What’s in a city – the aromas, the people, the pace. I like to get a little lost whenever I travel, and I found Kyoto, Japan to be the perfect place to wander aimlessly. Mainly because it’s safe, but also because the best parts of Kyoto are the places your Hostel doesn’t tell you about.
After a day of exploring palaces and temples, sweating my butt off in the humidity, and spotting a maiko in Gion (the best part of the trip, for sure!) I was ready for a drink. I think traveling does that to you, sometimes. You go on vacation just to need a rest from your vacation. It wasn’t just that, though. Sure, my legs hurt and my feet were a little more than angry at me, but I came to Japan to experience all of Japan. To me, and honestly for most people who visit this one of a kind country, that also includes flavors.
I wrote it in my original plan – try all the sake in Japan. Full disclosure: I wasn’t sure what to look for or what to order off the menu when all the bottles kind of blend together. I’m sure a proper foodie would scoff at that, but to me, Sake is Sake. Right? At least it used to be.
The guy manning the desk at the Khaosan Kyoto Guest House told me there weren’t many places to go (yeah right) and that I should try this curry restaurant he pointed to on the map.
What can I say, staring up at a takeout Japanese curry place made for tourists didn’t exactly make my mouth water, so I kept walking. I took a right into an alley that looked promising and saw the glow of a little bar with a staircase.
Have you ever walked into a room and felt the awkward glances of everyone in your presence fall directly on you? That’s how I feel every time I walk into a bar alone. It was a quaint little place with maybe 10 bar stools and three people sitting, enjoying each other’s company.
I fiddled with my bag, nervously taking one of the empty seats. Looking around I realized this group was made up of people in no position to judge a lady who drinks alone – they were doing it too. I suppose the fact that we were together meant we weren’t so alone anymore.
I settled in, feeling more at ease with this decision to explore on my own. The attention of the cute Japanese bartender who tried his luck at speaking Spanish helped a bit, too.
“Where are you from?”
“Puerto Rico, have you been?”
“Umm… No. But I know Spanish – delicioso!”
And then I’d giggle. (Don’t tell my boyfriend).
“I’m not sure what to order. I want to try Sake, but the good kind.”
And that’s when my tour a-la-sake began. His eyes lit up as he rummaged behind the bar, finally handing me an atypical shaped glass filled with clear liquid. It was absolutely divine; my first taste of the famous rice wine in a proper Japanese local. I was in heaven.
The thing is, though: it didn’t taste much different than other sake’s I’d had in other countries. It had that same, slightly sweet, taste like a lychee; delicious, but not that unexpected. There was something special about it, though. I felt a little different, and my shoulders quickly relaxed as I exhaled a sigh of relief; a solo drink for a solo traveler.
“Ready?” He gestured half an hour later at my empty glass. I nodded with excitement, not knowing what would come next.
He placed a new, more elegant bottle before me.
“The better the sake, the smoother it becomes,” he told me. Boy was he right. I’m not sure if I really preferred the flavor to the fruity notes the first bottle presented, but this one was definitely not something I’d tasted before. It felt like silk running down my throat, all be it a bit a little more bitter, like true liquor, than any kind of sake I’d had in the past.
Then I started a conversation with the gentleman to my left. We talked about his job in Gion and the perfect time to spot a Geisha (privileged information, I tell you!). I felt kind of cool. This drinking ‘alone’ thing wasn’t half bad.
Once we got to the third round I was feeling extra refreshed. This last glass of sake was definitely the best. Something about this flavor was extra appealing, and what really got me was that it wasn’t even on the menu. Not only did this beautiful blue bottle have an incredibly modern design, it was also made by a company in Kyoto – The Kinoshita Brewery. That right there opens up a whole new world of sake; I’d never even considered craft rice wine before, but why wouldn’t it exist?
Ice Breaker – the perfect name for the kind of beverage you drink to quench your thirst in the kind of heat and humidity that Japan expels in July. It’s best to drink when chilled and in the dimly lit ambiance of a second floor bar in an unknown city, preferably in Kyoto.
Suddenly, all fear of drinking alone subsided. Why had I even worried about it in the first place? I’d walked in with a worried twist in my brow, and that feeling was instantly wiped away. I can do the whole solo travel thing. I can take this world by the horns and just do my thing, meeting who I meet along the way, hoping they can show me a thing or two about sake, or Vietnamese Pho, or how to drink Somek in a parking lot. I can do this. Now I know.