Issen Yoshoku (壹銭洋食)
The Origins of Western Food in Japan
Issen Yoshoku is located in Gion and serves a variation of the popular dish, okonomiyaki. Issen Yoshiku combines a comical interior with a one dish menu. It is a popular destination for locals and tourists. While somewhat kitschy, at Issen Yoshoku you can taste what is said to be the original ‘Western food’ in Japan. Plus, a tasty meal for 630 yen in Gion is a real bargain!
Issen Yoshoku — ‘Western food’
Teppanyaki, okonomiyaki and takoyaki are dishes well loved by Japanese that are cooked on an iron griddle. Okonomiyaki and takoyaki you may not be familiar with. And if you are visiting the Kanto area (Tokyo), you will have a chance to try monjyayaki (but it sucks).
The original ‘Western food’ (洋食, yoshoku) in Japan, at least that eaten by commoners, was defined as something made with wheat flour (merikenko, literally American powder) and/or ‘sauce’, as in the (very Japanese) sauce used on this dish. This dish was called Issen Yoshoku (一銭, one sen would be about 1 U.S. cent and 洋食 is literally ‘Western food’)
The owner of Issen Yoshoku, Tatsuo Kinoshita started some 30 years ago. He wanted to serve the original Western food in Japan that during the Taisho Period (early 1900’s) cost about 1 U.S. cent and was sold by street vendors and served in news paper.
Issen Yoshoku is both the name of the dish and the name of this restaurant. The owner trademarked the name by using a very old Chinese character for ‘one’ (‘壹’ old, ‘一’ modern). So, 壹銭洋食’s 一銭洋食 is very famous! Now if you didn’t get that, don’t worry!
Issen Yoshoku consists of a wheat flour based batter cooked like a crepe on the griddle (see photo below), chopped scallions, egg and thinly sliced pork are added and after cooking for 7 or 8 minutes half is folded over and cooked for a bit more then served garnished with lots of sauce and strips of nori.
The owner of Issen Yoshoku is quite a jokester, starting with the menu. The bright red menu is gigantic and when you open it, the only dish served is prominently displayed.
The interior is hot and heavy with sexual innuendo, however it isn’t sleazy. The owner says that as he grew up in Gion, as a child he saw the entire world of adults, the ‘front and the back’ and while Gion was not and is not a redlight district, after food and drink, sex is often next on the menu, so to speak.
At each table in the establishment is a cute, young kimono clad mannequin, to keep you company. The owner says it is to trick drunken men as they pass by at night, they see what appears to be cute single young ladies all alone and step in for a bite to eat. I highly doubt that anyone is really fooled. Many of the modern drinking establishments in Gion are ‘hostess bars’ where young gals keep the male patrons company while they drink. These bars are often very expensive, Issen Yoshoku on the other hand is a very reasonably priced place, so the gals are just mannequins!
On the walls are ema (絵馬) these small wooden plaques are a staple of Shinto shrines. They are purchased then a wish or prayer is written on them, then it is hung up to receive the blessing of the gods. Here at Issen Yoshoku, there are a few hundred of them on the walls, all on the theme of sex. (See below) The owner says that even the jaded police officers that come in for a bite from the police box around the corner just laugh.
Issen Yoshoku’s match books are a real scream. Be sure to pick some up for a one of a kind souvenir for everyone back home!
I have never eaten in a place like this and I can’t imagine that there is anything like this elsewhere in Japan. The sexual innuendo is pervasive, but being in the style of an era past, it has a charm to it, it is refreshing. Though Issen Yoshoku is a very popular destination for junior high school and senior high school students on their school excursions, all the innuendo doesn’t bother anyone, illustrating Japanese attitudes about sexuality in an interesting way.
The drinks offered are also of this era gone by. I had hiyashi ame (literally, cold candy). This is a sweet, ginger based drink that is great in summer. There is also ramune (lemonade), a very light, lemon flavored carbonated drink. These drinks were the Coca-Cola of Japan 80 or 100 years ago.
I am not big on okonomiyaki, or kitsch, but I have always liked Issen Yoshoku. If you are in Kyoto for a few days and want to try something quite out of the ordinary — and very reasonably priced in Gion, try Issen Yoshoku. Take out is also available.
Additional sauce is available spicy (辛口) and sweet (甘口)
hiyashiame (cold sweet ginger drink)
the oversized menu
My dining companion — she didn’t say much!
The ema wooden plaques on the wall behind my ‘date’.
Ema: Can you guess what she is praying for?
Next to the entry, this has become the symbol of Issen Yoshoku.
The teppan griddle next to the entry, take away is available
Issen Yoshoku storefront
Egg: The egg, as you can probably see in the photos is very runny, pretty close to raw. Again, I have never had any trouble with raw egg and it does go very well with Japanese food.