A Taste Of Kyoto in Two Plates: Classic Kyoto Cuisine and Sweets in The Heart of Tokyo

Let These Two Kyoto-Style Omakase Specials Speak the Culinary Lingo

Unleash the culinary secrets of the ancient capital without stepping a foot out of town.

Almost like a rite of passage for us foreigners, there is something about Kyoto that never lets you forget the first time you visited. I still remember my first visit, clearly as if it was yesterday. It was a family trip of all four of us, a rare one, in the middle of summer 2007, one of the hottest I’ve lived through in my 18 years in Japan. Kyoto was scorching hot, but little of it mattered much as there was so much to see, touch, explore and feel — the city felt addictive from the moment I arrived; breathtakingly mesmerizing, so memorably delicious and so culinarily captivating. I remember being unable to stop savoring the dozens of kinds of Japanese wagashi sweets, the matcha ice creams and all that stunningly presented Kyoto-style kaiseki dining set along the floating rivers.

While Tokyo is my home and a place I wouldn’t trade easily, Kyoto is a different level in my memory — an elegant, sophisticated place I still love to go back to once in a while. That is, when work freedom allows me enough peace of mind to enjoy traveling to the fullest.

In the meantime, while waiting for vacation, I like to find pieces of Kyoto here, in the heart of Tokyo, that are equally authentic — and yes, they do exist!

The selected 14

While you’ll find plenty of Kyoto-inspired eateries in Tokyo, you may be surprised to learn that, as of present, there are only 14 shops, restaurants and businesses in the capital that are certified as authentic under the Kyoto city Noren Jigyowake project, which aims to promote Kyoto and its high standards in the Kanto area. These businesses, defined by the highest quality and service in their field, serve as ambassadors of Kyoto to Tokyo and offer an excellent example of what we can have if we travel to the ancient capital.

Kyoto is a different level in my memory — an elegant, sophisticated place I would like to go back to once in a while.

Among the 14, eight are eateries, including four restaurants, three Japanese sweets and tea houses and one tsukemono (pickles) specialized store located in Coredo Muromachi in Nihonbashi. The 14 are selected under very strict guidelines and criteria, assuring visitors that their experience there would be worth their time and money.

Shimogamo Saryo: Carrying on a legacy of over 160 years

My longing for Kyoto first took me to Shimogamo Saryo, one of the 14 locations and a kappo-style diner located on the 11th floor of the commercial complex Tokyu Plaza Ginza. You won’t notice a strong Kyoto presence at first, but once you walk down the stone path at its entrance and enter the counter finally facing the master chef, you begin to realize that this won’t be just a simple dining experience. There are only seven counter seats and two private rooms making the experience here very exclusive, yet certainly not pretentious.

Head chef Ryosuke Isozaki preparing a kaiseki meal behind the seven-seat counter at Shimogamo Saryo. 

“Customers sit behind the counter and ask me all kinds of things — about the food, about Kyoto, about the ingredients we use,” smiles head chef Ryosuke Isozaki, a Kyoto cuisine pro chef who is still only in his early 30s. “That’s one of the characteristics of kappo-style dining.”

Kappo is an omakase kaiseki style of dining said to have originated in the Kansai area in the late years of the Meiji period. Literally meaning “cut and cook,” the menu is entirely decided by the chef and cooked on the spot in front of customers. At Shimogamo Saryo Tokyo, there are three kinds of courses for lunch and dinner, with each menu changing seasonally every month under the guidance of chef Isozaki.

Food for the eyes: A seasonal kaiseki creation for the New Year.

A typical dinner course here would consist of up to ten small dishes, starting from an appetizer and covering all possible areas of cooking: raw, boiled, steamed, baked, fried dishes, finally ending with a sweet taste of a Kyoto-typical flavor ice cream or fruit.

Soup with vegetables and a boiled ebi shinjo (shrimp dumpling).

“One of the key characteristics of Kyoto style food (kyo-ryori) —is that the ingredients are always as natural as possible,” says Isozaki. It’s the freshest meat, the freshest fish, the most nutritious vegetables — kyoyasai — and the most beautiful presentation for the eye.

Seasonal sashimi. 

But it’s also the ambience of the restaurant — Kyoto is behind every corner here, in every design and every tray, all designed by Kyoto craftsmen. That is largely because the Tokyo branch follows the footsteps of its big brother in Kyoto, a legendary restaurant built over 160 years ago in 1856. It is a local favorite, a massive diner built on a site home to Shimogamo Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, surrounded by a Japanese-style garden.

Beyond all, it’s its food, however, that brings customers back for generations — a taste that we now luckily can try out here in Tokyo.

Authentic wagashi at Tsuruya Yoshinobu Tokyo Mise 

Wagashi master Yoshikazu Umetsu from Tsuruya Yoshinobu Tokyo Mise smiles behind the counter where four different seasonal wagashi are displayed.

My sweet tooth followed me to another shop on the list of the famous 14, Tsuruya Yoshinobu Tokyo Mise, a wagashi (Japanese sweets) tea house and shop located in Coredo Muromachi 3 in Nihonbashi, a mini copy of the original store in Kyoto, which was built in 1803. For generations, it has served as a pillar of kyo-gashi, which are the basis of what we know today as wagashi.

“Wagashi began as a tool to make matcha stand out, to bring out the best of its flavor,” confectionary maker of over 35 years Yasukazu Umetsu explains to me as I sit at the counter. “It is not something that stands out on its own — it’s like a decoration to the matcha in your hands.”

The making of wagashi. “It takes at least ten years to master this,” Umetsu says.

He insists this is one of the major differences between the authentic wagashi that originated in Kyoto and the commercial wagashi that are now sold throughout the country. “If you want to enjoy wagashi on its own, go and choose such with cream filling inside, sugar on the outside and all the more. But if you’re in to enjoy the taste of green tea, select this wagashi,” he says, confidently placing the beautiful tsubaki flower sweet he just made for me.

The essence of wagashi, or kyo-gashi, also lies in their constant seasonal changes. Every season, Umetsu and his team gather together to create a new range of sweets that are inspired by flowers, holidays or traditions that characterize the next season. Made by nothing but different types of sweet azuki beans and sugar, these delicate sweets are much simpler in ingredients than in their looks. But above all, it’s a pure joy to just sit at the counter and observe Umetsu as he makes them skillfully and quickly, yet they turn out so perfectly elegant and creative. The sweetness of the wagashi indeed made the green tea stand out to me. 

If you miss Kyoto or you want to experience a miniature version of it before you travel down there, stop by at these two places and have your own plate of the ancient capital. From a full kaiseki dish from the master’s hands, to a sweet bean and a bitter tea, let yourself explore the many secrets of a Kyoto-style culinary life.

And once you’re done, get on that shinkansen and let yourself on a journey down there — the city that never lets you forget is always waiting for you.  

The Deets

Shimogamo Saryo Tokyo

Address: 11F, Tokyu Plaza Ginza, 5-2-1, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Telephone reservations: 070-5345-5761 (11 a.m – 10 p.m.)
Open: Lunch time 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (L.O.2 p.m.) / Dinner time: 6 p.m.-10 p.m. (L.O.9 p.m.)
Cost: (Lunch) ¥3,600-¥8,000 (Dinner) ¥15,000-¥20,000

Tsuruya Yoshinobu Tokyo Mise

Address: Coredo Muromachi 3, 1F, 1-5-5, Nihonbashi Muromachi-cho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Open: Store: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Cafe: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (Last order 7:30 p.m.). Open daily except for New Year’s holidays. 

*Photos by David Jaskiewicz

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