Ireland is a small nation that has proudly exerted a disproportionate influence on the world. Kyojin Stewhouse, a tiny restaurant in Togoshi Ginza, personifies this spirit. For years, it has been one of the most authentic places to taste Irish food in Tokyo.
Green Fields Under the Rising Sun
Alan Fisher, a native of the bustling Irish port town of Dundalk, has sailed a path in life that few would have the ambition to emulate. After serving proudly with the Irish Defense Forces, he started studying for an MBS in Marketing from Dublin City University, without knowing for sure what lay ahead. He thereafter hopped on a plane to the other side of the world in search of a new challenge in an utterly unfamiliar society. Like so many other expats he had only planned to stay for a couple of years. Japan had other plans for him.
Armed with the desire to spark a passion in Japan for the tastes and aromas of his Irish childhood, Fisher established Kyojin Stewhouse seven years ago. After navigating the red tape involved in setting up a business as a foreign resident, assisted in no small part by his indispensable Japanese wife, Fisher’s restaurant has secured its place as a pillar of the Irish community in Tokyo.
Fisher categorizes his customers into two distinct groups. Those who know and love Ireland through direct experience, and those who are generally unaware of the land and its cultural traditions. He laments that the latter grouping makes up the sizeable majority of clientele, especially when it comes to knowledge of the rich culinary legacy he embodies. They may have some awareness by proxy of Irish cultural touchstones like St. Patrick’s Day or Riverdance, but food does not enter the equation. Things, however, might just be changing for the better.
“We Try to Keep it Simple but Get it Right”
It is not unfair to say the culinary output of Ireland has a less than stellar international reputation. A trip to Kyojin will refute your preconceived notions.
Soups and stews are the restaurant’s bread and butter. Throw in some hearty potatoes and you have all the key components of a straightforward meal that guarantees satisfaction. While the menu has grown since its inception seven years ago, the emphasis on quality and tradition remains unyielding. Ingredients are sourced from Ireland to the greatest extent possible. The Irish fare is supplemented by high standard local produce and closer imports from the likes of Australia and New Zealand.
While the presentation of dishes is occasionally tweaked to accommodate Japanese aesthetic considerations, recipes are identical to what you would find in any self-respecting Irish kitchen. Lamb is a perennial favorite with visitors, as is the iconic Beef and Guinness Stew. Pork sausages, an Irish staple, are doled out in several varieties.
There’s also coddle, a beloved comfort food hailing from Dublin. It’s a stew made with tender ham, pork sausage and an assortment of vegetables and herbs. And there’s creamy seafood chowder, packed to the gills with fresh fish. But no visit to an Irish eatery would be complete without sampling some soda bread. Its simplicity in preparation beguiles its subtle complexities, standing proudly as the antithesis of what generally passes for bread in Japan.
Beverage options aren’t limited to Guinness. Craft beer lovers can enjoy imported Irish lagers and IPAs courtesy of the excellent Whitewater Brewery from the heart of the Mountains of Mourne. Naturally, Irish Coffee is also served with appropriate gusto. Perhaps there is no better way of washing down a slice of cheesecake or apple tart.
Irish Cuisine Beyond Tokyo
Every crisis presents an opportunity. Kyojin proactively adapted its business model in response to the pandemic. In April 2020, just as Tokyo entered its initial state of emergency, they launched an online store. Customers could now order frozen and vacuum-packed versions of each stew, offering convenience without compromising on quality.
They received orders from across the length and breadth of Japan. The sheer level of support and genuine compassion from the public caught everyone off guard. Kyojin had to temporarily shut its doors during the worst of the crisis, so this generosity provided an essential lifeline in an unprecedented situation.
“We had so much support from people from all over Japan who showed us kindness and support by ordering. I’m forever grateful for that, it enabled us to keep working and kept our hopes for future growth alive,” recounts Fisher.
An Enduring Legacy
Not content with having successfully carved himself a culinary niche in Tokyo, Fisher set his sights on pastures once traversed by Ireland’s most famous expat in Japan. Matsue, the prefectural capital of Shimane, saw the grand opening of Kyojin’s second location in March of this year.
Lafcadio Hearn, also known as Yakumo Koizumi, was among the first Westerners to write detailed accounts of Japan’s immense array of myths and legends. Landmark works like Kwaidan and Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan remain widely read. Hearn resided in Matsue for fifteen months, married a local noblewoman named Setsuko and spawned a lineage. Bon Koizumi, Hearn’s great-grandson, is the director of a museum dedicated to his life and work.
The people of Matsue are acutely aware of the connection between themselves and Ireland. This was the ultimate factor in Fisher’s decision to open Kyojin in the city over other potential locations. Considerably larger in size than its Tokyo counterpart, the Matsue branch allows for more valuable storage space and for the potential to further grow the online store.
Fisher has the ambitious dream of building a “Little Ireland” reputation in Shimane. He enjoys the enthusiastic support of both the Irish Embassy and the local people in his endeavor. Matsue is his new home and his new neighbors could not be more welcoming.
As for the future, Fisher remains cautiously optimistic and hopeful.
“At the moment it’s back to survival mode. Roll up the sleeves, head down and keep working. I’ve many hopes for the business going forward but it’s best to focus on the challenge at hand,” he says.
Based on Kyojin’s stellar history and reputation, it seems like the best is yet to come.
Tokyo location: 1-3-11 Yutakacho, Shinagawa-ku
Matsue location: 562-1 2F Otesembacho
More information on Kyojin Irish Stewhouse website.