Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Do Not Miss

Sushi in Kyoto has a long history but it is quite unlike the nigiri sushi that we are used to abroad. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto was landlocked and that required somehow keeping fish edible after the journey here. Kyoto sushi required some smarts and ingenuity, it also had to be good enough for the emperor! Izuju is a restaurant in Gion that fell in love with. This is a truly great one!

Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
I went to Izuju this morning and met the owner, Kitamura-san and heard all about their authentic Kyoto style sushi. It was quite an experience! Izuju has been in business for almost 100 years and is located on the corner of Shijo Street and Higashi O-ji, right across from the bright orange gate of Yasaka Shrine.

Izuju only makes Kyoto style sushi. The ‘edomae’ Tokyo style nigiri sushi, the kind we are most used to seeing abroad, is not available.

Famed Gion Izuju Owner Chef Kitamura-san
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

Some of Izuju’s greatest Kyoto sushi hits:

  • sabazushi (pickled mackerel on sushi rice)
  • sasamaki (sea bream, kinome and sushi rice wrapped in a sasa bamboo leaf)
  • hakozushi (literally box sushi, in summer grill hamo pike eel and in winter sawara Spanish mackerel pressed onto to sushi rice in a wooden form)
  • mushizushi (literally steamed sushi, this is a winter favorite, usually a lot of dashi in the rice then steamed)
  • inarizushi (sushi rice with simmered vegetables in deep fried tofu skins*)

Of course there are other sushi dishes but these are the main dishes.

Inarizushi (inari sushi) is a Kyoto culinary fixture that has never moved me, Izuju’s astounded me though. Miwa says that Izuju’s inarizushi is the best in the world.

Izuju Kitchen Tour

After chatting over tea about sushi and Izuju with Kitamura-san, he invited me in back to see the kitchen. The restaurant is quite small, so I hadn’t realized that there was a kitchen in back. Several dark rooms with soot stained machiya rafters lead to a earthen hearth. I couldn’t believe my eyes, right here in the heart of Gion they are still cooking with wood! Using a handfull of used chopsticks, Kitamura-san fired it up and started simmering the days deepfried tofu inari pockets for inarizushi.

In the adjacent room staff were removing bones from aji horse mackerel for a seasonal sushi.

Gion Izuju Kitchen Tour
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
Firing up the hearth. On the left is where they cook rice and on the right is where they simmer inari pockets.

Gion Izuju Kitchen Tour
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
Now this hearth may look old, but it isn’t. They had it rebuilt 5 years ago and it needs repairs fairly often. There is only one person left in Kyoto making and maintaining these hearths, Kitamura-san said.

Gion Izuju Kitchen Tour
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
Simmering inari pockets.

Gion Izuju Kitchen Tour
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
Paper talismans from Atago Shrine to protect the home and business from fire is a very common sight even in modern Kyoto. As Izuju still uses a wood fire for cooking, they have a while lot of them stuck to the wall behind the hearth!

In the main kitchen they were cleaning fish and making inarizushi.

Gion Izuju Kitchen Tour: De-boning Aji
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
They are using metal tweezers to pull the bones out of these horse mackerel fillets.

Gion Izuju Kitchen Tour: Inari Sushi and Rice Stuffing Mixture
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

Gion Izuju Kitchen Tour: Inari Sushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

Making Sushi: Sabazushi

Back out in front, at the entrence is where they make the sabazushi. Often times sabazushi is formed in a wooden box form, but Izuju makes theirs into a roll. The process is rather simple:

  • Layout vinegared mackerel fillet
  • Form rice to shape
  • Place rice atop mackerel fillet
  • Roll inside cloth for form
  • Roll inside kombu

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

How to Make Kyoto Sushi – Sabazushi
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

Shinise Restaurant Interior

The interior of Izuju is quite an experience. Everything has a meaning and a reason for being there. Most of the decorations are from the restaurants past and were significant to its development.

Gion Izuju Restaurant Interior
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

Gion Izuju Restaurant Interior: Storefront Sign
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
This boat and rice paddle used to be Izuju’s shingle! Quite a sign. Izuju developed a trademarked name for their sushi presentation which was served in large wooden ‘boats’ like the shape of the sign.

Gion Izuju Restaurant Interior
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
Up to modern times, Izuju and similar operations did catering and takeout. These plates are what were used to serve their sushi at nice ‘restaurants’ in Gion. The paper one the wall is musical score from traditional Japanese Noh theater. The name for their trademarked sushi presentation comes from a Noh play, this is the score for that play.

Gion Izuju Restaurant Interior
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司

Interior Details
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
The narrow vertical peices are Kitayama Sugi (Japanese cedar from the north mountians of Kyoto), the heavily abraded and eroded planks are from the inside of a well! I have never seen this before.

