with fish undertones, was making me nauseous. I had also come to understand that in Japan vegetarian food mostly meant tofu, spaghetti, or curry. I was missing feeling truly nourished, missing my favorite foods (a berry smoothie, a nice bowl of muesli, a raw chocolate dessert). A known traveler’s plague was setting in, too: I was just plain tired of going out to eat for every meal.
The reality of being surrounded by (for the foreseeable future) a world I couldn’t understand began to weigh more heavily. Not being able to read signs or menus or know what direction a train would take me was hard enough, but the realization that it was unlikely anyone would understand me if I really needed help was a little scary. We did sometimes try to ask questions with gestures, but it was ultimately futile. It’s another known traveler’s dilemma: people want to be helpful even if they don’t understand the question or know the answer, but then you’re left with the wrong information. As my dear friend Ana wisely advised me before I left, “ask directions of 3 different people before you decide to walk.” But in Japan it could take hours of asking strangers “do you speak English” before finding 3 people who might have a chance of understanding my question.
I was disappointed in myself for not learning more Japanese. It felt disrespectful to go around speaking English and just expecting to somehow be understood. In the end, I preferred to make mistakes rather than ask for help.
Luckily, we soon figured out that Kyoto has a well-deserved, if lesser known, reputation as a great place to eat. So we got right to it.
We found Hawaiian, Okinawan, French-Japanese, and Indian food plus vegan chocolate and even pizza (although we only heard of it; we couldn’t find it). After so many meals in restaurants, a few perplexing/amusing things started to stand out. For example, soap was far from ubiquitous. In fact, most places just didn’t have it. What’s the point of having a hand-washing sink if there is no soap? Instead, restaurants provided a warm cloth before the meal, which was refreshing but couldn’t remove the germs from thousands of hands on the bus handle, metro pole or staircase railing (yes, we had hand sanitizer, but I never saw a Japanese person use it; anyway, it doesn’t feel quite the same or kill all the germs). Maybe we didn’t really need to wash our hands for Japanese cuisine; when bread isn’t a staple, there is nothing in the meal that needs to be touched with anything other than chopsticks.
There was almost never a napkin available, and when there was, it was an ineffective tiny, thin paper rectangle. If there is a way to eat noodles in broth or rice in sauce with chopsticks while sitting on the floor without spilling on myself or getting sauce on my face, I have yet to discover it. So, usually I put the wet warm towel on my lap, where it left a nice wet spot on my pants (but at least I didn’t get food stains on my one pair of cold-weather pants). No wonder Japanese people stared at me.
Then there were the beverages. Water was almost never served at meals. In fact, I’m not sure Japanese people drink much water. On the other hand, they don’t drink much soda, either. I never saw anyone drinking a Coke product, and I didn’t see advertisements for soda. It was refreshing (haha) to be in a country where tea instead of soda was the default beverage. Overly-sugared things, or sugary things in general, were not common. Much respect to you, Japan, for resisting the siren call of sugar and soda.
What people do drink in Japan is tea (no surprise there). Tea was always served at meals. In fact, it came first. However, it was not what I hoped for. I’m a green tea fanatic, but it’s Chinese green tea I love. In Japan, only Japanese tea was widely available (actually, in tea shop after tea shop, city after city, I never came across anything else). Matcha, sencha, genmaicha: no thankya. Every time I was offered a warm cuppa (and it was often), I accepted eagerly, hopeful. But every time, without fail, it was instead a cup of a brownish and slightly sour tasting brew with uncertain caffeine content (usually I wouldn’t have minded a boost). Genmaicha (tea with toasted brown rice)? No. Something else. Something like twig tea (kukicha). Possibly hojicha (roasted green tea). Whatever it was, I was sad I could not seem to develop a palate for it.
Restaurant Notes (or, how to survive as a vegetarian in Kyoto)
Goya – Okinawan food (Imadegawa St, North-east Kyoto). I had no idea what Okinawa was. Turns out it’s an island very far south of Japan, near Taiwan, that’s like a cross between Japan and Hawaii – Polynesian influenced. This restaurant featured a full-wall mural of a guy smoking what appeared to be a joint, reggae music, couches, vibrant colors, and a chilled-out, tropical vibe. The service was equally chill: they inquired after our dietary restrictions, served a delicious amuse-bouche, and had a menu with an entire vegetarian page. What a welcome relief from the cold and formality of Japan.
Omen – Japanese noodles (Shishigatani St, North-east). Traditional Japanese in a spacious setting with floor seating on tatami. There was a lot of hype about this place online and in guidebooks, but it was well-deserved. They made their own spice mixtures and had 4 colorful vials of them on the table, to my delight. They also had a special vegetarian broth for the noodle soup, just what I had been craving. The vegetables for the soup, which included the usual Japanese suspects: daikon, a leafy green, lotus root, mushrooms, came in a fancy arrangement of pyramids. I liked watching the how the waitstaff constantly but nonchalantly took their slippers on and off as they moved between the tatami and the kitchen.
Kerala – Indian (Kawarasaki St, downtown). This was better than any Indian food we ever had in San Francisco. There was an entire vegetarian set course meal, and I will be dreaming of it for years to come. I had samosas (although served with both spicy green sauce and ketchup(?!)), tomato soup, tandoori vegetables, and channa masal and daal with naan. I asked for the daal extra spicy, and boy did they deliver. For dessert, little ovals of homemade cardomom ice cream appeared, thick like cream cheese, but light and refreshing in flavor. I went to the kitchen to thank the chefs for this meal.
BBQ rice balls on a stick – (street food in Kibune, on the way to Kurama hot springs). On a daytrip north of Kyoto, we needed a snack. There were only Japanese restaurants around (food to go and eating on the street is almost unheard of in Japan), and we thought we were out of luck until we spied a bunch of Japanese people in line in front of a grill on the sidewalk. The owner of the grill appeared to be barbecuing white balls of something. The smell seemed suspect; I was certain there was fish in them. Luckily a man spoke to us in English, offering me his seat. “What are these?” we asked him. “Rice”! he said. He was right; He was also a businessman from Tokyo who knew more about the 49ers than we did. We saw this snack fairly often on the streets of Kyoto after that.
Cafe du Mon – French-Japanese (at the east entrance to Daitokuji, North-west Kyoto). Festooned with plants, this place was run by a jovial Japanese chef who had gone to French pastry school somewhere in Japan. The dish of the day included a scoop of a sort of bean spread that was a delicious and welcome change from adzuki bean paste and an exquisite tofu-potato croquette. The highlight, though, was the caneles, made with natto (after eating a canele at Pierre Herme in Paris in 2010, this has been our favorite and much sought-after French pastry. We taste them everywhere we can find them).