It may have been fatigue, or the impending darkness, or the first time in days I was not abiding by a strict itinerary, but on an aimless night in Pontocho Alley, I was feeling particularly foreign. I walked into a restaurant overrun with tourists and rushed out immediately, repelled by their familiarity. To hate tourists is the hallmark of the traveler ashamed to be a traveler.
A few doors down was a kushikatsu restaurant. The signage was discreet, the tables occupied but not filled. That comforted me. The hostess sat me at the counter, next to two older men who were already halfway through their meal.
Being a solo diner in a foreign country inspires by turns pity, or puzzlement, or unsolicited forwardness. Maybe they felt all of those, but the two men beside me introduced themselves: a designer from Kyoto, whose English was minimal but whose gestures were vivid, and his friend, who acted as our interpreter.
They wanted to know where I was from, where I lived, how I had found the restaurant. They asked if I would like to try the white wine they were having: something local, astonishingly light. We clinked glasses, and I remember thinking how flattering it was to be offered a drink.
Kushikatsu places like this operate in similar fashion: fried skewer after fried skewer comes out in sequence until the customer says to stop. This will be a quick dinner, I had told myself. I will stop at twelve. But the conversation continued, and the chefs obliged, and twelve became fifteen, and fifteen became twenty, and out came the apple croquette, buttery and comforting, and the meal, regrettably, was over.
It was odd, though not unpleasant, to be a person of intrigue in a city that has built its reputation on intrigue. In a way that I rarely feel when I dine alone, I felt included, taken care of.
Back outside in the alley, where the lights were beginning to dim, the dark no longer seemed so cold or so impenetrable.
A vague address and minimal signage make this restaurant a bit difficult to find, but tasty kushikatsu (fried skewers) and a respite from the tourists are your reward; walk along Pontocho Alley and check the stores on the eastern side, closer to the river, until you come to a floor lantern marked with the Rakuchutei logo roughly halfway between the two ends of the alley. Chefs will keep serving you dishes in sequence until you say stop, then typically follow with one or two desserts. On warm summer evenings, tables are available on the outside patio overlooking the river.
Name in Japanese
Pontocho-Dori, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
Mon-Tue, Thu-Sun: 17:00-23:30 (last order: 22:30)
075 241 1616
Around 6500 JPY per person