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Founder Gondayu Hirano worked for the imperial court from the Genroku (1688-1704) to Kyoho (1716-1736) eras. The ski lls and taste that he perfected in his restaurant, Imobo, have been handed down through the family by word of mouth ever since. We asked t hecurrent 14th generation proprietress, Akemi Kitamura, about these secrets.
The History of Imobo
You will find Imobo Hiranoya Honke in a corner of Maruyama Park, on the way from Yasaka Shrine heading to the Chion-in temple complex. The name Imobo comes from a dish made of yam (ebi-imo) simmered with dried cod (bodara). There is a reason why this dish has long been a favorite in Kyoto.
During the early eighteenth century, in the middle of the Edo period, Imobo founder Gondayu Hirano was working in the service of the imperial court. When a younger brother of the Emperor visited Kyushu, he brought with him sweet potatos, which Gondayu Hirano began to cultivate in the Maruyama Gion area, managing to grow high-quality produce.
These came to be called ebi-imo due to the shape and vertical stripe pattern on the surface, which resembled prawns (ebi). Dried cod (bodara) was transported from countries to the north by sea, and was a precious source of protein in the city of Kyoto, and was presented as an offering to the imperial court. Thus, according to legend, did yams from a southern country meet up with fish from a northern country in Kyoto, resulting, after much trial and error, in the creation of the dish imobo.
The reputation of imobo grew and Gondayu Hirano, wanting to spread this dish throughout Kyoto, received permission from the Emperor to leave his service and start up a restaurant.
This is how the restaurant began.
In Kyoto the consummate pairing of two ingredients is described as a unique encounter. This means that combining the two makes each even more delicious, a multiplication of flavor rather than an addition. In earlier times when the transport network was not as developed, having two ingredients that would never normally come into proximity of each other meet in the same pot and bring out greater things from each other was indeed a unique encounter of the highest order. The similarity of this process to a man and woman from different backgrounds cooperating in marriage led to the dish coming to symbolize the wish for family happiness, becoming a traditional Kyoto dish, essential to any celebratory occasion, such as the New Year or a wedding.
Continuing the Tradition
While it was undoubtedly a heavy responsibility to continue such a long tradition, “More than anything else I just like the work,” Ms. Kitamura said with a smile.
This traditional taste is passed down completely by word of mouth. There is nothing written in the way of a recipe or notes; instead, it is about looking with the eyes, remembering with the body and experiencing with the tongue. “The important thing in maintaining the same flavor is to assess the weather and quality of ingredients on any given day.
That’s not something you can write down.” To maintain exactly the same flavor in Kyoto, with its extreme seasonal weather changes, requires great mastery of the senses. Ms. Kitamura’s son has learned this art, ensuring that the tradition will continue on to the fifteenth generation.
Many figures in the literary world have loved this flavor. For example, novelist Eiji Yoshikawa famously wrote: “A taste that has been handed down for a hundred years, tastes of one hundred years.” Nobel prizewinner Yasunari Kawabata is also said to have stopped by for some imobo after celebrating
receiving his prize. A frequent visitor to the restaurant, Kawabata once wrote a piece of calligraphy stating “Eat delicious food and live long”. The restaurant is also the setting for one of crime novelist Seicho Matsumoto’s books.
Recreating a Three-Hundred Year Old Flavor
The seasoning in imobo is very simple. Katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings), konbu (kelp), sugar and soy sauce. That’s all it is.
Ms. Kitamura reveals the process. “We rehydrate the dried cod by soaking it in iced water for a week, until it’s soft.
Then it’s put in a pot with the ebi-imo, which has had the skin peeled off in thick slices. We put in dashi stock made from konbu and katsuobushi, and simmer over a very low heat for three to four hours. Then we add the sugar and soy sauce in two or three lots. We don’t use any special brands, just the ordinary ones that have always been around. Next we remove it from the heat and leave it to stand overnight so the flavor can penetrate, then next day bring it to the boil again, adjust the flavoring and it’s done.”
Usually ingredients of different hardness wouldn’t be cooked together, since if they aren’t cooked separately the softer ingredients tend to fall apart, and the hard ones do not cook properly in the center. The secret to imobo, however, is that the ingredients don’t fall apart even when cooked together. The restaurant uses a special large pan for cooking. The cooking takes time, with the heat regulated as necessary and bitter scum carefully removed. It is said that the bitter juice that comes out of the ebi-imo softens the dried cod, and elements secreted from the dried cod prevent the ebi-imo from falling apart.
There are other secrets besides the pan. The cooking broth itself is handed down and added to. “A tiny part of the flavor in this broth may be from the Edo period itself,” says Ms. Kitamura. That is how the taste of a three hundred year old flavor deepens, creating a flavor that does indeed, as Yasunari Kawabata wrote, have longevity.
