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Many years ago, during one of our many wandering strolls around Kyoto, my husband and I came to the end of the road behind Murayama Park. All was quiet, and facing us was a beautiful traditional Japanese building with deep eaves. It was early December, and the momiji (Japanese maples) leaves were almost gone from the trees, but the bright green-and-white variegated leaves of sasa (bamboo grass) in the surrounding gardens glowed in the waning light of dusk.

A taxi pulled up, and a well-heeled group appeared, dressed in silk kimono and elegant Western dresses and suits. A man and a woman, also traditionally dressed, rushed out to greet them. They glanced quizzically at us for a moment, but must have noted the camera and our fascination with commonplace greenery to be signs that we were simply tourists who had wandered into the scene by mistake.

We wondered what in the world was going on, for from our vantage point we didn’t notice the discreet sign. But we rightly concluded that this was a ryotei, one of Kyoto’s many elegant traditional restaurants. We wondered what they served, and who could dine at such an exclusive place.

Since then, we returned to Kyoto many times, but never thought about that experience again. Imagine our surprise when recently, our taxi pulled up to this very spot! It was Kikunoi, a kaiseki restaurant that I had been studying and dreaming about for years.

The prior week, I had the opportunity to interview the restaurant’s chef, Yoshihiro Murata, due to the kind arrangements of contacts at the Culinary Institute of America in preparation for their global conference on Japanese Cuisine and Culture. I was immediately enthralled and inspired by chef Murata, not because he was famous but because he was also kind as well as remarkable. So, although it was not in our budget to dine at a three-star Michelin restaurant, and too late to make a reservation, I tried anyway. I had three restaurants to choose from, including Kikunoi Akasaka in Tokyo and Kikunoi Roan in Kyoto. But I decided to first try for Kyoto’s Kikunoi Honten, (main branch) because that’s where it all started.

Luckily, our visit was just after Golden Week, which is one of the quiet times of the year, and we were able to get in on a Sunday just prior to my husband’s birthday. And even better; since there were only two of us, we were given the chashitsu (tea room). Although Murata was to be in Tokyo that day, we considered ourselves lucky and were thrilled.

The taxi dropped us off, and we were greeted by a kimono-clad man who led us to the genkan (entry) and invited us to remove our shoes. There, we were greeted by an elegant lady in a ochre kimono who was to take care of us the entire night. We followed her through winding hallways, through two sets of shoji screens to a six-mat tatami tea room that was set with a table and specially designed chairs. We considered this a thoughtful, but unnecessary touch, because we customarily sit on the floor at home. However, over the course of the next three hours, we were grateful.

The table was set with a simple and exquisitely designed bamboo tray. Our attendant served us cups of strong and flavorful shincha (new tea) to help us settle in, and then left us to start our meal. We gazed out at the garden, which made use of the steep incline of the hill behind the building with shade-loving ferns and other plants tucked in around a series of granite sluices that delivered water in a series of small waterfalls, ending at a small pool by the window. The sound of the falling water — like rain, like a waterfall, like a stream — was all we could hear.

Next, a young chef arrived, bearing tiny traditional kyo-yaki (Kyoto pottery) red-and-white fan-shaped containers filled with osekihan (rice with azuki bean) and red lacquered cups of kohaku namasu (red-and-white salad) to celebrate my husband’s birthday.

Our attendant then arrived with the sakizuke, the starter course (similar to an amuse-bouche in a Western meal), served with a ceremonial red lacquer cup of sake: A terrine of yamaimo (mountain potato) topped with tender octopus and wasabi jelly that delighted the tongue and filled us with anticipation.

Next, the hassun platter arrived: an exquisite arrangement designed to reflect the season. At the center of our colorful arrangement was a cone-shaped bamboo leaf intricately wound with gold and silver thread. Our attendant explained that this was akin to the kashiwa (oak leaf) mochi served in celebration of the Boy’s Day festival. Inside was a delicate sliver of sea bream sushi, flecked with kinome leaves and redolent with the fresh scent of spring; a reminder of the season, and particularly, this moment.

After the mukozuke (in this case, a sashimi plate) and takiawase (simmered) courses, it was time for the yakimono (grilled) course. Being May, this featured ayu (sweetfish) that were expertly shaped and grilled to look like they were frozen in mid-swim, resting on a bed of bamboo leaves. They were crusted with salt and were so hot I thought I could see smoke rising from their little bodies.

Another specialty of May (specifically, the week we were there) were the sansho flowers that graced the shiizakana course, which was a nabe (hot pot) of fish and vegetables. Sansho pods are available for the entire month, and are one of my favorite indulgences; their tongue-numbing pods burst with an incomparable spicy flavor. This was the first time we had the flowers, which are more delicate, yet almost as spicy. So spicy, in fact, that we could not eat all the sprigs on our plates. Our attendant thought this was a shame, mottainai (a waste) as they say, so she thoughtfully wrapped them up for us to enjoy later.

