There are cafes and bars in Kyoto that don't feel like cafes or bars at all. They feel like you've entered someones house. And oftentimes you have. The laws governing business zoning are not as strict as in the US. From what I understand, if you happen to have a street front property, you can turn over a portion of that to a business regardless if it is otherwise a totally residential neighborhood. So the places that appear to be someones home, probably are. Behind a sliding door or curtain is where the proprietor actually lives.
Tonight I stopped at a cafe off of Kawaramachi Dori with the Itos that was the epitome of this special cafe/home hybrid. We walked down a long narrow corridor, slid open a door and there we were in what looked and felt like the kitchen and dining room of a private home. There was no attempt to hide or disguise anything: a case of sake stacked against the wall was a case of sake stacked against the wall; the refrigerators were not the industrial restaurant variety, they were the same as you or I would have in our home; the television was set at an angle for the proprietress to watch, not the customers. Everything seemed to be organized in a pure utilitarian manner for the matriarch of some family to feed her kin, not a chef or restaurant manager trying to impress clients. There was nothing orthodox or professional about the place at all, which is why it was so charming.
There was enough seating at the bar for about 7 or 8 people max. There were no other tables or chairs. The proprietress/cook, an animated, but elegant woman, stood behind a bar facing us, as if she were the hostess of a cooking show. In fact, if there were cameras rolling that's exactly what I would have guessed this was, a television set. She chatted with the customers while she washed dishes, poured beers, and served food, the same way your mother would simultaneously entertain guests and prepare a meal.
I had to smile. I couldn't stop smiling. The conversation, the little I could understand, was warm and casual, just old friends catching up. That official politesse between customer and maître d' that one usually finds in a restaurant did not exist. I was almost surprised when the bill arrived.
Even though I understood almost nothing of the conversation, I was so totally entertained it just didn't matter.