Over the course of the past year, since this site’s inception, I’ve several times referenced Okariba (Oh*kah*ree*bah) and its owner & chief cook, Aoki-san. However it’s been more than 9 years since I first walked into Kyoto’s best, and, to me, what must be one of the world’s best, barbecue joints．
Sign in front of Okariba.
Okariba’s in Kyoto’s particularly quiet Okazaki District, situated on Marutamachi Street, just shy of where Marutamachi ends, running into Shirakawa Street, which runs parallel with Higashiyama, Kyoto’s eastern line of mountains. “Okariba” means “hunting ground.” The specialty of the house is grilled and sauced-up boar, but its menu goes deeper than that, ranging from smoked duck to steamed, gingered bear (yes, that’s beAr, not beEr).
Aoki-san at the grill. November ’09.
As you can tell from the photos, Okariba is intimate and rustic. It’s cozy. On slow nights its a place for a few regulars to gather and ease-into, or while away, an evening. Couples come for good food and an atmosphere in which they can talk low, laugh at inside jokes with each other and compare lovers’ notes. When groups – of friends, nearby Kyoto University professors, families, or, in a couple of recent cases, American university students I’ve lead through Kyoto, etc. — descend on Okariba, it can turn raucous, but always joyfully so. The groups can also provide some entertainment for the lone wolves and couples, too. I’ve been on both sides of that.
Okariba Entrance. November 2009
Okariba Menu & one of many sakes varieties on hand.
Back to the pork. For a little more than US$14.00 you get 3 large wooden skewers-worth of hunks of pork that’s been grilled-up by Aoki-san, basted with a thick, brown miso bbq sauce that’s incredibly savory, somewhat tangy and slightly, ever-so-slightly sweet (but the smokeyness cancels-out most of that). While one very hungry person can eat one order, but it’s enough for two. Besides, you have to try the duck (which tastes astoundingly similar to “honey-baked ham”), the bear, a sampling of deer, and grilled fish (whatever’s in season).
New Snapshots, From August 2011. . .
Friends gather at Okariba. August 2011.
Deep into the evening… Okariba. August 2011.
Yours truly and Aoki-san, May 27, 2010.
Last month, May 2009, I was back in Okariba with another group of university students. This time it was a group of MBA students from here in Alabama. A good time was had by all. And, as a bonus for me, I and one of my Japanese sisters (from home stay days back when I was a college student) arranged to meet at Okariba that same night, with Yuko bringing my Japanese mom and Yuko’s two young sons along. My Japanese dad was under the weather and couldn’t make it, which I regretted terribly. Worlds intermingled that night at Okariba and when Aoki-san brought out the snake-infused white lightening, then the hornet-infused stuff — apparently home made and stored in large clear glass jars — I knew that the students had truly been embraced by our host as new-but-most-welcomed friends, a kindness Aoki-san was, indeed, paying to me.
For several months I’ve been working on a story about my dear home stay family, from way back in 1984, and the way their and my lives have been intertwined for more than 25 years. Hopefully I’ll have that completed within the next few weeks.
Another Okariba sidewalk sign.
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Update – I neglected to mention that after the last morsel’s tasted and the last nigori-zake toast is made, after you settle-up your tab with Aoki-san, consider popping next to to Hanafusa coffee shop (touting itself as Kyoto’s first Siphon Coffee establishment), as clean and well-lighted and convivial a coffee shop as you’ll find anywhere. Open from 7:00 a.m. – 2:00 a.m. Most all of the kindly staff there knows that my “usual” is Kilimanjaro, or “Kirimohn.”