To celebrate Don’s birthday, we traveled to Kamakura, a town known for its many beautiful and ancient Buddhist temples and its fiery fall color display among the trees in autumn (unfortunately, the peak autumnal tree viewing is usually in early December – leaves were only just beginning to hint at fall colors while we were there.)
We visited three of the several temples there, and I’ll tell you all about it – and show you highlights from the over 300 photos we took just yesterday – at a later date, as the photos will speak for themselves. But one of the highlights of the trip – and it was a wonderful trip in pretty much every way – was the food we ate, and especially the dinner we had.
Kita-Kamakura (North Kamakura) is a town with just one main street in a sort of valley, off of which branch several roads that stretch up into the surrounding hills and lead to some of the oldest Buddhist temples in the area. As such, it is also known for its restaurants which feature entirely vegetarian meals, since the diet of Buddhist monks is typically vegetarian, in keeping with the precept to cause no harm to others.
However, by the time the temples were closing, at about 5, we were not yet ready for dinner (plus there were surprisingly few restaurants – we saw several cafes but only one or two restaurants – I guess it’s easy enough to be known as a vegetarian neighborhood if there are only two restaurants in the area!), so we wandered down the one main road to Kamakura proper, still a small town, but much larger than Kita-Kamakura, and stopping at the Hachiman-gu Shrine, a major and massive Shinto shrine. The main avenue in Kamakura runs directly up to the main approach to the Shinto shrine, so as we left the shrine, we followed along the main shopping avenue, ducking into smaller streets and alleys to explore.
One of the must-haves on our to-do list was try the sweet potato soft serve ice cream, since Kamakura is also known for its purple sweet potatoes – and its beautiful purple soft serve ice cream made from them. It was an interesting flavor – at first it sort of reminded me of really cold jarred baby food, but maybe that’s just because I’m not used to vegetables (or starches) mushed up in ice cream. Don especially liked it though, and I’m certainly glad I tried it. (We can add it to our growing list of unusual soft serve ice creams in Japan….)
When we were ready for dinner, Don pulled out his trusty iPad to look up places to eat. Kamakura proper seems not to have quite the same vegetarian reputation as Kita-Kamakura – most of the restaurants we passed seemed to have only meat & fish options. There was a well reviewed Spanish-style restaurant on Tabelog, a sort of Japanese Yelp website, which also indicated it had some good vegetarian options – in fact, what it said was “Vegetarian women will also enjoy this place” – apparently in Japan, if you’re not a Zen monk, being vegetarian almost always means you are a woman.
This place, called simply enough, “Kamakura bar,” was nearly impossible to find. Japanese addresses are notoriously difficult to find no matter what, since buildings aren’t numbered in the order they appear on the street, necessarily, and the numbers given are often for an entire neighborhood, rather than a precise location. This bar was even harder to find: it was in a wee little alley off a slightly larger wee little alley, off a road that was off the main road, and it was teetering on the third floor of a narrow little building. We would never have found it if we hadn’t looked it up – and then set the iPad to Google maps and followed the glowing little blue dot representing us until we got closer to the little red pin representing the restaurant.
We climbed up, and it is a teeny tiny, somewhat dingy little bar, maybe 15 feet wide, with three tiny little tables, and the extra floor space all crammed with more stools than seem necessary and a piano clearly not in use frequently (since it is inaccessible shoved behind all the random stools). There were two bar tenders and a chef, and no one else in the entire place.
We looked at the rather complicated menu, and it turns out the place is all-vegetarian for lunch, which seemed good enough to me – surely it means they’ll have some dinner options I can eat! But food was available on a slightly odd schedule: until 6:40 only a few select tapas would be available; from 6:40 until 7:30, more options would be available, and from 7:30 until 10:30 or so there would even be pizza and pasta options; and then back to a more limited menu from 10:30 until closing. Unfortunately, it was only 6:05, and the tapas they had out were all fish: tiny little bowls lining the bar with a single octopus arm snaking out, or beautiful curling shells that must house some sort of shellfish, etc. So we ordered a beer (for Don) and a glass of Spanish red wine (for me. Incidentally it was the most full glass of wine I’ve ever had, filled literally right to the brim. I had to slide it across the bar and take a big long sip without using my hands before I even trusted myself to lift it and bring it back to the table. No pretentious sniffing, swirling, etc. even possible!) – and decide to wait until 6:40.
