Saved by sushi: How one’s writer’s memory was saved by South Philly establishment Kyoto Japan

Recently, I processed loss by staring at the ridges cut into the edges of a sliced cucumber at Kyoto Japan, a sushi restaurant in Snyder Plaza at Columbus & Snyder.

Recently, I processed loss by staring at the ridges cut into the edges of a sliced cucumber at Kyoto Japan, a sushi restaurant in Snyder Plaza at Columbus & Snyder.

I found out about Kyoto Japan through a Google search for sushi while I was in the neighborhood. It was a Sunday and I had heard about the death of my grandpa at noon that day. He was a lifelong Mummer, and while the list of aspects of Mummer culture that I find problematic — and in dire need of change — is long, I still found myself wandering around 2nd Street (sorry, Two Street) looking for signs of him and his life, imagining close to a century worth of births, marriages and New Year’s Days he celebrated on this street.

I’m someone who deals with emotions by trying to rationalize. I also believe that there’s a lot to be learned about one’s self through understanding what gives a person a sense of pleasure. 

These two qualities make me an excellent candidate for eating alone. 

Eating something cool and salty and watery as I tried to swim through new emotional terrain — maybe something dead yet still brimming with vitality — seemed appropriate. 

When I searched for sushi restaurants in the neighborhood and Kyoto Japan showed up, I knew of only one other place where you order from a counter, which meant interactions with other people are going to be minimal. However, the aloofness of that staff, in particular, turned out to be an asset. It would be the perfect place to be sad or avoid being sad in peace. Also, the fact that it’s in the same shopping center as a Chuck E. Cheese’s was part of the appeal, too, if only subconsciously. I’m not immune to the force of nostalgia.

When I first walked up to Kyoto Japan from the parking lot, I was comforted by the neons and pastels of the bubble tea on a big poster next to the door. It was the colors of a dollhouse. When I walked inside, the first thing I noticed was what was missing: things to fill the space of the large room that is the restaurant. The tables are spaced out generously, signs are minimal and to the point, and the modest decorations are mostly a few plastic trees and paintings of bamboo. The white tile floor shines. 

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“Being at Kyoto Japan allowed me to let things taste the way they really taste, which is about much more than tastebuds.”

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Everything feels direct and subtle in Kyoto Japan, like a shy but strong smile from an acquaintance you get a good vibe from. This quality — the fullness of sparseness — makes it easy to forget that it is technically fast food. 

The food is served on a plastic red tray. The soy sauce is dispensed into plastic cups from what seems to be an iced tea dispenser. Fountain soda is available and flows freely. Yet all of the food tastes like it’s made by people who have spent time cultivating an attention span that gives them the ability to allow the food, atmosphere and the never-ending cycle of life and the never-ending cycle of replenishment and depletion to be exactly what they are. 

Being at Kyoto Japan allowed me to let things taste the way they really taste, which is about much more than tastebuds. At a table with nothing besides the food and my notebook, I decided on words to use to describe the teriyaki chicken in the bento box: obligingly assertive, nectary. I sat in awe of the sensation of chewing through an air bubble in a fried dumpling, which was also in the bento box.

I focused on the slimy green of the seaweed salad and allowed it to bring back memories of “Goosebumps” books from childhood before slurping it down with flippant grace I reserve for times like this. Rather than scoff at how the tuna wasn’t an entirely uniform thickness, I tried to use it as a chance to appreciate how different circumferences felt in my mouth, how each lent itself to a different experience of chewing. And after staring at a slice of cucumber with tiny ridges cut into its edges, I realized that focusing intently on one part of something will inevitably make you realize something about the whole of it. 

The focus of my attention had to, in due time, switch over from food to my memories of my grandpa. Well-made sushi that was made as the result of someone else’s ability to pay close attention was a nudge, a reminder to give the same respect to my own feelings by looking at them closely, allowing them to be what they really are. 

DINNER FOR 20

A roundup of meals we promise won’t leave you broke and penniless.

Fu-Wah Mini Market

This seems to be an unassuming and friendly mini-market from far away, but inside lies the best banh mi around. The shredded chicken ($5.83) or tofu ($4.86) banh mi are the stuff of local legend. | 810 S. 47th St. fuwahminimarket.com 

Shish Kabob Palace 

Shish Kabob Palace offers some of the best Uzbek, Bukharian and Russian food in the entire city, or perhaps even the Northeast. Get the plov, an Uzbek dish of rice, lamb and sliced carrots ($7.99) or a few kabobs ($3.99 – $8.99). | 1683 Grant Ave. myshishkabobpalace.com 

Saad’s Halal Restaurant 

This West Philly staple’s slogan is “All Halal/Only Halal/Always Halal,” and it serves exactly that in its lauded chicken maroosh sandwich and its cheesesteak, both $9. | 4500 Walnut St. saadhalal.com 

El Purepecha 

When people say that there aren’t good burritos in Philly, send them to El Purepecha, a humble and friendly Mexican restaurant in the Spring Arts district, and tell them to get a steak burrito ($9.80). | 469 N. 10th St. facebook.com

Chez Yasmine

Tunisian food with a Swedish influence in a food cart that gives out free bananas from a bowl: the stuff of dreams. Frequenters usually get the veggie couscous ($TK!). | 3740 Spruce St. facebook.com/

  • Kiki Volkert's Headshot

    Kiki Volkert writes about food for Philly Weekly from beneath a fig tree in the front yard of her South Philly row home. She has also contributed to Reductress and produced a show about the arts on PBS, and, despite a stint as a line cook, believes she is much better at writing about food than cooking it.