Miyama Futon & Breakfast | A Glimpse of Rural Japan

On our latest trip to Japan, I was determined to get a glimpse of rural Japan.

We had very much enjoyed our previous insights into traditional Japan – staying in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns, often with quite an age and history to them) and visiting many century-old temples, shrines and castles.

But until this trip, we had not overnighted in a rural location, nor in a traditional village house.

Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture is probably the best known tourist destination for those wishing to see quaint villages of gasshou-zukuri (traditional thatched-roof houses), but I had read that the villages become very crowded in high season. And the limited options for overnighting – in a handful of guesthouses with small, low-ceilinged rooms and shared bathrooms – didn’t appeal.

Thanks to a suggestion on a travel discussion website, I started investigating a stay in Miyama instead. Located about an hour’s drive north of Kyoto – just 45 minutes on the train – Miyama is a rural mountainous region of forests and agricultural land. Within the area are over 200 kayabuki (traditional, thatched-roof farmhouses), the majority of which are still residential dwellings. These kayabuki are not quite the same as Gifu’s gasshou-zukuri ones in shape – Gifu roofs take the form of two huge rectangular panels meeting in a steep apex with a plain and squat ridge of thatch across the top, whereas the thatched roofs in Miyama are wider at the bottom than the top, pinching in about two thirds of the way up, and feature a decorative criss-crossed wooden cap atop the ridge.

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What really decided me on including Miyama in my itinerary was finding Miyama FUTON & Breakfast (a play on the European bed and breakfast label).

Built around 150 years ago and known as Hanabusa, the house is typical of rural Japanese architecture of the period, influenced by the local climate and lifestyle. Our hosts told us that they think the house was built by a local merchant who made his living as a repairman. It is now owned by Hario Nishio, one of only 50 traditional master thatchers in the entire country – thatching is a dying art as new homes are rarely built with thatched roofs and many owners of older properties choose to convert the thatched roofs to tile for ease of future maintenance.

The idea of offering this traditional home as a holiday rental is to encourage visitors (both Japanese and international) to experience and enjoy the local area and traditional crafts, and of course to admire the beautiful thatch and other features of the house. Guests are offered a range of activities such as walks in the local forest, guided bike rides, cookery lessons of various kinds and a bamboo craft workshop by an expert thatcher.

On arrival guests are met by one of the association’s concierge staff – at the nearest train station for those without a car, or at a local supermarket (more akin to a farmers market than the typical corporate store) for those who are driving. We made our way to the supermarket without difficulty and Taka greeted us before helping us to choose and buy ingredients for our evening meal – local deer meat and locally grown vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and rice.

Shopping done, we followed Taka’s car to the association’s reception office where we filled in the paperwork to check in, purchased some local beers and paid for the bamboo craft workshop we’d arranged for the next morning.

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Local area including a dilapidated thatched house undergoing renovation (not where we stayed), blossoming fruit trees and a Buddhist temple, just behind the house

Finally we were lead to Hanabusa house, sat in a tiny hamlet of dwellings nestled between the hills behind and rice paddy fields and a small river in front.

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The house is really striking. We’d spotted and admired it from the car on our way to the supermarket but hadn’t guessed it would be our home for the night!

A vivid lime-green moss covers most of the thatched roof and some of the tile canopy beneath it; the colour echoing the spring growth in the nearby field. Below the canopy are simple wooden walls and straw mat window coverings.

Already delighted when we pulled up outside, stepping through the sliding door is when my heart really started fluttering.

The door leads through to an earth flooring that extends right through to the back of the house where it opens out into a kitchen dining area. The kitchen is a modern western style with a western dining table provided. The rest of the ground floor is on a raised wooden platform; we remove our shoes before stepping up to reach the tatami-floored sleeping room and tea ceremony room plus the wooden floored living room with it’s large sand-filled irori (Japanese hearth) which we are invited to use for heat and cooking. There is also a lovely glass-walled corridor with views onto the small but pretty back garden.

On the other side of the earthen flooring, to the left of the main entrance is another raised wooden flooring area. A gorgeous wooden stair case leads up to the next level, and behind it on the ground floor are a small sink area, modern bathroom and toilet.

Upstairs is impressive – completely open plan, the flooring is a mix of wooden and tatami, furnished with a few chairs and lamps, the steep straw roof above is open, giving an impressive view of how the thatched roof is constructed. There’s a steep ladder to go up another level onto a small loft platform, also floored with tatami.

With so much space downstairs, we didn’t make much use of the upstairs living areas but they do mean the house is spacious enough to sleep up to 10 or even more.

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This set of images are by Miyama Futon & Breakfast, collage by Kavey Eats

Outside, there’s a round chicken house and small garden, and a modern storehouse.

Keen to settle into the house after our quick tour of it we were surprised when Taka lead us outside to visit the storehouse, until we saw inside. Here, he introduced us to the beautiful suikinkutsu – a traditional Japanese musical garden ornament made by burying a bucket or large jar in the ground. As he poured water slowly into it, we listened using a long bamboo pole, until we heard beautiful bell-like music as the water splashed off the shaped tiles lining the suikinkutsu. Beautiful!

