Honke Kanoya: Southern Japanese Food and Cozy Kotatsu Dining in Tokyo’s Backstreets
Tender meat, traditional spirits and hearty hot pot dishes make you never want to leave
You had us at kotatsu.
Have you tried “black pork?” Or sashimi that’s so fresh because the fish eat a diet with ground rose petals? In Japan, even the teensiest details matter, and this school of thought extends to the country’s local and regional food, letting each pocket of culture really shine.
Details, details, details. Even the hallmark favorites are prepared, presented and flavored completely differently depending on the area of Japan you visit. In Tokyo, you have to look harder to find that regional flavor, but it can be done! Enter Honke Kanoya, a fresh spin on the rich world of Kagoshima food — located in the quiet backstreets of Tokyo’s Yoyogi area.
Cozy, casual and comfy
Serving up Japan’s southern comfort food, with rather large portions of spare rib, delicately fried chicken, fresh sashimi and Japanese-style sweet potato fries, this eatery lets you head to Japan’s laid-back southern region of Kyushu without ever stepping into an airport.
Even the ambience matches the feel of the seaside region with wide open spaces that invite you to get cozy and stay awhile. Instead of a packed izakaya in a narrow alleyway, walking into Honke Kanoya, you are greeted by an expansive open-air terrace, a view from the third floor and a spacious inside interior and bar area lined with shochu (Japanese liquor) bottles.
Seasonally, you can cozy up at one of the indoor or outdoor kotatsu (Japanese traditional tables equipped with electrical heaters), but just be careful because you may never want to leave!
Same sentiment, different reasoning, in the spring, you can delve into the outdoor beer garden. While both these options are perfect for a date night and other intimate gatherings, the backdrop simply adds to the comfy yet exciting foodie journey that’s about to go down.
Paying homage to a special region of Japan
First things first, Kagoshima food and drink comes with a distinct and special reputation, from its pork to its imo-jochu (traditional sweet potato flavored sake). Kagoshima Prefecture is the southernmost point of Japan’s main island and its cuisine is known as Satsuma ryori, as satsuma is the old name of Kagoshima Prefecture.
To truly appreciate this local izakaya, you must first understand the very specific area it comes from. Kanoya, Kagoshima, is a modest region located near the great Sakurajima volcano on the Osumi Peninsula and is known for its kanpachi (amberjack) and roses. Almost everything on the menu at Kanoya either comes from or is derived from this area.
This eatery lets you head to Japan’s laid-back southern region of Kyushu without ever stepping into an airport.
The area sees 35,000 roses annually, as it has one of the biggest rose gardens in Japan. Kanoya Kanpachi is a recognized Kagoshima brand of fish originating from there and its fishery is the first to raise kanpachi in Japan. And, yes, the delicious kanpachi (closely related to the yellowtail) sashimi at Honke Kanoya dipped in its sweet-and-thick soy sauce (a local favorite from Tsubomizu Brewery) is this brand of kanpachi — the taste stays so fresh because the fish’s food has powdered rose petals and the effects of the polyphenol found in the petals makes for healthy fish and also suppresses that “fishy” smell.
Kagoshima food gave me that “comfort food” feeling
But sashimi is just the first, albeit very tasty, step to digging into a meal at Honke Kanoya.
Visiting on a brisk winter day in January completely transported me out of the busy city into a romantical homey setting outfitted with pillows and fuzzy blankets. As my body instantly warmed up under this fantastic Japanese invention called the kotatsu, I witnessed the stress melt away.
What a genius idea to have this staple of the Japanese household in a relaxed atmosphere where you don’t have to cook! In chilly weather, it is paramount to order the nabe, Japan’s signature hot pot dish, here. You can order a hotpot portion, with plenty of veggies, chicken or pork to match however many people are in your group.
While the portion is aplenty, there is much room to indulge in other menu options — a total must!
First up, they have a wealth of chicken dishes to be shared. Seemingly simple dishes, like chicken nanban, chicken karaage and grilled chicken, are not even comparable to your typical “bar food.” When cooked right, their flavor complexity is as clear as the shochu.
