The spiritual location that makes monk so special
How did Yoshihiro Imai know that a rundown, canalside building would make such a perfect spot for his contemplative restaurant?
What is it about monk, Yoshihiro Imai's 14-seat, seasonally inspired restaurant in Kyoto, Japan, that truly sets it apart? It’s a beautifully conceived space, manned by a brilliant, focussed chef, who pulls from his wood oven, not only incredible pizzas, but also a seasonal menu, favouring fresh, and sometimes wild, local ingredients.
However, monk’s geographical location is clearly key to it success and international acclaim. “monk is located in the northeastern edge of the city, along the Philosopher’s Path, a storied walking path along a canal that flows from Lake Biwa,” explains Imai in his new book, monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path. “Lined with sakura and oak trees, it’s a very beautiful place to take a leisurely stroll year-round.”
“The path owes its name to the Zen philosopher called Kitaro Nishida, who about a hundred years ago walked along it every day as he pondered his thoughts,” the chef explains. “What did he think about on those walks? Though times have changed, the same sunlight shines through the branches, and the same shapes cast shadows on the same path. Nature is lush here; in June, the fireflies light up along the water. During the day the area is busy with visitors, but at night the crowds empty out and the shops close.”
It sounds like an ideal spot for a small, contemplative restaurant – so ideal, in fact, that the chef had such a place in mind, before he had even found the building monk now occupies. “While searching for a place to start monk back in 2015, I kept thinking, If I can find a spot with some greenery by a river, that would be incredible!” Imai writes. “I met with some real estate agents and told them what I was looking for, and waited. More than half a year passed, when finally, I got a call: ‘Mr. Imai, I think you would like this place.’
“It was a standalone house on the Philosopher’s Path, which though I must confess in my four years living in Kyoto I had yet to visit, in terms of location I could see it was perfect,” he goes on. “I remember clearly the first time that I saw the building. It was a beautiful mid-April day after the spring rain, and I followed the agent along the canal through a quiet residential neighborhood lined with cherry and maple trees, a few blossoms still lingering among the new leaves.”
Not every patron chef would be quite so enamoured with the place. “Constructed as a residence about one hundred years ago in the Taishō era - about the time that electric lights, radio, and cars were introduced - it had most recently been used by professors and students from abroad who were working at nearby Kyoto University,” Imai writes. “The base of the pillars holding up the structure had been eaten by termites, and the foundation had to be completely reinforced. The upstairs floor was so tilted that a ball placed on one side would roll down to the other.”
It needed a full renovation, yet Imai’s landlord was quite understanding, and the out-of-the-way location had practical advantages too. “monk is located in the outskirts of Kyoto city, about a thirty- minute walk from the closest train station—by no means is it a convenient location,” explains Imai. “But thanks to the generosity of our landlord, the property lease is relatively low. Real estate prices are so high in the central areas of Kyoto or Tokyo, or really in any big city in the world, that running a restaurant in these areas can feel as though the business is open just to keep up with the rent.”
Imai doesn’t have to run his restaurant in that way, and is able to pause for a moment, and take in his good fortune. “Sometimes, late at night after service or on my day off, I sit in the restaurant sipping a glass of wine, and have a moment of quiet to myself,” he writes. “The passage of time since we opened five years ago has added a beautiful lived-in texture to the interior, and my familiarity with the space has deepened. Each year about four thousand guests from all over the world open the door and share a meal and some kind of memorable experience together. It feels as though the space itself is accumulating memories of the good times, like geological strata. In this way, a truly good restaurant, with a good atmosphere, is built up over time, bit by bit—and this becomes the 気 (ki), or spirit, of the restaurant.” To better understand that layering of great memories, get a copy of monk here.