Pounding the pavements of Kumamoto’s Shimotori and Kamitori shopping arcades, the longest covered retail districts in Kyushu, is sure to work up an appetite. But the over-abundance of pastry shops and unappealing Italian chain restaurants can make for a rather blasé meal. Venture off the main drag, however, and you’ll find the Koinoshizuku restaurant offering kaiseki lunches and dinners packed with regional specialties at an extremely affordable price.
Koinoshizuku is hidden in an alley, even further isolated from the city center bustle by a fenced-in Japanese garden. At first glance, the weathered wooden structure looks more like a Japanese country inn than a downtown eatery. Inside, the tables are spread out over two floors. In my opinion, the best seats in the house are downstairs by the front window – you have the perfect view of the little garden. If you have a larger party, though, you can score one of the upstairs private rooms. There’s no view, but you have a server who caters to your every need.
The restaurant’s lunch menu is posted with pictures outside, but be aware that the laminated menu inside is mostly devoid of photos. Of the seven lunch choices, five – such as the omelet and rice option or the udon noodle set – are described only in Japanese. If necessary, you can always gently drag the wait staff outside with you and point to the set lunch you want the most. Or, try one of the slightly pricier kaiseki sets (¥2000) with an emphasis on regional delicacies. (These are pictured on the inside menu.) On my last visit, I opted for the basashi (raw horse meat!!) lunch – the menu photo promised a plethora of dishes and the actual meal didn’t disappoint. My tray was laden with such offerings as a seasonal salad with mushrooms and orange sesame dressing, crispy shrimp and vegetable tempura, fresh sashimi, pickled vegetables, a nut-studded cheese and an Okinawan-inspired fatty pork dish called rafutei that literally melted to pieces in my mouth. All of this was just a prelude to the basashi – coupled with a morsel of freshly grated ginger, it was delicious enough to make me agreeable to the idea that I was eating Secretariat’s distant cousin.
Dessert is included in the larger lunch sets, but you’re welcome to add a sweet treat to any meal for an additional ¥280. The choices are refreshingly unique, ranging from mango and pumpkin pudding to a citrusy yuzu sherbet to black sesame ice cream.
If Koinoshizuku’s lunches leave you wanting more, try reserving one of their kaiseki dinners. Just pick your price point (courses run between ¥5000 and ¥7000 per person) and give them at least a day’s notice. Then come back and gorge yourself silly on some of the best ‘high-class' cuisine downtown Kumamoto has to offer.