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Summer is hot and sticky in central Japan, and Kyoto, being situated in a valley, is known for being particularly sweltering. This is why, in late April, restaurants along the Kamo River set up noryo yuka (dining terraces) that are used from May 1 until September 30. This tradition dates back to the Edo era, as witnessed in colorful ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints and old photographs. In these, diners relax languidly on wooden platforms that cantilever over the water, taking advantage of cooling breezes off the river, fanning themselves with uchiwa while kimono-clad attendants serve food and drink under colorful lanterns and the open sky.

I always wondered about these special dinners as I watched longingly from shijo bridge, an area that has many such terraces. Knowing one must have to pay a premium to enjoy such a luxury, I hadn’t really thought about going myself. However, during my most recent trip to Kyoto I had the good fortune to be treated to not just one, but two such meals; lunch, when sudare (reed screens) were thoughtfully draped overhead, and dinner at Tsuruse, located at the quiet southernmost edge of the platforms (approximately 90), near gojo-dori.

Tsuruse, a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) that has been serving Kyoto’s residents and tourists since the Meiji period, looks like an ukiyo-e come alive with its tile roof and soaring wooden beams, and couldn’t have been a more fitting place for my first noryo yuka experience. Like many other establishments along the Kamo River, Tsuruse specializes in seasonal Kyo-kaiseki, which in summer features hamo (conger pike eel). Hamo are rather homely-looking and have sharp, menacing mouths full of razor sharp teeth. However, they are loved in Kyoto because historically, they were tough enough to survive the long trek from the sea. Hamo have beautiful silvery skin and pure white flesh full of tiny, thin bones. These bones must be painstakingly cut (instead of removed) in order to be edible. The flesh is rather bland, but shines when served in multiple ways, including broiled, steamed or simmered in broth, as it is at Tsuruse, alongside the seasonal bounty of Kyoto’s summer vegetables.

The meal was artful and delicious – stretching on for three hours – the evening air, clear and warm. We drank and dined as the shadows rose up long the Higashiyama mountains and the sky turned from light blue to deepest cobalt, setting off red paper lanterns that swayed in the cooling breezes. A large party at the other end of the terrace had hired a geiko and maiko, and though we were too far to hear their singing, the sight of their perfectly coiffed hair, brightly colored kimono and artfully tied obi – as they gracefully bowed, bid the group farewell, and exited under the eaves like a pair of endangered birds – was a scene as timeless as it was precious. Would such ancient traditions continue, including Kyoto’s love affair with a bland and expensive, ugly eel?

According to my dear friend, a 17-th generation Kyoto native, the answer is a hearty “of course!” Because that’s just the way it is. It can’t be summer without hamo. Ridiculous to think otherwise.

Great answer.


Above: Dining on the terrace of the Tsuruse ryokan in early summer.
Price: Lunch: ¥3,000 to ¥5,000
Dinner: Noryo yuka course featuring hamo: from ¥7,500 to ¥15,000
adress: Kiyamachi-Gojo-agaru
Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
Telephone: 075-351-8518
Opening hours: 11:00 am - 9:30 pm
Holidays: None

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