Looking back, Nami Kawahara, 37, sees her life and career stitched together in a series of five-year plans. The details of these plans are methodically charted out in hundreds of notebooks, some of which she has squirreled away in Sho, the Zen-like oden restaurant she opened in Kyoto in 2016.
The first of these plans came to her when she was in junior high school, and much like the daikon radish and soft-boiled eggs in her oden vat, that plan — to run her own business — had been stewing for a while.
The impetus for Kawahara’s plan was born out of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that ripped through her hometown of Kobe in the early morning of Jan. 17, 1995. The quake, which left a trail of destruction and devastation, also destroyed the small foundry her father ran. From that day forth, her father had a blunt message for his daughter: Come high school graduation, you’ve got to make your own way in the world.
“It’s because of the earthquake that I’m doing what I’m doing today,” Kawahara says in a quiet anteroom connected to her bijou restaurant.
After the quake, Kawahara had to grow up fast: She decided that when she was 35 she would open a restaurant, figuring that would be about the midpoint of her working life. To get to that point she sketched out a series of five-year plans that would propel her through her career.
One day, while still in junior high school, she went to the library: “I was going through books and I found a book on oden. I thought, ‘Oden … that sounds interesting, I’ll open an oden place in the future.'”
From the age of 18 through 34, Kawahara worked in the fashion industry in Kansai, starting out on the shop floor. By 20 she had become shop manager and by 26 she had risen to area manager, and was responsible for six stores. The job required a lot of travel and there was pressure to increase sales. As she was progressed up the ladder at her job, she was also preparing for her eventual exit by immersing herself in the world of oden.
Prior to opening Sho, Kawahara made umpteen road trips — or oden trips — going as far afield as Hokkaido and Okinawa to better acquaint herself with the dish. For Kawahara, the regional flavor adds to the charm of oden.
The oden in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, where crab is used generously, proved to be a favorite for Kawahara. These trips also allowed her to indulge in one of her other interests, shōchū, a strong liquor native to Japan. Sho features a strong lineup of the drink; Kawahara favors lighter varieties to complement the oden.
At Sho, the oden is given a distinctive Kyoto flavoring from the white miso that is added to the oden. It’s a seductive flavoring, sweet yet slightly salty, made by Yamari Shoten, a shop that has been producing miso for over 100 years in Kyoto.
“With oden it’s all about achieving balance,” says Kawahara. “If the balance between the dashi, miso and the final ingredient (such as the egg or radish) is good, it will go on the menu.”
With Sho, Kawahara hasn’t been afraid to take her own distinctive path. As with her fashion career, she’s the boss. She’s teamed up with a young chef and together they’ve sacrificed a few of the holy cows of your typical oden restaurant.
Firstly, there’s the atmosphere and look of Sho. While many oden restaurants have a rough-and-tumble, raucous atmosphere — I’m thinking especially of Hanakujira, an oden institution in Osaka — Sho’s is more akin to a quiet cafe, where no music is played. Also it looks like Marie Kondo has just been through; there’s nothing out of place, because there’s very little to be out of place. But that’s not to say there’s no atmosphere, far from it: Kawahara is a consummate and charming host, and discussion flows around the restaurant counter.
Secondly, Kawahara hasn’t been afraid to kill off oden staples. For example, gyūsuji, the sinewy beef tendon found in every oden restaurant in Kansai, has been shown the door. In its place, Sho serves beef tongue, which, if you go, you must order. And order again to enjoy the luxurious combination of the tongue daubed with white miso, flecks of chili pepper and served in a gorgeous dashi.
Kawahara’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. She’s been in the Bib Gourmand section of the Michelin Guide for the past two years. And, even though her oden shop escapes tradition, she’s found a loyal following that includes a wide mix of customers from single patrons who come armed with a book to elderly groups from the neighborhood.
But why wouldn’t they? As Kawahara says, “Oden is for everyone.”
Tanimura Bldg 1F, 223-3 Tamauecho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-0005; 075-746-4898; www.sho-miso.com; open 5 p.m.-12 a.m. (L.O. 11 p.m.) Closed Mon; smoking OK; English menu