Is there anything more charming than a restaurant to which one travels by small boat along a serene stretch of river in one of Japan’s most beautiful cities? One that also serves the highest quality Japanese cuisine, each dish a perfect balance between traditional classic and inventive modern?
If there is, I am yet to find it but it certainly has a hard act to follow in Hoshinoya Kyoto, a top-level kaiseki ryōri restaurant within the luxury inn of the same name.
Kaiseki cuisine is a traditional multi-course meal consisting of a succession of seasonal, local and beautifully presented little dishes. Although its origins are in the simple food served as part of a traditional tea ceremony, it has evolved over centuries into a far more elaborate dining style now served in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and specialised restaurants.
Such meals usually have a prescribed order to what is served, though each chef takes pride in designing and presenting their own menus based on local delicacies, seasonal ingredients and their personal style.
A typical meal may include a small drink or amuse-bouche to start, a selection of stunningly presented small appetisers, a sashimi (raw seafood) course, takiawase (which translates as ‘a little something’ and is most commonly vegetables with meat or fish alongside), futamono (a ‘lidded dish’, often a soup but sometimes combined into the takiawase course in the form of a broth with simmered ingredients served within it), sometimes there is a small tempura item (battered and deep fried) or some grilled fish, all this to be followed by a more substantial dish such as a meat hot pot or grilled steak with local seasonal vegetables, then rice served with miso soup and pickles, and finally fresh fruit or another dessert.
If that sounds like a lot, it is! That said, most of the dishes are small enough that most diners are able to enjoy the full meal comfortably, albeit with very little room left by the time the rice arrives! And most kaiseki menus don’t include every single one of the courses above, though they usually cover the majority.
Hoshino Resorts is a family business launched over 100 years ago when Kuniji Hoshino founded a forestry business in Karuizawa. The area, nicknamed the Japanese Alps, became increasingly popular as a location for holiday villas and in 1914 Kuniji opened a ryokan there which is still one of the company’s flagship properties today, albeit hugely updated since Kuniji’s era. Today, fourth-generation family member Yoshiharu Hoshino is CEO of the company and has lead the business through two decades of transformation and expansion, modernising existing properties and purchasing several new ones that are marketed under the brands Hoshinoya, Kai and Risonare.
A few years ago Hoshino Resorts purchased a beautiful historical Kyoto property originally constructed in the 16th century as the home of Ryoi Suminokura, a wealthy merchant and trusted advisor to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Suminokura played a major role in the construction of Kyoto’s canals and river systems, earning him extended shipping rights within the city. He built his beautiful home in the bamboo forests of Arashimaya, on the banks of the Katsura River. In the centuries following, his home was turned into a traditional ryokan.
In 2012 the ryokan closed for two years while the company completely refurbished the property, retaining and enhancing its historical treasures.They hired Japan’s most skilled architects and designers to repair the existing property and to design and construct extensions in keeping with the original yet offering a more modern luxury and comfort. The best artisans in their fields were invited to repair original pieces and to create new furniture and artworks throughout.
The newly completed resort opened in 2014 and has been another flagship for the brand ever since.
At the helm of Hoshinoya Kyoto’s kitchen is Head Chef Ichiro Kubota. Kubota’s father was the head chef at one of Kyoto’s top restaurants and instilled in his son an appreciation of culinary excellence and Japanese traditions. Initially intending to become an artist, Kubota studied art as well as English language; indeed it was a two year stint studying in America that helped him better appreciate the beauty of Kyoto’s culture and cuisine, and to change his focus and career plans. Kubota went on to train as a chef under his father and in many of the region’s top kaiseki restaurants before heading to Europe. There he apprenticed at Paris’ three-star Michelin restaurant Georges Blanc where he perfected classic French techniques, also taking advantage of days off to eat his way around Europe. He was poached from Paris in 2004 to head up the kitchen of Umu, London’s first Kyoto-style banquet restaurant. After seven years (and a Michelin star of his own, awarded within a few months of Umu’s launch) Kubota accepted the invitation to head up Hoshinoya Kyoto’s new restaurant – keen to return with all the expertise and knowledge he had gained and receive recognition in the home of the cuisine.
Since then, Kubota has developed a truly incredible offering that brings many innovative touches to this most traditional of formats.
So often, when chefs try to modernise classic dishes and methods, it just doesn’t work – it’s either so far from the original so as to be virtually unrecognisable (in which case naming it as such seems a travesty) or it simply isn’t as good and is therefore a rather pointless change. But Kubota achieves what very few do, retaining all that is glorious about the best traditional kaiseki ryōri whilst also applying European influences and modern techniques, flavours and presentations to each dish he serves – and these innovations not only work, they positively shine!
