Our search for a regional specialty takes us to an amazing traditional restaurant.

If you’ve never jumped in a Japanese taxi and asked the driver to take you to a recommended local restaurant, you really should give it a try. Since we’ve been doing it, we’ve been introduced to some fantastic finds we never would’ve come across otherwise, and our most recent find in Kyoto may be our best one yet.

The story starts when our Japanese-language reporter Tasuku Egawa found himself hungry for a bite to eat outside Kyoto Station.

Recalling his colleagues’ past successes with asking cab drivers for local recommendations, he decided to try it out for himself, heading over to the MK Taxi rank…

▼…and saying to the cab driver, “Hey Mr Taxi Driver, take us to the best bubuzuke in Kyoto!

Bubuzuke is a Kyoto specialty Tasuku had been hearing a lot about lately, and though he’d wanted to try it, he had no idea where he could get a good one, so he was keen to find out where the cab driver would take him.

After a short drive, the driver dropped him off at this gorgeous-looking building, which is the head store of Kintame, a chain that specialises in pickles — specifically Kyoto pickles, which are considered a specialty around Japan.

Heading inside the store, Tasuku asked staff if they were still serving food, but alas, they were not. In Kyoto, places that sell good bubuzuke tend to close straight after lunch, as it’s traditionally a morning meal, and if you’re visiting the city, it’s good to be aware that a lot of restaurants close on Wednesdays too.

Tasuku was staying overnight, and the next day wasn’t a Wednesday so he decided to return early the following day to get a taste of the famous specialty.

▼ The next day, it was snowing, which made the old store look even more picturesque.

Stamping the snow off his shoes at the entrance, Tasuku lifted the corner of the noren curtain and slid the wooden door open. The clickety clack of the wood on the rails alerted staff to his arrival, and they welcomed him with a smile, ushering him over to a small dining area at the back of the store.

Curling his legs beneath him at a low table by the window, Tasuku was immediately impressed. From the outside, the building looks like a store, so had he not been told about this place by the driver, he never would’ve thought to eat here.

He was also a little nervous too, because he hadn’t checked the menu before sitting down so he had no idea how much this bubuzuke experience was going to cost him. However, his desire to try a local recommendation was irrepressible, so no matter what it cost, he was going to enjoy every single bite of his meal.

▼ It wouldn’t be hard to enjoy himself in these beautifully traditional surroundings.

So what is bubuzuke anyway? Well, it’s just like ochazuke, or chazuke as it’s commonly known, which is a one-bowl meal consisting of cooked rice and other ingredients like vegetables and seafood, that’s topped with hot tea, which is poured over everything by the diner.

Here in Kyoto, though, the meal is called “bubuzuke”, and it often contains local pickles. It’s been eaten as a morning meal in Kyoto for over a thousand years, as a way to eat leftover rice from the day before.

It’s such a part of life for Kyotoites that it’s even used in a famous saying, “Bubuzuke dou dosu?” which means, “Would you like some bubuzuke?” If you’re asked this question when visiting someone’s home, the answer should always be no and you’ll never get any despite being asked, because this is an indirect way of saying “please go home” to guests. 

People in Kyoto are famous for using indirect verbal cues, and “Would you like some bubuzuke?” is akin to sarcastically asking the guest if they plan on staying the whole night to eat bubuzuke in the morning.

After pondering over Kyoto’s unique culture while gazing out at the snowy garden, Tasuku was brought back to reality with this handwritten menu on the table. There were no prices on this menu, and curiously, no mention of bubuzuke anywhere either.

▼ The only meal on this menu was a set called the Kintame Gozen, with handwritten details of what it contained.

When the staff came to take Tasuku’s order, they suggested he add some fish to his meal, and he agreed. He then worked up the courage to mention quietly, “I came here for the recommended bubuzuke…” and they told him the set comes with tea so he would be able to make it himself.

Feeling like a foolish first-timer, Tasuku blushed, although he was still a little confused. If the cab driver had recommended this place as the best place in Kyoto to eat bubuzuke, then it really must be possible to eat it here. Maybe part of what made it so great was the fact that it’s not even on the menu so only those-in-the-know can enjoy it?

Before he could think any further, staff were back at his table again, serving him this beautifully white ozoni soup.

▼ Ozoni soup is made with miso, and white miso is a Kyoto specialty.

The soup had a small dollop of mizu on top, along with some yuzu, and it was absolutely delicious! It didn’t Tasuku long to finish it, and as soon as his bowl was empty, staff brought out this tray of gorgeous food.

On the side was a plate of Salmon Saikyoyaki. Saikyoyaki is Kyoto-style grilled fish, which is made by pickling the fish overnight in Kyoto-style sweet white bean paste before grilling it.

Tasuku wasted no time in trying the glistening morsel, and when he did, he let out a moan of delight. It was the best Saikyoyaki he’s ever had in his life, and that’s down to the fact that the store specialises in pickles, so you should definitely order this if you visit.

Tasuku then turned his attention to the platter of pickles before him, which were so professionally placed and beautifully presented that they looked like they belonged in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Every single pickle was delicious, bursting with light, perfectly balanced flavours that Kyoto-style pickles are well-known for.

▼ The one that impressed Tasuku the most was the Nagaimo Wasabi (Chinese Yam Wasabi).

While you could eat all the pickles separately, interspersed with bites of rice as you go along, locals know a better way to eat the set meal, and it requires the addition of one special ingredient.

▼ Green tea.

Tasuku was now wise to the ways of Kyoto locals, so he gathered up one of each pickle and placed it on top of his rice. He then added a few pieces of salmon, and a few helpings of dried young sardines, before reaching for the tea, which he poured over the top of it all.

▼ Tadaaa! Bubuzuke!

Tasuku was incredibly impressed by the look of it, and when he tried a spoonful of the mixture, it tasted even better than it looked. Each pickle had an elegant, refined flavour that wasn’t washed out by the other ingredients, while the warm tea helped to bring everything together, adding a fantastic heartiness to the meal.

Kintame offers free rice refills too, so Tasuku was able to enjoy more than one bowlful of bubuzuke. It was insanely delicious, and as he finished his last mouthful, he felt grateful to the taxi driver who led him here, to a spot he never would’ve found otherwise, and a meal he’ll remember for a long time to come.

The only thing to do now was to settle the bill. So…how much do you think the meal cost him?

Well, the set without fish costs a mere 1,980 yen (US$17.42), and the set with fish that Tasuku enjoyed cost 2,530 yen. For the quality of food, the ambience of the store, and the experience of eating a meal prepared by a pickle specialist founded in 1879, this was an absolute bargain, and Tasuku highly recommends eating here the next time you visit Kyoto.

So if you ever find yourself looking for a place to eat in an unfamiliar town, you might want to try jumping in a cab and asking the driver for recommendations. If you’re lucky, you might even have a heartwarming encounter with a driver that’ll stay in your memory forever, like our reporter did when he was searching for sushi in Hokkaido.

Restaurant information
Kintame Kyoto Main Store / 京つけもの処 近為 京都本店
Address: Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Kamigyo-ku, Botanbokocho, Itsutsuji-dori 576
Open (meals): 11:00 a.m.-3:20 p.m. (last order 2:30 p.m.) Currently shortened business hours: 11:00 a.m.-2:50 p.m. (last order 2:00 p.m.)
Sales: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Photos ©SoraNews24
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