Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Isoism: Making Japanese tsukemono sexy again

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

There are many restaurants in Japan you first discover due to the long lines of people waiting outside.

When Isoism, which focuses firmly on tsukemono (pickled vegetables), first opened in 2016 near Kyoto Tower, on the corner of a busy thoroughfare just across from Higashi Honganji temple, the long lines of people were impossible to miss.

Three years on, the crowds have lessened, but come the weekend you’ll probably still find yourself queuing to get in. Isoism has put a bench outside — although you might have to wait for that, too.

Ryosuke Wakisaka, 34, the chef and manager at Isoism, has been there since the beginning. He came to work for Iso Co., the group set up by Shinya Isozumi, an entrepreneur and fourth-generation farmer from Kyoto, when a former colleague recommended he visit one of Isozumi’s six Kyoto restaurants, Isoya — a hugely popular izakaya pub where grilled vegetables are the star attraction.

“I fell in love with the food there,” Wakisaka says. “At the time, I was 29-years-old and was thinking about the next stage of my life so I decided to try my luck.”

After making inquiries, he landed a job in Isoya’s kitchen. But Wakisaka also had plenty of previous experience, going right back to when he was a child in Osaka, standing next to his mother in the kitchen.

“I really liked standing beside her and watching while she was cooking,” Wakisaka says. “At the time I didn’t realize it, but I was learning the basics of cooking. It also taught me that food brings happiness. I can still remember saying ‘Oishii ne‘ (‘Isn’t this delicious’) to my mother. I think these experiences led me to working in restaurants.”

At Isoism, Wakisaka and his young team have been given license to experiment. “The basic concept at Isoism is to serve traditional tsukemono in a contemporary way,” he says. “But what Isozumi (the owner) really wants is for us to try and come up with novel dishes using tsukemono-making techniques.”

It’s at this juncture that Wakisaka brings up the great pile of tsukemono you see when you finally make it in the door. Being greeted by a color chart in the form of an open fridge full of pickled lotus root, sheer white turnip, deep green komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) and a mound of pale red tomatoes pickled in white wine is both enlivening and infinitely Instagrammable.

The way the tomatoes are served is particularly novel. The whole tomato is placed inside a miniature pickling barrel and topped with cottage cheese and a sliver of lemon. It’s sweet, intense and charming — the kind of dish that will attract a new generation to the possibilities and pleasures of tsukemono.

It seems to be working: Isoism is hugely popular with young women. It has a relaxed cafe vibe: the wall next to the stairs is entirely covered by a vertical garden and wooden pickling buckets are repurposed as lampshades.

“Of course tsukemono has a very long tradition, but it also has this slightly unfair reputation that the only people who eat it are older,” Wakisaka says. “What we’re trying to do is update that tradition, and make it more appealing to a younger audience. So, yes, we need to make our food sexy.”

But there’s substance behind the sexy label. Isozumi has formed a collective of farmers in nearby Muko, where much of the produce is grown.

“He’s trying to get them a better deal, by allowing them to set their own prices without having to go through the big agricultural collectives,” Wakisaka says, going on to say that quite soon the farmers would be harvesting a special type of Chinese radish dubbed “YR Kurama.”

“It’s big, and its shape is definitely not something you’ll see in the supermarket, but when you bite into it, it’s got such a sweet, refreshing taste.”

In other words, it’s a vegetable full of pickling possibilities.

Nakaicho 114, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8219; 075-708-5686; isoism.isozumi.jp; open daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m-12 a.m.; tsukemono from ¥500; nearest station Kyoto; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken