Dining On The River In Kawadoko
By Mark Guthrie
I am often told by my Japanese friends and co-workers that the summers of Aichi, the prefecture in which I live, are amongst the hottest and most humid of Japan. As I hail from the north east of England, it is safe to say that I don’t handle the heat all too well.
With this in mind, I was more than a little distressed to be subsequently informed that Kyoto, the destination of my planned Obon outing to witness the impressive Daimonji festival, is in fact THE hottest summer location.
As I began to entertain serious thoughts of cancelling my excursion, one of my travelling companions suggested that we give Kawadoko a try. “Kawadoko? Never heard of it,” was my response. She looked at me with incredulity. “Surely everyone knows about Kawadoko.” I didn’t, so she explained.
Kawadoko has its origins in the Edo period when Kyotoans would flock to restaurants with dining patios, extended over rivers, to take advantage of the cooling affects of the waters rushing below.
There are three particularly popular places to enjoy the Kawadoko experience. Perhaps the most famous is along the Kamo River (Kamogawa) that runs through Kyoto’s city centre. Here Kawadoko is more commonly known as Noryoyuka or Kawayuka, and many restaurants take advantage of the summer heat to open their balconies to serve drinks and cocktails as well as all varieties of local traditional cuisine.
Another is Kibune, an hour north of Kyoto by train. Here the tatami floors are mere centimetres above the cold Kibune River, and in the evenings you share your dinner table with the idyllic undulating illuminations of genji fireflies.
However, knowing my craving for cooling, we instead booked a table at a ryokan in Takao, the chilliest option, a fifty-minute bus ride northwest into the forested mountains, where the air is more amenable to someone of my geographically-nurtured heat intolerance.
As it turned out we needn’t have been too concerned. The whole day the heavens lashed down upon us, soaking us to the skin. Thunder echoed about the mountains and the air fizzled with the broken electrons of Raijin’s hammer. As we shivered like drowned rats, Kyoto’s famed seasonal swelter was in fact the furthest thing from our mind. I felt quite at home.
No matter the weather, regardless of the season, Takao is an area of glorious natural beauty, set in forested mountainous peaks, amongst which nestle shrines of great age and beauty such as the 1,240 year old World Heritage Site Kozanji that boasts the earliest known example of Manga and is the birthplace of Japanese tea; as well as Jingoji, a temple that sports an impressive yet tiringly immense stepped pathway to the top. Seeking immediate shelter from the downpour, we headed directly to the ryokan where our dinner was to be served, and were ushered to our zaisu chairs upon the tatami.
Soon the rain subsided and the incoming dusk dimmed behind the heavy woodland. Lanterns danced in the residual breeze and the only sound was that of the river below us. Thankfully it was a good couple of metres below us, as the day’s downpour had swelled its banks violently, and I silently thanked our stars, kami, and other deities in whom I don’t believe that we had not booked a table at one of Kibune’s ryokan, hovering just over, or perhaps just under, what by now must be terrifyingly tumultuous rapids.
As the other guests arrived, wearing denim shorts and a t-shirt, I soon felt painfully underdressed, as diners settled in their smartest of casual clothing, or fully bedecked in summer yukata. As luck would have it, no one else seemed overly concerned by my sartorial choice, as they were more taken by the view and their surroundings, the gorgeous simplicity of our open air dining and the majesty of the powerful waters cascading below.
And then the food arrived. Kawadoko has something of a reputation for extravagant expense, and it is a reputation well deserved. Lunch can cost upward of ¥7000 per head, and dinner can be above ¥10,000 (with some places charging closer to ¥15,000, though that cost includes a yukata to give you a taste of the true traditional experience). However, if you are in anyway keen on washoku, it is well worth the cost.
Personally, when it comes to traditional Japanese cuisine I am more than a little clueless, but even I could tell that this was something special. Okay, maybe I didn’t notice that the mushrooms I guzzled down as if they were a side order on a full English breakfast were actually of the famed matsutake variety (probably the most expensive food we were served I was later informed. My response that “they tasted, hmmm, mushroomy,” was not well received). And so what if I didn’t dismember the sweet ayu fish, gleaned from these very waters, in the expert way of gently squeezing before pulling the bones out via the tail. But I enjoyed it, and that’s what counts, right?
Particularly tasty, as well as the absolutely exquisite sashimi, and the figs in sesame sauce, was the hamo, a pike conger eel that has long been synonymous with Kyoto fine dining due to its high expense and the beautiful peony shape it becomes after the laborious hone-kiri deboning preparation is complete. For that alone I may have paid the dining fee.
All too soon, after the five, six, seven, I lost count, sublime courses of exponential delicateness, dinner was done and it was time to leave. After posing for the obligatory peace-signing group-dining photos, we stepped back into the street, spellbound as the wind rustled through the trees and the river thrummed below. Bellies full and at peace with the world we receded into personal meditative reveries, becalmed, happy, not a word spoken, our thoughts unbroken.
Until, that is, a cacophony from above shuddered through our contemplativeness, the heavens opened and we let fly a string of multi-lingual expletives and trudged, huddled beneath our solitary shared umbrella, like soaked spirits in thrall to the fiery glow of the daimoinji, in the hopeful direction of the bus stop.