Kagoshima’s restaurant scene is well known for its fresh ingredients and unique regional take on Japanese food. Kagoshima sushi is known for its use of fresh fish from Kagoshima Bay. However, one local restaurant has recently caught the attention of the international foodie scene thanks to its inclusion in Forbes “10 Coolest Places in the World to Eat” ranking.
Kagoshima Sushi and Nihon-ryori
Meizan Kimiya is located just outside the bustling Tenmonkan district of Kagoshima City, next to the narrow retro alleyways of Meizan-cho. The understated second floor location looks over Minato Odori Park, and might well be missed altogether by the unaware visitor. A nondescript entranceway with a tiny sticker bearing the restaurant’s name leads to a dimly lit concrete staircase. A first time visitor would be forgiven for thinking that they have come to the wrong place.
Arriving at the second floor the visitor is greeted by a stylish doorway opening into the restaurant proper. The scent of lightly roasted green tea permeates the air. Behind a long wooden counter two brothers in neat white uniforms are quietly yet busily preparing food. One takes care of sushi, the other Nihon-ryori.
We caught up with sushi chef Kimiya Kazuki to find out more about how he and his brother came across their unique style.
The Road to Sushi Mastery
The Kimiya brothers grew up in a restaurant environment. Their father’s restaurant in Miyazaki, Isshin Zushi Koyo allowed the brothers to absorb the essence of the hospitality business from a young age. After graduating from high school, Kimiya went to study abroad in Brisbane, Australia for four years. Returning to Japan, he moved to Tokyo. He recalls, ‘When I came back from Australia, I went to Tokyo to train as a sushi chef. I knew that Tokyo was the place to be if I wanted to learn from the best. So for the next three years I worked in a very famous sushi restaurant, studying under the head chef.’
The punishing regieme of long hours, being endlessly berated in the search of perfection is one he recalls with a wry smile. He describes the experience as a mix of being ‘in a prison camp and a restaurant’.
After three years in Tokyo, Kimiya was called back to his home in Miyazaki. He says, ‘My father collapsed so I went to work at the family restaurant with my brothers. We soon noticed that if we only did sushi there would be nothing to differentiate us from the mainstream style in Tokyo. So, working with my older brothers, we developed a regional style and that’s what we have perfected and serve in our restaurant today.’
Unique Japanese Dining Experience
The style of food at Meizan Kimiya is quite different to most sushi establishments. Each brother takes on a different role and courses are served alternatively. Kimiya explains, ‘My brother is in charge of Nihon-ryori, and I’m in charge of sushi. Instead of one chef making the whole meal, we take turns to serve each course to our customers.’
This interplay between two different genres of food creates an unforgettable dining experience. Especially when paired with wine and sake, expertly selected by the Kimiya brothers. When asked if this dining experience can be found elsewhere Kimiya says, ‘I don’t think anyone else does wine and sake pairing in the way that we do it. I think our style is one where you can enjoy both traditional and popular foods at the same time. Instead of only eating sushi, or only eating Nihon-ryori I think it’s perhaps more accessible and easier to understand.’
He continues, ‘As you can see, we don’t use any kind of machines and everything is done manually. It’s all done in front of your eyes, and we really want customers to see the work we do. I think overall it’s a fun and engaging experience.’
Sushi and Nihon-ryori
For most western visitors to Japan sushi is something that is readily understood. While sushi in Japan may differ in terms of ingredients (and quality!) from restaurants overseas, the principle remains the same.
Conversely, Nihon-ryori – Japanese cuisine, covers a much larger spectrum and might be a little harder to comprehend. Kimiya explains, ‘Most of the time sushi is basically finger food, you take it and put it straight into your mouth, tasting the fish and the rice at the same time. The rice stays the same but the neta on top changes. You can enjoy the change in flavours within the same parameters. Compared to that I think Nihon-ryori is perhaps a little harder to understand.’
He continues, ‘By adding a little dashi stock or cooking something over the fire, I think more often than not, it’s about preserving the flavor of the ingredients. Because it’s so delicate, I suppose this style of food could be seen as harder to understand than cooking that uses strong flavours.’
Having worked together for so long, the Kimiya brothers have achieved an impressive level of coordination and communication. Kimiya says, ‘Of course both our opinions are important when considering the menu and presentation of the food. There are times when we come to an agreement, but most of the time we naturally come to the same conclusion. If there are a lot of plates lined up to choose from, we naturally choose the same item.’
This effortless level of excellent service, friendly chat, and of course amazing food and drink make Meizan Kimiya an unmissable high dining experience for visitors to Kagoshima – if you can get a reservation.