Adam and I woke up early on our last morning in Kyoto. We had an important objective: eat all the foods we wanted to try on our previous trips to Nishiki Market, but didn't get to yet. We'd been twice already, once with a guide. Going with the guide was important because we barely recognized half of the items for sale in the three blocks packed with fish mongers, butchers, produce vendors, pre-made food stalls, and tiny restaurants that make up this culinary hub of the city. It took us more than ninety minutes to cover the market that time. We pointed to things we didn't have precise names for—tiny silver-blue fish with giant eyes, piles of bright green and magenta vegetables marinating in a brown-ish paste, different types of pickles we couldn't identify. Our guide patiently explained.
At the start of the tour, the guide gestured to a narrow, inconspicuous shop at the market's entrance. "Oysters," she said. If you know how I am about oysters, reader, you probably guessed that I burned the exact location of that little place into my brain. And indeed, we stopped there first on our last morning in Kyoto. Leading us down the short hallway next to the kitchen, the host sat us at a ten-seater bar against the far wall of the restaurant's back room. We sat back-to-back with the diners at the long table in the center and elbow-to-elbow with the people next to us. Despite zero ventilation, everyone was smoking. It was one of those places that completely defies our delicate, oh-so-American sense of space.
When I tipped the first oyster into my mouth—well, I don't mean to be coy, but the only word I have to summarize the experience is audacious. These Japanese oysters have something more than that initial shot of salty, slippery coldness. They break open in your mouth like plump, sun-ripened wine grapes. But instead of that syrupy sweetness, they release a rush of the most velvety, pleasantly cutting ocean water I've ever tasted. It's as if a very talented chef made creme brûlée using thick cream and olive brine. I became aware of the other diners sitting so close to me. It seemed almost too intimate, eating those scandalous creatures in such a closely packed setting. Right then, I understood the smoking, the need for catharsis after such a corporeal endeavor.
To say that we came to Japan for the food would be an overstatement. But not much of one. In the weeks leading up to our trip, we anticipated. We talked mostly about ramen and sushi and a little about udon and other foods that were lower on our list of priorities. We made unofficial bets on all the ways the sushi would be different and better than the sushi we're used to here at home. And we pondered the logistics of vending machine ramen, which we heard was a thing there. But we didn't consider how much of the food we just wouldn't recognize at all or the styles of cuisine that would shake up our idea of what it means to sit down for a meal.
We found ourselves having one of those mind-bending meals at Yakumo Saryo, a little oasis of Japanese design and Kaiseki cuisine on the outskirts of a Tokyo suburb. To get to the restaurant itself, we walked through a lush, green courtyard and into a white-washed boutique with the most delicate housewares I've ever seen—thin clay plates, porcelain bowls, and dried lace-like branches with little red berries that would break on principal (or at the paws of two well-intentioned, but destructive felines) if Adam and I ever brought them home. The restaurant sits behind all of this, its white linen chairs and light wood surfaces illuminated by the floor-to-celing windows that look out onto the tea garden.
Sitting in that sun-filled room, drinking cool Japanese chardonnay and sparkling green tea (where have these beverages been all my life, by the way?) felt like sitting in the sexed-up, Hollywood version of "Heaven." Everything light and minimal and peaceful. Our meal felt that way, too. We didn't order. Instead, the waiters placed each course ceremoniously on the table, giving us careful instruction on things like which broth to pour over what fish—with a dozen little bowls on the table, it wasn't alway obvious. They explained the origins of the dishes, modern interpretations of original Kaiseki fare, and the merits of some of the ingredients. We learned about yuzu (a revelation of a citrus fruit, in my amateur opinion) and bonito sashimi (like tuna's more sumptuous, slightly fishier cousin).
We came to Japan for many reasons—to shake ourselves of the familiar, to be in awe of beauty, to feel respect and reverence for another culture. Yakumo Saryo, with its cuisine presented like sapphires in a jewelry store, made us feel all of those things. So did many of the meals we ate in Japan, from those despicable oysters to the ramen with broth so rich it reminded us of French onion soup. As I write this concluding paragraph, reader, all of this is making me realize—we really did come for the food.