Interview with TORIYASU: Guided by Buddha, the path of a poultry craftsman
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Interview with TORIYASU: Guided by Buddha, the path of a poultry craftsman

Text: Minori Mukaida
Photo: Ariko Inaoka

Honke-Owariya has been collaborating with Toriyasu– one of Kyoto’s great chicken merchants– for five generations. Our Takara-Nabe (Treasure hot pot) would not have been possible without the chicken and chicken stock provided by them. We interviewed Mr. Tetsuo Ueda, the 4th generation, and Mr. Tsuneyoshi Ueda, the 5th generation, who was childhood friends with Owariya’s 15th generation.

Toriyasu is located on Karasuma Dori, one of the main streets in Kyoto, a two-minute walk southwest from the Owariya main store. During lunch hour it’s common to see salarymen lining up for their popular fried chicken bowl. Next door, there is a side entrance with a noren curtain, “Kashiwa,” designating the poultry shop. Chicken is sold as “kiriuri” (sold by slices), which might be “the only place doing so left in Kansai.” (Mr. Tetsuo 4th).

“‘What kind of dish are you having today?’” I ask our customers: “Sukiyaki, mizutaki, teppanyaki … Once I know the type of meat, I know the best way to cut it. That’s why this process is known as “kiriuri (sold by slices)“.” (Tetsuo)

Really? You change the way you use your knife depending on the dish?

“That’s correct. The taste will change depending on how you apply the knife. I chose the fatty part if the customer is making a hot-pot dish, whereas if he or she is cooking it on an iron plate, I choose light and lean meat. This is the same method we’ve been using since the Meiji era.” (100-150 years ago)

At most butchers, customers order the displayed products in gram amounts, but Mr. Tsuneyoshi says he likes to engage with his clients so that he knows best how to tailor his meat to their particular preferences. It’s interesting and exciting to give them exactly what they need.

What is the joy of doing a family business?

“The words ‘it’s delicious’ are the most encouraging.” (Mr. Tsuneyoshi)
“When a person eating at a shinise (long-established restaurant) notices that Toriyasu’s chicken was used, I’m glad he or she noticed and thus understand the quality of our products. “(Tetsuo)

Are you particular about water?

“Before putting the knife to a chicken, I make sure to wash it with well water and dry it. I never use tap water. I also use well water to cook chicken stock. Everyone in Kyoto’s food business is particular about water, and I am particular about it too. “(Tetsuo)

Is there anything you value in your family?

“Everyone is working together in a harmonious manner. If I get angry, I try not to express my frustration. Sometimes I do, mostly I don’t. But sometimes I have to let it out. It’s like my core value. If I can’t do this with my family, then working together would be difficult, and if it were with other people, it would be even worse. It is basically something I have to do if I want to continue business for a long time. Recently, I’ve begun to understand this.” (Tetsuo)

Did you have any resistance to taking over the family business?

“Before taking over I was intending to become a priest.” (Mr. Tsuneyoshi)

Why Buddhism?

“When I entered high school and did Shorinji (Shorin) Kempo, I became fond of Chinese writing. I went to a Buddhist university because I wanted to be a priest! However, at the time of my graduation ceremony, my teacher called me and advised not to “go against the water” and said “you don’t want to be unfaithful to your family. You have a home.” His words affected me enough that I decided to return home to help with the family business. I’m grateful for the teacher who gave me this advice, helping me reconsider my career path. Nevertheless, should I encounter a Zen monk doing his morning rounds, I’m tempted to follow him for a bit.”(Mr. Tsuneyoshi)

Are there common points where Buddhism and the family business intersect?

“I suppose it’s the idea that the chicken must be utilized as much as possible for its flavor and enjoyment. If the bird must give its life to us, then at the very least it should be cut, prepared, and served as meaningfully nourishing as possible.” (Tsuneyoshi-san)

The fifth generation was in a position to preach to keep the five precepts. I feel that the attitude of “eating deliciously” blending with feelings of gratitude makes Toriyasu poultry taste even more clear and pleasant. My heart feels at ease when I hear their conversation spoken in the Kyoto dialect. I think it must be the same for Toriyasu’s customers as well as the people at Owariya who have ben working with Toriyasu for generatins.
I can’t help imagine the following exchange will occur between the descendants of Toriyasu’s owners and the people of Kyoto:”What are you having (for dinner) today?”