Feeling "Zen" in Gion | Japanese Sweets at Zen Cafe, Kyoto
Down a small side alley in Gion, the maybe most traditional part of Kyoto, is a small café called "Zen Cafe".
There are many restaurants and cafés in Gion. This one however, I think is special. First of all, although it is inside an old, traditional looking house, the inside is quite modern which is a big contrast not only to the location but also to the things they serve: traditional Japanese sweets and tea. You can't find that combination often.
But what I love most is the cozy atmosphere which invites to spend hours there reading a book or having a chat with the person or people you came with. There is no staff constantly walking around and checking in as they'll only come when you call for them. And there is no feeling of pressure what so ever to leave as soon as possible.
I love that, depending on where you sit, you can see a beautiful green garden while enjoying your food or be in a cozy corner surrounded by bookshelves and privacy. And that there are tables not only for two people or more but also for people who want to spend time alone so that it doesn't feel lonely or awkward.
When I decided to visit Zen Cafe, I felt a little nervous. I'm not used to going to cafés alone. Well, I don't mind going to Starbucks and other chains alone because a lot of people do and especially in Japan there are seats just for that. But other cafés are different. I'm shy interacting with the staff, especially ordering at the table. More so when it is a "stylish" café like Zen Cafe.
I entered the building and looked for the café's entrance. What I notices first was that there was the peaceful, inviting atmosphere. The staff showed me two empty seats. The one I chose was across the room on the right, kind of like a in-between room leading up to another small room with one big table for four, but all without any doors.
The "in-between room" had one small table for one person on each side of the door-free doors and a small shelve with books. It was sooo nice and cozy, I loved it! My nervousness was gone quickly. The dimmed light and carpet on the floor helped make it even more comfortable.
Soon the staff arrived with the menu, both English and Japanese and let me choose which one I prefer. I like that she did not automatically assume that my English is better than my Japanese as so many people in this country tend to do. She explained the different sets to me and showed me pictures of the sweets so that I knew what to expect.
I decided to order the first one, namagashi and pared it with sencha. The set was 1200¥. Besides sencha you also can choose coffee, café latte, black tea or juice. Besides the juice everything can be served hot or cold. I personally chose hot.
The namagashi was a raw, chewy sweet tasting similar to caramel. It was wrapped in a leaf and still warm. I opened the leaf (don't eat it) and took a bite using the wooden knife-like thing that came with it. It was soft and chewy but melted on my tongue releasing its sweet flavor. It's caramelly flavor tasted like it might be coming from brown sugar, but I'm not completely sure.
The tea, still very hot so that I waited a little while before drinking, was a perfect contrast. Its slight bitterness went so well with the sweet and rounded it out nicely. The tea came in a small can which held enough to fill my cup all in all three times.
I don't remember how much time I spent there, but at least one hour, most likely even longer. I read a book while enjoying every little bite of my food and sipped my tea slowely.
When I was ready to leave, I rang the small bell next to my table signaling the staff that I want to pay. Different to most Japanese cafés where you pay at a register next to the exit, she brought the bill to my table and I paid seated.
After that I left the café relaxed, satisfied and happy. In other words: I felt "zen".
closed on Mondays
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