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The only negative about our gorgeous rental was that it was cold! I don’t think anyone had been staying there for a few days before us, so it hadn’t been heated at all. We put all the electric heaters on full blast, but it did take quite a long time for the chill to recede enough to relax.

I particularly loved cooking our meal of local ingredients in the kitchen and over the irori.

We had chosen our local produce at the farmers market style shop where we’d met Taka – deer meat, mushrooms, leeks, some aburaage (deep fried tofu slices) and rice.

I browned the meat briefly on the stove top, then added a simple stock I made with soy sauce, mirin and brown sugar mixed into water. Taka had already helped Pete to light the charcoal earlier, so by this point they were good and hot. Pete transferred the pot to the hook over the irori and we left the meat and stock to cook slowly. After a while he added chopped mushrooms and leeks. Once everything was cooked, he brought the pan to the table and I stirred in the aburaage just before we ate. Once we’d fished out and eaten all the meat and tofu, I poured some rice into the stock and Pete rehung the pot over the hearth until the rice was cooked through.

All in all a delicious dinner, enjoyed with a local sparkling plum drink for me and some local beers for Pete.

Having made up our futons earlier, using three mattresses and two duvets each, we had a good night’s sleep in our peaceful and beautiful house.

The next morning, we woke up early to use the bathroom and get dressed before the breakfast team arrived. It took them quite a long time to make, bustling away in the kitchen while we chilled and read our books at the dining table, but our breakfast of locally made sausages, eggs, salad, fresh bread, yoghurt, juice, milk and coffee was delicious and a great start to the day.

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After breakfast, we came outside to do our pre-arranged bamboo workshop.

Our teacher, professional bamboo thatcher Fumio Kanaya learned his trade from master thatcher Hario Nishio, the owner of our lovely rental house and president of the association through which we booked it. Before we came outside, he had already set out lots of tools for us and several poles of bamboo in varying shades of black, brown and green. These were arranged within the open garage next to Hanabusa house.

On a simple bamboo table were some small items also made from bamboo, for us to look at and decide what to make . We agreed to make little helicopter toys and toy whistles, and quickly set to work.

Taka and another colleague from the association were there to translate, and take a few photos, though we persuaded them to join us and have a go at the projects too. I am pretty sure they had as much fun as we did!

Protective gloves were provided as the knives to carve the bamboo were super sharp, though we quickly got the hang of it and to my surprise, there were no injuries!

It was hugely absorbing and surprisingly relaxing working with the bamboo; so much softer than the wood I remember carving and chiselling in my high school woodwork class three decades ago. Once the helicopter blades were carved to shape, we sanded them smooth, drilled a hole in the centre and shaped a slim rod to provide a handle. Testing them outside we were thrilled when they caught the air and spun slowly to the ground!

For the whistles, we also used saws, chisels, and hole cutting tools, though Fumio advised us not to glue the two pieces together until we got home.

Lastly, with offcuts from one of the largest diameter bamboos, we made some very simple sake cups, the natural segmented shape of the bamboo doing most of the work for us.

As we worked, we learned a little more about the association.

Where once thatched houses were prevalent across rural Japan, they have increasingly fallen out of favour since the mid-20th century. Mr Nishio had travelled to Europe and noticed how Europeans tend to  attach a strong value to the remaining thatched houses, often sold for a premium because of their beautiful appearance (though only to those willing to take on the maintenance). But in Japan, we were told, most people have not yet come to appreciate the beauty of thatched roofs. So one of the core aims of the association is to share the beauty of traditional Japanese thatched roof homes and the skills of the craftsmen who make them.

The other side of the project is to counter the migration of young people from the area to large towns and cities. Many younger Japanese do not want to follow the traditional rural life of their parents and grandparents, and non-agricultural job opportunities here are few and far between. By bringing tourism into the area, the association hopes to encourage young people to live and work in the area, both locals and those from farther afield.

A few hours later, our workshop was done and we carefully packed up our efforts and said our goodbyes.

I would recommend a stay here to anyone wanting to experience the more rural side of Japan. Two nights will give you more time to explore the area and book more of the activities offered by the Miyama FUTON & Breakfast team – I’d have loved to do the mochi making workshop and one of the cookery classes too. There are also nature walks in the nearby forest and bike tours of the area. Make sure you visit nearby Kayabuki no Sato, a cultural heritage site featuring a large cluster of over 30 well-maintained traditional thatched roof houses, one of which is a Folk Museum open to the public.

You can visit Miyama via public transport, especially if you’re happy to hike or bike once you get here. For us, having a rental car was perfect and allowed us to enjoy the area at our own pace before heading onwards to Kyoto for the next part of our itinerary.

With thanks to all at the association, especially Taka and Fumio, for making our stay so special.

Click here for more posts about our experiences in Japan.

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Snapshots from Japan | Kinubiki Noodles in Moto-Hakone

Hakone is one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations, famous for its onsen (hot spring) resorts and natural beauty, not least the views of Lake Ashinoko and Mount Fuji. This mountainous town sits within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park; only 50 miles or so from central Tokyo the area is visited by national and international tourists alike.

