Taste of seduction

After a night out with geishas, it's time to sample hidden culinary gems

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 10:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 2:40pm

Life is a journey and just as we have many not-so-exciting moments, we have many cliches. Kyoto is one of those cliches: a history stretching thousands of years witnessed by its thousands of temples and shrines, the grandeur of the Imperial Palace, the mysterious geisha culture - the glorious past we expect.

I accept without hesitation an invitation to attend a dinner with a geisha. I know it is a cliche, but I am an ordinary tourist who is keen to embrace anything that I have not experienced before.

In Kyoto, young apprentice geisha are called maiko, becoming geiko when they turn 21. Both are expensive. Before the economy nosedived, two hours with one maiko and one geiko used to cost 70,000 yen (HK$6,900) to 100,000 yen, so only wealthy families and businessmen with expense accounts could afford such exclusive entertainment. Now, even the moneyed classes and corporations economise and the business of geishas has changed accordingly.

Savvy market-sensitive restaurants, such as Gion Hatanaka, offer more affordable versions of geisha nights which include Kyoto cuisine. For 18,000 yen per person, a guest can enjoy a traditional dinner, unlimited supply of drinks and the service of two maiko and one geiko - with 40 other guests. By sharing the bill with others, it is opening this age-old tradition to a wider public. "It feels like a Groupon promotion," I say to fellow diners. "In bad times, everything can be 'Groupon-ised'."

The night starts with a performance of two maiko dancing and a geiko playing shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument. I enjoy every second of the performance. The simple, slow reserved movements of the maiko exude beauty. My mind drifts with the ancient music, to a time when beauty was more than just skin deep.

This is not that crazy Snow Dance portrayed in Zhang Ziyi's Hollywood movie from the book Memoirs of a Geisha and is far removed from the hypersexual choreography of Lady Gaga or Beyonce.

The maiko don't bare any skin, but there is a sexual tension. The more subtle and poetic they act, the more alluring they become.

"Is this the reason why geisha are considered the most desirable form of woman?" I ask myself. "Is this why wealthy men are so willing to pay big money to enjoy the ambiguity of covert seduction?"

The performance is followed by good, but not superb Kyoto cuisine - seasonal sashimi, fresh vegetables, stewed seafood and steamed egg. By the time the main course finishes, the maiko and geiko reappear, visiting each table, greeting each guest, then inviting the guests to play such games as rock-paper-scissors Kyoto-style. The conversation is minimal and the games tend to be child-like. However, I find it enchanting to observe how the kimono-bound ladies open their red lips, whisper soft words, blink their little eyes and show surprise with effortless charisma, precise tenderness and unbreakable elegance. It is the result of years of training.

The guests are not here to learn, but to consume and to be entertained. One of the maiko is kept busy with a big group of Chinese tourists, who ask for more than a few photo ops, playing continual rounds of games. She drinks a few glasses of beer after losing at rock-paper-scissors, winning applause from the enthusiastic tourists. Then she continues with the game, losing again. More beer is sent in. What do maiko and geiko think of their industry going mass market? I ask the maiko: "How do you find these foreign guests, compared to those rich Japanese clients you usually see?" She smiles and says: "They are very nice guests. Big spenders are much more demanding." What a diplomatic answer.

While my geisha night is more interesting than I expect, I am ready to explore some hidden culinary gems. Kyoto has numerous restaurants that look closed to non-Japanese-speaking outsiders. Their traditional wooden lattice front doors look uninviting as if to scream: "Don't even try to knock on the door and get to know me."

Inside isn't much better, with waiters who barely utter a word of English to restaurants that don't even offer a menu, let alone one in English. The ancient capital of Japan embraces old values and can be conservative to foreigners.

I seek advice from Yokoyama-san, aka Ken Yokoyama, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, who is passionate about sharing culinary tips with visitors that only Kyoto-ians know about. One such restaurant is the Tempura Matsu, in Arashiyama, south of the city.

Arashiyama is where the sakura goes pink and the autumn leaves turn red and attracts millions of tourists from around the world. I don't enjoy mingling with big tour groups, but find it difficult to resist the beauty of the mountain across Katsura river, the romantic Togetsukyo, which means "Moon Crossing Bridge", and the green tea ice cream shops dotted along the main road. Believe me, green tea ice-cream tastes much better in the presence of autumn foliage.

Even though Matsu is only about 10 minutes drive from Togetsukyo, the standalone restaurant is far enough away from the tourist masses.

It is a small restaurant with few tables and bar seats. The interior is old and worn, showing signs of its half-century of history. There is no menu. It serves tempura, as the name suggests, but it is more "omakase" style, which leaves the selection to the chef. We settle at the bar awaiting the owner, Matsuno-san, and his kitchen team to determine our culinary fate. The appetiser, braised winter melon with fresh urchin on ice and lotus leaf is delicious - and a farewell to summer. It is followed by assorted sashimi on a crystal container, which convey a sense of coolness. Then comes steamed egg custard with a rich lobster broth topped with small shrimps. It is soft and melts in the mouth, with an explosion of lobster.

I am more than half-full at this stage, but the dinner is only getting better. Steamed fresh ayu (smelt) on rice is at its best, fully delivering its unique sweetness and bitterness. Then comes the wagyu beef roll with fresh urchin - a surprising combination.

Tempura should be the climax if not the main course, I suppose. It is basic but tempura is a basic way of cooking. Here they use seasonal ingredients, such as matsutake and hamo, and they don't disappoint. Dinner ends with a bang - cold buckwheat noodles and braised herring inside a huge ice cube. The traditional Kyoto dish is stylishly presented.

Looks can be deceptive. Matsu doesn't even remotely look like a gourmet haven. However, it is a connoisseur's heaven.

Yokoyama-san says: "Many low-profile government officials and wealthy businessmen like to come here because they can avoid public scrutiny."

Matsuno-san hands me a colourful plate, saying, "some plates are reserved for VIPs such as this one, it is already 400 years old". Then he hands me another plain muddy coloured one and says: "This is about a thousand years old."

His casual attitude astounds me, and my hand begins to tremble. I wonder what will happen if I break the plate and can't help asking: "How come you used this plate to serve food? It should be in a museum." People nearby immediately look at me as if I have said something wrong. Yokoyama-san says: "Why do they serve food with this plate? Why should it go to a museum? A plate is made for food, right?" I am not going to argue.

Matsuno-san pats my shoulder and says: "Do you remember the crystal container for sashimi? It was made and hand cut in [the former] Czechoslovakia, definitely one of our treasures here."


Gion Hatanaka

Address: Yasaka Jinja Minamimon Mae, 505 Minamigawa, Gion machi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi.

TEL: +81 75 541 5315

Website: http://www.kyoto-maiko.jp

Tempura Matsu

Address : 21-26 Umezu oonawaba -cho Ukyo-ku, Kyoto city, Kyoto.

TEL : +81 75 872 3613

Website: http://tabelog.com/kyoto/A2604/A260403/26001461/