In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone,” a book about the decline of community and rise of individualism in the U.S. I thought about the title of that book over lunch at Rikichi — indeed there was plenty of room for thinking. Not only was I the only diner, but chef and owner Shuichi Hiraoka was working by himself. It’s how he prefers things in his little kappo (counter-style restaurant), tucked away in the back alleys of Gion.
Hiraoka has been preparing simple, traditional Japanese food here since he opened Rikichi more than 30 years ago. And yes, he has a Michelin star, but that’s not the apex of his achievements. Hiraoka is a national bowling champion, and has a handful of awards to prove it. In fact, he has been bowling for so long that the tops of his fingers are slightly bent from more than 50 years of gripping bowling balls. He may bowl and cook alone, but that’s only half the story.
The paving stones inside his restaurant were still wet from their morning scrub when I sat down for an omakase (chef’s choice) lunch. Rikichi’s narrow but homely interior doesn’t deviate much from the standard kappo, with its well-worn wooden surfaces and austere atmosphere. However, there is one area where Hiraoka veers off track: Each serving comes with hardly a word of explanation. But don’t be shy in asking questions, for as well as being a father, chef and bowling champion, Hiraoka is also a gentleman. He accommodates queries and taste preferences.
Rikichi offers a filling and varied lunch, within the confines of kaiseki (traditional Japanese cuisine) and kyo ryōri, a style of cooking endemic to Kyoto.
Two essentials Hiraoka has perfected are dashi, which he makes using water he sources himself, and rice, which was the penultimate dish when I visited. Hiraoka served a mochi (sticky) rice from nearby Shiga Prefecture. It was steamed and threaded with crab meat — a seasonal dish that broke the mold thanks to the chewy texture of the rice.
The dashi was at its best in the takiawase (a simmered dish of vegetables and meat, fish or tofu served before the midpoint of a kaiseki meal). Hiraoka served a single vegetable, ebi-imo (a taro yam), steamed, fried and then simmered in dashi. This is one of those dishes I wish I could have ordered and re-ordered. The yam, a long hulk, had a golden brown crust and was served in a shallow pool of dashi with only a shiitake mushroom and a sprinkling of chopped green onions as embellishments. It was an understated sensation.
Then there was plenty in the way of fish: Spanish mackerel, Pacific saury and sea bream, seared quickly before being served as sashimi in a beautiful display.
Hiraoka is the embodiment of the shokunin (artisan), a modest-yet-masterful craftsman. And a champion bowler.