Flakey, golden-brown fried chicken melts in your mouth and even the chicken tataki — raw chicken with the edges lightly seared — made our night all that more unique and tasty. Their signature chicken dish is the karaage, but you can also get sake-steamed chicken and other dishes infusing Japanese flavors such as yuzu.
We interrupt this flavor forecast to bring you an unmissable part of Honke Kanoya — the booze! Of course, shochu is a Japan favorite, but imo-jochu (which is a strong version of shochu made from sweet potatoes) is the regional favorite in Kagoshima. The cozy spot specializes in shochu and imo-jochu, serving up over 50 types, including kokuto (brown sugar) shochu that has just the hint of sweetness to it.
In fact, this is a rather unique type of liquor plentifully found on Kagoshima’s semi-tropical beachy Amami Islands. Whatever you order, expect a full glass to match the full portions of Kagoshima cuisine. Though, if shochu isn’t your thing, there are plenty of cocktails and beer, too.
One glass of pristine kokuto shochu on the rocks to sip on gently nudged me into the next course.
Never did I think that I would be partaking in spare rib at a Japanese izakaya. My god. Slow cooked and marinated to perfection in a sweet-and-spicy sauce, the meat fell off the bone, and I was wowed by the delicate taste mixing with the richness of the meat.
This dish, along with several others like the Miso Kurobuta Pork with Welsh Onion and Kurobuta Boiled Dumplings, are also made with the mysterious “black pork,” a rare and exceptionally delicious kind of meat, well-known as a Kagoshima specialty. This breed of pig was originally brought to Japan from Europe and has black and white skin, thus the name. Furthermore, it is said that since the pigs were fed the Kagoshima staple of satsumaimo (sweet potato) in their diet, it gives the pork a marbled text and clean flavor.
The restaurant uses a specific kind of kurobuta: Kanoya’s own Roppaku Kurobuta (the name means it has six white spots on its black skin) is fed natural ingredients (medicine and pesticide free) to produce premium pork.
Honke Kanoya really feels like home, without the stress of having to cook or clean up anything afterward.
If that isn’t reason enough to sink your teeth in, it is also said that during samurai times, in Kagoshima, they ate a black pork diet to gain strength, when meat-eating in Japan was seen as more or less a taboo.
The sashimi, meat and nabe were all… all-star dishes, but we still had room to suffice my sweet tooth — and my curiosity.
Although deemed a side dish, the sweet potato sticks (literally made from a hefty seemingly foot-long tater) with honey and butter was a sweet-and-salty delight. If you still have room, delve into a few regional favorites such as the Kanoya Rose Garden ice cream, delicately placed on the plate in rose form.
Why we loved it
I can’t stress how unlike the typical Tokyo izakaya this place really is — in so many great ways.
The portion sizes are quite filling, the food is sourced from regional farmers and growers and hand-crafted (a difference that is easily seen and tasted). They also have quite a great variety of drinks, too. Ordering a shochu on the rocks will keep you in good spirits, but you can also do a 90-minute all-you-can-drink special with 20 different types of shochu for ¥2,000 (available with course meal order). By the end of the meal, I was happily full, we took extra time to simply chill and conversate while lounging under the kotatsu.
Honke Kanoya really feels like home, without the stress of having to cook or clean up anything afterward. That, plus the chance to try new, mouth-watering dishes? It really doesn’t get much better than that.
Address: NTT Docomo Annex I-3F, 5-24-3 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel & Reservations: 03-5363-5150 or online (Japanese only)
Business hours: (Lunch) 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (last order), (Dinner) 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. (last order)
English menu: Yes. (Food only.)
Smoking/Non-smoking: Smoking (Non-smoking seats available at lunchtime only)
Average cost: Lunch ¥830-¥1,000 (Weekdays); ¥830-¥2,000 (Saturday course meal); Dinner (¥4,000-¥5,000)
Special events: Beer garden typically starts in June and goes through September. Kotatsu dining starts in October and goes through April.