Yonbanchō is the area at the far end of Castle Road in Hikone. It’s a recently developed pedestrian area with an early 20th century theme. Girasole, run by Kojima Shōichi, stands in a small square in the centre of the quarter. Kojima-san, originally from Yamanashi, started the restaurant in 2017.
“How did you get from Yamanashi to Hikone?”
“I was managing a restaurant in Shibuya, Tōkyo, and one of the interns was from Hikone. I got tricked into coming here.” Laughs.
“I can’t help noticing that you’re good at picking beautiful staff…”
Laughing more, “It’s just coincidence, the luck of the draw. I’m not unhappy about it though.”
“Why did you choose to open a restaurant serving this kind of food in this place?”
“I wanted to manage a restaurant and I can cook Italian food. But frankly, anyone can do Italian. From my Tōkyo days, I knew how and where to source good oysters, and it was my aim to make a unique restaurant that nobody could imitate. When I first came to Hikone, I was living here in Yonbanchō and it was a ghost town in the evening. I wanted to attract people here to enjoy oysters and liven it up.”
“How’s it working out? Have you seen any change since you started?”
“Yes, we have a lot of regular customers now, and Girasole even attracts people from Kyōto and Nagoya.”
On any given evening, the clientele is likely to include business people, students, families, and sometimes visitors from overseas.
The first dish is a chilled potage of new onions and daikon with a swirl of olive oil.
“The concept of Girasole is to serve customers something using the produce of Shiga. Ōmi beef is very well known, but excellent vegetables and rice are also produced in the Hikone area, and I’d like locals and visitors alike to enjoy them.”
This complimentary soup is very mild and comforting. In the colder seasons, hot soups using locally produced pumpkin and the famously sweet Taga carrots are there to get things started. Since Ōmi is a relatively small area, very little time elapses from farm to table, and Kojima-san takes pride in the healthy freshness of his food. Girasole’s commitment to freshness is appreciated by customers but also by the farmers, who want their produce to be enjoyed at its best.
Next up is a selection of three oysters from a wide area of Japan, each with a different flavour profile. With oysters, Kojima-san recommends a glass of Chablis, whose aroma alone brings a smile of joy. The oysters are graded by richness, but all three have a deep flavour and the marriage with the Chablis is superb. At Girasole, oysters can also be enjoyed cooked in various Mediterranean dishes.
Kojima-san didn’t train as a chef. Instead, he picked up the skills working in a restaurant in Tokyo and Yamanashi.
“If you develop your sense of taste, I think anyone can do it. The goal is to satisfy the customer, and if you take a freethinking approach, you can succeed.”
This is amply reflected in the next dish – burrata cheese, freshly made at Kokabu Farm in Shiga, served with slices of peach and plum which happen to be in season. The sweet peach and tart plum make a pleasing counterpoint to the salty, creamy cheese. Italian parsley adds another dimension. A sparkling wine is recommended to partner with this luxurious dish.
Paella is a big favourite at Girasole, and the camarones al ajillo served with the little bread rolls made in the restaurant is sure to make a lasting impression. Girasole has an extensive offering of wines and beers, but Kojima-san always has a selection of local sake on hand, which matches the Mediterranean food very well.
Since the coronavirus hit, Kojima-san has experimented with shrink-packing some of Girasole’s popular offerings for takeout, such as oysters in basil sauce. These have been very popular with regular and drop-in customers.
When he’s not at work in the kitchen or visiting local producers, Kojima-san enjoys windsurfing on Lake Biwa.