Eating sushi at a local neighbourhood joint doesn’t get better than this. For unpretentious, delicious sushi that won’t break the bank, head over to Azuma Sushi in Higashiyama.
A moderately lean cut of bluefin tuna. – image © Florentyna Leow
Counter seat-only establishments are my favourite kind of place to visit. Luckily, whether it’s a function of real estate constraints or simply a preference for a low chef-to-patron ratio, Kyoto has no shortage of restaurants like this. There’s just something incomparably intimate about the counter seat bar or restaurant – no barriers or extra layers lying between you and the action happening for your food and drink.
A chalkboard menu behind the counter. – image © Florentyna Leow
Even having lived several years in Japan, the quiet thrill of sitting at the counter of a restaurant dies hard. It doesn’t have to be an expensive kappo or kaiseki place. All I ask is that it is a good, honest meal. Extra points if it’s a neighbourhood favourite, or has no social media presence. Any cuisine will do, really. But it still feels extra-special when it happens to be sushi.
Salmon nigiri. – image © Florentyna Leow
Azuma Sushi near Shichijo ticks all these boxes. It is also surprisingly laid-back for a sushi joint in Kyoto, and chatty head chef aside, I suspect that the television installed at the back of the restaurant playing endless variety shows has everything to do with this atmosphere. There is something about a TV in a restaurant that instantly grants one permission to relax and tune out, or joke with the chef. Azuma Sushi is not a high-end counter restaurant where the chef performs their cooking for you – you order what you want, and some minutes later it appears in front of you without fuss or preamble. It’s all very straightforward, and I dine here with no small relief at not having to perform my eating for an expectant chef.
Taihiragi, wrapped with a band of nori seaweed – a meaty texture, much like a firm, chunky scallop. – image © Florentyna Leow
What can you have here? Pretty much most nigiri you’ll find at a decent sushi restaurant. While there is a blackboard menu of side dishes, this changes daily, so you’ll have better luck pointing at what other patrons are eating if it looks good. Otherwise, there is no English-language menu, so a little familiarity with the sushi lexicon might be required. Order the familiar favourites. We’ve taken the liberty of translating most of the sushi menu for you:
とろ toro – fatty tuna
とろ炙り toro aburi – flame-grilled fatty tuna
本まぐろ hon-maguro – bluefin tuna
漬けまぐろ zuke-maguro – marinated bluefin tuna
白身 shiromi – whitefish
えび ebi – prawn
いか ika – squid
たこ tako – octopus
はまち hamachi – yellowtail
こはだ kohada – shad gizzard
穴子 anago – ocean eel
うなぎ unagi – freshwater eel
貝類 kairui – shellfish
うに uni – sea urchin
いくら ikura – cod roe
〆サバ shimesaba – vinegared mackerel
牛炙り gyu-aburi – flame-grilled beef
玉子 tamago – omelette
細巻・手巻 hosomaki/temaki – hand-rolls
胡瓜 kyuuri – cucumber
しんこ shinko – pickles
梅しそ umeshiso – pickled plum and perilla leaf
納豆 natto – fermented soybeans
穴胡 anakyu – ocean eel and cucumber
うな胡 unakyu – freshwater eel and cucumber
ねぎとろ negitoro – chopped tuna with negi leeks
イカしそ ikashiso – squid with perilla leaf
A large, thick, sweet scallop. – image © Florentyna Leow
If ordering piece by piece sounds too arduous, arrive as early as you can to order either the 10-piece or 15-piece daily lunch special. Limited to the first 15 orders each every day, these sushi nigiri sets clock in at JPY2500 and JPY3500 respectively. For a neighbourhood shop in landlocked Kyoto, it’s quite a steal, especially given the quality and generous neta-to-shari (topping to rice) ratio of the sushi you’ll be eating. 15 pieces might seem a lot, but don’t worry – sushi is pretty light on the digestive system.
The 15-piece set gives you a good assortment of seafood, alternating between darker, flavourful pieces and lighter-tasting ones, along with a whole panoply of textures. Think bouncy squid followed by tender tuna, then boiled prawn and a huge, thick, sweet scallop. It’s pretty straightforward nigirizushi here, with fresh neta (toppings), and lightly vinegared rice – don’t expect funky aged tuna or anything too rarefied like that.
Ikura gunkan. – image © Florentyna Leow
There were a few pieces I wanted to repeat quite badly. Ikura, or cod roe, is one of my favourite pieces in a sushi meal, and I would have happily ordered a second here, appetite willing. Little pops of briny ocean liquid – what’s not to like?
Zuwaigani gunkan. – image © Florentyna Leow
Zuwaigani, or snow crab, was particularly memorable – a tender little burst of sweetness, especially after the Japanese cockle.
Mantis shrimp nigiri. – image © Florentyna Leow
Shako, or mantis shrimp, was one of the seasonal surprises here. An early summer piece, this came with a dab of tsume sauce (sweet-salty), a veritable explosion of umami. Equally interesting was the kisu (sweetfish) with a fragrant sprig of kinome, a late spring piece that proved unusually sweet and light and herbal all at once.
Anago nigiri. – image © Florentyna Leow
The anago, or ocean eel, was a great way to end the 15-piece set. Done in a more Kansai fashion, they went light on the sweet sauce you see more often around Tokyo, and it was a little crispy and toasty sweet. I’d suggest adding another piece a la carte in case you’re hungry.
Toro aburi – fatty tuna, briefly torched. – image © Florentyna Leow
Let’s not overstate anything. Azuma Sushi isn’t the best sushi restaurant in town – for that, you’ll be shelling out a lot more money – but it is good at what it does, which is fresh, well-prepared sushi at very decent prices. A set like this, one extra piece, and some tea will clock in at around JPY4,300.
Outside Azuma Sushi. – image © Florentyna Leow
Azuma Sushi is not really the sort of place that is too easy to walk into, but you do have a decent chance of getting a seat at opening lunch hours or during off-peak hours, especially if you arrive alone rather than in a group. Ask your concierge to make a reservation if you can. It’s worth the visit, especially if you’re passing by the station on your way somewhere.
You’ll see this road on your right when you exit Shichijo Station. – image © Florentyna Leow
Directions: Take Exit 6 of Shichijo Station on the Keihan Line. Once above ground, turn right. Walk to the end of the road. Turn left. Take the second right. You’ll be on a larger road; this is Shomen-dori Street. Walk until you see a set of red noren curtains on the left. This is Azuma Sushi.
For more Kyoto affordable sushi restaurant choices, see our Best Affordable Sushi in Kyoto page.
Name in Japanese:
Nishi-iru Honmachi Shomen-dori Higashiyama-ku Kyoto-shi
12:00pm – 9:30pm (L.O.)
Closed Thursdays and every third Wednesday
4-minute walk from Exit 6 of Shichijo Station on the Keihan Line
:: Read customer reviews of Azuma Sushi on TripAdvisor
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