The Donut Odyssey
I noticed the donut shop on our first night in Kyoto. There was a market street that was closed to cars behind our inn. After our day of sightseeing we leisurely strolled through the market to get a dose of the local flavor. There were restaurants, vegetable stands, fruit shops, clothing stores, bakeries and even a shrine. About halfway down the street was a place that sold takoyaki and Asahi. We weren’t hungry but we had made a deal (really I had made a deal with myself) that we could have as much beer and food as we wanted on this trip so we stopped for a post-dinner snack.
The takoyaki shop only had two tables. We removed our shoes and warmed ourselves by the space heater. The owner brought over my beer and I drank off half of it in one go. When the takoyaki came they were dealt with in a similarly hasty fashion.
Back on the road, glowing with warmth from the beer and octopus we headed in the direction we had come. Our plan was to raid the Lawson Station near the market exit for beer and a snack mix of peanuts and dried fish that we both loved. That’s when I saw it. A tiny little stall, not much wider than my wingspan, with its shutters three-quarters of the way up but its lights off. A sign outside advertised crème brûlèe donuts. I was instantly intrigued. Crème brûlèe was one of those word phrases with which I was implicitly familiar and absolutely could not define, but was also certain that it was fancy. Fancy donuts, an oxymoronic term, an incongruous pairing like filet mignon hot pockets. It seemed like a perfect product for me. The donut aspect ensured that it wouldn’t be too expensive, the crème brûlèe elevated it past a mere plebeian comestible.
I walked over to the door-less shop and stuck my head in but there was no movement and no sound. The market road was full of people, including Lems who didn’t want a donut at 8pm. Neither did I, but I did want some answers: What was a crème brûlèe donut? How much did it cost? Was the shop open or closed?
I got no answers. Nobody came out from the back of the shop. Nobody responded to my mezza-voce “hey.” I was too timid to throw out a full-throated “hey” in an unfamiliar country, especially one as quiet as Japan.
We left the donut shop behind and I remarked that I would return tomorrow morning to grab us a couple of donuts for breakfast. Lems responded that in addition to the peanuts and dried fish we should also buy those little cheese snacks at Lawson Station.
As a Black man I’m susceptible to being stereotyped so I try not to traffic in stereotypes myself. And yet, I’m human and lazy so like everyone else I occasionally use a cultural shorthand to understand the world. It was this cultural shorthand that led me to believe that all Japanese people woke up at five in the morning, exercised, read and headed to the office for a 12-hour work day. Maybe the details weren’t quite as specific as that, but the basic premise was that the Japanese people were an industrious people. As such I expected the coffee shops and bakeries to be open at 6:30 or 7 in the morning.
You have probably guessed by now that the donut shop was closed when I walked past it. It wouldn’t be much of an odyssey if I was able to secure the treasure on the second day of the hunt.
I was only mildly annoyed with the shop for being closed because every other business on the street was also closed. It didn’t appear to be unusual.
I finally found one bakery that was coming out of its slumber. I bought a couple of pastries. They didn’t have coffee and all of the coffeeshops were still closed, apparently waiting to open after everyone had risen and gone to work, so I hoofed it to Lawson Station and bought coffee for me and Lems.
We headed to the Gion District that day. Gion has some beautiful shrines and temples. The best tourist attraction in the area, however, is the non-Japanese tourists who have paid money to stay in a ryokan and be attired in traditional Japanese garb. The local word for these people is “idiot.” They are Prince Akeem and Semmi arriving in Queens and buying I-Heart-New-York t-shirts to blend in with the crowds. What causes this lapse in awareness when people leave their own countries? It’s a sickness.
The main reason we went to the Gion District was to see a geisha at the Gion Corner. We paid for a couple of tickets and were treated to a tea ceremony (watching a tea ceremony that is; we weren’t given any tea), a traditional short play, a geisha performance and a few other cultural experiences. It was cool to see a geisha, but it was also obvious that we were seeing a subpar production. The geisha’s makeup was haphazardly applied, the chairs in the theatre were in a state of disrepair, and the biggest tell of all: there were no Japanese people in the audience.