There are many small towns – villages really – within Hakone, high up in the mountains and serviced by one of the stations of the Hakone Tozan railway line between Odawara and Gora. We stayed in an elegant, high-end ryokan in Miyanoshita but there are many other places to stay such as Hakone-Yumoto, Tonosawa and Gora. The Tozan railway journey between Hakone-Yumoto and Gora is particularly scenic.

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The pirate ship tourist boats

Alternatively, you can stay down by the lake. Moto-Hakone sits on the southern edge of Lake Ashinoko, from where you can catch tourist boats and ferries to Hakone-machi (fairly close by) or to Togendai and Kojiri at the lake’s northern end.

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Moto-Hakone

On our free day in Hakone we took the Tozan line from Miyanoshita to Gora, then the steep little funicular from Gora to Sounzan. Usually we’d have taken the ropeway from there but part of it was not operation because of volcanic activity in the area, so we took a bus down to Owakudani where we were able to use the ropeway for the rest of the journey down to the lake. There we boarded one of the pirate ships and crossed over to Moto-Hakone for a little light sightseeing. Later, we hopped on a local bus back to our base in Miyanoshita.

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Hopping aboard the local bus in Moto-Hakone

The main attraction of Moto-Hakone, other than the lake views themselves, is Hakone Shrine which sits in the forest just at the outskirts of the small urban area and port. The stone steps up the main shrine and down to the torii gate that sits out on the water are very steep, making access difficult for those with limited mobility.

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Hakone Shrine

After our walk in the forest, we picked our lunch spot Kinubiki-no-Sato based on its menu – I’d never encountered their kinubiki noodles before and wanted to try them.

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Kinubiki noodles in broth

The restaurant specialises in noodles and offers three types – udon (wheat noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles) and the special kinubuki (noodles made from wheat mixed with sesame). You can have these with various combinations of other items such as tempura, and as with soba, they can be served hot or cold.

My best guess is that the name of the noodles refers to their beautiful silkiness, but I can’t find much reference to them at all, so I think they may be a dish created and named by this restaurant.

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Katsudon with small bowl of kinubiki

Pete ordered kinubiki in broth. I went for katsudon (breaded and fried pork and egg over rice with onions and a savoury sauce mixed through) with a small side of kinubiki. We both enjoyed the kinubiki noodles though we didn’t feel the taste of sesame came through much at all. Their texture, and the two broths they were served in, were simple and delicious.

Have you come across kinubiki noodles before? Was it at the same little restaurant in Moto-Hakone or somewhere else? What did you think?

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Beauty, Culture & Relaxation at Hoshinoya Karuizawa

If any one nation excels at skilfully enhancing an area of natural beauty to make it even more beautiful, it must surely be Japan?

Certainly, we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful setting than HOSHINOYA Karuizawa, located in an area known colloquially as the Japanese Alps.

Karuizawa is not only one of the flagships of the Hoshino Resorts portfolio, it is also where the family business started over 100 years ago. As I mentioned in my post about an incredible dinner we enjoyed at Hoshinoya Kyoto, this family hospitality business was founded over a 100 years ago. After first setting up a forestry business in the area, Kuniji Hoshino decided to take advantage of the area’s increased popularity as a holiday resort by opening a ryokan and hot spring on his property in 1914. Today, fourth-generation family member Yoshiharu Hoshino is CEO of the company and has lead the business through two decades of transformation and expansion, modernising existing properties and purchasing several new ones.

Karuizawa has been hugely updated since Kuniji’s era. In 2005 the resort was completely rebuilt with all-new accommodation, absolutely stunning landscaping and a new meditation bath and spa building to match.

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Hoshinoya Karuizawa Resort

The residential area of the resort is laid out in a series of low rise buildings arranged around a lake and streams fed by the Yukawa River. The water twists and turns its way through the resort grounds – in slow languid loops paddled by contented ducks, racing over weirs in a bubbling rush, or tumbling delicately over a series of mini terraces in graceful waterfalls.

A few of the residences, like our Mizunami villa, house just one large guest suite but most rooms are grouped together in larger villas – these rooms can be booked individually or by groups of families, friends or colleagues. Many of the rooms have a view of the lake or streams. Some, slightly higher up the hillside enjoy views towards the mountains and a few have garden spaces that back onto the bird-rich forest below.

Our room (below) was airy and open with high ceilings, pretty pale green walls, and muted fabrics. Utterly gorgeous! The natural wood and stones are a nod to the more traditional Japanese inns but the design is very much a modern aesthetic. We loved the sense of space and calm, not to mention luxurious comfort – underfloor heating in the bathroom!

Every evening, shortly before dusk falls, two staff take a row boat out onto the lake and light, one by one, the tethered candles floating on the surface.

We watched them from our balcony, whilst enjoying hot tea and a delicious local delicacy – walnut-flavoured gyuhu mochi, a softer style of mochi sweets made by a local wagashi specialist to a traditional local recipe – served to us in our room shortly after we arrived by Mei, one of the Hoshino guest services team.

Looking out onto the lake as darkness fell and the candles twinkled and bobbed on the waters is one of the most peaceful and magical of memories.

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Our room, 110.

But sitting looking out at the view was not our only way to relax.

