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My Biggest Mistake While in Japan: Pontocho

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Pontocho District

Pontocho or Ponto-cho is a geisha district similar to Gion in Kyoto. The narrow alleys that border the Kamo river contain expensive restaurants that offer outdoor seating along the river. It’s truly picturesque and would no doubt be a great place for a special dinner. For a splurge, and because I read great reviews in guidebooks, I decided to try it out.

I took a long time deciding on a restaurant. Most offered multi course dinners ranging from U$80-350+ per person. I was not hungry enough or dressed for an extremely luxurious dinner, so I was careful to pick a restaurant with a more casual vibe. I found one with a decent menu, outdoor seating, and a local patronage. I asked for a table.

The concerned look of the waiters as I walked in the restaurant should have been a clue that maybe the experience of dining in Pontocho was a little overrated. I got that weird feeling that I was making a mistake. For one, they kept showing me a menu and pointing to the prices. I thought “maybe they think I can’t afford it”, I was alone and carrying a backpack.

The waiter pointed to the surcharge to seat outdoors. I read it, acknowledged it and waited for a table. The surcharge was no different from places that charge cover or consumption charges. If the experience is premium, I have no problems paying for it. This was my night of splurge, so I braved on. He is just being cautious, I told myself.

I was led to my table outdoors and started to feel buyer’s remorse. The place was cramped even for Japanese standards and absolutely no one, except me, was there alone. This was dinner time and couples occupied most of the tables. I tried to remind myself that no one cared I was dining alone.

Then I ordered my food, a couple of small dishes so I would not have to leave any food. I also ordered a soda.

The smell of cigarettes hit me in the face not long after that, the guy sitting next to me was as close as someone sitting next to you in a movie theater. I told myself that surely once his food arrived, he would put it out. Wrong. He literally smoke one cigarette after another, even through his meal. Now I was really regretting this.

All that smoke was doing nothing for all the mosquitos eating me alive under the table. I kept thinking of the Japanese encephalitis vaccine I turned down before my trip. Had I made a huge mistake?

By the time my food arrived, I wanted to order it to go, however that was not possible and I had paid a surcharge for the outdoor seating, so I decided to stay, even though my premium view was of the bamboo divider between our deck and the restaurant next door and I could hardly breathe and eat with the chain-smoking beside me.

The last straw was the taste of the food. Passable at best. After 10 days of orgasmic gastronomical experiences in Japan for less than U$10 a meal, I was pretty disappointed. When the check arrived, I took a deep breath and tried to process the experience as a lesson. The waiter tried to warn me, but I stubbornly went ahead, with great expectations of an amazing dinner, with a river view in a city like no other.

Ridden with regret as I walked back to my hotel, I ran into a food stall that was super cute, with outdoor seating on a narrow alleyway which looked like so much fun. I would have been entertained by people watching and would have paid less than U$10 for a meal.

A solid reminder that the best experiences often are not associated with a big price tag.

What mistakes have you made while traveling?





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