BLOGJapanese food column2018.11.12

What exactly are "Kyoto taste" and "Kyoto cuisine"?

ByYoshihiro Murata

Tucked into the foothills of Mt. Higashi, surrounded by greenery, is the ryotei (high-end traditional Japanese restaurant) KIKUNOI. Since its opening in 1912, this restaurant has been beloved by many as a famous ryotei representative of Kyoto. Its third-generation proprietor, Yoshihiro Murata, constantly asks himself, "What IS Japanese cuisine?" and is continuously involved in various activities. Currently, he is serving as Chairman of the Japanese Culinary Academy (JCA) and has made "conveying Japanese cuisine accurately to the world" his life's work, pouring energy into the movement to have "Japanese cuisine"--that is, Japan's traditional food culture--designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. We asked Mr. Murata to explain "What is Japanese cuisine?" and "the forefront of Japanese cuisine," and his responses will be presented in five installments.

Four food cultures forming the foundation for Kyoto cuisine

The proprietors of KIKUNOI descend from a tea-server who accompanied Nene (Kitanomandokoro), the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, from Osaka Castle to Kodai-ji Temple in Kyoto some 22 generations ago. This forebear was ordered to protect a well called Kikusui-no-i. From 3 generations before, the family operated a restaurant, which was named KIKUNOI, after the well.
The signs outside ryotei that have continued over generations hardly ever include the words "Kyoto cuisine." The reason for this is that these restaurants each have their own history and traditions, and so I think that there is a strong sense of "providing our restaurant's own unique taste" that underlies this tendency for long-established ryotei to not identify their cuisine specifically as "Kyoto cuisine."
What these restaurants have in common is that the restaurant and its taste were born in Kyoto. Today, I would like to talk about Kyoto's food culture, which has influenced the traditions and history of the taste developed by each restaurant.


In Kyoto, there are four fundamental and traditional food cultures that support Kyoto food culture. The first of these is yusokuryori, which was born from the court culture of the nobility. In Classical Japan, provinces throughout the country sent officials known as kokushi to the capital, and these officials also brought their cooks with them. The modern-day equivalent of these cooks would be the chefs employed at embassies.
That is to say, specialty produce and food ingredients from throughout the country were brought to Kyoto, and the Imperial Palace chefs made strenuous efforts to adjust and refine the preparation and use of these rare food ingredients and seasonings to produce cuisine that was to the tastes of court officials, and the cuisine they created is known as yusokuryori. The second fundamental and traditional food culture that supports Kyoto food culture is shojinryori, the food eaten by Zen Buddhist monks during training. Shojinryori strictly excludes all animal-derived foods as well as gokun, foods with pungent smells such as leeks and garlic. Finally, the third fundamental and traditional food culture that supports Kyoto food culture is chakaisekiryori (or kaisekiryori), which evolved from the practice of Buddhist monks in training of placing warmed stones inside their robes to alleviate hunger pangs. The concept was subsequently incorporated into the tea ceremony and perfected as chakaisekiryori by tea master Sen no Rikyu. Another influential food culture is obanzai, which townspeople (commoners) consumed on a daily basis.

Each restaurant worked diligently to develop its own unique cuisine

Since Kyoto culture centered on court culture, cooks were naturally also influenced by yusokuryori. Not only that, Kyoto has many temples--including many Zen Buddhist temples, of course--and so cooks were also influenced by shojinryori. In the world of the tea ceremony, since Kyoto was the location for the headquarters of the San-Senke (three major schools of the tea ceremony), chakaisekiryori naturally exerted influence as well. Furthermore, cooks were also influenced by the food consumed by townspeople (commoners), known as Kyo-no-obanzai. That is to say, cooks were influenced by four food cultures, and coupled with this, a unique Kyoto cuisine and taste developed. Consequently, I think that each restaurant perfected its own unique taste and sentiment in accordance with its unique history and traditions through the diligent efforts of its proprietors.


For example, a restaurant that has traditionally been a tea house will serve cuisine that emphasizes wabi-sabi (sense of quiet simplicity and subdued refinement), with menus including words and phrases used in chakaiseki banquets, such as mukozuke (side-dish), hassun (appetizer), and nimonowan (bowl of boiled food). A restaurant with deep ties to a Zen temple will serve cuisine strongly influenced by shojinryori, and there are also many obanzai restaurants around the city.

KIKUNOI aspires to "beautiful subdued refinement"

Our restaurant's philosophy is "cuisine with beautiful subdued refinement." We often say " Be beautiful, not unattractive. Be subdued, not be wizened and weak." We have a saying that in simple terms means: "Be elegant and beautiful. Uncontrolled gorgeousness is unacceptable. Be subdued yet powerful. Being too wizened and weak is unacceptable." I think that the fact that our ancestor served Nene (the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi), who was from a samurai family, has also influenced this philosophy tremendously.


So that I myself do not become "too wizened," I intend to formulate new proposals and make changes on a daily basis while pursuing "delicious taste" and "beauty." It is said that tradition is simply a succession of innovations, and that is exactly what I wish to undertake. A motto that I value highly is "Aroma + Texture + Surprise," and this is what I will talk about next.


■ Kikunoi (main restaurant)

459 Shimokawara-cho, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru,
Shimokawara-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Yoshihiro Murata

Owner & Chef of Kikunoi / Director of the NPO Japanese Culinary Academy. Awarded with "Gendai no Meiko" ("Contemporary Master Craftsman") and "Kyoto-fu Sangyo Korosha" ("Kyoto Prefecture Industry Distinguished Service") in 2012, "Kyoto-fu Bunka Korosho" ("Kyoto Prefecture Culture Distinguished Service Award") in 2013, and with "Chiiki Bunka Korosha" ("Regional Person of Cultural Merit ") in 2014.

Editors' Choice

Editors' Choice

At ryotei, it is possible to experience the aesthetic beauty of “quiet” with the five senses in each space, including the decorations in both tatami-mat rooms and floored rooms, the garden scenery, the movements of the hostess and waitresses, and the colors of seasonal moods. With regard to “cuisine,” it is possible to experience the aesthetic beauty of “movement” as you watch the food preparation and presentation process before your eyes while you sit at the counter, observing the actions of the head chef and his first and second assistants. In this segment, we introduce ryotei and cuisine selected from among restaurants that Kyoto CHISHIN editing staff have actually visited and where we can guarantee you will be able to “experience the beauty aesthetic of quiet and movement.”