Exquisite and flawless – Kikunoi has perfected everything from the garden to the restaurant building, tableware, and of course, cuisine. A veritable “living museum”, this traditional Japanese haute-cuisine restaurant has furnishings and decorations that take your breath away at every turn. At once honoring centuries of tradition and history and showing open-mindedness for the world, Kikunoi has been delighting guests with delicious Japanese cuisine for more than 100 years and plays a major role in its promotion around the world.
One of the most famous restaurants of Japanese cuisine the world over, Kikunoi was established in 1912 by the grandfather of Yoshihiro Murata, the present and third generation chef. It sits amid the tranquil green setting of Kodaiji Temple not far from the brilliant vermillion gate of Yasaka Shrine in the Higashiyama area, which has overlooked the Kyoto townscape since ancient times. Located on more than 3000 square meters in the heart of the mountain, the building occupies just one-third of the land, with the remainder being the beautiful grounds that bring calm and quiet to this space.
For many generations, the Murata ancestors were tea servers who protected a well that sprang up in the shape of a chrysanthemum, or kiku in Japanese. When the restaurant opened using water from the very same well, it was given the name Kikunoi, meaning ‘chrysanthemum well’. Water is the key element in Japanese cuisine, indispensable in dashi – the umami-rich stock that delicately flavors almost every component of a Kaiseki course.
Chef Murata says the three keys to Japanese cuisine are perfume, texture and the element of surprise. Each is essential and without the surprise component, the diner’s response to a meal is at best indifference and at worst, boredom. The surprise can come through flavor, appearance or the story behind a dish – no matter what, it must be there. He firmly believes that people seek fine dining for entertainment, just like a concert, play or opera.
One of the keys to Kikunoi’s ability to create superb seasonal food is the fact that the chefs visit the source of their ingredients. It is not uncommon to find them helping in the fields of farmers growing their beloved Kyoto vegetables. One story goes that no matter how long they waited, a chef who had gone to collect produce just didn’t come back, only to be found completely absorbed in field work. These face-to-face interactions ensure a better understanding of the ingredients and procurement of items of a quality far superior to what can be found in the markets.
With an impressive atmosphere much like a luxury ryokan (traditional Japanese lodging), you may be apprehensive about stepping inside Kikunoi, but the courage to do so is rewarded with the view of plants vibrantly green or in full bloom – pine, bamboo, camellia, Japanese apricot, cherry blossoms – instantly setting the stage for the season. The seasonal motifs are carried through on a hanging scroll inside the entrance, and soon you will be greeted in perfect English by a graying doorman in charge of footwear. In an instant, Kikunoi exudes history and all that is Japan and yet surprises you with its modern worldly outlook. This juxtaposition is carried throughout the meal, striking for how seamlessly it works in the dining experience at Kikunoi.