Kyoto has many faces, from the delicately powdered visage of the refined geisha to the twisted grimace of the tattered rag merchant. Some are more famous, more familiar than others, but each face reflects a reality that the bearer, at least, cannot deny.
Across the River Kamo lies Higashi-yama, the traditional center for the finest ceramic works of Kyoto ware, and for splendid lacquer ware as well. It is a uniquely Japanese part of Kyoto; not "restored", but not yet modernized, it seems to have been allowed to evolve without benefit of modern planning and tourist economics. The traditional geisha quarter of Gion retains much of its old charm. Tastefully refined houses of simple design coexist with its many "love hotels" -- discreet lodgings available at an hourly rate -- a refuge for modern Japanese lovers.
Higashiyama's narrow alleys effuse the chaotic tumult of plebeian life, or the outwardly subdued elegance of traditional establishments. Here is a part of Kyoto where life goes on in a frankly Japanese manner, outside the modern plastic wrappers and the venerated glass cases.
9 pm. Monday Night
John and I spatter across the glistening pavement of Kawaramachi-dori at Shijo, the hub of Kyoto. Up Kawaramachi, we stride past the noisy neon alleyways of Kiyamachi, glutted with bars, clubs, and coffee shops, stacked one atop the other. We turn the corner at Sanjo, and a strong wind blasts the icy rain across our faces. December in the city, and it's a good night for hot sake.
We tramp across the Kamo River on the broad Sanjo Bridge. Built originally by Hideyoshi in 1590, the bridge at Sanjo became the gateway to the capital; surrounded by the gay quarters of Pontocho, Gion, and Shimabara, it was the final station on the old Tokaido Road from Nihonbashi in Edo (Tokyo).
Across the bridge and beyond the large Sanjo Keihan Railway station, as the streets begin to taper into old Kyoto, stands an unobtrusive row of small drinking houses, identified by the huge red paper lanterns that dangle outside, smudged with soot and smoke. Over one of the dingy doorways, a battered Suntory Beer sign finds room to indicate (in Japanese) that we have arrived at the Fushimi Bar.
We duck through the tattering cloth noren (shop-curtain), slide back the narrow frosted-glass door, and plunge into the noisy domain of a lively workingman's bar, or nomi-ya. Here is a place to warm oneself from the cold and demanding world outside with hot sake, food, and conversation. Not merely an escape -- this is recreation, revelry in a centuries-old tradition.
A counter follows three sides of the crowded little room, leaving just enough space to squeeze by between the walls and the stools. The fourth side opens onto the kitchen in the back, and within the enclosure of the counter, the stocky manager and his one waitress-barmaid dash helter-skelter to serve the eating and drinking needs of some twenty-five patrons.
As we enter, the manager looks up from his rush with a laughing smile and bids us a Kyoto welcome with "Oide, oide. Dozo." He directs us to a corner where three men in overcoats are shuffling from their stools, their faces aglow with good cheer and still arguing for the bill. The waitress flashes a smile on her way by and points our attention to the jumble of menu items posted on slips of paper over the opening into the kitchen. Some we can decipher, and a few we recognize, but others remain a mystery of colloquialism to be solved later on in the evening.
Settling down to hot sake and vegetable tempura, we become enveloped in the spirit of relaxed joviality. Around the counter cheery patrons hoist cups of sake, smoke cigarettes called Hi-Lite, Cherry, and Golden Bat, and feast on broiled fish and vegetables. Many are ruddy-faced laborers in cleft-toed boots and short jackets. These are people you rarely find even in the proletarian bars downtown, frequented by casual college students and suited office workers. The Fushimi Bar, however, is convenient not to offices and shops, but to the less modern lower-class residential areas.
You aren't likely to meet these people socially any other way. They don't speak English and their children will not go to college; nor will they likely travel far from their home town. They work long and hard six days a week, live in cramped one and two-room flats, and their major forms of relaxation are local festivals and warm nights passed in the comfort and insulation of their favorite neighborhood drinking houses and public baths.
Before the night is over, we are sharing jokes and sake with a pair of construction workers next to us. They teach us some useful Japanese slang and we teach them to toast in English; "mud in your eye" is a rollicking disaster. But they aren't pushy; they don't want to take us home to show off to their families and they can't afford to foot our bill in that tiresome largesse proffered by stuporous businessmen. They just childishly enjoy the novelty of talking and drinking with foreigners.
But the real attraction here is the barmaid wife of the manager, a lissome woman of nebulous age, (somewhere between 25 and 40). She spends the evening racing up and down the narrow aisle between the counters, relaying food from the kitchen and taking orders on the run, never a free hand nor intention of jotting down a call for more sake and fried squid, shouted over the hubbub from the far corner. Pacing back and forth in this enclosure every night, she is so unlike the giddy bar hostesses who fawn over their well-heeled customers with exaggerated femininity.
And yet, she is the same; with her flashing smile and tight jeans, she captures the attention of every man; for here at the cramped little counter, she is never far from the mind or the touch of every customer. Her strong, handsome face toys with the patrons, breaking into a schoolgirl laugh, or glancing down coldly on a young man's wayward remark. With a flip retort and a naughty smile she holds him at length with a look, then destroys him with her laugh.
No less than the geisha, she is a professional. After a few bottles of sake, each man in the place might fancy that she favors him, and indeed might someday be persuaded to run off with him -- to escape the drudgery of this job and her husband, who only smiles now, seemingly oblivious to her flirtations. Someday. Above all, she keeps the customers coming back. The sake, the food, they are only the trappings; patrons frequent a local bar not for the food, but for the atmosphere -- and the company.
Attractive, saucy, self-confident, she single-handedly provides everything an enjoyable evening requires: food, drink, and female diversion. For the working man, she is the waitress, the hostess, and the geisha, all rolled into one; the secret girlfriend of all. For a few hours, we are infatuated, and it's a good feeling.
About 11 o'clock she makes a last call for oden before she begins cleaning out the steaming vat of fish bouillon, filled with skewered pieces of pressed fish cake, tofu, konnyaku, eggs, and octopus. A bleary-eyed old man makes a loud and suggestive allusion to yaki hamaguri (broiled clams) which she ignores. But a few minutes later she returns with a big plate of yaki hamaguri and sets it in front of the dismayed patron to the great amusement of his companions. Now they are obliged to stay and finish off the clams, washing them down with yet more sake.
At our request, the master surveys the stack of empty plates and fallen sake bottles before us and announces the bill. By this time we can't be certain just how he arrived at the figure, but at the price, he couldn't be cheating us. So we bid farewell to our ruddy-faced neighbors, bundle up in our coats and scarves, and totter out of the Fushimi in a rich warm glow. As we slide open the door, the woman looks up over the thinning crowd and, with an irresistible smile, urges us to come back again soon. And we know then that we will.
The wind and the rain have let up and the streets hang empty in the still shimmering cold. Across the Sanjo Bridge, I leave John to the last streetcar and tread on alone down the darkened sidewalks of Kawaramachi, haunted only by a few itinerant vendors.
Taxi drivers stop on their way home for some hot noodles at a tent-like ramen cart at curbside, and down the street, the tako yaki cart dispenses hot octopus dumplings to a few huddling young men. The tattered old baked yam vendor slowly pulls his steaming wooden cart across the main intersection, crying out his fare to eleventh-hour customers on their way home from bars. Down the corridor of dormant banks and department stores on Shijo-dori, his cry echoes through the chill night:
"Iiiimoooo. YAAAkiii Iiiimooou."