Within the resort area is a modern spa building which is open all night, closed for just a few hours in the middle of the day. At its heart are the gender-separated Meditation Baths. Each features a deeper-than-usual hot bath that opens out from a waterfall entrance area into Hikari – a bright high-ceilinged space where you can soak within the warm water and light. Hikari is connected by a passage way to Yami – a dark, low ceilinged bathing area, recommended for quiet meditation.

What we really appreciated was being able to use these whenever we wanted – early morning, afternoon, before dinner, after dinner… Dressed in our in-room yukata (robes) and outer jackets, with clog-like geta on our feet, we clip-clopped along paths lit with nightlights and across the modern suspension bridge to arrive at the spa building.

There are also a range of treatments available, from traditional health and beauty treatments to more unusual options such as facial acupressure, warming eye care and moxibustion workshops; never heard of moxibustion? No, neither had we but we spent a wonderful hour learning all about it, more of which below!

Also worth visiting is the original onsen (hot spring), Tombo-no-yu – a short walk from the residential area. Open to both residents and general visitors, but allowing exclusive access to Hoshino guests at certain times of the day, Tombo-no-yu offers a more traditional onsen experience with gender-separated bathing areas offering indoor and outdoor pools of the usual shallower proportions.

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These 4 images provided by Hoshino Resorts – Left: Meditation Spa; Right: Tombo-no-yu onsen

Another place we enjoyed is the Tsudoi building, overlooking a hillside landscaped into gentle terraces over which streams gently cascade. It houses the main reception, a small shop, a lounge library area and the Kasuke Japanese restaurant.

We watched in rapt delight as a male and female duck gingerly followed each other downwards over a couple of the little waterfalls, swimming along a length of stream before paddling out onto a patch of grass. Not long afterwards another young male tried to play the gooseberry and join the party but eventually realised he wasn’t welcome. He paddled away, playing it cool until he slipped accidentally over the lip of another waterfall, looking rather undignified as he landed clumsily before quickly swimming away!

The lounge is a lovely place to while away a little time, with a range of teas, coffee and chocolates available to help yourself. During the afternoon, guests are invited to try a more traditional confectionary served by Hoshino staff. Most of the books in the library are in Japanese, though we did enjoy a bilingual guide to Sushi that we spotted on one of the shelves.

At reception (or via phone from your room if you prefer), you can request one of the resorts cars to transfer you to any of the locations outside of the residential resort area. These include the restaurants of sister-hotel Bleston Court, local sites such as the Stone Church, the Kogen Church, the Picchio Visitors Centre (more on which later) or Hoshino’s Harunire Terrace (where you’ll find a range of restaurants and shops). Any of these will also call a car to collect you, when you are ready to head back to the resort.

Of course, you are welcome to walk if you like and there are also local walking paths in the area which Reception staff can tell you more about.

The Stone Church, also known as the Hoshino Chapel, was designed by American architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg. Built in 1988 to commemorate Uchimura Kanzo (a Japanese journalist, author, Christian evangelist and leader of the Non-Church Movement) the church is strikingly modern in design yet integrates beautifully into the landscape. Built of stark concrete and grey stone, the church is surprisingly warm and beautiful, especially the inside chapel with a living wall of green plants and beautifully carved wooden pews beneath soaring curved arches and windows above. I wish we’d given ourselves more time to explore and enjoy the avant-garde architecture and serene vibe; it’s really an incredible and quite unexpected place.

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The Stone Church

Nearby is the much older Kogen Church and this too traces its roots back to Uchimura Kanzo. Originally, it was not a church but a lecture hall, designated as a place of learning and enjoyment by Kanzo in 1921. After the second world war, it was renamed as the Karuizawa Kogen Church and is today both a place of worship and a venue for concerts and events. In the summer, a candle light festival is hugely popular, with the entire approach and church itself lit by many hundreds of candles. What a sight that must be!

What I most loved about Kogen was the display next door of wedding photos of couples who have married here, hundreds and hundreds of them displayed in frames or tucked into albums. Staff told us that many couples come back to celebrate their anniversaries and to show their children where they were wed.

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The Kogen Church

Guests at both Hoshinoya Karuizawa and Hotel Bleston Court have plenty of choice for dinner, both formal and casual.

Yukawatan, in Bleston Court, is a renowned French restaurant headed by Chef Noriyuki Hamada, the only Japanese chef to secure a coveted Bocuse d’Or medal. I would very much like to dine at Yukawatan on our next visit as Hamada’s cooking is reputed to be of an incredibly high level.

Nearby Harunire Terrace is the home to Il Sogno (Italian), Kisurin (Chinese), Kawakami-an (Soba noodle) and Cercle (French) restaurants plus a bakery, a gelateria and a traditional Japanese confectionery shop. There are other cafes and restaurants also in the vicinity.

Kasuke Japanese restaurant is a beautiful space, located in the Tsudoi building. The ceiling is high, high, high above the traditional foot-well tables that look out through floor to ceiling windows across the beautiful landscaped gardens. Breakfast can also be taken here but we visited for a traditional kaiseki dinner (images below), an excellent choice which we felt it was very reasonably priced at just 12,000 Yen per person (excluding tax and service), much less than meals of this calibre and style that we enjoyed elsewhere.

