As often happens, travel presents an awkward gap between 11:00 AM check out and that train, bus or flight not leaving until hours later. My bag, stowed safely under a net in the hotel’s lobby, waits for me to pick it up closer to departure time. I’ve quite finished anything I want to do in Kyoto and can’t take an interest in one more thing before my train leaves. With one exception—I must eat.
In that frame of mind, headed for the station food floor, I wander again along the resutoran-gai located in the breezeway which connects the Kyoto Granvia Hotel to JR Kyoto Station. A short cut my friend Hiro showed me many years ago so that I wouldn’t have to walk from my modest hotel to the station in the rain.
Though I have tried other establishments along this corridor, all week I’ve looked through the window at Kitcho and hesitated. Perhaps it’s the freight of the name. First established in 1930 in Osaka, Kitcho has grown—along with its reputation for supreme attention to season, setting, presentation, taste, and likely the most famous service in Japan—oh yeah—and expense. Let’s not forget that. Kitcho boasts a group of Japan’s topper most of the popper most restaurants spread between Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo—though perhaps not quite as famous as Jesus or the Beatles.
This Kyoto branch is not the Arashiyama location renowned for what would likely be obsessive-compulsive attention to detail (bordering on a serious disorder anywhere other than Japan where that’s the norm). While food blogger Yao Wong doubts that Arashiyama Kitcho’s standard can be replicated at any of the branch restaurants; this Hotel Granvia branch is the one right in front of me and perhaps as close as I’ll ever get. Besides, you can’t exactly call it a cheap knock-off.
For some reason I hesitate. Will they welcome a walk-in? And paying this much for lunch? Somehow it seems beyond excessive. Still, I’ve no room in my one carry-on suitcase for purchases; the ultimate purpose of this journey is to savour splendid experiences, not accumulate piles of tchotchkes. When I consider whether I will have this opportunity again (never a certainty), and think that my last meal in a city should trump everything else that has gone before (always a good strategy and likely a sure bet here), I step inside.
Welcomed by a gracious young woman in a maroon kimono I am led to my seat. Light filtered through shoji windows together with wood-grained walls and a large mural creates a soothing and elegant atmosphere. Nearby, a middle-aged Japanese woman eats alone. Seeing her I immediately relax into the experience. If she can, so can I.
From the picture menu I order the eight-item cha kaiseki bento which arrives on a lacquered tray. Thankfully, I am not a food writer. Only my senses must pay attention, not my pen. I am here to relax and savour the experience. I don’t need to trouble my kind server to repeat or note the details. (Though I ask, there is no English menu to help jog my memory afterwards.) She points out the various courses arranged in serving dishes which compose a spring sakura theme—just ahead of the coming season.
Even the food is decorated with sakura blossoms. The gold-leaf petals artfully drawn across the lid of the bowl materialize as real ones floating in the soup. The earliest mountain shoots, seasonal fish, rice and pickles delight with every bite. Sakura-yu, a clear tea made of cherry blossoms, which has a light salty and sour character, rounds out the meal. However, the piece de résistance and most astonishing taste is the sakura ice cream, tucked into its own nest of ice. Not only is it delicately pink and stunning to look at, like a drug it numbs the lips and tongue in the most agreeable way.
Some years later, after the 2008 crisis and spring long past, when I stand outside the restaurant once again the whole place seems faded and even sad. The Kitcho name is nowhere to be found—not in English, at least. Not long before, the Osaka Kitcho closed under scandal.
A lesson to live by, the old saying is correct: You can’t step into the same river twice. In the interval, I have never regretted seizing that moment or paying the price. Not once.