Izakaya in Kagoshima: Tsuwabuki 石蕗、鹿児島

japanese cake

From Kyoto 京都, we traveled all the way to Kagoshima 鹿児島 via Sanyo 山陽 and Kyushu Shinkansen 九州新幹線. Since the last time we were in Kyushu, the shinkansen only went to Hakata 博多, we really wanted to ride all the way to the southern most shinkansen station, Kagoshim-Chuo 鹿児島中央. The Kyushu Shinkansen train is shorter (6 cars). In addition the terrain is more mountainous so the line has quite a lot of tunnels which don’t afford as many vistas of scenery as other lines. In any case, this was the first time for us to visit Kagoshima. Our Hotel was on the top of a small hill/plateau overlooking the active volcano “Sakurajima” 桜島. We were appropriately impressed with the view from our windows.


For this evening’s Izakaya, I chose “Tsuwabuki” 石蕗 from Tabelog listing.  I made a reservation for the counter and took off from our hotel. The taxi driver did not know the place and entered the address into his GPS. Despite the intervention of modern technology, he dropped us off several blocks away from the Izakaya. After walking around directionless for a while we found guy in a stained apron who appeared to be a cook from a nearby restaurant on break smoking a cigarette and asked him for directions. While the cab driver didn’t seem to have a clue where the izakaya was located, this fellow did. The place was in the basement of a building. The stairs did not have any railing and it looked like someone with a little bit of sake on board could easily fall off the edge (as we would say in the States stairwell “not up to code”). We took off our shoes and went in. It was a rather small place with a counter that could seat 7-8 people and several low tables on koagari 小上がり.  The place was run by a “Mama-san” and a sidekick. Mama-san was very attentive and was very good making her guests feel warmly welcome including us. Her sidekick was an older women who took the orders and brought the dishes.

Tsuwabuki inside

The otoshi for the two of us were six small dishes served in two long plates which looked like three bowls connected together; somewhat reminiscent of  the otoshi served at Suikou 酔香 and Shuhai 酒盃. Among the six, we liked a kind of salad made of bitter melon, kelp and myouga and Mama-san gave us an extra serving (see below).

Kagoshima Goya

As usual, we asked for a combination sashimi. Among the items, “Kibinago” きびなご (English name is supposedly “silver-stripe round herring”). This is famous in Kagoshima.  I was not familiar with the fish since I am originally from Hokkaido and this fish does not exist in the cold waters around Hokkaido. The sashimi was good but we were not crazy about the “Kibinago”.

Kagoshima Sashimi

The sake choices were limited but there was a much wider choice of Kagoshima shochu 鹿児島焼酎. Especially, Imojouchu 芋焼酎 which is famous in the region. It is made from sweet potato called “Satsuma-imo” 薩摩芋. “Satsuma” is the old name for Kagoshima. After we finished the first sake (I do not remember what it was), I tried shochu on the rocks which was recommended by Mama-san. It was too harsh for my wife. I did finish it but I have to admit that shochu is not my favorite. After we switched back to sake, we ordered “home-made” satsuma-age 薩摩揚げ, deep fried fish meat balls, again famous in the area. It was fried after we ordered it and was good.

Kagoshima satsuma age

At this point, there were several regulars sitting at the counter and a group of salary men who must also have been regulars took up the tables. The regulars at the counter were competing with each other to buy Mama-san some beer and the sidekick placed her glass on the counter asking “How about me?” And the glass was quickly filled. After all the guests had been served drinks and food, both Mama-san and the sidekick joined the group at the table. We could see that the warm welcoming atmosphere that Mama-san created, in addition to the food, was a major attraction to the place.  It felt somewhat like a bar and the guests obviously liked her attention and easy familiar conversation. Her clientele appeared to be salary men coming in for homey relaxation first and a bite to eat second. We had a few more dishes and decided to “call it quits”. We were impressed that as we were leaving, Mama-san came out, and in turn grasped each of our hands firmly in both of hers and looking us in the eye genuinely thanked us for stopping by. We left feeling like truly honored guests.

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