The Uji Saga Part 3: Stoner Café

The Uji Saga Part 3: Stoner Café
(Or the Curse of the Uji Tea Spirit continued…)

Every so often you get a feeling that you’ve interrupted something – that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, blindly committing a faux pas that you had no chance of foreseeing. Maybe you’ve just walked in on an intensely private conversation, maybe the shop was just about to close but they’re too polite to ask you to leave, or maybe you’ve just discovered a secret community of elderly stoners.

The Uji Spirit, revolting against our choice for coffee (or rather, my choice for cocoa) over the Ujilicious green tea, struck again.

Calle and I were meeting our friend James for a quick catch-up. We were limited on time so we didn’t stray too far from the station before selecting our café. It was small, apparently without a name sign and no visible menu. The important thing was this sign:

We walked into the café, a single room with counter. Everyone stopped and stared at us. A masked lady hurriedly encouraged us to sit down in the only table free. People were still staring. I could almost hear the whispers and the unspoken words. The atmosphere was thick enough to be sliced up and served.

We exchanged glances which told us that we were all thinking the same thing: “Are we not supposed to here?”

The masked lady returned and asked for our order. But there wasn’t a menu on our table, nor was there one in sight.

We don’t have a menu, she told us. You can have coffee, tea or hot chocolate.

We nervously gave our orders, praying it wasn’t 1000円 a cup. I had my back to the room but my neck prickled. James, in front of me, kept glancing uncomfortably over my shoulders at whatever the room’s inhabitants were doing next.

Calle later told me that a couple of old ladies started eating pasta, which we definitely weren’t offered. Others kept changing seats, wandering up the counter, then back to their table. It wasn’t like a café – it was more like we’d walked into a family’s front room – a family that were so stoned they were unable to communicate or engage with the world around them.

The counter was also strange. The floor behind it was set down, so it was hard to see the serving ladies over it. The design perplexed it and every time, I risked turning my head, I couldn’t quite work out what was so puzzling about it or whether there was a purpose in building it that way.

Our drinks arrived in old-fashioned chinaware and, to our relief, were quite good. They did actually know how to make drinks even if there’s no menu. Next thing I knew, a courtesy Ipad was placed on our table, with the instructions to play with it.

A bit later, one of the men sauntered out the café. 15 minutes later he returned.

“Here. Japanese orange,” he said, putting it on top of the Ipad. Then he sat back down at one of the tables. He didn’t work at the café but seemed to wander in and out as he felt like it.

Drinks finished, orange eaten and a couple of Ipad games later, it was time to go and we stood up to pay. It came to 1100円. We were left to guess the individual costs.

We stepped outside, glad to shake off the atmosphere. Our friend James, not prone to remark on trivialities, shook his head in disbelief. “That was very, very strange.”

Reflecting on it later, Calle told me, “It’s weird. I thought I smelt marijuana when we first went in there. I didn’t smell it again though.”

Marijuana. That would explain a lot. Especially a counter you can’t see behind. We should have been a bit more creative when ordering from the invisible menu.

The Uji Saga Part 1: Sakura and Salty Slime

I’ve turned into a local. I curse the tourists staring gormlessly at signs/maps and blocking my way. Rather impatient of me, especially as I can’t read the signs, and probably can’t read the map either (A geography degree didn’t teach me that!)

At the beginning of April, Kyoto was swarming with tourists who had come to see the sakura (cherry blossoms). If you don’t know already, sakura is a national obsession in Japan (find out just how much here). It is fetishized in all kinds of alarming ways as you can see here.

Because cats, pink and sakura make for a triple of cuteness!

On an unseasonably cold Saturday, we set off to Uji, a small town to the south-east of Kyoto. Famous for special Japanese tea, it’s also famous for cherry blossoms and today was the creatively named “Sakura Matsuri” or “Cherry Blossom Festival.”

Turns out, the freezing weather meant the cherry blossoms were a little slow to wake up. We shivered our way around Byodoin, a temple enshrined on the 10円 coin.

It’s actually quite a pretty temple, but the greyness and my photography skills have combined into this…

Set very grandly by a pond, the Phoenix Hall (as depicted above) was originally built in 998 andearns its name from its supposed phoenix-like shape and the two phoenixes adorning the roof. The entrance fee of 600円 includes the museum, which displays all kinds of artefacts from the temple, including a spectacular room filled with 52  Bodhisattvas, now classed as a National Treasure.

We then had a coffee to warm up and witnessed a man publicly masturbate (Uji Saga Part 2), which just confirms my theory that cherry blossoms have erotic associations.

We then headed to the island where all the (Universal-rated) action was.

It was pleasing to see that Kyoto City Police were making a welcoming and friendly presence, with giant mascots bouncing around.

The police terrorise children!
The Kyoto Police doing their thing

Aside from all the sakura viewing, there were lots of stalls selling second-hand crockery and food. Calle and I bought this delicious dango (literally means dumpling but it’s an extraordinarily broad term – see the dango that blogger friend Cocomino bought). Not usually a fan of anko (sweet azuki bean paste), this deep-fried treat mellowed the flavour and provided a wonderful contrast between the crunchy doughnut-like exterior and smooth filling. I could have easily eaten six, and shall continue to fantasise about it.

Deep-fried and delicious!
Deep-fried and delicious!


The place: Seike Yuba
The food: tofu skin AKA yuba

Salty and slimy…

Lunch transported me back into a Dickensian world. I was Oliver Twist, wanting to ask for more revolting slop because we were so starved.

We decided to try yuba, tofu skin. We ordered the a lunch set including a yuba rice bowl, soup and some pickles for 980円. Compared to the other sky-high tourist  prices around, it didn’t seem bad.

That’s until we saw the pitiful size of it and actually ate some of it. An incredibly slimy mass was dumped on top of rice, with a few spring onion slices and a little ginger on top. The results: slimy rice porridge which tasted of nothing but salt. The soup could have been water and we were given so few pickles that they were barely worth bothering with, except they had the strongest flavour of anything on the table.

Overall 1/5
Better tasting food  Food which has a taste can be found almost anywhere else. Only go if you want to pay above-average prices for workhouse gruel.

Food quality 1/5 – I’m sure it’s decent enough quality – just try tasting it!

Value for money 0/5 – It was gross. It was small. Enough said.

Atmosphere  2.5/5 – Nothing special – impersonal counter seating and some stark-looking tables. It was busy though.

Service 2/5 – No real service. Food was unceremoniously dumped in front of us when it was ready!


I showed the pictures to a Japanese friend of mine, who was equally disgusted and horrified by this bizarre combination.