The feast of over ten courses – appetiser, soup, sashimi, a fried dish, charcoal-grilled vegetables, assorted small bites, a steak and salmon course, rice (with pickles and miso soup), fresh fruit, and finally tea and a Japanese sweet – were served by Mie. Mie was like a personal butler during our visit, she took us to our room on arrival, served us tea and wagashi to welcome us as she told us more about the resort and our itinerary and escorted us to many of our activities during our stay.

Highlights of the meal included many local woodland vegetables that we had not encountered before; the simple but utterly perfect grilled onion and udo (mountain asparagus) course served to our table by one of the chefs who carefully peeled the charred skins off the vegetables before portioning and serving them to us with a homemade sesame miso, salt and olive oil – their flesh was silky soft and sweet and with a hint of smokiness; the tokun strawberry (so named because it smells like a peach, and it really does!) and hyuganatsu citrus served for dessert alongside a Japanese version of affogato – kuromoji (a medicinal tea made from a native shrub) poured over a ball of fuki (giant butterbur) ice cream.

Another aspect that really wowed us was the matching drinks flight – a very clever mix of European red and white wines and traditional Japanese sakes, extremely well matched to the diverse ingredients, flavours and textures of all our courses – one of the best we’ve encountered.

Our only disappointments when it came to dining at the resort, were room-service dining, which we tried for both a breakfast and a dinner – really overpriced for what was served in both cases – and the breakfast we ate at Bleston Court’s No One’s Recipe – alternatively described as French and American, it wasn’t really either, offering a bizarre selection of no-choice galette plus a buffet of soups, lasagne, patés, salads and desserts. I would have preferred a typical French, American or traditional Japanese breakfast over this rather random and not very well-balanced offering.

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Traditional kaiseki dinner in Kasuke restaurant

Although we could happily have whiled away our time lazing in our room, soaking in the Meditation Baths and onsen hot springs, and exploring the resort and local area, we also took advantage of some of the activities on offer at Hoshinoya Karuizawa.

Knowing my interest in Japanese food, the resort suggeested a wonderful lesson in making Oyaki (sweet, bean-filled dumplings). One of the resort’s chefs, Chef Yamamoto Hidemasa was on hand to show us how these are made, though I let Pete do all the hard work!

Because of the time available, chef Yamamoto had already made the three different fillings for our dumplings – one of mashed roasted pumpkin, one of aubergine and miso and the last a simple azuki (red bean) paste – but gave me instructions on how to make these simple fillings at home.

Oyaki dough can be made with buckwheat or regular wheat flour, we used the latter. The first step was for Pete to make the dough, for which he combined flour, baking powder, cold water, sugar and a little salt  and knead it well. Needing to sit and rise overnight, chef Yamamoto switched the dough for one he’d made the previous day and showed Pete how to form and fill the dumplings and the two of them went ahead and made a few with each of the three fillings.

After the lesson, we headed to Kasuke where Mie served hot tea and a few minutes later, chef Yamamoto served the freshly cooked dumplings Pete had helped to make. He had steamed them for ten minutes before briefly frying to give them little golden caps.

The soft steamed texture of the dough and delicious fillings were utterly delicious and this is definitely a recipe we’re going to try and recreate at home!

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Oyaki lesson

Another activity the resort arranged for us was a Moxbustion workshop.

Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicinal treatment that involves placing pieces of dried mugwort – an aromatic plant often used as a herb – on meridian points of the body and burning. Today, it is common for the mugwort to be processed into small stick-on moxa (named for the Japanese word for mugwort, mugosa) which can be easily attached to the skin and lit. A small padded disc protects the skin from any burn damage as the mugwort burns down.

The meridian points, also known as chi, are the same ones used for acupuncture and acupressure, so it may simply be the application of heat to those locations is what has an effect, rather than the properties of the mugwort itself.

Practitioners believe that moxibustion can improve blood circulation and metabolism, boost the immune system and reduce stress. As with acupuncture and acupressure, specific meridian points are also associated with different aspects of health.

Our tutor Mr Funada, with the aid of his colleague and a member of Hoshino’s staff to translate for us, introduced us to the treatment and applied several moxa to our wrist and feet meridians. He explained which points to use for stress relief and good sleep, for reduction of eyestrain and neck pain, for healing gastrointestinal and gynaelogical symptoms and more. I also asked for points specific to shoulder and back pain.

I used to be very cynical about alternative medicines, lumping ancient practices such as acupuncture and Ayurvedic remedies in with homeopathy and crystals (both of which I think are pure hokum). But I have come to realise through experience that many of the ancient Asian medicine techniques are effective and many are now being researched and recognised by Western medicine. Certainly acupuncture, applied by a professional physiotherapist, has relieved severe back and neck pain for me in the past and some of the (rather foul-tasting) Indian herb and spice remedies have also been helpful with joint pain.

Whether or not moxibustion works because of properties within the burning mugwort or via the application of heat to the body’s meridian points, I can’t tell but certainly the neck, shoulder and back pain I’d been suffering with for the previous few days eased following the workshop. Of course, that could also have been courtesy of the long soaks in the hot soothing waters of the Meditation Baths!