The cooked yams are soft, and can easily be broken into pieces with chopsticks. Bite into one and you can tell that the flavor has penetrated evenly. The dried cod also has a pleasing softness. The first bite tastes sweet, but is so perfectly balanced it leaves no aftertaste. This flavor has been painstakingly recreated with loving care every day for three hundred years, and is not something that a person could learn to make in a short time. The long investment of time produces a flavor that cannot easily be recreated.
A Flavor Loved by Everyone
Customers of all ages and types flock to Imobo Hiranoya Honke, from families with children to couples out on a date, but many first-time male customers seem a little bewildered. “Men tend to think of yams as something for women or children, and when they see our food for the first time, they say ‘What, yams?’ with disappointment. But once they take a bite, they realize it goes with sake and fills the stomach, so that by the time they leave they are satisfied,” says Ms. Kitamura, describing how it happens. Male customers who have been to the restaurant before might agree with her.
Life as the Proprietress of Imobo
“I was born the second daughter of Imobo Hiraboya Honke , and ever since I was small I always watched my mother doing this work and thought that I wanted to do it too. I really enjoy meeting customers, so I was probably suited to the service industry” But it was not that Ms. Kitamura was not interested in any other vocations.
Apparently there was a time during her student years when she wanted to be a pilot. Having said she was suited to customer service, you might think a cabin attendant would be a more likely choice. But “Isn’t being a pilot a lot more interesting?” Ms. Kitamura said with sparkling eyes, “I like having adventures.”
Resolving to Carry on the Tradition
Deciding to carry on the tradition as the fourteenth generation proprietor required a certain amount of resolution. The life of the man who became Ms. Kitamura’s husband would also be affected by that decision. “I am so grateful to my husband. He was a salaryman, so maybe he said he’d do it because he didn’t know how hard it could be running a restaurant. I was very happy that we also had the support of my husband’s family,” she reflects nostalgically. Once the children were bigger I was able to go to the restaurant everyday, and life became very busy. “I’m sure there were moments when we felt the stress. But when you’re busy you forget those moments. There’s no time for stress to build up,” she says with a laugh. If you love the work you do, it’s possible to pour everything into it.
“Carrying on a tradition means caring for the memory of your ancestors.
Everybody has ancestors. I’m not doing anything particularly special. Everything is so convenient now, but in the past traveling to Kyushu could mean putting your life at stake. It was a truly great thing, I think, for my ancestor to find these delicious yams in a place he would never see again, and bring them back because he wanted to give everyone the experience of eating them.
When I think about that I can’t help but feel appreciative.”
That sense of appreciation is surely what informs Ms. Kitamura’s approach, and everything she does in her work.
“I don’t believe there’s anything special about my hospitality. Don’t do anything to someone that you wouldn’t like done to yourself, to begin with. Do whatever would make you happy. That’s all it is.”
Thus was Ms. Kitamura’s answer to a question regarding what hospitality means. Too much hospitality can have the unintended effect of making someone uncomfortable. A restaurant that you can visit spontaneously without any special preparation is one where you can feel totally relaxed and able to enjoy the food without haste. The literary figures who used to visit the restaurant undoubtedly kept coming back because they appreciated that kind of relaxed hospitality.
Maruyama Park Location
Imobo Hiranoya Honke is located inside Maruyama Park, to the east of the Gion district and Yasaka Shrine, a park well-known for its weeping cherry blossom trees. Cross a bridge over a small stream to reach the restaurant, built in the style of a tea ceremony house. It’s a familiar part of the park scenery.
An old-fashioned Kasuga-style stone lantern stands next to the entrance, and in the courtyard flowers bloom as the seasons change and wild birds sometimes pause to rest, and red lanterns hang over the seats facing the garden, overlooking the beautiful scenery of Maruyama Park.
There is other seating in tatami mat rooms. A two hundred year-old oriental elm inside the restaurant continues growing even now, towering over the wall that is cut out to accommodate its growth.
Visitors from overseas flock to Kyoto for its unique atmosphere and scenery. In the past tourists were unused to foods such as nori and grated Japanese yam, but now many use the Internet to gather information on Japanese culture and enjoy with a greater understanding.
Being granted world heritage status is a good opportunity to spread the word about Japanese food. However, that doesn’t mean doing something new. “I try to make the traditional taste, unchanged, and offer the same hospitality as always. As the times speed up, knowing the good things about Kyoto, its history and culture, gives people a more relaxed sense of time, and the days seem to pass a little more calmly. Regardless of the times, I am happy if I can just keep something important alive and pass it on to everyone.”
It is comforting to know that Ms. Kitamura will be there in the future, waiting to welcome customers and keeping the tradition alive.
Text/ JQR editorial department