I have wanted to write about Mikoan for a long time, but I have never plucked up the courage to take any photographs on our previous visits. I rectified this with our most recent trip to Kyoto.
Mikoan is an unusual place. I found out about it on Happy Cow when we were planning our honeymoon back in 2009. You’ll learn from this blog that my husband and I are vegetarian. I have been practically vegan (other than an inability to give up cheese and the occasional consumption of milk and cream) because of my ovo-lactose intolerance. I also have an allergy to mushrooms (I KNOW!!). All of this makes eating in Japan tricky to say the least. But it is possible, with the help of sites like Happy Cow.
Mikoan appealed to me on two levels. First it is entirely vegan, with no chance of dairy passing my lips, and certainly no chance of fish sneaking into the cooking. Second the owner is cat mad. I am cat mad. I own a cat. I stop to talk to cats in the street. Cat Cafés are my idea of paradise.
We failed to find Mikoan on our first visit to Japan, though. It took us until our trip in Autumn 2010 to pay our first visit. It was definitely worth the wait, once we had tracked it down. It’s not the easiest place to find, located as it is at the end of a long, narrow, anonymous alley between shops on the stretch of Teramachi-dori that heads south from Shijo-dori, but the directions on the Happy Cow site meant that it was easier than we had been expecting.
At the end of the alley is a large brown forbidding metal door. It opens outwards and you step up into the restaurant. The owner is a Buddhist nun. Sometimes her mum helps out, as on our first visit, when she greeted us in her daughter’s absence and we managed to communicate what we wanted through a combination of my bad Japanese, her bad English and a lot of pointing at the menu!
On each of our visits, we have been ushered to the bar and handed the menus, which change rarely. We have always had the dinner set, which consists of four different dishes plus rice and miso. Because we were both eating the dinner set, on each occasion the owner has made us eight different dishes so that we could share and taste as wide a range of things as possible.
This dinner set is from our visit this year. You can see the rice and the miso at the front of my tray, along with chilled wakame and yam salad, freeze-dried tofu in a sweet broth, some fried balls of soy protein and a sesame and carrot salad. On my husband’s tray are bitesize pieces of something like sosmix in pastry, pickles, a potato salad, and another salad that I can’t remember! I think we both also had a green salad.
This is the dinner menu
The second time we went, in Spring 2012, something happened that has caused a change on the menu. As we were waiting for our food to be prepared, a group of three Japanese men came in and also ordered the dinner set. One of them had a big appetite and kept asking for his rice bowl to be refilled, as it indicated on the menu that you could ask for more rice with your meal. It might have been okay had a party of seven Americans not joined us. On rice man’s fourth request for more rice, she smilingly served him (smiling in that very Japanese way that means the person is displeased but doesn’t want to inconvenience you by showing it) but made a comment about not having enough rice for the rest of her customers. He was very apologetic, but this time I noticed a polite note on the menu to the effect that, while one extra portion of rice would be okay, more than that would not. Even though our visits were a year apart, I like to think that the change happened because of what we’d witnessed!
If you do decide to give Mikoan a try, be aware that the opening hours can be erratic. On this year’s trip, we tried to go to Mikoan for dinner after the Kyo Odori. The gate to the alleyway was closed, but the sign didn’t say that the restaurant was shut and the gate wasn’t locked, so we headed up the alley. The door to the restaurant wasn’t locked and again no sign said it was closed, so we went in. However, it was very definitely closed. The owner told us so, followed us down the lane and locked the gate behind us! It was a shame, but obviously we managed to go back another evening.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the owner’s cats are allowed to roam freely. We have never seen them on the counter, and their main abode seems to be upstairs, but they do wander around the restaurant, and the owner does feed them close to the eating area. If you are at all squeamish about things like that, I’d advise you to stay away. It is what it is. If you’re a cat lover, you won’t mind in the slightest. It’s also not the most pristine of places. It’s eclectic, cluttered, crazy and unique. This photograph I took on our most recent visit might explain better what I mean.
This is the piano that sits in the back corner of the room, surrounded by piled up musical instruments and covered in small toys. Along with cats (there are pictures and toys everywhere – literally), the owner seems to be particularly taken with Snoopy. I’ve seen her in a Snoopy sweatshirt a couple of times.
So, yes – go if you want hearty vegan food at a reasonable price and want to experience something unlike any other dining experience you’re ever likely to have. Don’t go if you prefer elegant surroundings, dainty crockery and an absence of cats.
Michael Lambe’s excellent Deep Kyoto blog has an entry for Mikoan dating from 2007 that gives a bit of the history of the restaurant, some better photographs of the food and a slide show of photographs of the cats.