Let me first introduce the elevator at Tohkasaikan, a beautiful old Otis workhorse operated by levers and pulleys replete with a dial that wavers as you ascend. It is, in fact, the oldest elevator in Japan, and in a country where taking an elevator is about as quotidian as it comes, this elevator is a bit of a trip.
The building was designed by William Merrell Vories (born in Kansas, settled in Shiga), an English teacher turned architect, missionary and entrepreneur. It’s a conspicuous building, part Spanish colonial, part Chinese Gothic, located on the banks of the Kamo River, and if it turned up in a Quentin Tarantino movie, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
To the food: There’s a lot on offer, and you can either go a la carte or with the prix-fixe courses. The menu remains the same all day, and it’s pricey: Sets start at ¥5,000, all the way to ¥20,000. We went a la carte, and started with our pleasant server’s suggestion: Peking duck. As it was a small portion, and I was with a big eater, our waitress advised a double order. When it arrived it still looked small, especially on the huge plate.
With Peking duck you are paying for a lengthy and complex process in which the poor old duck is eviscerated. You end up with four bite-size portions of crispy duck skin, pancakes, julienned cucumbers and green onions, plum sauce and feeling underwhelmed and out of pocket. To be fair, the menu said “Without meat”; I’m saying, “At ¥3,000, pass on the Peking duck.”
Happily, things got better thereafter. Tohkasaikan specializes in Beijing-style cooking, in itself a vast canon. We kept with the theme of classics: gyōza (dumplings), sweet-and-sour chicken, prawns fried in chili, vegetable stir-fry, fried pork with vegetables. Worthy mentions were the cloud-ear mushrooms (the Japanese translates as “rough-hair-tree-jellyfish”), a velvety dark shriveled fungus that came with the sweet-and-sour chicken. It hardly sounds delicious, but it was. Also, the stir-fried dishes retained just the right amount of smokiness to generate a pleasing aftertaste.
Except for the Peking duck, every dish was generous in portion, and in the end I felt like a foie-gras-fattened duck getting up from the table.
You are paying for the location as much as for the food. Lunch for two, including one drink each, was just over ¥13,000. Before leaving, an old spritely woman who watches over everything gave us a look at the rooftop terrace, which opens from 5 p.m. every day. There is also a riverside terrace (a yuka in Kyoto parlance) for evening dining, but if you want to take in Kyoto from a decent height, this is a great spot to do so.
You don’t need a booking, you don’t have to go with the set menu, and you get to ride the oldest elevator in Japan on your way up. Put that on your bucket list.
Saito-cho, 140-4 Shijo Kudaru, Nishishigaku, Kyoto; 075-221-1147; www.tohkasaikan.com; open daily 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m; nearest stations Kawaramachi, Gion Shijo; smoking outside only; set meals ¥5,000-20,000; Japanese, English, Chinese menu; Japanese, Chinese, English spoken. J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.