The highlight of my trip to Japan involved a fish head. Teeth, eyeball, scales and all, the fish was snaked through a wooden spear and served on its own plate. “You eat all,” the waitress said. “Bones, okay, yes.”
“We can eat the bones?”
“Yes, yes, to eat.”
Phil and I were in Kibune (pronounced kib-ooh-nay), Japan, a remote area in the northern mountains of Kyoto City, where residents sojourn come summertime. To escape the heat, people take to riverside summer terrace dining, or Kawayuka, where temporary dining platforms are built just inches above the Kibune river. My video below isn’t much, other than to demonstrate just how close you are to the river. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, at least for an American visiting Japan once in her life.
Studded with waterfalls and full walls of vibrant moss, Kibune is worth the forty minute train from Kyoto. Sitting cross-legged on straw tatami mats, eating Nagashi-somen, tiny bundles of noodles in icy mineral waters flowing down a bamboo gutter, you can’t help but feel that this is the experience of Japan. “Grabbing a bite” turns literal. With chopsticks poised, you fish for noodles as they race through a water trough built of bamboo. Grab, then dip into homemade sauces and slurp. Exhilarating and refreshing. Or, as Restaurant Hirobun describes on their site, by way of Google Translation: “And a waterfall in front of you can spend a good time from a small kids to adults, while soaking up the negative ions to the whole body.”
Throughout our sixteen-day trip, Phil and I often found ourselves saying things like, “Now, this is Japan.” While, yes, you can say that wherever you in Japan, because, hi, you’re in Japan, but when you’re enjoying moments that feel as if they could only ever happen in Japan, you feel as if you’ve succeeded at something. We’d done it, found the authentic experience we’d hoped to find. Only more realistically, “authentic Japan” would likely consist of dressing in a dark suit and heels and taking the train to work. Still, whenever I entered a restaurant and was asked to remove my shoes, I became giddy. “I’ve done it again!” I’d tell myself. “Score.” It’s as if I wanted to experience things I’d never experience at home in New York. Get my money’s worth of exposure.
At Restaurant Hirobun in Kibune, you get your money’s worth. The Nagashi-somen will run you about $13.00 USD. But at Hirobun they don’t only offer a bamboo noodle shoot. We opted for the “Refreshing” kaiseki course lunch meal for $38.00 USD per person. “Refreshing” is just about the last adjective Phil would use to describe his escapade with the fish head. More accurately, with the Ayu: small river fish in the salmon family, skewered and grilled. The small young Ayu may be eaten whole, as their bones are still soft. I guess what you least expect is that the fish is cold. You expect that it’s deep fried, or so dried out from grilling that it retains a crisp skin. What you realize as soon as it’s in your mouth is that the fish is flaccid and cold. The idea that you have a cold, lifeless fish head in your mouth, with the resistance of skin that resembles tough seaweed, is enough to make one (namely Phil), quickly spit it out into a napkin. Only in Japan, we weren’t ever supplied with napkins. Instead, you’re offered a moistened hot washcloth, to keep beside your plate.
The highlight of my trip to Japan was seeing just how unprepared micro-manager Phil was when he took that first, and only, bite of the speared Ayu fish. You had to see just how fast he moved once it was in his mouth. His face was as if he’d just been forced to lick the inside of an airplane toilet. Seeing someone suffer over something small is often hysterical. And seeing it happen to always-in-control Phil is priceless. I definitely got my money’s worth.