(Burn My Lunch)
This is a review of the Ikedaya restaurant in Kyoto, Japan. But before I get on with the review, let me explain a little about the Ikedaya’s background. For those of you who don’t know, the Ikedaya used to be an old inn and was the site of a bloody incident involving the Shogunate’s special security unit, the Shinsengumi and pro-imperial radicals on July 8, 1864. Within the walls of the Ikedaya, radicals, called shishi, who were mainly from the domain of Chōshū, came up with a plan to set fires in Kyoto and cause a lot of mayhem aimed at bruising the credibility of the Shogunate. The Shinsengumi got wind of the plot and proceeded to surround the Ikedaya while the shishi were gathered there and apparently in their cups. All hell broke loose as a group of the Shinsengumi, lead by its senior commander, Kondō Isami, stormed the place. Steel met steel, flesh and bone and without exaggerating, the Shinsengumi kicked some serious shishi butt. The Shinsengumi probably saved the entire city from going under the torch, although as much as 1/3 of the city would burn as a result of the fires set during the fighting between Chōshū and pro-Bakufu forces that started at the Imperial Palace’s Hamaguri Gate.
As time went by and the Ikedaya incident grew stronger in legend, the building eventually fell into disrepair. The site eventually gave rise to an ugly 3-story pachinko parlor that closed early in 2009. It was announced that an izakaya (Japanese style pub and restaurant) chain was going to buy the property and turn it into a historically-themed place to eat and drink. As those who know me can attest to, I am a Bakumatsu period history nut and was really happy to hear this. So, when If found myself in Kyoto for the Gion Matsuri on July 16-17, 2009, I just *had* to go there for lunch, once I had discovered that the new Ikedaya had just opened.
As I strolled up to the building, I was greeted by restaurant staff, trying to hook people in, announcing the lunch specials and that the restaurant was now open. It was hard not to chuckle as all he staff were dressed in Shinsengumi uniform-style hapi (short coats). I saw they had a sushi + cold udon (rice flour noodle) set as a lunch special, and was ushered in. Before I could adjust my eyes to the surroundings, I found myself being ushered up the stairs to the second floor. I wondered what Okita Soji must have felt as he led the assault on the shishi in the second floor. My thoughts about what must have been going through his head quickly changed to a “WTF” moment, as I myself was visually assaulted by a ridiculous looking manga mural of the Shinsengumi. So much for authentic realism. I then arrived at the second floor. As I came off the staircase onto the landing, I saw a raised area on tatami mats containing replica old looking furniture and other items. It seemed like a weird combination of things that made no practical sense. Turning my head back in the direction that my feet were travelling, in pursuit of the staff member who was trying to guide me to my table, I was assaulted yet again by the ridiculous as I came to the entranceway of where the tables are located. “Cheese Meets Wabisabi”, where the words that went through my mind. “What have they done to this place,” I silently bemoaned. The colors, strange manga versions of historical figures, oh, it was hurting my eyes!
After a few second eternity, I finally made it to my table and began to pour over the menu. I have to admit, some of the things on the regular dinner menu looked all right, after all, this place is an izakaya. But never-the-less, I pretty much decided on the sushi and cold udon set, and that is what I ordered. While waiting for the food to arrive, I chugged glass after glass of cold barley tea, called mugi cha, as I was hot and a little dehydrated from standing outside for more than 3.5 hours in the humid steam cooker that Kyoto becomes in summer in order to watch the Gion Matsuri parade. My mind kept also trying to get around the 'cheese factor' that the owners had introduced to this solemn place, however, I reasoned to myself that if the food is good, I could forgive the tackiness of the place and maybe commit myself to coming back for an evening excursion at some point in the future. But before I could get lost in any deep thoughts and future plans, the food arrived.
As I snapped some photos of my meal, I realized that the sushi didn’t look so hot. Now don’t get me wrong. I am a foodie and consider myself a connoisseur of good sushi and know sushi is not supposed to be served hot. What I mean, is that it didn’t look all that great. My first taste confirmed what I suspected. Sure, it was edible, but not very good. Kind of like what one would find at a fast-food, conveyer-belt sushi chain outside of Japan, or what you’d get at a shopping mall’s food court. Worst of all, was the anago (sea eel). It was so soft and mushy, I nearly had to spit it out. Yuck!! I then set upon my udon, which was fine. You can’t really massacre cold noodles. I found myself slurping my noodles faster than usual, though, as I realized that I probably wanted to get out of the Ikedaya worse than a trapped Chōshū shishi the night the Shinsengumi crashed their party. As soon as I put my noodles down, I grabbed my backpack, camera and took a few more photos before I descended the “staircase of destiny” to pay my bill. I was happy to leave the Ikedaya. I really was.
A few minutes after I left the place, I called up the Samurai Archives’ Shogun, Kitsuno, to relay my Ikedaya experience as I aimlessly wandered around the the Pontochō geisha district in a light on and off drizzle. I remember musing on the phone that I probably should have steered away from ordering sushi in an izakaya chain-store restaurant and in Kyoto of all places. I suppose I should mention that while Kyoto is known for exquisite cuisine (and I am not referring to pizza-man from convenience stores), the city isn’t exactly famous for having good sushi. Kitsuno listened to my ramblings and told me that I should blog about my experience, so here I am, doing exactly that!
Now to sum things up, I wasn’t happy with the Ikedaya, from both a historical and epicurean experience. I found the place tacky and my lunch equally disappointing. I do suspect that some of the evening fare is better than the sushi, and besides, they have a large selection of alcohol to numb one’s taste buds. If you are a Bakumatsu history junkie and have to see this place for yourself, go ahead! Just don’t order sushi! As for myself, I don’t have a burning ambition to return to this place. But like the name of the famous fictional book about the Shinsengumi called Moe Yo Ken (Burn My Sword) by Shiba Ryōtarō, I felt an urge to burn my lunch!
A few more pictures from the Ikedaya and a variety of photos from Kyoto and other historical places in Japan can be found on my flickr website at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rekishinotabi