A meal at Kubota’s table is one to keenly anticipate; his reputation – and Hoshinoya’s – have already earned him high praise and the restaurant has a consistently busy reservations book. Most of the diners are, of course, residents of the resort but others, like us, book in for dinner only. The kaiseki menu is priced at 20,000 yen per person plus taxes and service, very much in line with Kyoto’s high end restaurants.
The journey to Hoshinoya Kyoto starts at the Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashimaya, a famous West Kyoto district that is popular with locals and tourists alike. If you’ve not visited, a stroll through the famous bamboo groves followed by a visit to Tenryuji Temple are both umissable activities; Tenryuji’s garden is amongst my favourite of the Japanese temple gardens we have visited. There are many other attractions in this area too – more temples, a scenic railway line, tourist boat trips (including trips to observe cormorant fishing in season) and even a monkey park, if you are so inclined.
The Hoshinoya dock is close to Togetsukyo Bridge and easy to find. We are lead onto a small boat with large windows around the passenger area to enjoy the view. The boat slowly putt-putts its way up the river taking about 15 minutes to reach the hotel’s landing dock, where we are greeted by guest relations manager, Tomoko Tsuchida.
After taking a few photos in the darkening dusk outside, Tomoko takes us into the restaurant and shows us to our counter seats, of which there are 8. The other 30 covers are at regular tables. Tomoko settles us in, gives us the menu for the meal to come (which lists each course in both Japanese and English) and serves our meal assisted by an army of polite, well-trained and quick-footed waiting staff. Each dish is carefully explained and any questions patiently answered; sometimes the origins or patterns of the artisanal tableware are explained too – traditional lacquerware with painted gold flowers and fish, sake cups from Shigaraki (a pottery town we visited just two days earlier), and other beautiful handmade plates, bowls and cups.
Throughout the meal we watch the two chefs stationed in front of us create the first three courses again and again. Other chefs work on other courses in other kitchen spaces and their dishes appear in front of us as finished master pieces, from the fourth course onwards.
Before the first morsel arrives, we are served a glass of Kasegi Gashira, a junmai sake with a light, lemony flavour that is accentuated by the mugwort pudding that arrives shortly afterwards.
I’ve been learning in recent years, and shared my beginner’s guide to sake last year, but am still a novice when it comes to selecting sake from a list. Luckily Tomoko gave us some suggestions for the two sakes we choose to accompany the rest of the meal.
The amuse bouche is listed as Mugwort pudding with white shrimp, chopped fern root, horse tail bud, lily root petal and umami jelly. Tomoko explains that Mugwort is a sign of spring, and the dish is the introduction to their very seasonal menu. Near the property is a field of greens and yellows with a lone cherry blossom tree within it; the construction of the dish has been designed to represent this scene. The dish as a whole is light and refreshing, though I’m still not sure I could describe mugwort to you – I’d say slightly bitter with a hint of floral.
When our next sake is served, we are offered a box of sake cups to choose from, each one a very different design. I recognise the distinctive look of an unglazed Shigaraki piece and of course, I select that one. This sake, in the very pretty blue bottle, is a junmai daiginjo made by Eikun, a sake brewery located in Kyoto’s Fushimi district, an area known for sake production. It has a rich, deep flavour, strong and punchy, not at all like the lighter one we started with. It’s unlike any sake I’ve tried before, and I like it.
The selection of appetisers served next are beautifully presented; each item listed separately on the menu.
From left to right: bamboo shoot and cuttlefish marinated with cod roe dressing, lady fish sushi, simmered hamaguri clam and river lettuce with umami jelly, deep fried Japanese dace, broad bean stuffed with shrimp dumpling, simmered baby octopus with sweet soy sauce with simmered sea bream roe with ginger
The dace fish, Tomoko explains, is threaded onto the skewer in an Ƨ shape so that it looks as though it is swimming!
I don’t pay much attention to the little leaf sat on the octopus and sea bream, and don’t realise until later that one of the intense flavours I detect on eating this is from the leaf rather than the braising spices used to cook the seafood.
The next course is one that the chefs at our counter are responsible for, and throughout our meal we watch them make it again and again; their intense focus and attention to detail as they construct each plate is a pleasingly practised choreography.
Described on the menu simply as Seasonal sashimi Hoshinoya style, Tomoko is on hand to give us all the details. When she tells us the plate itself is a design known as ‘blossom falling in the wind’, I realise I’m so focused on the beautiful food that I didn’t even glance at the plate. A good reminder to observe all the wonderful details.
The two pieces at the edges are the same; the one in the centre is different. The two pieces are both baby melon on fresh seaweed, wrapped in sea bream with diced wasabi and sea urchin on top. The ‘crystal jelly’ spooned onto the plate at the two corners is made from konbu stock and the white foam ball is sakura flavoured. A home made soy sauce dressing is provided for the outer two pieces.
