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Nishi no Seki Junmai
Photo: Nishi no Seki Junmai, made from Hattan Nishiki rice at 60% seimai buai.

Last chance at the Takara corral to unholster the six sakes John Gauntner chose for the evening. Last sips of life in Japan. Doreen, a veteran of 35 years in Japan and a part-time NHK sumo announcer, presides over the table in her plummy British accent. Patricia, my familiar drinking buddy, and I relax into tipsy companionship. John talks about sakamai (sake rice) varieties. He plants images in my mind of tall stalks straining to stay upright. After harvest, the toji (brew master) coaxes the extra-large rice grains to dissolve and ferment with the yeast and mold.

Thank you Yamada Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Omachi, Dewasansan…

Sea bream salad
Photo: Sea bream salad with miso dressing, cucumber, and mixed sprouts.

Rob Yellin gives a lecture about chawan (tea bowls). He instructs us to take off our jewelry when handling the irreplaceable bowls at the head table. We look for spontaneity in the carving of the bowl’s foot, for the irregular beauty that holds one’s interest so much longer than perfect machine-made soulless crockery.

Rob wants us to ask one question when selecting our household ceramics: “Do I want to be intimate with this?”

The pour

Refills of favorites and I am pain-free. Some of the gang of ex-pats pity me for having to leave Japan. I feel a mixture of envy that they get to stay in Japan and a primal urge to go home. I gotta see about a house and a job and the rest of my life. But this life is so very very tasty.

Pork belly braise
Photo: Pork belly braise with carrots, snap peas, and potatoes.

Six dinner courses, six sakes, a few hours of varied pleasure. Kaika Junmai Nama (Gohyakumangoku rice) had a deep floral nose, almost like a chrysanthemum, with a fat body and a long sweet finish. Nishi no Seki Junmai (Hattan Nishiki rice) was crisp with high alcohol, and a tight, clean, almost wheaty taste that faded quickly. Dewazakura Ginjo (Dewasansan rice) had a spice nose with a hint of peppermint, a light body, and a fruit aftertaste, almost effervescent on the tongue. Toyo Bijin Junmai Ginjo (Akaiwa Omachi rice) was delicate and elegant with a silky texture. Hitakami Junmai (Yamada Nishiki rice) was clean and fresh with a black pepper edge, a tidy sake. Hitakami Junmai Ginjo (Watabibune rice) had a rose nose, but the taste was wide, strong, and bold.

Toyo Bijin Junmai Ginjo
Photo: Toyo Bijin Junmai, made from Akaiwa Omachi rice at 50% seimai buai.

Goodnight junmai and ginjo and nama. Goodnight sake bar and Mori-san the sommelier. Goodnight John, goodnight Rob, goodnight Patricia. Goodnight cultural inebriation. Goodnight nihonshu in Japan.


I got a lot of money
Could you be my nasty girl
And let me do that dirty dance witchu
Shake that sexy body
I just wanna nasty girl
Now tell me is that nasty girl you?

—Nitti (alternate reading, Nitty), a Heian period tanka master, from his poem, Fuketsuna koibito (Nasty Girl)

You know how it is for the ex-pat: the lights of the bars in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai used to titillate, but one tires of drag queens and vomiting up shochu and yakitori at 3 a.m. You move on to ukiyo-e at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art near Harajuku, but too soon you need more than 100 views of Fuji to get off. You soak your sore nether regions in the sento (bathhouses) of Ryogoku, and ritually wash yourself pure at the shrines of Kamakura. You have a brief fling with the Snow White looks of Kokkai, the Georgian sumo wrestler, who, incidentally, mixes a really tasty mint julep, but even his bulk can’t wear down your need for more more more. You have worked over the Kanto Plain and now your jaded palate wants a taste of the Kansai, the famous Heian kink. Like Genji looking for a hookup with an anonymous handmaid with blackened teeth and a stiff…raw…silk kimono, everyone eventually ends up stumbling blind with desire into Kyoto.

Philosopher's Walk
Photo: Philosopher’s Walk, a famous canalside path, named after Kitaro Nishida (1870–1945), a philosophy professor at the University of Kyoto, who would meditate as he walked along it.

First stop: the so-called “Philosopher’s Walk,” a tree-lined, watery test of stamina, with many temptations, secret places, and mind-blowing meanings. We worked that hidden canal for hours, until we had to collapse, exhausted, at Honen-in, a mossy and wet Buddhist love motel.

Honen-in Temple
Photo: Honen-in Temple, a stop along the Philosopher’s Walk.

