Okaru is a low-key udon restaurant in Gion popular with local geiko and maiko (geisha). Their famous curry udon bowl makes a perfect cheap n’ cheerful meal in between your wanderings in the area.
Restaurant Okaru in the evening – image © Florentyna Leow
Gion’s main street, Shijo-dori, leads from the Kamo-gawa River to Yasaka Shrine. It’s lined with souvenir shops and during the day it can be hard to move with all the crowds who fill the sidewalks. But in the evenings, the crowds thin out as the shops begin to close, and the streets become quiet and peaceful again. I like Gion best in the evenings, and I especially enjoy a visit to Okaru for dinner.
The wall of Okaru is papered with celebrity autographs – image © Florentyna Leow
Established in 1923, Okaru began life as a Japanese sweet shop, but became a noodle restaurant along the way. It’s a local institution, having been frequented by geiko (geisha) and maiko (apprentice geisha) in the area for many years. Located on the ground floor of a machiya (traditional Kyoto townhouse) down a side street in Gion, its entrance is quiet and unassuming, marked by a red lantern and simple white noren curtains. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it.
Summer fans hanging on the wall at the back of the restaurant – image © Florentyna Leow
Okaru’s interior equally unassuming. With the tatami seating area at the back of the restaurant, it feels like someone’s living room has been converted into a restaurant. The walls are lined with celebrity autographs, as well as uchiwa (Japanese summer fans) and stickers belonging to Kyoto maiko and geiko. They usually give fans with their names on them as a summer gift to favored customers – a testament to how well-loved this institution is.
The Japanese-language menu at Okaru is quite extensive – image © Florentyna Leow
Okaru has a fairly extensive menu in Japanese, running the gamut from udon to soba to donbori (rice bowls with toppings). Some of the patrons were slurping cold soba when I paid a visit, no doubt because it was a warm May evening. Okaru also has quintessentially Japanese side dishes to go with your beer, such as potato salad, sesame-dressed spinach, and rolled omelettes, though these are written only on the Japanese-language menu.
A menu written in English, simplified Mandarin Chinese and Japanese – image © Florentyna Leow
However, the English/Chinese menu will (probably) suffice, because you’re really only here for one thing: their cheese beef curry udon, which sounds exactly like what it is and a little more.
An unassuming-looking bowl of cheese beef curry udon noodles. – image © Florentyna Leow
The broth is a flavorful blend of Rishiri kelp, dried mackerel and dried round herring. It is salty and hearty enough to stand up to the thick tangle of wheat noodles. On top of the broth is a generous serving of a thick, sweetish Japanese-style curry sauce, giving the noodle bowl two distinct soup layers. You stir these together, which helps to thin the curry out; the melted cheese gives the soup an extra savory dimension. A handful of raw scallions provides a brisk, crisp counterpoint to the broth, which can otherwise be a little too heavy at this point, and a sprinkling of ichimi (Japanese chili pepper) from a container on your table adds a spicy kick to the whole bowl.
They’re generous with the udon noodles here. – image © Florentyna Leow
You can choose udon wheat noodles or buckwheat soba noodles, and I’ll be the first to say that I would usually choose soba over udon. However, for a broth like this, I think you need thicker, heartier noodles which can stand up to the robust flavors. At Okaru, the noodles are a little bit softer than I like, but the overall effect here is pure comfort, like a hug for your stomach.
Caption: Other variations on the curry udon are available at Okaru. – image © Florentyna Leow
If you don’t eat beef, there are other toppings available, such as kitsune (deep-fried tofu), chicken, pork katsu (deep-fried pork cutlet), and prawn tempura. Prices are clearly indicated and include consumption tax. The curry noodle bowls are all available without cheese, but if you can, don’t omit the cheese!
The quiet interior of Okaru on a weekday evening. – image © Florentyna Leow
I can’t speak for their daytime hours, which seem to be busier, but what I liked about Okaru is how relaxed it is in the evenings – like being in someone’s living room. The young lady opposite him slurped away at her cold soba noodles, the sounds of which interrupted on occasion the soft koto music in the background. That evening, after slurping up my bowl of noodles – after which I wished I could have eaten it all over again – I spent some quality time with my book. The staff are not there to hurry you out.
Okaru’s curry udon is not the type of restaurant that will win any Michelin stars, but if you’re looking for a low-key, cheap and cheerful meal in Gion, look no further than this little restaurant. The only downside is that they allow smoking, so you might want to poke your head in and check that no one is smoking before you decide to take a seat.
Name in Japanese:
132 Yasaka Shinchi Tominaga-cho, Higashiyama-ku
11:00-15:00, 17:00-2:30 (until 3:00 on Fri. & Sat.; until 21:00 on Sun.)
Gion-Shijo Station (Keihan), Kawaramachi Station (Hankyu)
Read customer reviews of Okaru on TripAdvisor
About Florentyna Leow
Florentyna Leow is a writer and photographer based in Kyoto, who has written for outlets such as Silverkris, ZenVita and Lucky Peach. Her interests include food, doors, and Thomassons. Read her blog or connect with her on Instagram @furochan_eats.
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