A few days earlier in Osaka we had gone to the National Bunraku Theater and watched a puppet show. It was amazing. There was no question that the performers were former apprentices who had toiled for years at their craft to become highly-trained masters of their vocation. The audience was almost entirely Japanese. Besides Lems and myself there was one other foreigner in attendance. The National Bunraku Theater had headsets with English commentary so I rented one. They didn’t cater to foreigners but as a national venue it had international choices on hand.
The geisha show, on the other hand, had the distinct feeling of a tourist trap. We were starting to notice that a lot of Kyoto felt that way. The real Kyoto seemed to be hidden away behind a veil, inaccessible to the uninitiated. As we walked the streets looking for a restaurant after taking a photo with Maiko, we saw a sushi shop that had a sign that said “no foreigners.” Perhaps they feared a language issue. Still, I couldn’t imagine seeing that sign in Nanjing or Los Angeles.
I think that geisha show in Kyoto was where we started to go off script. We were suffering from shrine/temple fatigue. I’ve heard of a similar condition in the European traveler known as cathedral/church fatigue. The fact was we had seen enough. We decided we would focus on museums, cafes, bookstores and markets.
The next two days were a blur. We spent a lot of time at the Nishiki market where eating and walking is forbidden, a rule that, after living in China for ten years in constant danger of errant skewers, I truly appreciate. We went to Maruzen Bookstore where I found a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Water Dancer.” We discovered a Manga Museum where Lems spent a very satisfactory morning reading manga. The museum sold issues of manga in English but not in Chinese even though over half of the patrons were from China.
We found a vinyl shop and toured a sake distillery and stopped at many, many places to eat takoyaki and drink Asahi or Jim Beam highballs.
Occasionally we would notice that we were still outside the veil. One of the nights that we were looking for sushi we saw a group of suited men and women sneak into a restaurant, the entrance of which seemingly materialized out of thin air. We had no idea what food the restaurant served or if it was good, but we wanted to go there. Neither one of us, however, was brave enough to see if we could be admitted. And even if we got in, could we afford it? It seemed better not to find out the hard way.
You know what we could afford though? Well, actually at that point I don’t think I knew the price, but anyway, we probably could have afforded the crème brûlèe donut. Two of them. I went by the shop one afternoon, a day when we had decided to drop off some purchases before further urban exploration, and I swear to god it was shuttered. This was in the middle of the day. In China there’s a midday siesta called wujiao. With zero evidence aside from the shuttered donut shop I decided that Japan or maybe just Kyoto also had a siesta culture.
The next time I went by the donut shop I was drunk.
We were eating snacks and drinking sake in our hotel room when we suddenly realized that we were out of snacks and sake. The situation had snuck up on us out of nowhere. I volunteered to go to Lawson Station to get us more supplies. Lems was not alarmed at my enthusiasm. She knows I love drunken wanderings. I’m sure she never suspected that I had an ulterior motive.
From our hotel it was about two hundred meters to the market street. If I turned left, and walked about fifty meters, there would be Lawson Station. If I turned right and walked and walked and walked some more, the donut shop would eventually materialize. I turned right.
I passed the shrine that locals visited on their way to work. The donut shop had become my shrine. Outside the veil geishas wore smudged makeup and I dreamed not of sushi in Tokyo subway stations but of forbidden gourmet donuts forever eluding my grasp.
When I reached the donut shop the shutters were not drawn. It appeared as it did that first night, the shutters down a quarter of the way like the heavy lids of one not long for waking life. The shop was at rest, its circadian rhythm designating this time for relaxation but not sleep. I stared into the mouth of the beast waiting for a sign that it lived. A snore, a snarl, a noise of any kind to affirm my beliefs, but none came.
It was a sake night and I had a slight buzz from the rice liquor. Asahi would have dulled my senses or highballs my judgment, but the sake left me as crisp and clear as the January night in Kyoto, with just a bit of fuzz around the edges.
As such, I didn’t walk into the partially shuttered shop. I didn’t yell into the mouth of the beast, like a scorned lover, the way I had thought of doing. I stood there until all the anger of my unrequited patronization slowly seeped into the night.