We sprawled on the cool, slick wooden veranda of the prayer hall with a group of strangers, disreputable-looking middle-aged Japanese sybarites carrying guidebooks and open minds—all of us sweaty and shoeless. It was a place that smelled of the incense of love. Under the stony gaze of The Buddha Who Likes to Watch, we collapsed in a lusty heap, trying to keep our voices low and our hands off each other. We failed.

Fujino-ya yuka
Photo: The yuka (summertime riverside veranda) of Fujino-ya, a tempura and kushi-katsu (deep-fried kabobs) restaurant on Pontocho.

My posse and I were sitting outside on Fujino-ya’s yuka, one of the salacious summertime riverside verandas, marveling at the colorful fashions worn by the hustlers and dealers of the Kyoto underworld. The “English” menu said, “Raw Japanese alcohol,” so we knew we were in the right place. When the waitress brought an unpasteurized sake and some hot meat rods, we began our descent into the dangerous world of the Pontocho.

The night was our fried oyster….

Nonomiya Shrine in Arashiyama
Photo: Nonomiya Shrine, a Heian-era shrine where imperial princesses would purify themselves.

The next day I left my posse behind to travel to the dens of iniquity in Arashiyama. As any true freak knows, Nonomiya Shrine has long been a place for hot exchanges of poetry and bodily fluids. Prince Genji himself met the Rokujo Lady at the Nonomiya Shrine:

The evening moon burst forth and the figure she saw in its light was handsome beyond describing. Not wishing to apologize for all the weeks of neglect, he pushed a branch of the sacred tree in under the blinds.

“With the heart unchanging as this evergreen,
This sacred tree, I enter the sacred gate.”

— “The Tale of Genji” (Seidensticker, p. 187)

Rakushisha in Arashiyama
Photo: Rakushisha, the home of Mukai Kyorai (1651–1704).

Not yet satisfied, I moved on to Rakushisha, or “the cottage of the fallen persimmons” (wink wink, if you know what I mean), the home of the poet Mukai Kyorai, a disciple of Basho. Kyorai was known for the way he would put some stank on his haiku; as I looked over the very private rooms, I felt the decrepit sensuality inherent in this place (you may want to send your children out of the room):

nanigoto zo hana miru hito no nagagatana

what for!?!
one viewing flowers
carries a long saber

Boai-so lunch
Photo: Lunch at Boai-so, a Kyo-ryori restaurant, located in Arashiyama.

I’d heard about a place called Boai-so (the grinding stick), which sounded good and nasty. Boai-so is a farmhouse once owned by Kitaro Nishida (he of the Philosopher’s Walk) hidden in a grove of rock hard, gently swaying bamboo. The house madam recommended the daily special, a multi-course tease of humiliation and fresh creamy tofu. Unfortunately, I blacked out with pleasure, but you can imagine what happens when you mix a grinding stick, a suribachi full of sesame seeds, and a basket of limp, cold noodles. Worth a visit.

Fu-ou (rich old man) junmai ginjo
Photo: Local Kyoto sake, Fu-ou (rich old man) junmai ginjo. Smooth, balanced, delicious, with the typical soft flavor profile of a Kyoto sake.

Later, I hit the famous meat (fish, pickles, salty things) market of Nishiki. I took my time looking at the temptations and taking saucy photos. At a shop selling booze, I picked up a local and took him back to the hotel. My posse and I had him in our room. He was a rich old man with a gentle finish, a very quaffable dude.

Photo: Great Buddha at Todaiji in Nara.

Of course, we had to high-tail it down to Nara for the famous “deer park” show. It’s better than a “soapy” in Bangkok: all antlers and spotted flanks and girls/boys in school uniforms. Nara is known for its citizenry’s rebellious streak and phallic pickles. We lit a candle at the iconoclastic, Lenny Bruce-inspired “Big Buddha”: shown above giving The Man the finger.

Photo: Todaiji temple. It is said that a person who crawls through the hole in this wooden pillar will achieve enlightenment.

Inside Todaiji, an excitable gang waited their turn at the enlightenment hole. Need I say more?

Kasuga Taisha
Photo: Local schoolgirls at the Kasuga Shrine asking to speak English with tourists as a homework assignment.

After three days of indulging in sin, we ran low on funds. To raise money, I sent out the youngest, hottest member of my posse to solicit passers-by. She charged impressionable young girls 5,000 yen for a signature from “Nikki Hilton.”

Kiyamachi karaoke
Photo: Karaoke on Kiyamichi street.

After such a vigorous exploration of this lascivious city of wonder, we were sunk in hebetude on the train home: our bodies satiated, our cameras full of evidence that could be used against us in a court of law. Little did we care. In the words of Donatien Alphonse François, “In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.”

Give in to the dark side, give in to Kyoto.


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