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Moxibustion workshop

One of the things that excited us about visiting Karuizawa was the chance to see local wildlife. Pete and I have spent many happy holidays travelling to watch wildlife in its native habitat, from East and Southern African safaris where we thrilled at the sightings of lions, elephants, cheetahs and more to Galapagos Island bird and reptile viewing all the way down to Antarctica for penguins, seals and albatrosses.

The Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel, known in Japan as musasabi, may not sound like a very exciting wildlife encounter but for us, it was thrilling!

Our tour was provided by Picchio, an ecotourism organisation established by Hoshino in 1992. Picchio offers a variety of nature tours in the local area and is also active in local conservation activities including the protection of Asian Wild Bears, found in the region.

Before we left the visitors’ centre, located just opposite the Tombo-no-yu onsen buildings, our guide Motoi Inoue gave us an introductory presentation about the animal we were hoping to see. Luckily for us, Inoue spoke fluent English, so he kindly repeated everything in both Japanese and English, allowing us to fully appreciate these fascinating little creatures. His enthusiasm was infectious! We learned about their physiology (including size – much bigger than most of us guessed), what they naturally eat and the variation in the size of their territories depending on the density of their chosen food source in a given area.

Best of all, we learned that our chances of seeing them on the evening’s tour were extremely high. Giant flying squirrels sleep in nests during the day, coming out at night to feed. Two things make Picchio’s squirrel observation tours so successful. Firstly, research has found that musasabi come out of their nest approximately 30 minutes after sunset, sticking to a pretty tight + /- 15 minutes of that time. Secondly, Picchio have created 14 nest boxes for the local musasabi to use, each of which have a camera inside. Unlike many animals, musasabi switch from nest to nest, often on a nightly basis and also show no qualms about using a nest that a different squirrel used the previous night. The video cameras allow Picchio staff to check during the day which of the boxes are in use allowing the guides to direct enthusiastic visitors to one of the boxes shortly ahead of the approximate exit time, based on the time of sunset that evening. There are no absolute guarantees, but their success rate is very high.

Fortune was smiling on us in many ways that evening. The box Inoue had selected was easily accessible, within 10 minutes walk of the visitors’ centre and nailed to a tree within a tarmacked parking area that had just two or three cars in a distant corner. Better still, Inoue carried with him a laptop screen and cables which allowed him to plug into a socket at the base of the tree and show us on screen the camera feed from inside. We quickly discovered that our nest box contained several bundles of squirming fur which Inoue identified as a mother, two very young pups and an older sibling from a previous litter.

Standing a respectful distance away from the nest, each of us furnished with loan binoculars, we watched the nest eagerly, the exit lit by red torchlight that neither disturbs the animals nor damages their night vision or eyesight.

Inoue warned us that it was unlikely the mother would leave the nest as the pups were still very young; she had not left during the previous nights since their birth. However it was almost certain that the older sibling to the pups would come out for a night feed. As the time approached, we saw him peek his head out of the nest a few times, and then, suddenly, he came all the way out, looked around him at the nearby trees around the car park, and scampered up to the top of the tree. Moments later he launched, all four limbs akimbo to create the wings that allow him to glide swiftly to another tree. Once landed, he scampered up to the top once again.

Initially, the plan had been to walk quietly towards the landing tree in the hopes of seeing a second flight, but Inoue quickly asked us to stay still, noticing that the mother had poked her head out of the nest to have a look around – we didn’t want to risk disturbing her. To our enormous delight and surprise, the mother chose this night to leave her pups for the first time, and we watched her speed up the tree before launching and gliding across to another. Not only were we elated to see a second flight from a second animal, we were also able to get a clearer camera view of the pups now that they were alone inside the nest.

Just as we thought our tour complete, Inoue’s assistant alerted us to the distinctive call of another musasabi – an adult male in a tree nearby. Using the red torchlight, the newcomer was located atop one of the tallest trees in the vicinity. Giddy with excitement, we watched him glide to a tree very close to where we stood and then onwards again right over our heads to a tree deeper in the forest!

As you can probably tell, we were utterly captivated by this experience, even more so given its location within the heart of the resort.

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Picchio Flying Squirrel Observation Tour

For us, the charm of HOSHINOYA Karuizawa lies in its offering of natural beauty and wildlife skilfully enhanced by delightful landscaping, the chance to immerse oneself in cultural activities and to explore the local area and sights, the opportunities to relax and recuperate and of course, the absolute joy of eating well.

Prices start at around 30,000 Yen per person for a twin or double room (without meals) though there are significant savings available for booking more than three months in advance (with prices dropping to 18,000 Yen per person). Our kaiseki dinner at Kasune was 12,000 Yen per person plus tax and service; menus and prices for other dining options are available online. Activities such as the moxibustion workshop we attended, and beauty treatments such as facial acupressure and onsen body work are priced at 2,000 Yen per person. The oyaki making activity is 8,000 Yen per group.

Kavey Eats were guests of Hoshino Resorts for one night of our two night stay at HOSHINOYA Karuizawa, the other night was paid by us at the full standard rate. We were also invited to review the kaiseki dinner at Kasuke restaurant and breakfast at No Ones Recipes. All other meals and drinks were covered by us. Our activities during the stay were organised by Hoshino Resorts.

