Returning to Gion brought me back to a wonderful memory I spent last spring 2016 with blossoming sakura. Last October, I strolled around the same streets and alleys just to see some colour changes of the autumn leaves in the neighborhood, that I finally failed to find. Nonetheless, Gion remains impressive with rows of preserved machiya houses as if I was in a Japanese movie scene, despite the absence of autumn leaves and sakura.
I wanted to return to the hotel when it started to rain, until I spotted a bunch of tourists and locals entering one of the alleys situated right behind Kamo river, that I hadn’t noticed its appearance in my previous visit.
Don’t get fooled by the tranquility of the street. I peeped some restaurants and bars from their window, glass door, sometimes from an accidentally opened door by visitors leaving the place, and there was where most of the crowds gathered. Seconds later, something popped up my mind. I’d like to I join the crowds for one reason: to have a dining experience in Gion, one of the most expensive areas in Kyoto, despite it could break my bank account.
It felt like leaving a comfort zone as a budget traveler. And for sure, it was something I had not done in my first visit to Gion. But simultaneously, it was challenging.
I passed by the most “transparent” restaurant along the alley, Nikuya Ginjiro Steak & Wine, where I could see the whole interior and its crowds only by looking from the see-through sliding door. I had a good impression at first sight because it seems like a hip and cool place for hanging out, so my choice finally went to Nikuya Ginjiro.
Emphasizing Kobe Beef as their best-selling menus, that costs around ¥ 15,000 to ¥ 18,000 per portion, it is quite a pricey place to eat for budget travellers. For sure, there are other non-Kobe beef menu with price range around ¥ 1500, ¥ 3000, ¥ 8000, depending on parts of the beef they offer. Fortunately, hunger didn’t strike me at all, since I was still in a full stomach from the spaghetti I ate earlier at Kyoto Station.
So, I paid more attention to some appetizer and light snacks, whose lowest price is about ¥ 580 ($ 5.30) excluding tax (about ¥ 620, or $ 5.66, after tax). As a comparison, you can get 1 portion of a small beef bowl for the same price in budget restaurants. By adding another ¥ 200 (from ¥ 580), you can get a regular portion of ramen and another ¥ 500 to ¥ 700 for a large one at common ramen shops.
There’s only a little, or no hope, to dine on the cheap in Gion. Apart from that, steak menus are usually not offered on a shoestring rate.
Nikuya Ginjiro’s contemporary look is more like a bar rather than a steak house. All seats use bar chairs and tall tables, that makes it unsuitable for family with small kids. It’s not a spacious place, yet it is efficiently designed to accommodate more guests.
As soon as I got a seat, a Caucasian blonde woman in pony-tailed hair passed me the A3 size of laminated menu and greeted me in native level of English, “Good evening, Ma’am. What do you want to have for tonight?”.
The woman who served me is an American nationality who has been living in Japan for the last 3 years. Besides, she also speaks fluent Japanese, which is a compulsory requirement to work anywhere in Japan.
There’s no doubt that having a native English speaker staff is one of the company’s assets to compete in a touristic area, which is one of the reasons why nearly all visitors at the steak house were foreigners.
Of all the ¥ 580 lite bites listed on the menu, Wagyu Sushi sounded interesting and unconventional in my perspective. Apparently, wagyu beef is not always related to steak. Moreover, she mentioned that there would be a nice burning show to watch when it comes to the table.
So yeah, why not?
I finally chose wagyu sushi. My dining experience started with a complimentary dish, the 3 slices of wagyu carpaccio served on a rectangle-shaped plate, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and black pepper. The thin-sliced meat was very juicy, especially it was cooked with butter, giving additional creamy and savoury taste of the meat.
Later on, the wagyu sushi arrived, whose appearance wasn’t like what I expected. It was a large and thin slice of beef with sushi rice underneath, served with chopped garlic in a separate single dish. The plate (probably) made of cast iron was almost as big as the dining table and as flat as a cardboard.
Knowing that lately a lot of people love capturing their food and post it on social media, she gave me some time to prepare my camera before the burning show began. When I was ready, the torch burner in her hand started firing the surface of the beef in certain distance, slowly moving back and forth to ensure it was evenly burned, that lasted for about 15 seconds. I found it a creative idea to demonstrate the torch burning process in front of the guests, that usually done only in the kitchen.
Assuming that there would be 2 pieces of sushi in one portion of Wagyu Sushi, I was surprised with a tendency of disappointment, after realizing that I only got one instead. I should have asked beforehand how many pieces of sushi they served on the menu. Moreover, it wasn’t meant for heavy dishes anyways and I shouldn’t blame them for that.
However, putting aside the misconception, I truly enjoyed the juiciness of the medium-cooked sliced meat, just like what I’ve always had in my steak. Adding the chopped garlic served with poured shoyu, or soy sauce, it spiced up the taste of the sushi itself.
Overall, I had a fantastic dining experience in Gion. Nikuya Ginjiro Steak & Wine is a tourist-friendly restaurant with English speaking staff and English-translated menu, without being a tourist trap and leaving their Japanese customers behind. They served great quality of food and service with impressive presentation, although I only took the lowest rate on the menu. But I believe even the simplest dish could be a representative of other menus offered.
Furthermore, they know how to cater what the guests would like to do with their food, like taking pictures, shoot and post it on Facebook and Instagram for instance, by reminding and giving guests a chance to prepare their mobile phone or camera before the “show” starts. There’s no doubt that (high quality) posts from the guests on social media is a great opportunity for their advertising without spending a dime and boost their sales in the future.
Next time you visit Gion, make sure you spare some time to spend the evening at Nikuya Ginjiro Steak & Wine!