Visiting good restaurants is as important as shopping souvenirs for Japanese tourists. I am convinced that most Japanese people prefer eating and shopping to visiting historically important places. While Kyoto offers an extremely rich inventory of cultural and historical heritages, its sophistication in culinary culture is incomparable with any other place in Japan. Even Tokyo with its over one hundred forty years' history as the political and economic center of Japan cannot compete with Kyoto in this regard.
Though I am one of those savage people coming from Kanto region, I yearn for the elegant foods of Kyoto. However, if we want try to enter the secret garden of Kyoto cuisine we have to overcome many obstacles including high prices. To tell the truth, I am not much fond of traditional "kaiseki" style meal, because its seasoning is too delicate and volume is little. I am sure that such a feeling is shared by the majority of men if they are healthy and not too old.
Nevertheless we also want to experience something special in Kyoto. Kyoto is famous for "yudofu". It comes from "shojin-ryori", vegetarian cuisine originated from the dietary requirements for Buddhist monks and usually very light as well. It is interesting to take a yudofu dinner in a restaurant attached to temple and to enjoy the atmosphere.
However, yudofu is as a menu not much exotic. We can easily make it at home. Then, "sukiyaki" or "shabushabu" is another possibility. It is nice to sit in a restaurant facing Kamo River and enjoy the cityscape and rich taste at the same time.
But, I wanted to have something different or something new to me, and I found "obanzai": home-cooking dishes in Kyoto. Such dishes have been traditionally cooked by housewives at home, but they came to be served in restaurants. Obanzai restaurants are new trend in Kyoto. Old machiya style houses are reformed to be restaurants and various kinds of obanzai dishes are served at "very reasonable" prices.
To tell frankly, my tourist guide book was critical against such obanzai restaurants. Its author was born and brought up in Kyoto and proud of the authentic culinary culture of Kyoto. He states "restaurants hanging out a banner "Kyoto's obanzai" and calling in visitors with gaudy Kyoto dialect" does never serve genuine Kyoto food. I understand what he wants to say and agree to him. Nevertheless, I went to obanzai restaurants and three times during my two nights and three days stay in Kyoto, and they were all very good!
We were very fortunate that we happened to find "Okudohan" while we were looking for a restaurant for lunch. It was located in the parallel street of Teramachi-dori, the busiest pedestrian street in Kyoto. In front of the front door vegetable, rice and other ingredients were displayed to show up its nearness to farmers and nature. The restaurant seems to have been opened very recently, as I can find no entry about Okudohan on internet restaurant review sites.
"Okudo" means in Kyoto dialect traditional oven used in the kitchen. Entering the house, we immediately see "okudo" in front of us (see the picture right). Guests are guided upstairs and we are requested to take place on "tatami" mat in a comfortable room.
Okudohan explains that it serves various vegetable dishes and good sake. As we were there for lunch time, we ordered "oyako donburi" (¥850), "donburi with Kujo leek and slice stake" (¥950) and "Miyukicho gozen" (¥1,250). Two donburi dishes are accompanied with soup, salad and pickles.
"Miyuki-cho" is the name of the street where the restaurant exists and "gozen" means that the dish is a modernized presentation of the traditional "gozen" dish. It is served with rice, soup, dessert and drink (coffee or tea). "Gozen" has a typical dish style, which appeals to women who are fond of eating a small bite from many kinds of dishes.
Everything was carefully prepared with much manual labor and delicious. I was much impressed by the very reasonable price. This price is at the level of business lunch restaurants I am accustomed to. However, we can enjoy here a good atmosphere in an old wooden house which we can hardly find in Tokyo.
I found "Mamecha" on a restaurant review site. What attracted me were its high rating and location. Mamecha is located in Ishibe-koji. As I report in another article Ishibe-koji has a very attractive atmosphere, but it seems very difficult to find restaurants there, because we can see in the street only signboards with names. We cannot see from outside what they are, restaurant, guesthouse or something different. In addition, there is no means to check their price. Therefore, the information on the internet helped me quite a lot.
"Mamecha" in Ishibe-koji is a sort of flagship restaurant of the group which has also restaurants with the same concept "obanzai" in Tokyo. Going up a few stone steps from the stone paved alley, we were welcome by young staffs of the restaurant, who then guided us upstairs. There are not many rooms. The room we were requested to take place faced the garden and Ishibe-koji, though we could only see some lanterns through the wide window glasses in the evening darkness. There were four tables in the same room and other guests were young couples. I believe that such an atmosphere and the restaurant menu particularly appeal to young women, who then ask their boyfriends to go together. The lightening was slightly too dark for me, but certainly enhanced atmosphere for young couples.
Of course, my wife and daughter were very happy. The favorite dish of my daughter was "potato dumplings with minced meat sauce" (¥630). The same menu is available also in Mamecha restaurants in Tokyo and we are going to try them shortly. "Hotaru squid with vinegared miso sauce" (¥630) fit ideally to sake and "mackerel sushi" (¥683) was tasty as well. We ordered many other dishes and did not have to pay more than 10,000 yen.
"Mamecha" was the best among three "obanzai" restaurants we visited this time and that was largely thanks to the good atmosphere of Ishibe-koji. If you want to Mamecha, what I can advise is that you should not order a course menu, but order individual dishes.
Going Takakura-dori southward from the crossing with Sijo-dori, we can find in a wooden house a small opening to a narrow side-alley (see the photo right). "Okazuya Ishikawa" is located in this side-alley. Seeing the counter on the ground floor, we were guided upstairs.
The separations between the rooms had been removed as well as the ceiling. Therefore, the room looked very spacious. It appeared that dishes were prepared downstairs in the kitchen and brought upstairs everytime by serving staffs. Though they were very busy stepping up and down, they were always genial looking. I believe that people in Kyoto are good at servicing guests. Their gentle mannered behavior as well as language have positive impression even on such rude guest like me.
The menu of Ishikawa appears to be more like that of izakaya. We ordered among others "Grilled neck of free ranged chicken from Kyoto and Kujo leek" (¥680), "Small yam dumpling with "yuba" sauce" (¥780), "grilled head of yellow tail" (¥800), and "mackerel fermented in rice-bran" (¥600). The cooking style of Ishikawa is, as we can guess form the menu, more adjusted to sake drinking.
There are about ten seats at the counter. Counter seats are convinient for guests who are on the tour alone. Ihikawa is in the neighborhood of the business center of Kyoto and it is natural that business hotel guests come here to spend their lonely evening in a homely atmosphere and cooking.