Syoka is an ingenious yet simple luxury restaurant situated inside a traditionally appointed former samurai house, located in the heart of Nara‘s Sacred Deer Park. This unique restaurant allows patrons to create their own custom sushi rolls from the finest ingredients available in the region, like organic vegetables and spices, freshly caught, mercury-free fish, and a wide assortment of elegant accouterments such as saffron, hand-ground wasabi, freshly puréed ginger, and many more culinary delights. Learn how to create your own sushi at Syoka and why this restaurant is absolutely worth traveling halfway around the world to experience.
Update September 2021
Sadly, due to a lack of tourism as a result of the pandemic, Syoka has closed permanently after serving the Nara area for more than 150 years. It’s heartbreaking that so many small businesses such as this one were left with no choice but to close. I wish you could have experienced this place too before it closed because it was one of my all-time favorite dining experiences. I hope the owners have found another venture that makes them just as happy and fulfilled.
Syoka Te-Ori Sushi in Nara, Japan
Location: Nara, Japan
Address: 16 Kasuganocho, Nara,
Hours: 10 am – 6 pm Daily
Food Type: Sushi, Temaki, Te-ori Sushi, Drinks, Tea
Price: $100+ per person
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Reservations: Not Accepted
Special Diets: Pescatarian, Gluten Free
Language: Japanese, with English menus
Nara, Japan is famous for being the demesne of wild yet fearless and friendly deer, considered sacred animals by many Japanese people, which wander freely amongst people, bowing to request food from visitors. If you ask me, the bowing deer and incredible views of Nara aren’t even the best reason to come to this ancient city – the best reason to visit is the food!
Syoka is a gorgeous restaurant located in the heart of Nara’s deer park, inside a former samurai house, still decorated in a traditional Japanese style with tatami mats, sliding rice paper doors, a zen garden, and an ambiance of tranquility rarely encountered in the west. Here guests can try their hand at making their own sushi rolls and handrolls called te-ori sushi while seated on traditional tatami cushions. Utilizing only the finest locally sourced, organic, seasonal vegetables, freshly caught fish, and handcrafted condiments like hand-ground wasabi and freshly harvested ginger purée, the only limit to what you can create is your own imagination.
I loved that they used high-quality, flavorful ingredients, with verdant greenery and playful motifs, like the daikon radish cut to look like one of Nara’s famous deer. The longer we looked at the dishes, the more meaning we found in each selection, like the locally made dishes and pottery the meal was served in and the attention to detail of each facet of our meals.
We tried the large set and the small set (that’s what they’re called, sets in Japan are simply pre-determined meals, often with a drink or sides accompanying the main meal), each kitted out with an assortment of fish like cold water salmon, tuna belly, ika, and ebi tempura. Each set also included a number of vegetables like pickled onions, lima beans, shaved ginger, radishes, kale, cucumber, potato, and more. Toppings included with each set were things like saffron, hand-ground wasabi, freshly harvested and pureed ginger, and mysterious seeds with an ephemeral, dulcet flavor that was the perfect contrast against the strong yet refreshing taste of the gluten-free soy sauce we were encouraged to brush liberally upon our concoctions (but only upon the fish, never on the rice).
To create the perfect Te-ori sushi, we placed a small amount of locally grown rice on sheets of nori or seaweed. We then layered our selection of fish, vegetables, accoutrements and finished each creation by gently rolling it into a cylinder or cone, depending upon the number of ingredients we included. To balance and enhance the taste of fish, we were advised that the Japanese never bush or dip their entire rolls into soy sauce, but rather brush or dip only the fish into soy sauce. This keeps the soy sauce dish neat and orderly while preventing soy sauce from becoming the dominating flavor in the roll. Brushing is a particularly effective method of ensuring just the right amount of soy sauce while allowing the flavors of the other ingredients to speak for themselves.
For about $100 per person with drinks and a light dessert, we enjoyed one of the most elegant, flavorful, and peaceful meals we’ve had in all of Japan. While we worked on perfecting our sushi rolling skills, the tame deer of Nara poked their noses wistfully into the entrance of the restaurant, then strolled away as a warm breeze played with our hair. We could also hear the sounds of running water and local songbirds in the garden behind the restaurant, and we mused over how one day we’d love to have a home with such an open floor plan as Syoka. I realize that this sounds as though I’m exaggerating, but Syoka truly is a magical restaurant, unlike any other.
Should you ever find yourself in Nara, Japan, I can’t recommend Syoka enough. From the moment we were invited inside and removed our shoes, the staff was incredibly attentive, kind, and patient with us and our limited ability to speak Japanese. The food was a true delight, and we enjoyed our time here immensely.