Kichisen Sabazushi

Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi) 吉泉の鯖寿し

Kichisen Sabazushi  吉泉の鯖寿し
Historically, Kyoto — the inland, landlocked capital — wasn’t much of a sushi town, but sabazushi was and is a very important part of the culinary culture. For centuries, Mackerel was harvested in fishing villages on the Sea of Japan coast and carried for several days on the ‘Mackerel Highway’ to Kyoto. The end of the Mackerel Highway, marked by an inscribed stone, is just a 5 minute walk down the street from Kichisen. Of course Kichisen makes sabazushi too and it is sublime.

Itadakimono: The other day I stopped in at Kichisen to chat with Master Tanigawa about tofu as a journalist from Bon Appetit was about to arrive in town and contacted me about a story he was researching. As Mr Tanigawa told me the Kyoto approach to tofu, he hollered into the kitchen ordering one of scurrying disciples to ready a sabazushi for me to take home. Now sabazushi is not cheap, from a famous shop it can cost 4,000 to 8,000 yen ($40 to $80 USD)! I was getting a whole sabazushi and from a restaurant that doesn’t even sell it. They only make it to give to good customers. Once again, I couldn’t believe my luck!

Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi)  吉泉の鯖寿し

Mr Tanigawa has praised sabazushi a lot when I consulted him about the soul of Kyoto cuisine because it is very ‘Kyoto’ — efficient, smart and refined. He rather made fun of ‘edomae’ nigiri sushi (from Tokyo). He said that it doesn’t take many smarts to make that, you simply cut up some fish, stick it on rice and dip it in soy sauce. Anyone can do that and it appeals to the unsophisticated. You see, Tokyo being uncultured isn’t anything new, that is the way it was — even 200 years ago!

Sabazushi on the other hand is not only food, it is a brilliant solution to a vexing design problem — how to get seafood to Kyoto 500 or even 1000 years ago. Sabazushi needs to pickle slightly, for a day or so — about the amount of time it took porters to walk to Kyoto from the sea. The flavors and fragrances of the bamboo sheath wrapping and the kombu covering, the ginger, vinegar and mackerel all mix and complexify. There is no waste with sabazushi, if you can’t eat it all today, that is fine. It will taste better tomorrow. The nigirizushi, from Tokyo will be spoiled the next day.

The Sabazushi Wrapping
Sabazushi is invariably wrapped in bamboo sheath and tied shut. A paper wrapping with the store name and logo usually covers the sabazushi. Here are some photos of what it looks like as sabazushi is unwrapped.

Sabazushi Wrapping
Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi)  吉泉の鯖寿し

Sabazushi Wrapping – Unwrapping
Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi)  吉泉の鯖寿し

Sabazushi Wrapping – Unwrapping
Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi)  吉泉の鯖寿し

Sabazushi Wrapping – Unwrapping
Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi)  吉泉の鯖寿し
This sabazushi is covered with kombu, not all is though. Mr Tanigawa recommends eating the kombu. I enjoyed it with the kombu attached and also removed. I especially liked eating just the kombu alone.

Sabazushi Served
Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi)  吉泉の鯖寿し
The ginger in on a fresh sakura leaf. The ‘Kyoto’ approach is that just because the sakura have finished blooming that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to enjoy it in seasonal and unexpected ways.

Sabazushi Served – detail
Kichisen Sabazushi (Mackerel Sushi)  吉泉の鯖寿し

7 Responses to “Kichisen Sabazushi”

  1. B7 says:

    Wonderful post! Sabazushi is the best! Thank you!

  2. Arun says:

    Ooh, mackerel is one of my favourites. So is the fish kept in vinegar for a day? Like in a jar, or just simply marinated?

  3. Funazushi says:

    I love saba, so this will be on my list of foods to try next time I’m in Kyoto. It also reminds of why nishin soba is so good in Kyoto. As it is not on the menu at Kichisen, is there a place that you can recommend to try it?

  4. ted says:

    Hi!, I have compiled a list of the top Asian Food blogs, and yours was included! check it out at

  5. Chris says:

    Funazushi, there’s a very famous place right in Hyakumanben. The name escapes me at the moment, but I bet Peko and Paku know the one I mean….

  6. Wow, it looks delicious that I can’t wait to go to Kyoto to taste it..美味しそうに見えるね!!thanks for the post.

  7. […] ‘on concept’ for Kyoto. (More about the Mackerel Highway here and Kyoto-style sushi here.) Sugi Sushi: Cedar Wrapped Mackerel Sushi […]

Leave a Reply

ContactCopyright © Kyoto Foodie: Where and what to eat in Kyoto, All Rights Reserved.