It was our first night in Kyoto.
We had arrived in the former Japanese imperial capital after taking the train from the Ayabe countryside, and we were famished. Our host at Yoshimizu Kyoto inn marked out two izakayas on a map for us. We had a wonderful time at both places, and I told myself that I’ll recommend them to friends who might visit Kyoto later. This was in 2015.
Fast forward to the present. As I finally start writing about that night in Kyoto, I learn that one of the izakayas is no longer in business. If it is no longer in operation, does it make sense for me to write about it? After all, this information would serve no use to anyone who is visiting Kyoto. But it is exactly because the izakaya is no longer around that I want to record my memory is the place.
The izakaya that is no more: Fushimi 伏見
This nondescript izakaya was around the corner from the Sanjo metro station. The street was quiet with most shops closed for the day. A lit red lantern with the characters 伏見 indicated that the restaurant was still open for the night. As is common in Japan, the wooden door was shut and there were no windows that we could peek into to see if we would like the place. We took our chance and slid aside the door. It turned out to be much livelier than it looked from the outside.
Fushimi伏見 was a small place, accommodating less than 20 guests around the dining counter. We slid into two empty seats between a lone salaryman and a middle-aged lady who had a cigarette in hand. We were the only non-Japanese in the room.
The bright fluorescent tubes on the ceiling illuminated the cluttered room, showing the age and unkempt state of the place. The peeling walls were covered with bottles of alcohol, handwritten menu signs, carved wooden masks, travel photos, and certificates in calligraphy. The air-conditioner, which had seen better days, was taped all over and in a similar shade of yellow as the walls. I reckoned this was due to the grilling and frying that went on in the open kitchen.
Business was brisk in the family-run izakaya. The mother, the son, and the daughter were constantly shuttling about behind the counter taking orders, clearing empty plates, filling beer mugs, and serving freshly prepared items from the kitchen.
We started with pickled vegetables, washing them down with ice-cold Sapporo beer. Even though the salaryman next to us did not speak any English, he urged us to try some of the fish that he had just ordered. We bowed in gratitude and toasted one another.
Even though the menu was bilingual, the English translation was rather confusing. As we watched what other people were eating, we would point at items that looked delicious to order the same dish. Everything that we had was tasty. The flavours were robust and hearty. My favourite was the saba-zushi, a traditional Kyoto food where cured mackerel is pressed onto vinegared rice and topped with a piece of kombo (kelp).
We would have ordered more food had we not planned to go to a second izakaya. We imagined that we would return to Fushimi the next time we were back in Kyoto. Alas, this popular izakaya closed its doors last May after 60 years of business. The land that it was on had been sold for urban redevelopment.
The izakaya where the sake took centrestage: Yuuki 遊亀
Our next stop brought us to the Gion district. Yuuki 遊亀 is at the corner of a busy cross street surrounded by bars and restaurants. The two-storey izakaya was significantly more polished than the modest Fushimi where we were at earlier. There was a constant stream of people entering and leaving the place, and we didn’t wait long to get a seat. To make it even better, we got counter seats by the open kitchen and it was fun to watch the cooks in action.
The name of the izakaya “遊亀” in Kanji script can be interpreted as “Wandering Turtle” in Chinese. The “turtle” in the name probably comes from Okamura Honke 金亀, the sake brewery that the izakaya is affiliated with. The family-operated brewery is in the nearby Shiga Prefecture and has been producing sake for over 150 years. As for the “wandering” part, I wondered if it was in part inspired by the effect from drinking too much sake.
We weren’t too hungry and picked a few items from the bilingual menu. Our main objective was to sample the sake. After choosing our drinks, a server brought over two huge bottles and poured the sake into the tiny glasses until they overflowed. We learned that this is common practice in Japan, and this manner of serving sake is known as sosogi-koboshi.
It was drizzling by the time we got ready to leave. I didn’t mind the rain. It was refreshing to walk in the rain after a few glasses of sake.
Salarymen in the uniform white shirt, black pants combo passed us by. Were they on their way home or headed to a next pub for another round of drinks?