A combination of train delays and the restaurant I had intended to eat at closing earlier than advertised meant that I had to find a replacement on the hoof. Fortunately, I was in the Isetan department store in Kyoto Station. The top two floors are given over to restaurants: the 10th floor to mostly ramen shops, and the 11th floor a range of cuisines at more exclusive eateries. I settled on washoku (traditional Japanese) at Aoi-jaya.
Many restaurants in Japan tend toward a narrow specialization: curry, ramen, soba, wagyū, sushi, tempura, kushikatsu — the list goes on, but common to all are chefs who take to their role with a priest-like devotion to one cause. Aoi-jaya does and doesn’t fit this bill.
The menu is predominantly washoku: staple Japanese dishes that are unlikely to surprise or cause you to flag down a passing waitress to decipher. My lunch consisted of sashimi, tempura, takigomi-gohan (seasoned rice), soba and tsukemono (pickled vegetables). The specialty dish is seiro bushi, a bamboo-steamer dish. Thus Aoi-jaya converges: It’s a one-size-fits-all washoku restaurant with a specialty dish. So far, so very Japanese.
Before I get into the contents of my lunch, one pleasant surprise concerned the menu, specifically the accuracy and the detail of the menu in English. We’ve all witnessed and seen “hilarious” translations from Japanese into English. Pace, a restaurant on the same floor as Aoi-jaya, advertises “draft Giraffe” (Kirin, I presume). Not so with Aoi-jaya. Everything is spot on and even includes allergy information, which will be a comfort to many diners, and not just the droves of tourists who pass through Kyoto Station.
The lunch sets have flower-themed names. I settled on Aoi, simply because it contained the widest selection. This is a hearty and voluminous meal, reminiscent of the overloaded trays you receive while dining at a ryokan (inn). This much, for lunch! But here’s the thing about washoku: I could probably count on one hand the calories I consumed — despite the largesse. Washoku can certainly be healthy when it wants to be.
The seiro bushi dish came in a well-worn rectangular box, the lid still affixed on arrival. Inside was a selection of bean sprouts, eggplant, eringi mushrooms and a bright red tomato in a state of perspiration, as if had stayed too long in the hot-spring bath. In the process of steaming, ingredients retain much of their flavor; two dipping sauces — ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and a creamy sesame dressing — enhance these natural flavors. The soba came in a wonderfully light broth; the tempura (prawn and perilla) was light and crispy as it is wont to be.
Aoi-jaya doesn’t seem likely to push the boundaries on washoku: Its slightly dated interior attests to that. However, its conservative but exacting approach to washoku, as well as a menu that is accommodating to all, means that if you are looking for affordable washoku, take the elevator to the 11th floor.
J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.