Hoshinoya Karuizawa in Japan on Kavey Eats

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Snapshots of Japan | Visiting The Giant Seated Amida Buddha in Kamakura

Formally known as the Seated Amida Buddha, more commonly called the Daibutsu (Giant Buddha) of Kamakura, this beautiful Buddhist statue was cast from bronze in the mid-13th century, to replace a similarly large wooden Daibutsu completed just a few years earlier but damaged soon after in a storm.

Originally a hall was built to enclose the bronze statue; this too was damaged in a storm. The hall was rebuilt and destroyed by the weather multiple times during the following two centuries, but after the hall was once again washed away by the tsunami of 1498 the Great Buddha was left out in the open. Unsheltered from the elements, Daibutsu was at risk of deterioration, until a temple priest and an Asakusa merchant built a new temple, Kōtoku-in to protect and worship it in 1712.

The base upon which the statue sits was destroyed in an earthquake in 1923, the new plinth being built shortly afterwards. In the 1960s, repairs were made to the statue itself, with the neck strengthened to better withstand future natural disasters.

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Two visitors taking photos of the Giant Buddha

At over 13 metres in height (including the base) Daibutsu is very imposing and the beautiful green tones of oxidised bronze are beautiful against the greenery and blossoms of spring. That said, it must have looked very different when new – it was originally covered with gold leaf, of which only traces remain near its ears.

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Our first glimpse of Daibutsu; Pete in front of Daibutsu; our friend offering a prayer; the throng of fellow visitors

Visitors can also enter into the Buddha via a small side entrance into the plinth, which affords an insight into the casting and assembly of the statue. Entrance to this is 20 yen, but note that it’s not for the claustrophobic!

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Incense dome; cherry blossoms; a man worshipping the Kannon Statue within Kangetsudo (Moon Viewing Hall) behind Daibutsu; the roof of Kangetsudo

The nearest train station to Kōtoku-in Temple is Hase, about 10 minutes walk, or you can walk from Kamakura station in 20-30 minutes. Entrance to the temple costs 200 yen per person.

If you can manage a lot of stairs you may also enjoy a visit to nearby Hasedera (Hase Temple), which affords beautiful views of the area from its main terrace half way up the hill.

You may also enjoy these posts about my travels to Japan.

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Captivating Kaiseki Cuisine at Hoshinoya Kyoto

Is there anything more charming than a restaurant to which one travels by small boat along a serene stretch of river in one of Japan’s most beautiful cities? One that also serves the highest quality Japanese cuisine, each dish a perfect balance between traditional classic and inventive modern?

If there is, I am yet to find it but it certainly has a hard act to follow in Hoshinoya Kyoto, a top-level kaiseki ryōri restaurant within the luxury inn of the same name.

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Kaiseki cuisine is a traditional multi-course meal consisting of a succession of seasonal, local and beautifully presented little dishes. Although its origins are in the simple food served as part of a traditional tea ceremony, it has evolved over centuries into a far more elaborate dining style now served in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and specialised restaurants.

Such meals usually have a prescribed order to what is served, though each chef takes pride in designing and presenting their own menus based on local delicacies, seasonal ingredients and their personal style.

A typical meal may include a small drink or amuse-bouche to start, a selection of stunningly presented small appetisers, a sashimi (raw seafood) course, takiawase (which translates as ‘a little something’ and is most commonly vegetables with meat or fish alongside), futamono (a ‘lidded dish’, often a soup but sometimes combined into the takiawase course in the form of a broth with simmered ingredients served within it), sometimes there is a small tempura item (battered and deep fried) or some grilled fish, all this to be followed by a more substantial dish such as a meat hot pot or grilled steak with local seasonal vegetables, then rice served with miso soup and pickles, and finally fresh fruit or another dessert.

If that sounds like a lot, it is! That said, most of the dishes are small enough that most diners are able to enjoy the full meal comfortably, albeit with very little room left by the time the rice arrives! And most kaiseki menus don’t include every single one of the courses above, though they usually cover the majority.

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Views of Hoshinoya Kyoto; the hotel grounds later in the evening

Hoshino Resorts is a family business launched over 100 years ago when Kuniji Hoshino founded a forestry business in Karuizawa. The area, nicknamed the Japanese Alps, became increasingly popular as a location for holiday villas and in 1914 Kuniji opened a ryokan there which is still one of the company’s flagship properties today, albeit hugely updated since Kuniji’s era. Today, fourth-generation family member Yoshiharu Hoshino is CEO of the company and has lead the business through two decades of transformation and expansion, modernising existing properties and purchasing several new ones that are marketed under the brands Hoshinoya, Kai and Risonare.

A few years ago Hoshino Resorts purchased a beautiful historical Kyoto property originally constructed in the 16th century as the home of Ryoi Suminokura, a wealthy merchant and trusted advisor to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Suminokura played a major role in the construction of Kyoto’s canals and river systems, earning him extended shipping rights within the city. He built his beautiful home in the bamboo forests of Arashimaya, on the banks of the Katsura River. In the centuries following, his home was turned into a traditional ryokan.

