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Masato Miyazawa: Calm, collected, almost transcendent

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

When Masato Miyazawa opened his first restaurant here in Kyoto, he was 32.

Called Jiki Miyazawa, it’s a paean to chakaiseki, a cuisine that combines two things he had poured more than a decade of his life into: the ebb and flow of the tea ceremony, and the ornate seasonal cuisine that accompanies it.

More than his craft, it was Miyazawa’s age that stuck out for many here in this conservative and tradition-abiding city. Hadn’t he skipped a few rungs on the ladder in his hurry to establish his own restaurant? For Miyazawa though, this was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

“My goal was to open my own restaurant by the time I turned 30,” says Miyazawa at his second restaurant Godan Miyazawa, as his staff prepare the evening sitting with minimum fuss.

Perhaps it helped that Miyazawa is an outsider. At the age of 20, he arrived in Kyoto from Kanagawa Prefecture — where his parents ran a sushi shop — choosing the city because he wanted to immerse himself in its rich culinary tradition.

“I’d been helping out in my parent’s restaurant since I was little,” says Miyazawa. “That gave me my first taste for cooking.”

As Miyazawa talks through his history and apprenticeships, it’s clear that he more than paid his dues: Before opening Jiki he worked at two of this city’s premier culinary institutions.

At Kyoto Hotel Okura — a local landmark — he worked at the kaiseki (traditional multi-course) restaurant Irifune for a year and a half before working under Yuko Kuwamura, the fifth-generation owner of Wakuden, which has a string of restaurants and Michelin stars to match. All the while, Miyazawa performed reconnaissance on Kyoto’s myriad temples and shrines where he devoted himself to bettering his understanding of the city’s tea culture and tea ceremony.

Eventually, in 2007, he felt ready to open Jiki Miyazawa. It was quick to succeed, and any doubters were silenced early on when, in 2009, Michelin launched their first guidebook to Kyoto and Osaka and awarded the restaurant a star. It has retained it for every subsequent edition.

While he’s happy to receive the Michelin star of approval, Miyazawa does not believe himself to be defined by it.

“It didn’t make any difference to the way I do things,” he says.

One dish the Michelin reviewer highlighted, and quite rightly, is Miyazawa’s yaki-gomadōfu (grilled tofu served with a rich sesame dressing). Miyazawa tells me that he spent three years perfecting the dish, a process that involved a lot of “trial and error” as he tried to combine the two ingredients to his satisfaction.

It has become his signature dish, and it’s one of the reasons that patrons come to Jiki from as far afield as Tokyo and Fukuoka.

In 2014, Miyazawa left Jiki and ventured across Shijo-dori where, on a quiet and unassuming residential street, he opened Godan Miyazawa, a little sister to Jiki. While he’s now based at Godan full time, he still owns Jiki and runs it at arm’s length. In his absence, Jiki has maintained its Michelin star, and Godan has also picked one up.

If Miyazawa has a philosophy about how to run a kitchen, it’s to let people do their own thing. He knows the chefs he hires — or at least their professional history — and trusts in their ability to deliver. “They already have the experience, what follows is that they learn through cooperation,” he says. “I don’t set out to control or manage the team.”

Perhaps his dedication to the tea ceremony explains this intriguing part of Miyazawa’s personality: He’s calm and collected, hovering just below the level of transcendent.

Over a five-year period reviewing restaurants in Kyoto, often frequenting kappō (traditional counter-style Japanese) restaurants, Godan was one of my most memorable meals for two reasons: for the patron next to me, who had come all the down from Tokyo for lunch and declared himself a Miyazawa regular; and for the atmosphere that Miyazawa created, as comfortable for customers as it is for his staff. He’s friendly, without being fawning, and has a charming smile that remains hidden most of the time.

As we wrap up our interview, I ask if his parents are proud of him for following in their footsteps and going on to establish two successful restaurants.

“They’re just happy I didn’t fail,” Miyazawa says, smiling, “Especially as I increased my chances of doing so by opening a second restaurant.”

Jiki Miyazawa: 553-1 Yaoyacho, Sakaimachi-dori Yonjo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8123; 075-213-1326 ; www.jiki-miyazawa.com
Godan Miyazawa: 557 Oecho, Higashinotoin-dori Manjuji-agaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8402; 075-708-6364; www.jiki-miyazawa.com