The centre sushi is a piece of fresh sea bream roe which has been briefly boiled and then grilled. On top is a tiny layer of pureed leek topped with a circle of Japanese tangerine jelly (the citrus fruit chosen for its exact balance between sweet and sour) melted over the top, and a single Japanese red peppercorn sat on the jelly. The plate is garnished with crisp sugar snap peas and edible leaves and flowers.
The entire plate is altogether stunning, especially the sea bream roe which melt-pops in the mouth as though it’s filled with a mild and creamy liquid center. This dish is about beauty, freshness, seasonality, texture and flavours and it’s delightful!
As we open the poached greenling coated with Domyoji sweet rice crumbs in a clear soup with yuba cake and fern root Tomoko tells us to check for the fish artwork under the lid before explaining how best to enjoy the soup. First, on lifting the lid, bend over the dish and inhale the aromas released, especially of the fragrant sansho leaf sat on top. Move the leaf into the broth so it can impart a little flavour, then use your chopsticks to hold back the other ingredients as you sip the broth. Finally, enjoy the other ingredients in the bowl.
This time, when I eat the leaf it’s a knockout punch to the taste buds! Not only is the flavour intense, it comes with a tingling numbing sensation akin to eating Sichuan peppercorns – I wonder if the two plants are related? The numbness lasts for a good few minutes, so you may prefer to nibble just a tiny bit of leaf for a hint of the flavour, and set the rest aside.
Next comes charcoal grilled king fish glazed with rapeseed sauce. The fish is rich and meaty, and the seasonal topping of spring onions with rapeseed greenery is delicious. To visually represent the yellow of rapeseed flowers, bright yellow karasumi (salt-preserved mullet fish roe) is grated over the top – it contributes to the flavour too, of course. Also on the plate are baby ginger, shiitake mushroom and udo, a mountain vegetable.
Shiraki Brewery in Gifu are the makers of this unusual Daruma Masamune sake that has been aged at room temperature for 15 years. The flavour is incredible, reminiscent of mushrooms though that makes it sound unpleasant when it’s actually very delicious!
Although aged sake is nothing new, today’s market is predominantly focused on new sake, released every spring – to the extent that Shiraki faced both bemusement and confusion when they first started to sell their 3, 5 and 10 year old aged sakes in the 1970s. Aged sake is still not very common, but these days there are enough aficionados to make this a premium drink.
The next course arrives in a very unusual dish, unlike any I’ve seen before. If you’re starting to feel full just reading about this multi-course meal, I can assure you, it’s exactly how we feel as the containers are placed before us and we wonder if we can do justice to the contents.
Inside the custom-crafted clay container (with one clay lid and one made from wood) are pieces of beef fillet and simmered spring vegetables. Wasabi and salt crystals sit in the condiment spaces, though for me the beef is perfectly seasoned as it comes and it’s absolutely superb – full of beefy flavour, meltingly soft without being pappy and cooked to just the right point. Hard to beat beef (and cooking) of this quality!
Lest you think the savoury courses are over because the ‘main’ dish has been served, as with any Japanese meal, the rice course is still to come. Tomoko brings out a black lidded dish of seasoned rice with bamboo shoot topped with charcoal grilled conger eel which is served with red miso soup, assorted Japanese pickles and green tea.
We ask for small portions to be served, and the eel is delicious, so we do dig in even though we manage just a few mouthfuls each.
Next comes an elegant strawberry and mint financier, strawberry sauce and rich milk ice cream served on a chilled metal block. The flavours are vivid, and brought to life by the tiny fragments of mint on the top.
But lest we think that a more traditional Japanese dessert has been dropped in favour of the French-style patisserie, a second dessert arrives of melon and papaya with mint, served with a cup of hojicha (roasted black tea).
The papaya is nice enough but the melon, oh my goodness, this is the most delicious melon I’ve ever tasted! I ask for more information and learn that it’s a green melon from the musk melon family and grown in Shizuoka Prefecture. It’s so perfectly ripe that the perfume is heady and the flavour intense, with a texture that is almost liquid in the mouth. It’s glorious and a genuinely revelationary experience!
Full to bursting, yet a little sad that such an incredible meal has come to an end, we are walked to the reception area to settle our drinks bill before one of the resort’s private cars drives us back to Togetsukyo Bridge for our onward journey back to our hotel.
On this trip, we experienced several high end kaiseki meals and this one was our clear favourite (though others were certainly excellent, more of which soon). Kubota’s delightful weaving together of traditional Japanese techniques, ingredients and dishes with global influences from his exploration of world cuisine, along with his whimsical, artistic, delightful presentation lifted this meal to another level.
Kavey Eats dined at Hoshinoya Kyoto as guests of Hoshino Resorts.