I arrived in drizzling, overcast Kyoto, a bit worn out from a morning hike on the Nakasendo Trail and the afternoon commute from Magome. Since I only had two-and-a-half days planned in Kyoto, I wanted to squeeze in as many indulgent meals as possible. The city has so much to offer across the culinary spectrum, especially to a first-timer like me, that it was hard to choose. That day, though, the weather called for something warming. Luckily, I found a perfect place near my hotel – Hokkoriya, a neatly small Michelin-starred place with only about ten seats around a small bar stationed by a group of smiling middle-aged women.
Started in 1993, Hokkoriya specializes in oden, a soupy dish where things like fish cake, tofu, hard-boiled eggs, and daikon are cooked in a delicious dashi, slightly sweet, very subtle and light. The soup soaks into the different consistencies, softening the daikon and the tofu, fills out the fish cake, and adds quirks of flavor to the meat skewers and eggs.
In addition to the oden, the meal kicks off with three little appetizers, which I didn’t find out too much about given my inability to communicate with the lady serving me. This was my first real venture into a Japanese city without the crutch of having Japanese-speaking friends around, a city where I felt so much pressure not to miss out too much. The lady did try to speak a tiny bit of English (laughing it up all the while at my pointing and my scant Japanese), and the kind couple from Tokyo sitting next to me did a fair amount of translating before they had to catch the Shinkansen back home. It was the first run-in with helpful fellow diners, and not the last. Though I felt like I was in a bubble through most of my dining experience (albeit a mouthwateringly scrumptious bubble), every once in a while somebody would graciously reach through and push me a little further along in my adventure.
After these starter plates, I embarked on a hopscotch tour of the oden tray, picking and choosing a handful of different items: daikon, egg, beef skewer, soft tofu, and nama-fu (a chewy wheat gluten that figures prominently in Japanese vegetarian Buddhist cuisine – and thus, Kyoto regional food). The daikon was especially delectable, big tender chunks that hang onto the flavorful broth, with the kicks of mustard I administered to combat the evening chill. With every dish I dispatched, I finished by eagerly gobbling down the broth.
New Toyo Kaikan 2F, Kaburenshujomae
Pontocho-dori Sanjo Sagaru, Nakagyo-ku