Kyoto 生 Chocolat

Exquisite chocolate can bring people and cultures together in unexpected ways. Kyoto Nama Chocolat is proof enough of that. Tucked away on a sleepy backstreet not far from Heian Shrine, it feels like a parlor for deeper conversation, or perhaps some crossroads rest house for travelers looking for respite from the rigors of the road. But at its heart, it is a chocolate shop with organic teas and coffee.

Kyoto Nama Chocolat occupies a machiya—an old folk house—that’s over 100 years old. It also provides a home to Sherry and Hirofumi Nakanishi, the proprietors. A business, a home, a space for others. The model works well in Kyoto

“Kyoto has a softness and graciousness like no other city,” says Sherry, “It’s very civilized and refined. There is a way of doing things here that really appeals to me. The energy affects you whether you know it or not. Kyoto people really understand living.”

Sherry and Hirofumi came to Kyoto in 1999, but met in New York ten years earlier. Hirofumi was a chef at the Japanese consulate with prior experience working at a major Japanese hotel.

“French cuisine is my background, but at the consulate I had to cook for both private meals and parties. I had to do all kinds of cooking, from starters to desserts, whereas at the hotel the duties were all separated. Working at the consulate was when I became interested in desserts.”

Although the basic idea for a chocolate shop was born then, the model itself did not occur to him until failure in execution.

“Before opening our business here I had begun working with chocolates. I was doing take-out but that wasn’t working well. The relationship with your customer ends with the purchase in simple take-out. I realized that we needed a place where people could eat the chocolate and then buy it for take out if they wanted. We decided to do it here, where we moved. But rather than a restaurant, I just wanted a space where people could eat chocolate.”

The space is a large first-floor room with tatami and low tables. Both ends open out onto small gardens, one of which is large enough to accommodate guests who prefer to be outside. The house seems ideal for their business concept and lifestyle, a fortunate discovery to say the least.

“One day I just kind of randomly followed some university students,” explains Sherry with a laugh, “and they came to this house. I followed them in and said I really wanted to live here. They were art students doing a project in here and they called their teacher who then called the owner. The teacher cautioned me that nobody had actually lived there for a long time and that the owner didn’t want to rent it out. But I just begged—I knew I wanted to live here. Finally, we got to talk to the owner and a few days after meeting us he said yes! It really needed some cleaning, though, and while we were doing it, we found a photo of people having a party in the house. There was a foreigner in the picture named Philip. It turns out the owner really liked him and let me live here because of that positive relationship.”

Sherry and Hirofumi are as generous as the owner was to them. They allow guests to stay as long as they like, and provide a home-like atmosphere. People can lounge around on the floor or stay in the garden for hours. The friendly family dog provides comfort for many.

“Our dog burst through the fusuma once and we found newspapers stuffed in there from the Meiji period—that’s partly how we knew the house’s age.”

The newspaper is in a scrapbook that guests are welcome to peruse, along with letters from customers around the world, photographs and various articles written about the place. Sherry shows me a guestbook of people Hirofumi served while in New York: high-profile TV anchors, CEOs… John D. Rockefeller III’s name jumps out.

Naturally, such a legacy does not come without superior quality, but this is Kyoto Nama Chocolat, not the New York consulate, and now guests of all walks of life can taste his delicious offerings. They offer four basic types of chocolate, with matcha being the most popular.

Hirofumi explains, “I don’t want to make lots of different flavors unless there is a kikkake (fateful opportunity). I make matcha because this is Kyoto. I make the bitter, for example, because I found a good balance with the special ingredients I could obtain.”

He refers to the black sugar from Amami-oshima, which he claims doesn’t have overly assertive flavor (kusei ga nai). He also recognizes that there is an established standard for bitter chocolates, and works within that framework.

Hirofumi doesn’t have any particular customs when making chocolate. He doesn’t, for example, meditate before starting his day or listen to a specific kind of music. He makes the chocolate at his own pace. He cuts it all by hand. Together, he and his wife serve it or package it for take-out.

“I can relax and concentrate on my chocolate. My kitchen has an open ceiling and I think that’s part of the reason. It’s not in a basement, it’s not cramped. Here, I have all the space I need, which provides me a great atmosphere.”

The atmosphere for guests in the adjoining room is largely cultivated by Sherry, who brings the same graciousness she identifies in Kyoto’s ethos to her role as hostess and server.

“The world is moving so fast. It’s just spinning. And it stops spinning here. You feel like you are alive for a second.”

There is no music playing, though birdsong trickles in from the trees outside. The chocolate on the plate looks like the work of an artisan, hand-made with care and conviction. Guests from different countries and parts of Japan filter in and filter out, relaxed now, changed. Back in the spinning world, away from this quiet refuge, maybe they can still taste the chocolate.



















Kyoto 生 Chocolat

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