KYOTO – On a recent visit to Kyoca Food Laboratory on the edge of Umekoji Park, west of Kyoto Station, I waited more than half an hour for a friend who was “on her way.” The mercury was tipping 37 degrees in the midday sun; even the cicadas had given up their racket.
When my friend eventually arrived we went inside, and our first call was to a fruit bar on the second floor, where we drank grapefruits from California in a method that could surely come under the banner of paleo dining. The bartender, Masami Houri, juiced the fruit inside its skin with a Cajyutta — a high-tech Japanese fruit drill — and inserted a straw. My companion and I sat at the bar, draining the fruit; it was, as the saying goes, worth waiting for. Although mind you, I could have done without the wait too.
That was my second visit to Kyoca, following its official opening at the end of July, a hectic affair with the usual mix of city officials, businesspeople exchanging cards, workshops open to the public, and florists arriving throughout the day bearing congratulatory bouquets or orchids.
The Laboratory occupies an old office block, formerly the headquarters of the Kyoca Group, one of the oldest fruit and vegetable wholesalers in Japan and still in operation. The company vacated a few years back and the building lay idle, bound for demolition until the company president had a change of heart, according to Hajime Aoki, a representative of Kyoca. “A friend urged him to turn the building into something that could benefit the city,” Aoki said. Since food is its business, a “food laboratory” seemed like a natural fit.
With support from the local government, Kyoca has spent the past year refurbishing the building, making way for kitchens, meeting rooms, cafes, restaurants and workshop spaces. The overall idea is to create a space where anyone interested in the rich world of Japanese food can come to share. Or, as Aoki said, “Eat, live, learn,” which also happens to be the laboratory’s mantra.
As of the opening weekend, the ground floor was fully occupied with a pizza restaurant, a steak and hamburger joint, a chain bakery and My Farmer, an endearing fruit and vegetable shop located in an old cold-storage unit. Taken together, it’s not exactly what springs to mind when you think washoku (Japanese cuisine), but Kyoca is well poised to take advantage of its locale and the timing of its opening.
Kyoca is about a 20-minute walk from Kyoto Station and close to Umekoji Park, which has seen a huge increase in attendance since the opening of Kyoto Aquarium, situated within the park. In 2016, the Kyoto Railway Museum will open, also within the park, to become the largest train museum in Japan. Kyoca is also on the doorstep of the municipal market, Kyoto’s version of Tsukiji; and just behind Kyoca is Shimabara, an old geisha district.
Add to this mix the increased prestige washoku has gained since it became an Intangible Cultural Heritage. As Aoki told me over a glass of banana chips, dried prunes and tofu, his job is to put Kyoca on Kyoto’s map.
The complex is a work in progress, typified by the fruit bar, which is beautifully appointed, drawing on its parent company’s resources and offering delightful and intriguing fruit ensembles. Bartender Houri tries to vary his mixed fruit themes, and we ate creations intended to vivify the skin. However, the fruit bar is nameless. Aoki said the Kyoca company president has been mulling over a name since it opened. The signal here is, “Don’t rush.”
Aoki confirms as much, saying that the owners have a two-year plan to have the building at full tenancy. Ideally he hopes Kyoca will draw tenants interested in all aspects of Japanese food production, from tofu to lacquer ware to tsukemono (pickles).
Education is where Kyoca could really take off. One sort-of up-and-running example is Yokoito, just down the way from the fruit bar. Yutaro Nakajima, a student from Yokohama, showed us around the space, mostly empty save for a coterie of laptops connected to a home-built 3-D printer slowly spooling out hanko-like stamps. Yokoito will open a cafe this autumn, and the aim is to hold workshops about 3-D printing where people can learn and make connections over coffee.
Back in the fruit bar, Aoki mentioned the Mother and Child cooking fairs scheduled for this autumn. Despite the name, they’re open to dads as well. Aoki said the events are aimed at ensuring that simple but important things such as how to make dashi are passed down through the generations. Other ideas are to tap some of the city’s famous chefs, such as Yoshihiro Murata, who heads the Kikunoi restaurant dynasty, bestowed with a total of seven Michelin stars.
Getting such chefs to Kyoca’s custom-built kitchens would be a brilliant draw, and would no doubt help to build Kyoca’s reputation. But Aoki has other less lofty ideas: He’d like to fill the building with music, too, inviting musicians for day- and nighttime concerts; and the building is filled with murals from local artists who were invited to decorate the interior. Aoki is, like Kyoca, open to many ideas — and if you have one, there’s a building waiting for you.