Abiko in Aishō is a vast area of rice fields traversed by a grid of farm roads. At regular intervals are little hamlets, each with its own fairly elaborate Buddhist temple. Many of the houses in these villages are old, with washed-out greys and browns. So it’s quite a surprise to encounter the smart, new premises of Abikoya with its bright noren curtains amid the rice fields. Its yellow-orange stucco seems to promise elegant delight.
As soon as we arrived, a young lady in a multicoloured kimono emerged and ushered us towards the separate door of the “counter corner”. There are two parts to Abikoya, a section with numerous private rooms, and a cosy space with an L-shaped counter facing a serving area. This is where Kurokawa Yasumori appears from time to time to prepare a dish of something delicious and to chat with his customers. Dressed in a smart white jacket and apron, with spiky hair and a fashionable beard, Kurokawa-san looks a lot like celebrated baseballer Ichirō Suzuki. When I mention it, he laughs with an ‘I hear that all the time’ laugh.
With admirable alacrity, Kurokawa-san begins lining up a selection of sake bottles on the counter. He produces a tray of characterful choko sake cups and invites me to select a few. It’s immediately clear that here’s a gentleman who takes the sake part of gastronomy with all due seriousness. The bottles include a selection of four types from Biwa no Chōju, and a freshly pressed offering from Fujii Honke brewery. During the course of the meal, Kurokawa-san’s enthusiasm gets the better of him, and he brings out some rare sake sent to him by a friend. He recommends a choko decorated with cherry blossoms to complement the sakura aroma of this light sake.
On the menu today is a variety of dishes prepared with local ingredients. First there’s a ‘welcome drink’ of fragrant broth made of sweetfish and mussels from Lake Biwa. It’s followed by a beautiful arrangement centred on vegetables in the shape of hina dolls, a symbol of spring. There’s an oil sardine, a cracker made of carp, a little venison, and a slice of homemade dried mullet roe, flavoured with soy sauce from a rather famous soy sauce brewery down the road. There’s also a taste of pungent ayuzushi, a variant of the celebrated fermented sushi of Ōmi, made using sweetfish instead of carp.
One of the little snack-like dishes that Kurokawa-san prepares at the counter involves grated yamaimo yam. As he applies the yam to the grater, he explains that this particular variety is unique to Abiko, and it has a noticeably greater elasticity than those from elsewhere. It’s one thing to be told, but when the yam comes on a sheet of very crisp seaweed, it’s altogether different to experience something that approaches mochi in its firmness and tastiness. This is a revelation.
“We’ve been in operation for just over eighty-years. I’m the fourth generation. We’ve been making this dipping sauce continuously all that time, just topping up the ingredients. It’s a little bit sweet.”
This is the sort of thing one hears rather a lot in Ōmi – continuity going back generations, a commitment to tradition, and a taste that tends to the sweeter rather than the saltier side.
I can’t help but admire the plates and dishes, which come in all shapes and sizes, all of them exquisite. Where do they come from?
“My wife is from Gifu, and I order some crockery from there. I also have a potter friend in Shigaraki in Shiga, and I tell him what I want”.
Kurokawa-san produces a very large char, a freshwater fish, farmed in tanks in the mountains nearby. It’s arranged on a flat ceramic plate that looks just a like water flowing over pebbles and sand. When I exclaim at the craftsmanship, Kurokawa-san laughs and explains that it was just a board used for putting unfired ware into the kiln. The beautiful patterning was glaze that ran down and hardened. I had to exclaim at the excellent sensibility that recognized the possibilities of this discovered objet.
Abikoya is known for its eel, and this comes served in various styles. It has a texture unlike any I’ve ever had before, with crispier skin and more succulent flesh, no doubt thanks to its freshness and the light touch of the team behind the curtain.
“Do you personally like gibier?”
“Yes, I do. I regard it as a blessing of nature. I also love wild vegetables – I can’t get enough of that bitter taste. I like to go into the mountains and harvest seasonal things to serve. I also find leaves and so on for my plating arrangements. For example, this char sashimi is served on the exceptionally long pine needles of a local species.”
“I was wondering what those were!”
“I also like to cook things that can be picked in the vicinity of the restaurant itself. The flower for this dandelion tempura came from our garden next door. But sometimes when I serve things like this, local people look at me accusingly and says, ‘Didn’t you just find this in the ditch over there!’”. He laughs. “But it’s actually as good or better than something that came from far away”.
I couldn’t agree more.