Saturday, March 1, 2014
Sometimes you just know. You open the door, next to the usual umbrellas there's a skateboard. There's bossa nova on the stereo. You see the proprietor - scruffy gray beard, a wool beanie, cigarette. You sit down at the long bar. There are fresh vegetables in various bowls and baskets, not for display, but to be used in the kitchen, which happens to be just the other side of the bar. Well-used pots and pans hang from the ceiling. The heavy, cast-iron stove is from another century. It is caked with decades of blackened food splatter. The walls and cupboards are stained with time and distillates of meals past. There is a vague organization to this perfectly disorganized workspace.
This is the kind of cafe/bar that would probably not pass a California Health Department inspection, and would make most Americans (even some Japanese) U-turn out the door. I smile. Somehow, remarkably, there is nothing dirty about it. It is age and love that marks everything, not filth.
Akira, the proprietor, speaks some English and we talk about the nearby temple Myoshin-ji from which I've just come. He shows me photos of some of the temples he has been to in the Kansai region and his nokyocho (a sort of passport book for collecting temple stamps). We talk about cooking too. Photography is his hobby, but cooking is his passion. There is a warmth and calmness to him, something unassuming, reverent.
Without looking at the menu I ask him to make me something. As I expected he approaches cooking like an artist. It is a joy to watch, not because he is a showman, but because you can see he has a real feeling for food and its preparation, and he cooks with flair, moving around his kitchen in a fluid rhythm. The meal is simple and tasty.
Some other people arrive including his teenage daughter and her friends. He introduces me to each person, as if we were old friends: my name, where I grew up, where I'm living, what I do, etc. He and the others conspire to find a way to extend my visa and keep me in Kyoto. He offers a room in his house above the cafe, or at the temple - he has friends there.
"Raku Raku" is the name of the cafe which means something like "easygoing". Yeah, Raku Raku.