There's a small window between Christmas and the new year when restaurants in Japan break out sets of dishes that otherwise remain hidden for months on end. Perhaps "break out" is the wrong choice of words — some of these dishes are individually worth more than the price of lunch or dinner — "showcase" might be more apt. And, in this regard, Gion Nishikawa didn't disappoint.

The opposite, in fact. The highlights of a recent visit to Gion Nishikawa for lunch ranged from a little house filled with fugu to a water basin in the restroom that had been transformed into a pine tree art installation. The restaurant is a short walk south of Kyoto's Yasaka Shrine, and it counts two of the city's most famous kaiseki restaurants, Kikunoi and Wakuden, as neighbors. Both Nishikawa and Wakuden have two Michelin stars, while Kikunoi has three.

At Nishikawa, lunch is served in one sitting and customers are divided between the counter, which seats about 10, and private rooms hidden on the opposite side of the kitchen. To say Nishikawa is a lot like other kappo style restaurants, is true, but also risks selling it short. Wood and bamboo abound; the lighting, kept low, creates a somber atmosphere; and yet, thankfully, Nishikawa is not the kind of place you go to sit in silence and reflect on your food. All through the meal — which ran to nearly two hours, but never felt long — the chefs were engaging, friendly and funny.