Interior Details
Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto 祇園いづ重 京都寿司
The plank here is from a wooden boat on Lake Biwa. Peices of wooden boats from Lake Biwa are a very common sight in Kyoto. Kitamura-san said that these peices were collected during the war. Even during a time of such hardship the previous owner still didn’t pass up a chance to score some interesting wood!

Kyoto Sushi Facts

I talked to the owner for an hour or so this morning and here are a few things that I learned. (I learned a lot!)

- Traditionally sushi restaurants were closed in the summer months, from right after the Gion Festival (July 17) to September.

- Before World War II most restaurants didn’t prepare food on site. The owner would get a reservation and budget from the customer and then order each dish from speciality shops. For example, Izuju was one of the top choices for sushi in Kyoto.

- Edo mae (Tokyo style) nigiri sushi came to Kyoto thanks to the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake with sushi shops that relocated to Kyoto.

- Izuju was previously located at the intersection of Sanjo and Kawabata streets. During World War II they came to work one day and found an order posted on their storefront say to leave within one week because the block was going to be demolished by the military government. (A number of neighborhoods in Kyoto were leveled during the war to make makeshift runways, firebreaks and etc. These actions were militarily useless and only increased the suffering of the Japanese people.)

Izuju packed up a wagon and moved to their current location. They never even unpacked as they thought that they would have to move again. Fortunately the war ended soon after, and of course they now have probably the very best location in all of Kyoto. They left the wagon in their storehouse for several decades, as it was when they left their Sanjo location.

- Izuju has used the same rice, fish and kombu dealers for their entire history. No competitive bidding for business here!

- Izuju has not changed their recipes or sushi line-up since they started. (They did have to add one item to the menu based on a law made my General MacArthur during the occupation.)

- They still cook over a wood fired hearth. There is no sushi restaurant in Kyoto that still does and there are only several tofu shops that still do. They use used chopsticks as kindling and the fire department gets called by mistake several times a year by people thinking there is a fire in the heart of Gion!

Highly Recommended

Izuju is a restaurant whose sushi I have had many times take out at friends’ houses, as omiyage, etc, although I have never eaten in the restaurant, even though I walk or bike past it once or twice a week. I was deeply impressed by this casual, friendly, down to earth yet extremely sophisticated and ‘bases loaded homerun’ tasty restaurant.

Izuju is old Kyoto, in the heart of Gion, right across the street from historic Yasaka Shrine. It could be so easy for them to be full of themselves, stuck-up and haughty. Yet Kitamura-san, the owner was so humble and so kind and so sincere in his love of sushi and his restaurant. While I was taking photos in the other room, customers started coming in and I sensed that they were truly grateful to be able to buy his sushi and that he was truly honored to serve them. I can only believe that the soul of this restaurant accounts for the taste. The taste, while sophisticated, historic and deeply Kyoto, I would describe as elevated homecookin.

I was impressed with this restaurant beyond my ability to articulate. It is just so down to earth yet so elevated. I cannot think of a similar restaurant in Kyoto. (I am sure that there are some.)

For a sushi restaurant and a Kyoto shinise, Izuju is not expensive. If you are on a budget, you can enjoy a modest sampling of sushi, the likes of which you cannot find anywhere else in the world, including Japan, for like $10 or so. If you like sushi and are on a budget but can afford to spend like $50 per person on one nice meal on your visit to Kyoto, I would say that Izuju is THE place to go.

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30 Responses to “Izuju: The Best Kyoto Style Sushi in Kyoto”

  1. Arun says:

    Thanks for the wonderful review! I love that they use used chopsticks as firewood! While it’s still bad for the environment, at least it’s greener than chopping down more trees. c: (Sorry, I’m a biology/chemistry student!)

  2. Peko Peko says:

    Hi Arun, I am glad you liked the review. Yes, used is better than new for chopstick kindling. The wood that they use for cooking is scraps for lumber mills and carpenters, so that isn’t trees being felled just for sushi!

  3. Dennis K. says:

    What a fantastic and informative post! I enjoy your blog immensely.. :)

  4. Anita says:

    Yours is the only blog I really read from start to finish. I hope we make it back to Kyoto soon to taste the wonderful sushi you wrote about!

  5. Funazushi says:

    Thank you for this. I had probably walked by this restaurant many times without noticing it. Minus the wood burning stove, do you think it would be possible to make this at home? Is there a specific type of vinegar for the marinade? Is there a specific type of kombu used?

  6. Mora says:

    Absolutely terrific review of Kyoto sushi! You have outdone yourself with this segment. Exactly the kind of detail that I love to see from your site, such as the wood from the Lake Biwa boat. And the photos, oh the gorgeous photos…they made me feel as if I were there with you. Bravo!!!

  7. Peko Peko says:

    Hello Dennis K., Thanks for stopping by and letting us know how much you enjoy KyotoFoodie. I really appreciate hearing that and knowing that what we are doing is meaningful to people.