Then I went to Lawson Station and bought a pint of Jim Beam.
By the penultimate day in Kyoto, traveler’s haze had set in. We had been in the city long enough to get our fill of tourism but not long enough to get a feel of the city. We needed three more weeks or one less day, nothing in between. We roamed the streets aimlessly looking for tchotchkes for friends in Nanjing. I didn’t think about the donut shop. I had given up hope.
On the final day we were to take a train back to Osaka and fly from there to Nanjing. We went down the back road to market street, rolling suitcases in tow, and Lems turned left to get our morning coffee at Lawson Station.
“No!” I yelled.
Probably not that emphatically, but you get the point. I needed the donut. Lems indulged me. We both hustled down the market road with our suitcases bobbling behind us. We weren’t running because we were in danger of missing our train, we were running because it was our last chance to lay hands on the holy grail.
When we got to the donut shop it was closed, of course.
But this time there was a sign. A literal stand-up sign; it said they opened at 9 a.m. It was the first time any such notice had been visible. I breathed a sigh of relief. The place did exist. It was not a front for the yakuza or a figment of my imagination. It was real.
It was also 8:30. I wasn’t going to wait for thirty minutes for a donut.
In a way I had been waiting for five days, but that had been passive waiting. This was active waiting. We had plans to go down to the Kyoto Tower area and hang out for a few hours before catching the train to Osaka. The donut was a nice idea, but its mystery had been solved. Whoever owned the shop did not adhere to my industrious stereotype. Fine, I would go to Lawson Station for coffee and pastry. Lawson Station had yet to let me down.
We have Lawson Stations in Nanjing but I call them Lawson or Lawsons minus the station. They feel more like American convenience stores, not like the Japanese Lawson Station which feels like a place where you can sit down to enjoy your coffee and light breakfast. That’s just what we did that morning. We sat there drinking coffee and eating…something. It wasn’t a crème brûlèe donut. And that didn’t sit right with me.
I was up and I didn’t have to tell Lems where I was going. She watched from her chair as I rushed out of Lawson Station.
When I got there the donut shop was open, awake, alive. Shutters were not visible, multiple signs were outside of the shop and lights were on.
I walked into the shop and waited. There were no other customers and there was no clerk. He came out of the back after a few minutes. His flour-covered apron made it clear that he was also the chef. I ordered one regular crème brûlèe donut and one matcha crème brûlèe donut.
Did you know that crème brûlèe means burned cream?
I have had great donuts in my life. The first time I had a Krispy Kreme, I had eight more, during a car ride from one basketball game to the next. There was also an apple fritter saga in my youth that stretched over years and is much too long to recount here. But the crème brûlèe donut wasn’t like that. It just wasn’t that good.
And I couldn’t have cared less.
It was a fancy donut that we ate with automated-machine coffee in Lawson Station. The food wasn’t traditional Japanese but it was the right food for us in that moment. We couldn’t slip behind the veil into clandestine restaurants, Japanese-only sushi joints or authentic geisha shows. There were language barriers and cultural barriers and financial restrictions. We could have gotten angry about it, I’m sure that I did for a little bit, but the moment I had the donut in my hands, the anger dissipated. I didn’t know a donut in a convenience store with the person you love is one of life’s great experiences until it was. And now I’ll never forget it.
Later at the airport we walked around the duty-free shops looking at stuff we didn’t want or need to buy. After about five minutes we realized we were wasting time.
We bought some airport sushi and a couple of Asahis (okay, I drank both) and waited for our plane. On the television they were showing sumo wrestling, an event I had wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into our itinerary as it was in Tokyo. It didn’t matter. I sat back in the plastic airport seat drinking Asahi and watching large, naked men run into each other.
It couldn’t have been any better, even if I had been there in person.
Bobby Wilson is a writer and teacher living in Nanjing, China. All of his writings are at www.bobbywwilsonjr.com. He has a novel that’s just dying to be published. Also a podcast exclusively about Black literature, The Most Dangerous Thing in America. He will argue with you about basketball, film or hip-hop (or pretty much anything else) until a consensus is reached. It rarely is.