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Shakunage: Moongazing over kaiseki in the heart of Ginza

by Robbie Swinnerton

The moon is magical in any phase, but it’s never more beautiful than the first full moon of autumn. Some people go out to gaze and wonder at temples or teahouses; others from hillsides or seashores. But few would think of heading into central Tokyo — not unless they’d booked a table at Shakunage.

There are plenty of good restaurants boasting premium views over the city and up to the heavens. What makes Shakunage more than a bit special is its terrace. Twelve stories up, in the very heart of Ginza, you can sit and eat outdoors, looking over the urban skyline. When there’s a big, yellow harvest moon rising, there’s nowhere like it in the city.

It’s almost exactly three years since the swish Ginza Mitsukoshi department store reopened following a total refurbishment. Amid the obligatory clutch of new eating spots on the upper floors of its new east annex, it was Shakunage that caught the eye. Not only does it occupy the choicest corner of the building, it has in Hisato Nakahigashi one of the most illustrious chefs in Kyoto overseeing the kitchen.

Nakahigashi is the fourth-generation proprietor of Miyamasou, a ryokan in the hills to the north of the old capital that is renowned for its cuisine featuring foraged plants and fungi. He also runs a beautifully chic modern cafe/lunch spot called Oku, in the heart of Kyoto’s picturesque and ultra-traditional Gion district.

Not that there’s anything exclusive or intimidatingly refined about Shakunage. It feels relaxed and approachable, the kimono-clad waitresses bustling about with little time for standing on ceremony, and the chefs in the open kitchen too busy to even raise their eyes from their work stations.

Tokyo, of course, operates at a faster pace than the old capital, and the delicate Kyoto cuisine served at Shakunage is tailored to those demands, especially at lunchtime. There are elaborate multicourse kaiseki meals (from ¥5,500) for those with the luxury of being able to dine at leisure — and the perfectly coifed Ginza ladies who lunch comprise an important part of the demographic. But there are also simpler, abbreviated menus for those with more limited resources of time and wherewithal.

Look no further than the sairō bentō lunch (¥3,800) which, besides being an excellent introduction to the cuisine, is unlikely to keep you at table much longer than an hour. The meal opens with a small appetizer, usually goma-dōfu, a cube of soft, creamed sesame.

Sairō literally means a “basket of side dishes.” As the name indicates, the main portion of the meal is served in a lacquered container woven out of fine strands of bamboo. Inside, it contains an array of carefully composed tidbits from land and sea, a microcosm of what you might expect in the full-length meals.

As always, the menu will change with the seasons, to reflect what is being harvested from the farms — much of the produce comes from the Tamba region, to the west of Kyoto — and from the fish markets. Earlier this summer it looked like this: a cluster of edamame soybeans bringing a splash of color in their jade-green pods; a morsel of saikyō-yaki (miso-grilled) fish; two thin slices of satsuma-imo (sweet potato) tempura; steamed taro (yam) topped with a savory miso sauce; and a simple cube of gray konnyaku (devil’s tongue) jelly, simmered soft in a fragrant dashi stock.

There were also slices of dashimaki tamago, the billowy-soft, lightly sweetened yellow omelet found adorning Japanese meals at any time of year; and a lacquered bowl of gelatinous mozoku seaweed seasoned with a refreshing vinegar dressing.

Whichever menu you opt for, the meal will include a serving of rice that has been boiled in a heavy pot on the traditional clay cooker that sits in the angle of the counter along the open kitchen. More than anything, this style of cooker, known in the Kyoto region as okudo-san, represents the connection with Miyamasou.

Nothing is elaborate or showy at Shakunage. It may not rank alongside the most rarefied Japanese restaurants in Tokyo, but everything is prepared with the precision and delicacy you’d expect of a restaurant associated with the Nakahigashi name.

Not that you are likely to see the man himself in the kitchen. His appearances are limited to a couple of times a year, when special seasonal dinners are held highlighting, for example, ayu (sweetfish) in early summer, or the arrival of that supreme autumn delicacy, matsutake (pine mushrooms).

With the air still thick with typhoons and humidity, there’s never any guarantee that the conditions will be clement enough right now to take advantage of the outside seating — or that the nights will be cloudless. But there will always be other months and other moons. In fact, there is much to be said for waiting until October. Not only will the evenings will be less sweaty and the skies clearer, the menu will also include more of the produce, mushrooms and fruits of autumn. That is the time when Shakunage’s terrace really comes into its own.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.