    Hi Anita, I am glad to hear someone is reading these long articles to the end! You can come on down to Kyoto anytime, you know. We hope to see you soon!

    Hello Funazushi, I think that you can get all the ingredients you need to make this abroad. You just need kombu and Japanese vinegar. I will investigate the recipe and hopefully get an article up on KyotoFoodie in the fairly near future.

    Hello Mora, Thank you! Next time you are in Kyoto, lets go and eat sushi there!

  8. Jo says:

    I just stumbled on to your site and am very glad to have found it. We’ll be traveling to Kyoto this week and I hope we can try this sushi restaurant as I’ve found I love sushi–and japanese food. We’ll only be there two days as we then go to Hiroshima. But, I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make a few more trips to Kyoto while we’re living here in Japan. Thank you!

  9. Paul Hays says:

    Great post, again!

    I really love the posts and the comments. I love Kyoto and I love the insight you give into the city and its people. Not just the food, but the foodies who work hard everyday because they have a passion for their craft. THis is the best blog going.

    I can’t wait to get down there and try the sushi. Let me know if I can buy you lunch. LOL

  10. Peko Peko says:

    (I thought that I replied to these comments a few days ago, I guess not though. Sorry!)

    Hello Jo, I hope that you have a great time in Kyoto and if you go to Izuju, be sure to tell them that KyotoFoodie sent you! Share any information you have about your experience in Kyoto on KyotoSupport, please!

    Hello Paul Hays, The “best blog going”, wow, that is quite an endorsement! Thank you!! I love meeting up with other foodies when they are in town, and so so quite often! Again, thanks for reaching out and letting me know that my efforts are useful to you.

  11. Great review! I think I know where I’m taking Mewby this weekend!

  12. adel says:

    wow wow!I wish I could spend just 1 month (which is not enough I am sure) touring around Japan just to savour the sushi delicacies. My bf said when he went to Japan for a trip, it was the only one that he lost weight even though he ate so much because of the healthy and fresh Japanese food. Thx for this outlet recommendation!

  13. NIkki says:

    I loved this post! I’ve been reading your blog lately for my first upcoming trip to Kyoto. I surely can’t wait to go. Can you provide an address to Izuju? Any other recommendations would be greatly appreciated!!
    Thanks!!

  14. Forager says:

    Fantastic comprehensive post! I love Kyoto and can’t wait to go back. This just makes the urge for travel greater and the food looks so so delicious and authentic. I wish I could get some Kyoto sushi here! Yum!

  15. Kat says:

    Hi Peko Peko

    I LOVE your food blog and am overjoyed I stumbled across it.
    I am visiting Kyoto in Nov 09 and I am planning ALL my meals based on your reviews! And I have just added Izuju (the sushi looks amazing) to my list of restaurants to try, in addition to Kakutani, Kichisen, Komameya (the yuba shop), Kaneyo for unagi, and so much more!!! I simply can’t wait. I’ve also made a note of which cold sake to buy at the nishiki market based on your recommendation, and have also made a mental note to order beer at most restaurants rather than sake as if I recall correctly, you said they normally serve “crap” / “cheap” sake…. ? By the time I leave Kyoto, I’ll be one very gastronomically happy but poor and chubby gal.

    I am addicted to your blog. Everything about it is brilliant, from the photos, to the explanations to the web links, and what to order. There is so much information in all your posts, that I can’t read fast enough! Thank you so much for giving us this wonderful food blog.

    Kat

  16. kt says:

    Wow, this place sounds amazing. I’m going to be in Kyoto in a few weeks and I’d love to go, but my Japanese is pretty lousy and I know a lot of the older/more traditional restaurants don’t really go for English menus. Do you know if they had any sort of English or picture menu that could be stumbled through? Or is my best bet to just memorize all the great food you recommended and ask for them by name?

  17. Martin F says:

    You add so much personal insight to this post about Kyoto and its sushi. And your photos are fantastic. Looking forward to reading your blog.

    I try to make a point to visit Kyoto at least once a year. This post in particular made me want to hurry back as soon as possible.

  18. [...] have the numerous sushi restaurants in the neighborhood that Tsukiji has. Kyoto sushi (KyotoFoodie article) is different from Tokyo sushi though. If you like sushi, be sure to try Kyoto sushi while you are [...]

  19. Anna says:

    Hi Peko Peko.
    Great blog about foodie… looking forward to future articles.

  20. [...] (Ed: Check out the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide Dining in Kyoto page for two recommended sushi shops:Yanagiya Honten and Hisago Zushi. Kyoto Foodie’s Peko also has an excellent article on Kyoto sushi and the sushi shop Izuju here. [...]

  21. [...] is one of Kyoto’s famous sushi dishes, however, inarizushi doesn’t include fish. It is a deep fried tofu pocket, sweet simmered and stuffed with sushi [...]