At this point I was skeptical, but the wine helped immensely. At 6:40, the place had begun filling up and they had added a few things to the tapas selection, and the scallion pancakes looked promising, but it turns out they had fish in them. Don explained I am vegetarian, and no problem – the chef offered to make something special just for me.
He ended up making me a big plate of tofu and okra that was absolutely delicious. It looked like he made a bunch of it as there were several bowls on offer in the tapas section, as well. When the extended dinner period came up, the chef made a point of specially bringing us the expanded menu. He also came over several times with free dishes made specially for us – spicy Asian peppers in an incredible peanut sauce, thick with actual peanuts (so unlike the peanut sauces I buy in jars at home!); and onigiri triangles – rice shaped into a triangle with a seaweed ribbon around it. It was so sweet of him – and so yummy!
Every time I went to the bar to order something (another glass of wine, waters for the table, pizza), Don had to coach me on what to say first, and even still, it ended up being a group effort between me, the bartender, who spoke a little English, and the man sitting at the end of the bar, who took it upon himself to operate as my translator. For instance, when I tried to order water, I had memorized what Don told me to say, I held up two fingers to make sure I was clear…and then the bartender asked me something in Japanese. I made my now most common face, the smile-and-shrug-my-shoulders-and-hope-it-conveys-“I’m clueless, so sorry!” – since I’m usually too intimidated to say “I don’t speak Japanese” in Japanese. The woman asked in English, “Ice?” I said, “Yes, please.” And then said a very delayed, “Hai, hai” moments later. They both laughed at me.
Ordering the two-cheese pizza was the worst, because even with my helpful translator and very patient bartender, I wanted to convey that we wanted two 2-cheese pizzas (we assumed they would be tiny and tapas size, like the rest of the food), and this did not seem to be coming across. Finally, the bartender explained that two pizzas was too much for two people, and if we were still hungry after one, we could order a second. So it had come across, they were just trying to save me from making myself ill!
The two-cheese pizza took about an hour to arrive (it seems the chef was only able to make one at a time in the tiny little kitchen, and it seemed nearly everyone in the bar – which was teeming with people now, spilling out onto the little smoking balcony outside – had ordered one of the pizzas), but it was well worth the wait. The two cheeses included a stinky, blue-cheese type of cheese, which I don’t ordinarily like, but worked really well on this pizza, and was doused in onions, which I love on top of pizza. The crust was incredibly thin, crispy and flaky the way a good think crust should be (and thankfully was not a tortilla, a pizza experience we are not eager to repeat). And it was certainly more than enough for two, the bartender was correct.
We left full and happy, ready to brave the hour long, two-train journey back to Tokyo and then to Kichijoji.
Kamakura Bar: Kamakura, Komachi 2-9-17, 3F
Directions: From the Kamakura train station, walk up Komachi Dori Make the third right – it’s a little tiny street without a name. Make the first left (if you hit the Kamakura main avenue, you’ve gone too far) – the restaurant is on the third floor of a building on the left, halfway down the street.
And since I didn’t take pictures of the food, or the restaurant, or the wonderful staff, but I did take photos of the toilet, I’m including them in this post. Please don’t let that turn you off the food.
The toilet was brilliant! At first, I thought this was kind of gross, but once I saw it in action, I had to wonder why all toilets are not like this:
The top of the toilet tank is a sink, with a faucet extending out and a drain. Ew, who wants a toilet and sink combo, I thought – until I flushed and saw that immediately, the faucet started spouting water….which was draining into the toilet tank. It makes perfect sense to wash one’s hands with water that is going to do nothing else but fill a toilet tank – so you’re not wasting the water for, well, your waste!