With its easily identifiable red curtain and lantern hanging before the door, we get to Izuju without a problem. Best known for its Kyoto-style zushi (or sushi), this establishment has been in business for about 100 years old which speaks of the desire of Izuju's generations of sushi chefs to keep this art alive. The style of nigiri sushi which we are used to seeing and eating outside of Japan has its origins in Tokyo. Tokyo is located right by the sea which makes it a lot easier for chefs to prepare the fresh fish. In Kyoto, sushi chefs traditionally needed to modify sushi preparation techniques since Kyoto is located more inland and away from the sea. In the old days when refrigeration was not the norm yet, a type of fish preservation method was born.
We start with a bottle of hot sake and perhaps the most enduring way to start our meal at Izuju is when the bamboo basket filled tiny sake cups is brought our table. The sake cups come in different colors, designs, and sizes. After we pick the cup we want for ourselves, the server comes by and takes the basket away. Best known for its saba zushi, this sushi is famously prepared with the older method of fish preservation which involves curing the mackerel fish. The server brings the saba zushi to the table and informs us to remove the kombu (kelp) that is wrapped around the saba zushi before eating. We follow her advice and see beautiful pieces of the mackerel fish, with its shiny and smooth skin over the fish, pressed onto the rice. Each piece of saba zushi is perfectly shaped but perhaps what makes it most impressive is that the saba tastes like how fresh fish should be with not much of a hint that it is indeed cured the mackerel. This is the art of fish preservation at its finest. Hako zushi, another Kansai region specialty, is also a favorite choice at Izuju. Also known as box-pressed sushi, this form of sushi is prepared inside a wooden box and pressed down with the lid. The sushi is removed from the wooden box resulting in the square-shaped pieces. One notable difference for us between Kyoto-style sushi and the ones we've had in Tokyo is that the sushi rice at Izuju has a sticky texture whereas in Tokyo (specifically at Sushi Kanesaka and Sushi Dai where we ate) the grains of rice can be felt in the moist sushi rice.
In general, Japan as a country takes the changing of seasons as an important part of their culture and a very good example is where the Japanese flock to view cherry blossoms as a springtime ritual. When it comes to food, care is taken to pay attention to what is in season. Naturally, there is a wintertime favorite when it comes to sushi and that is mushi zushi. The sushi is steamed and served in a wooden square box with dashi (fish stock) added to the rice. Over the rice are finely shredded tamago (egg), ebi (shrimp), and anago (sea eel). Mixed into the rice are chopped up shitake mushrooms. Mushi zushi seems more like a small rice box than what one would normally imagine sushi to be. Small as it may be, the wooden box is packed with rice and it is a good to share among two people while still having space to fit in the other delicious sushi at Izuju.
We leave Izuju knowing that there isn't just one type of sushi. The ones commonly served outside Japan are Tokyo-style sushi and a visit to Kyoto allows us to understand how different parts of the country adapt to best methods for fish preservation based on their location relative to the sea. This makes a lot of sense. After all, preparing sushi is high art in itself and every sushi chef will want to find the best way to prepare and serve their craft.
Gion-machi Kitagawa 292-1
Izuju is located at the corner of a T-junction and across the street from Yasaka Shrine.