This post is about a meal at Kitcho, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Kyoto that is considered one of the best restaurants in Japan. It was still a fine day when we reached Arashiyama, a suburb of Kyoto known for its exceptional prettiness in the autumn and early spring. We had traveled a very long distance from home for a good lunch. Our expectations were high.
The kaiseki (fine dining) restaurant Kitcho in Kyoto is a favorite restaurant of Japanese connoisseurs since it opened in 1948. Recently, it has become famous internationally because the Michelin Guide awarded it three stars.
SIMPLE JAPANESE FOOD THAT’S SIMPLY DIVINE
In reality, Kitcho is grand in service but simple in décor and surroundings. This is in line with the traditional Japanese sense of aesthetics. And it’s been this way long before the world discovered it.
Kitcho is housed in a traditional wooden villa set amidst shrubbery. It’s accessible via a long pebbled path. You cannot see anything from the street. But once you have actually navigated this path, you will be surprised to discover that nothing luxurious waits at the end.
NO FRILLS LUXURY IN JAPAN
Instead there is a row of Japanese umbrellas hanging casually but picturesquely on one side. There is an unadorned entrance next to it. There’s no hint of the beauty and the old-fashioned world of refinement and elegance inside. But once you step inside Kitcho, you’ll find the kind of atmosphere that so many Japanese dream about. It reminds me of the Golden Age of Japan, just before World War I and World War II forced it to modernize and conform.
This rarified way of life is practically gone now in Japan. But it’s still alive in Kitcho in Kyoto.
FOOD AS ART AND THEATER
When we were there, the restaurant was full but we would never have known it. We only heard a solitary burst of laughter as we passed otherwise quiet and empty corridors. As is the tradition in Japan’s finest restaurants, guests dine by themselves in private rooms attended by a lady in a kimono.
NO OPTIONS NECESSARY
At Kitcho, our private room on the second floor overlooked the river and the hills. Once seated, we received no information on the menu or on the prices. It seemed enough for us to have secured a much-desired restaurant reservation; whether we simply imagined it or not, we were made to feel that if we dared eat here, then we need not discuss costs at all.
So we made no further inquiries. After the de rigueur sake was served in a flat lacquer dish, we simply focused on enjoying twelve impeccably presented courses. Each course was exquisitely plated with careful thought. Each consisted of a medley of ingredients that remained distinct. The flavours never once merged together. For me, this was a true test of culinary talent.
There are many fine kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto. However, Kitcho stands out for its creativity and innovation in the highly structured world of Japanese cuisine. The food is traditional, but here and there we found delightful twists that pointed to a chef who was also willing to think out of the box.
CULINARY HISTORY OF KITCHO
Kitcho in Kyoto is faithfully patronized by powerful Japanese politicians and tycoons. It is also a great favorite of lovers of food and the good life. For example, legendary Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone often used Kitcho to entertain important visitors. One of his most famous guests at a Kitcho banquet was the late President Ronald Reagan. Kitcho also took charge of the kitchens for the historic G8 Summit banquets held in Japan. The legendary artist Rosanjin Kitaoji also reportedly loved Kitcho.
FAMILY OF CHEFS IN JAPAN
Today, Kitcho in Arashiyama is run by Kunio Tokuoka, grandson of the founder of Kitcho himself. Tokuoka began training as a chef at the age of 20. His wife, impeccable in a lovely kimono, personally greets every group of guests. Then she presides over the serving of the first course. After the first course, she hands the service over over to a dedicated attendant for the rest of the meal.
This was also the point where we sat back and allowed Kitcho to overwhelm us with an experience that was part installation art and entertainment. It was also a full-blown gustatory delight that constituted one of my best meals in a never-ending Travelife.
Read more articles about the best restaurants in Japan in Travelife Magazine.