Ginsui is a popular restaurant located just off the plaza in front of Hikone Station, next to the railway tracks. From the outside, it has the atmosphere of a prestigious dining establishment from the Showa period. As you pass through the white curtain at the door, a long counter awaits with stools and glass cases of fish for sushi. The Showa elegance is felt inside too.
I’m here to meet Higuchi Masato, owner of Ginsui, and try some of his food with sake. Higuchi-san is a tall, slim man with a gentle, self-effacing manner. He’s the second generation of his family to run Ginsui. The two staff working silently behind the counter are considerably older than him.
Higuchi-san’s first offering is sekogani or snow crab. The shell is open showing the eggs, and the meat of the crab has been dressed with a savoury jelly of katsuo and vinegar, sprinkled with shiso flowers.
“It looks beautiful! Is there anything on the sake menu that you’d particularly recommend to go with this?”
“I don’t feel confident to make recommendations to a sake sommelier like yourself, but I think Tosatsuru would be a good match.”
“Indeed. But I’d like to try it with some local sake from Ōmi. I’ll have the Matsu no Tsukasa please”.
The sake arrives in a wineglass, and although the clean and dry Tosatsuru from Kochi would certainly have made a good pairing, the rich, fruity Matsu no Tsukasa goes very well with the savoury crabmeat and jelly. Higuchi-san brings out a whole snow crab to show me, explaining that they’re caught in Fukui and their season runs from autumn to the end of December. I need his advice on how to get the eggs out of the shell without making a total mess.
Although Ginsui appears to be a sushi restaurant, the menu, which has been lovingly translated into English, is long on cooked dishes using highly seasonal ingredients like the crab.
“In spring we serve bamboo shoots, and in summer, conger eel. In autumn, there’s matsutake mushrooms and mackerel pike. If you grow up in Japan, naturally you want to eat these seasonal foods.”
In addition to local specialties like Ōmi beef and funazushi, the region’s cuisine features a lot of seafood landed on the Japan Sea coast at Fukui. From ancient times, salted fish was brought from there to the imperial capital in Kyōto along the Saba Kaido (mackerel road) that passed through Ōmi. Higuchi-san also visits the market in nearby Nagoya to purchase fish from the Pacific.
“Where did you study cooking?”
“Are there commonalities between the cooking in Kyōto and Ōmi?”
“I think they’re pretty similar. But Kyōto is more expensive. The Kyōto Brand commands higher prices. Even though we make the same things here, if I charged Kyōto prices, our customers would stop coming. I try to keep the prices reasonable.”
Next, Higuchi-san prepares a dish of Ōmi beef with ebi imo taro, kabura white turnip, and a sesame sauce. It’s topped with a little yuzu peel. Last time I ate at Ginsui in the cold season, I couldn’t stop praising Higuchi-san’s Ōmi beef nabe which brought out the true flavour of the meat, so this time, he’s giving me a taste of it arranged for the autumn season.
“On your sake list, is there a brand that you particularly like?”
“I’m not a big drinker, but I like Shichihonyari.”
“Would that go well with Ōmi beef?”
Higuchi-san claps his hands over his face in mock distress. “I don’t know! I need to study pairing more!”
The beef is succulent, and the juice is meaty making a hearty counterpoint to the root vegetables. The robust flavour of the nama genshu Shichihonyari from Ōmi certainly matches the beef. It has a hint of fresh pine, which clears the palate between mouthfuls. Having finished the meat and vegetables, I’m left with a goodly portion of sesame sauce. It’s so wholesomely tasty that I feel moved to request a spoon to finish it off.
With all of the seasonal items, keeping the English menu up to date must be difficult.
“Actually, Ohmi Tourism Board translated a year’s worth of menus, so pretty much everything is covered. We’re getting more overseas visitors recently, especially from Asia, and it’s very easy for them just to point at what they want in the menu. Although we only offer our set meals at lunchtime, foreigners sometimes don’t know what to order at dinnertime, so if they like they can choose a set meal.”
Today’s final dish is a luxurious plate of ten types of sushi. The fresh fish glistens beautifully under the counter lights. The shrimp looks as though it came out of the sea minutes earlier. When each piece is dipped in soy sauce, the oil of the fish spreads across its surface, proof of its freshness and richness. Now seems the time to order the Tosatsuru, a very light and clean sake with a dry finish, with enough hint of fruit to make it interesting, but not enough to interfere with the subtle flavours of the sushi. The sake brings out the umami of the various types of fish, enhancing the enjoyment to a remarkable degree.
After my meal, Higuchi-san came outside to see me off. The sun was beginning to set on that lovely autumn day, picking out the details of every tree on Mt. Sawayama just across the railway tracks. It was the site of Ishida Mitsunari’s castle before his defeat at Sekigahara.
“Mt. Sawayama looks very close today.”
“I used to play there all the time when I was a kid.”
“What did you do up there?”
“We had no idea of its history, but we used to make camps”.
And when he came home from making camps in that beautiful natural environment, no doubt he ate some delicious seasonal food that still informs his cooking today.