When you live in a tourist mecca like Kyoto you tend to avoid the major attractions. However, having a visitor in town provides a good excuse to join the horde and get into tourist mode: taking over footpaths, meandering slowly along backstreets and taking photos of everything, especially photos of yourself with everything — a selfie stick is de rigueur.
If you’re on the pilgrimage to the steps of Yasaka Shrine in the Gion district, there’s a quaint century-old sushi restaurant where I recommend you stop, sit down and get to know some Kyoto-style sushi. Photos are allowed.
Izuju is one of Kyoto’s blink-and-you-miss-it restaurants. And I often have. However, if you’re a fan of sushi, especially its many regional variations, then Izuju should definitely be on your list.
Bright red noren (entrance curtains) hide the door, but once you’ve located it, make sure you duck on the way in to avoid banging your head on the low-hanging door frame. The seating area bends away from the kitchen, which nearly falls out the front entrance. Inside is a small, lived in space with a handful of tables. The sepia photos framed on the wall, showing past chefs and family members, are there for posterity as well as decoration.
The first thing you should know about Izuju’s Kyozushi (Kyoto’s sweet style of sushi) is that it’s best eaten without soy sauce. The condiment is not offered on each table, but will be provided if you ask. After visiting the restaurant, I asked a friend — an Izuju regular — why it’s not in your best interests to make that request.
“At Izuju, if you’re unsatisfied with not having soy sauce, then you’re not qualified to enjoy their sushi.” Fighting words.
Restaurant staff say that soy sauce overpowers the taste of sushi, specifically the sweetness of the rice.
Kyozushi is not as dainty as the more common nigiri (bite-size) sushi, and there is typically less variety in the way it is served. Mackerel plays the central role that tuna does in Edomae sushi (a style of sushi that developed in Tokyo more than a century ago). Above all, what you’ll notice is the sweetness, but it’s a delicate sweetness and one that does not overpower.
Your best bet when ordering is to get a sharing plate, ideally the saba-zushi (chub mackerel and kelp sushi) set, which includes many items from the menu. Chub mackerel is not a delicate-tasting fish, but the kelp wrapping and sweetened rice take some of the fishy kick out. The inari-zushi, sweet rice wrapped in a tofu pouch, is delicious. The selection of hako (boxed) sushi — in which seafood or vegetables are pressed into sweetened rice with wooden frames — includes sea bream and shimeji mushrooms.
If the lines for the restaurant are too long, there’s also the option of takeout. Either way, Izuju is worth discovering, whether you’re passing through Kyoto or staying put.