  22. Wanted to say thank you for this and many other recommendations on your site.

    I just returned a week ago from Japan, and visited a number of your recommendations, including Izuju. We simply ordered omakase, plus sauri because I had to have it (amazing). And very reasonably priced. I would definitely repeat your recommendation!

  23. Joe says:

    Just stumbled across this site and of all the web pages to find, this was pure providence.

    My wife and I (she’s from Tokyo originally) just sort of fell into this place because of it’s location near the shrine. It was a cold spring day in ’05, and much to our surprise, there was no heat, but the hot tea did the trick in warming us up. For a gaijin like myself, I was just in awe.

    After sitting for a few minutes my wife’s eye’s brightened and she began to recognize where she was. She said something like “I think this place is kind of famous…”. It can be very hard to explain these things to westerner at times.

    We had steamed sushi. Just fantastic.

    You’ve done the world a great service with this web page. I’m not sure how many will ever get to Kyoto for the food, but oh my gosh is it worth the trip.

    Now if I could only remember the name of that restaurant next to the little canal with window seats all along one side…

    -JG, NJ USA

  24. Mary Ho says:

    I just came across this website. the feature on Izuju is the most attractive, informative ever!! and admire their passion to keep to traditional methods.Izuju and Toriyasu are on my must-eat list. I will now only use Kyoto foodie as guide for all my meals during my impending holiday in May to see the Aoi Matsuri festival, and will patronise as many of these restaurants featured.7 days is definitely not enough time, sigh….. Your website also provides so much info on other food related aspects and I will also try out the receipes posted, in particular Nikujaga Wagyu Tendon Beef Stew. Arigato for your efforts which is definitely appreciated by many.

  25. Irving says:

    Great article on this sushi restaurant. I will make a point to eat there when go in Dec. 2010. I notice the final product Sabazushi is wrap with konbu. Does he serve it with the konbu or is it used just to impact konbu taste and the konbu is removed before serving? I am interested to know and if you know the answer please let me know. Thanks

  26. [...] Southeast Asia and read where the other gurus eat and of course my profiles of Takaraya Ramen, Izuju (Kyoto-style sushi) and Hachibei (‘inner meat’ Japanese beef restaurant). Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia [...]

  27. Antonio says:

    I like your style in describing this interesting restaurant. I hope one day to visit and enjoy their traditional food.

    Thank you for this nice post !

  28. Nils von Barth says:

    Thanks for the rec – agreed, this is a Must Visit.

    (I.e., when visiting Higashiyama/Gion, esp. Yasaka shrine, make a point of going here.)

    A few other notes:
    * This is *Kyoto* sushi, and it’s decidely different from Tokyo sushi (mostly pressed/roll sushi, heavier and more cooked, less “light and fresh”). (Compare mushizushi to chirashizushi, say – steamed box with cooked seafood vs. bowl of rice topped with raw fish.)
    * There are rather few menu items – about a dozen (including soup and the various maki); you can eat your way through the entire menu in a couple visits, esp. if going in a group (most dishes come in a few pieces). Of course, they’ve been making all these for over a century.
    * Format-wise, most dishes come in a few pieces (usually 3–5), and there are combination platters (2 varieties enough for one person, 3 to 5 varieties for 2–4 people).
    * There are a few bigger dishes (individually portioned, not really for sharing), notably mushizushi (mentioned above, esp. good in winter), and narezushi (! traditional pickled fish; general category that includes the infamous funazushi)
    * The (Japanese) menu is *very* elaborately written (calligraphy), to the point of being barely legible unless you already know what’s written. Particularly colorful are the various renditions of 寿/壽 (first character in 寿司 = sushi). It’s fun to look at, but don’t hurt your eyes.

    I rather prefer Tokyo/Kanto-style sushi in general, but you can get that anywhere in the world, while Kansai-style is very tasty in its way, and rarely available outside Kyoto and Osaka, AFAICT. And Izuju is a (the?) definitive rendition of Kyoto-style sushi.

    So:
    * Don’t expect a typical Tokyo-style “various fresh fish at sushi bar, facing the chef” – expect rather unique Kyoto-style sushi in a very Kyoto setting.

    To echo review and previous comments: great and unique food, very reasonable prices, space oozes history and character, *very* convenient location – highly recommended.

  29. Nils von Barth says:

    If you like Kyoto/Kansai-style sushi, you’ll also like Hanaore 花折 (also reviewed), which just serves saba-zushi (mackerel sushi) – also highly recommended:
    http://kyotofoodie.com/hanaore-sabazushi-lightly-pickled-mackerel-sushi/

  30. [...] a long history (their menu has barely changed since they first set-up shop almost 100 years ago). This KyotoFoodie article best describes how incredible the shop is (they still use a wood-fire hearth!), as well as how [...]

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