Last night we had reservations for a traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner at the Kiku-no-i (meaning “well of chrysanthemum”), a 3-star Michelin-rated restaurant in Kyoto. The restaurant is owned and operated by its chef, Mr. Yoshihiro Murata, the Chairman of the Board of the Culinary Academy of Japan. Miko-san joined us at the restaurant, and she informed us in advance that we would be accompanied and entertained by a maiko and two geikos. Miko-san herself was extremely excited; it is a huge deal in Japan to be entertained by geikos. There are 300 practicing geikos and maikos in Kyoto today, and they mostly attend to established customers only. Clearly, we were in for a treat… and we were nervous. Although Miko-san gave us an overview earlier that day, we still weren’t quite sure what to expect. We arrived at Kiku-no-i around 6:30pm, and I was wearing my best heels (which, I should have forseen, would be taken from me upon entry into the tatami-matted restaurant). Moments after we were seated in a private room, Miko-san stepped away to meet with the geikos. She returned smiling from ear to ear, brimming with excitement. As it turned out, one of the geikos performing for us was the most famous in Kyoto. Her name was Komomo-san, which means “little peach.”
The door slid open and the 3 performers (1 maiko, 2 geikos) entered the room. They were all wearing pure silk kimonos, in styles according to their station. Their hair was pulled away from their faces in elaborate buns, and their faces were painted white (except for the oldest geiko, who at the age of 30 had to make a choice and chose to pursue singing and instrument-playing, giving up dancing). They were stunning to behold. The maiko was named Kufoku-san (meaning “small happiness”), and the oldest geiko was Yachiho-san. They kneeled next to my dad and me and sprung up conversation immediately; they were very talkative and social. They poured us sake, served us our food, and laughed and chatted away about everything from their hairstyles to the hilarity of Preston Center’s Rock ‘N Roll Sushi restaurant. They got a huge kick out of that one. They had to pull out their fans so their makeup wouldn’t run from crying from laughter. We’re not totally sure why they thought it was so funny… that part got a little lost in translation. But we did hear them say “Jimmy Hendrix” and watch them play a little air guitar. They were obviously well traveled, and, although Miko-san did a lot of translating, their English was actually pretty good. They really enjoyed teaching us Japanese words, like “kawaii,” which means cute.
Our dinner that night was SEVENTEEN courses, including sea cucumber ovaries, chilled turtle, salt-grilled ayu (sweetfish served whole. WITH eyes.), octopus roe, and pike conger eel. Needless to say, we had mastered the art of pushing our food around by the end of the meal. Or at least I did… My dad was more adventurous. One of the dishes came out in a tiny birdcage, and my dad wondered if something was about to fly out. Honestly, you never know. Halfway through the meal, the maiko and geikos got up to perform for us. Yachiho-san, the oldest geiko, played the shamisen (a 3-string instrument), while Komomo-san and Kufoku-san danced. First up was Komomo-san, the famous geiko, and she danced to a song called Fireflies. We had never seen dancing like that before — very stylized, lots of discrete head movements. Very traditional, very beautiful. Next, Kufoku-san, the young maiko, danced to a song called Gion-kouta. After they performed, Komomo-san presented me with a gift on behalf of the performers: an ornately designed handkerchief and brightly-colored origami paper. I was extremely excited. We all bowed to each other, and they left. My dad and I agree — that was by far the most amazing dinner we’ve ever had.
We can’t believe our stay in Japan is already over, and we’re off to Vietnam right now (sitting at the airport in Hong Kong waiting for our flight). Miko-san drove us to the Kansai International Airport in Osaka this morning, and after a few flight complications were settled, we said our goodbyes. She gave me a pair of chopsticks as a goodbye gift, and she gave my dad a handkerchief. We both thanked her very much (arigatou gozaimasu), to which she replied, “Don’t touch my moustache” (her clever way of teaching us how to say “you’re welcome” in Japanese, which sounds very similar). We learned a lot during our trip, but we realized we just barely scratched the surface. My dad especially loved the pine trees and the landscaping, the use of the rocks in Japanese gardens. I loved all the quirky facts we learned from Miko-san, especially the reason why Japanese people drive on the left side of the street (because Japanese samurai fought right-handed, carrying their 2 swords on the left, always ready to defend their honor). Japanese people could not be more welcoming. As my dad says, “they’re gentle souls.” We hope to visit Japan again someday! Now we can’t wait to see what adventures Vietnam will bring… Pictures coming soon, I promise!