A culinary highlight of our trip to Japan and a restaurant awarded with two Michelin stars, let me introduce the Isshin in Kyoto! It’s common for restaurants in Japan to specialize in one dish (ramen, sushi or yakitori) or in one ingredient. The Isshin specializes in wagyu beef. (Wagyu beef is a Japanese cattle breed, for those of you who didn’t know. It’s one of the world’s priciest beef and it’s famous for its flavor, texture and marbled meat.)
And we found the one restaurant in Kyoto that is specialized in serving wagyu beef! I was so excited to go! I was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to get a table with it being so popular and awarded with two Michelin stars, I was sure you would have to book weeks in advance. But we were quite lucky because we got a table for the next evening.
The restaurant itself is located in the popular Gion area but in a quiet alleyway, which is not frequented by many tourists (except for maybe local tourists). The area is really beautiful here, very serene and elegant, just as I would usually imagine Kyoto. It’s a lovely place to just stroll around on a warm summer night and enjoy the little streets and canals around here.
Our Airbnb apartment was located quite close to the Gion area, so it took us only about 10 minutes to get from our apartment to the Isshin restaurant.
Once we arrived, we were immediately seated in a private room with a shoji (Japanese paper door) in front and a low table in the middle of the room. Luckily for us, though, the floor beneath the table was lowered, so we could sit quite comfortably (i.e. western style) at the table. While we were still admiring the beautiful room, one of our very cute waitresses brought us the drink menu.
The staff only spoke Japanese and since my Japanese was quite rusty, it was not easy to read and understand everything on the drink menu. I then asked if there would be a set course for the evening or if we would choose from a menu as I hadn’t been able to find that out online. It turned out that we would be served a 10-course dinner. I was quite happy about that, meaning that I wouldn’t have to try and read everything on the menu and translate it for the others.
We had two very nice and cute waitresses and every time they left the room they would kneel down outside the door and close the shoji door. This is a Japanese custom, usually displayed in traditional inns or restaurants. Every time they arrived with another course, they would announce themselves from outside before opening the shoji door and carrying the dishes in. After setting every plate they would sit down facing me (since they knew that I understood a little bit Japanese, although not much) and explained what was served in the dishes. Only problem was: I didn’t know most of the words! Very embarrassing for me, but I just smiled and once they went out, I tried to look up the words.
I love how the Japanese celebrate the seasons, especially when it comes to their food. They always try to eat seasonal dishes or put seasonal vegetables or meats on their tables. The Isshin is not an exception to this either. Every dish we were served was cooked with seasonal vegetables and also the decoration was adapted to the season (see the little maple leaf there?). I absolutely loved it.
And while I sometimes had no idea, what exactly I was eating (except for the wagyu beef), it was heavenly good! Very balanced flavors, the wagyu beef (my first time eating it!) incredibly tender and rich in flavor. I loved that it was served in so many ways, softly cooked and served with fish eggs or served with fruits and mushrooms.
One of my favorites, however, was the beef sushi. I never expected to love it this much, but this dish was simply bliss! The beef melted in your mouth and just look at the marbled meat! I could have died on the spot for this dish…
Every dish is prepared with so much thought and carefully arranged, we thoroughly enjoyed every course during our dinner. I thought I had already found my highlight with the beef sushi, but the main course was really amazing, too!
A small piece of the wagyu beef, seared on both sides with a dish of salad and a miso dressing and foamed soy sauce. Foamed soy sauce! Putting this on the beef and watching it melt was fascinating but the taste of this dish… amazing!
If you’ve been wondering why the beef is so special in this restaurant, let me tell you this: As explained above, wagyu beef is one of the priciest in the world. But the chef at Isshin, Hideichi Katagiri, only uses the shoulder meat, which is very rare, since you can only get about 2kg of shoulder meat from one cow. Can you imagine, how special these dishes thus were? You can tell that the chef has put a lot of thought into the dishes, I mean, who would want to waste such a rare meat?
After the main course we were served some light soup with pickles. Has anyone had Japanese pickles before? They are really, really good! I’m not a big fan of pickles usually, but I could die for Japanese pickles! A lot of the traditional restaurants in Japan make these pickles themselves.
We finished our fest with a wonderful créme brulée and red bean ice cream. Quite a Western dish I thought, but I didn’t mind at all. It went perfect with the black coffee that was served with the dessert. The little white thing next to the coffee is sugar compressed in a cylinder form. We were told that it was a special kind of sugar, that you had to put on your tongue and then drink your coffee, not put it in your coffee. I didn’t do it, though, because I don’t like sugar in my coffee, but it sure was interesting to see my friends do it.
A 10-course dinner at the Isshin amounted to about ¥ 13,000 per person. This might sound much at first, but really it isn’t. It was about 110,- € (at the time we were there) for each of us, which is not very much considering this is a restaurant that has been awarded with two (!) Michelin stars. Really, Japan probably has the most affordable Michelin starred restaurants in the world! Where else could you get a 10-course dinners cooked and prepared by a highly awarded chef for just 110,- €? I know that the L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris used to offer a similar dinner for over 200 € per person (although now that I’ve looked it up, the menu is for 175 €, but it used to be more expensive when we were there in 2013).
If you are planning to visit Kyoto, why not plan a romantic dinner date at the Isshin? It’s got a wonderful atmosphere and really cute waitresses. Even the Okami (a lady who tends to the guests and oversees the waiters) was very nice and chatted with us for a bit after the meal. She and the chef Hideichi Katagiri actually stepped out when we left the restaurant bowing and thanking us for eating at the Isshin. I still remember how happy the chef looked when I told him that we had enjoyed our dinner immensely and that it was simply amazing. He looked so proud and happy, I’m glad we went to the Isshin!
Have you been in Kyoto and found some good restaurants here? Let me know, I would love to put it on my list for my next visit! Or planning a trip to Kyoto soon? Check my Kyoto Foodie Tour posts to find some inspiration for restaurants!
Getting around in Kyoto
My favorite method of getting to know a foreign city is usually by walking as much as I can. However, if you want to see most of Kyoto in a short time, renting a bike is probably the cheapest and most fun option for you. You can find some tips on renting a bike in Kyoto here.
Day trips from Kyoto
If you’re based in Kyoto for a longer while, you might be interested to do a few day trips outside of Kyoto? Why not go Himeji and visit its beautiful white castle. It’s one of the many world heritage sites in Japan, very well worth a one-day visit. If you’re there already, why not also check out the Omotenashi Dining Fukutei and get an affordable Kaiseki lunch here? A trip to Himeji takes just about 45 minutes!
Or you could go and visit the many deers residing in Nara and check out the world’s biggest wooden building, housing a huge bronze Buddha statue inside. The trip is just about an hour from Kyoto Central Station.
Planning your trip
There are a lot of good hotels or hostels around in Kyoto. The first time I came to Kyoto I stayed in a hostel, which was quite central as well. This time, however, we decided to rent an airbnb apartment. In my experience, it has often proven to be much more affordable and comfortable as well. If you haven’t signed up for airbnb yet, you can use this link and get 18 € (or 20 $) off of your first booking!
If you are planning a longer trip through Japan, consider getting the Japan Rail Pass! Read here to find out more about the pass!
To help me plan all my trips and itineraries in Japan, I mostly used the Lonely Planet Japan (Travel Guide)*. I’ve used it a lot when I was living in Japan and found it a great help this time as well!