The end of a narrow alleyway, one of a hundred identical ones criss-crossing this part of town like threads on a plaid cloth. On one side, a small Buddhist temple, a uniform wooden gate in an ancient stone wall, that would look bizarrely out of place in any other neighbourhood; on the other, a dilapidated, run-down wooden house, too poor to count as a proper machiya, with dusty windows and plastic paneling on the walls (some Japanese like the outsides of their homes to look like the insides of their bathrooms).
In between, a small cube of raw concrete, shot through with garages hiding behind folding doors of corrugated steel. Amidst those, a plastic marquee hides the tiniest of shops, consisting of a single glass cupboard. On the shelves lay what I take for plastic imitations of tea ceremony sweets, tiny, colourful baubles that look more like toys than food.
An ancient lady, bent with rheumatism and shaken with old age tremors, emerges from behind the curtain. At the back, her equally primordial husband stands over a machine mixing sweet red bean paste. The old lady opens the cupboard and takes out the sweet treasures, and at that moment I realize these are not imitations: these beautiful, painstakingly crafted items are actual sweets, each a tiny work of art, a single-bite parcel of sugary rice dough wrapped around the red bean heart in the shape of a mouse, a cherry, a Christmas tree. How is it that this old woman, whose hands tremble like ginkgo leaves in the wind as she takes the thousand yen note, is still able to create masterpieces like these?
Everything in this shop is as old as its owners. A bakelite Siemens phone. A kitchen scale which seems to remember the day the War ended. The red bean paste mixing machine, running on diesel in the back, that looks like part of a ship’s engine.
Compared to the sweet shop, this place is almost modern. A glass door, with a sign that says “Tofu” and “Yuba”. A narrow glazed fridge. It’s half empty; of its many shelves, only a few are filled, with cups of soy milk and cubes of fried tofu.
The inside is dark and musty like a cellar. All the machinery is visible from street level, and all of it looks, again, as if built by some naval engineer in spare time. A woman, a generation younger than the sweets lady, picks up a tray of freshly made, still trembling soy curd, and carries it to the frying vats, bubbling away in the corner.
We ask for some yuba, the delicate skin of soy milk, which is Kyoto’s specialty; it looks unappetizing, but is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, a bomb of protein and calcium, used by Buddhist monks for centuries to provide them with the nutrition lacking in meat-free diet.
All the yuba is gone, the woman replies. You have to request in advance – or you can buy some in Daimaru, where we deliver, she says.
Daimaru is Kyoto’s Harrods and Selfridges combined; a huge department store, with the largest and best food hall in the city… and this is where the tofu and yuba produced in this tiny, dark, garage-like workshop ends up, neatly packed and presented among expensive, luxurious items like slices of Kobe beef, whole snow crabs or slabs of imported Spanish ham.
Slightly dazed with this revelation, we content ourselves with a cup of soy milk and wander off into the narrow streets, filled with tiny, dark, stuffy workshops where inconspicuous people work hard on other mysterious things that end up on the shelves of some of the finest department stores in the country.
Another narrow street, another indistinguishable house among other indistinguishable houses of wood and grey concrete. There’s a greengrocers here. Boxes of fruit and veg spill out on the street, as if it was the middle of a farmers market. Sweet potatoes and aubergines, apples and yuzu lemons. It’s mikan season, and so the most prominent of all are crates of the juicy fruit, known as Satsuma in the West, divided by size and price. The largest ones are a hundred yen each.
We pick up a few and call for the proprietor, who’s nowhere to be seen. We wait. There’s no answer. Another customer approaches, a young mother on a bike, her baby in the seat at the front (in Kyoto, there are no baby prams: only bikes with baby seats perched precariously between the handlebars). She also calls for the shop owner, to no avail.
We wait some more, and then the young mother spots a notice stuck between the aubergines and points it to us. “I’m out for delivery”, says the note. In the middle of a busy street, in the center of a big city, the shop owner left her store unlocked, with all the goods out in the open, and disappeared somewhere on an errand.
We put the fruit away with some reluctance. They look so juicy… I think we could just leave the money on the table, honesty box-style, but I’m not sure, and it’s not like we won’t be back here soon.