As each course arrived (14 in total), our attendant first called out to announce her presence and then slid open the shoji door, knelt behind the open door with a formal bow, and then served the dish. Watching her grace was an experience, especially as the night grew busy and other parties arrived and we could hear the hurried footsteps in the halls. But no matter how busy, she was a picture of calm. Toward the end of the evening we even discovered she spoke English quite well.

At the end of the meal, after TWO desserts, one Western — a delicious strawberry ice milk — and one Japanese — a delectable kashiwa kuzu mochi served with excellent matcha (powdered green tea) — we thanked our attendant and asked her to convey our thanks to Murata. And at that very moment, the shoji door opened and there he was!

After excited exclamations and our non-stop raving about the meal, chef Murata offered to give us a tour of the restaurant. Luckily, it was growing late, and we were able to see many of the dining rooms, which were inter-connected by a series of hallways and stairways. The largest room, used for banquets, was constructed in the Taisho era (1912-1926). The woodwork glowed a deep reddish brown, in contrast to many of the other rooms (including ours) that were light and fresh with young wood.

Soon, we came to the kitchen, where 25 chefs were still scurrying about, attending to the last diners. A few of them looked up at us in wonder, which we took to mean they don’t see many visitors. Chef Murata explained that he usually employs 25-30 chefs, who work from sunrise until late at night. “If they’re not cooking, they‘re sleeping” he said with a smile.

Chef Murata and our attendant escorted us out, and after the customary goodbyes and keepsake photos, we left, this time, on foot. We wanted to savor this evening for just a while longer. It is rare that life comes full circle in such a surprising and moving way. Most days, it’s more like a jagged line. Many years ago, our younger selves wondered who was able to dine at such a place; the answer was “us.” But it is not a question of expense. In fact, to mention money in such a context seems ludicrous. For our meal was not only a celebration of the senses, of the seasons, of life. As luxurious and pleasant as it was, it moved us on a deeper level. Ferran Adrià was right when he said that Japanese chefs cook not only with their intellect and heart, but also with the element of the soul. Dining at Kikunoi, we understood what this means.

Related Articles: Read the profile on Yoshihiro Murata.

Kikunoi slide show
Above: The tableware is as important as the ingredients at Kikunoi Honten. Below: The traditional atmosphere includes tatami seating and garden views.
Risa t Kikunoi Honten, (c) 2010 Kirk Vuillemot

Kikunoi Honten is a ryo-tei that serves classic kyo-kaiseki (Kyoto kaiseki). Four choices are available for dinner: ¥15,750, ¥18,900, ¥19,000 and ¥25,250. We had the entry level meal, which was a complete and completely satisfying experience. The higher levels have more courses and might include some particularly rare ingredients. Whatever the price, it is a great value and entirely reasonable as far as kaiseki is concerned. The atmosphere is traditional. We felt as if we were staying at an exclusive ryokan (Japanese inn), and the private dining was very relaxing. During our meal, we occasionally heard other diners through the walls, but did not see a soul. Therefore, it's perfect for a romantic dinner or a special private celebration. You’ll learn more about Japanese cuisine and culture in a few hours here than you would in a week’s worth of travel. For those on a budget, kaiseki lunch courses start at ¥8,400.

Address: 459 Shimokawara-cho, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Shimokawara-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi
Kyoto 605-0825
Tel: 075-561-0015
Fax: 075-561-1013

Kikunoi Roan is a relatively new branch that Murata uses to showcase innovative dishes and to bring kaiseki to a wider (and perhaps younger) audience. It is a 10-seat kappo style restaurant where part of the entertainment is watching the chef at work. There are also tables and private rooms, and prices are more reasonable: Lunch courses start at ¥4,200, and dinner, ¥10,500.

Address: 118 Saito-cho, Shijo-sagaru, Kiyamachi-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 600-8012
Tel: 075-361-5580
Fax: 075-351-2431

Kikunoi Akasaka also has counter seating, as well as tables, and therefore is a combination of classic kaiseki and kappo dining. It is widely regarded as one of the best opportunities to enjoy classic kyo-kaiseki in Tokyo.

Address: 6-13-8 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-3568-6055
Fax: 03-3568-6056

Reservations are essential and — during popular periods such as cherry blossom and momiji (autumn color) season — recommended months in advance. All three restaurants feature only one seating due to the length of the meal, which is typically three hours. Therefore, 6:00pm, 6:30pm and 7:00pm are the best times to start. Some staff members speak English, and the menus are thoughtfully (and accurately) translated.

Link to purchase Kaiseki: The Equisite Cuisine of Kyoto's Kikunoi Restaurant

Order Yoshihiro Murata's book "Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto's Kikunoi Restaurant" from this link and help support Savory Japan.

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