In 2012 the ryokan closed for two years while the company completely refurbished the property, retaining and enhancing its historical treasures.They hired Japan’s most skilled architects and designers to repair the existing property and to design and construct extensions in keeping with the original yet offering a more modern luxury and comfort. The best artisans in their fields were invited to repair original pieces and to create new furniture and artworks throughout.

The newly completed resort opened in 2014 and has been another flagship for the brand ever since.

At the helm of Hoshinoya Kyoto’s kitchen is Head Chef Ichiro Kubota. Kubota’s father was the head chef at one of Kyoto’s top restaurants and instilled in his son an appreciation of culinary excellence and Japanese traditions. Initially intending to become an artist, Kubota studied art as well as English language; indeed it was a two year stint studying in America that helped him better appreciate the beauty of Kyoto’s culture and cuisine, and to change his focus and career plans. Kubota went on to train as a chef under his father and in many of the region’s top kaiseki restaurants before heading to Europe. There he apprenticed at Paris’ three-star Michelin restaurant Georges Blanc where he perfected classic French techniques, also taking advantage of days off to eat his way around Europe. He was poached from Paris in 2004 to head up the kitchen of Umu, London’s first Kyoto-style banquet restaurant. After seven years (and a Michelin star of his own, awarded within a few months of Umu’s launch) Kubota accepted the invitation to head up Hoshinoya Kyoto’s new restaurant – keen to return with all the expertise and knowledge he had gained and receive recognition in the home of the cuisine.

Since then, Kubota has developed a truly incredible offering that brings many innovative touches to this most traditional of formats.

So often, when chefs try to modernise classic dishes and methods, it just doesn’t work – it’s either so far from the original so as to be virtually unrecognisable (in which case naming it as such seems a travesty) or it simply isn’t as good and is therefore a rather pointless change. But Kubota achieves what very few do, retaining all that is glorious about the best traditional kaiseki ryōri whilst also applying European influences and modern techniques, flavours and presentations to each dish he serves – and these innovations not only work, they positively shine!

A meal at Kubota’s table is one to keenly anticipate; his reputation – and Hoshinoya’s – have already earned him high praise and the restaurant has a consistently busy reservations book. Most of the diners are, of course, residents of the resort but others, like us, book in for dinner only. The kaiseki menu is priced at 20,000 yen per person plus taxes and service, very much in line with Kyoto’s high end restaurants.

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Arashimaya at dusk: tourists in kimonos, tourists on the river bank, a bride under the cherry blossom, our boat at the Hoshinoya Kyoto landing dock

The journey to Hoshinoya Kyoto starts at the Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashimaya, a famous West Kyoto district that is popular with locals and tourists alike. If you’ve not visited, a stroll through the famous bamboo groves followed by a visit to Tenryuji Temple are both umissable activities; Tenryuji’s garden is amongst my favourite of the Japanese temple gardens we have visited. There are many other attractions in this area too – more temples, a scenic railway line, tourist boat trips (including trips to observe cormorant fishing in season) and even a monkey park, if you are so inclined.

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On the boat to Hoshinoya Kyoto; views from the boat

The Hoshinoya dock is close to Togetsukyo Bridge and easy to find. We are lead onto a small boat with large windows around the passenger area to enjoy the view. The boat slowly putt-putts its way up the river taking about 15 minutes to reach the hotel’s landing dock, where we are greeted by guest relations manager, Tomoko Tsuchida.

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Arriving at the hotel by boat; the path up to the restaurant and hotel

After taking a few photos in the darkening dusk outside, Tomoko takes us into the restaurant and shows us to our counter seats, of which there are 8. The other 30 covers are at regular tables. Tomoko settles us in, gives us the menu for the meal to come (which lists each course in both Japanese and English) and serves our meal assisted by an army of polite, well-trained and quick-footed waiting staff. Each dish is carefully explained and any questions patiently answered; sometimes the origins or patterns of the artisanal tableware are explained too – traditional lacquerware with painted gold flowers and fish, sake cups from Shigaraki (a pottery town we visited just two days earlier), and other beautiful handmade plates, bowls and cups.

Throughout the meal we watch the two chefs stationed in front of us create the first three courses again and again. Other chefs work on other courses in other kitchen spaces and their dishes appear in front of us as finished master pieces, from the fourth course onwards.

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Before the first morsel arrives, we are served a glass of Kasegi Gashira, a junmai sake with a light, lemony flavour that is accentuated by the mugwort pudding that arrives shortly afterwards.

I’ve been learning in recent years, and shared my beginner’s guide to sake last year, but am still a novice when it comes to selecting sake from a list. Luckily Tomoko gave us some suggestions for the two sakes we choose to accompany the rest of the meal.

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The amuse bouche is listed as Mugwort pudding with white shrimp, chopped fern root, horse tail bud, lily root petal and umami jelly. Tomoko explains that Mugwort is a sign of spring, and the dish is the introduction to their very seasonal menu. Near the property is a field of greens and yellows with a lone cherry blossom tree within it; the construction of the dish has been designed to represent this scene. The dish as a whole is light and refreshing, though I’m still not sure I could describe mugwort to you – I’d say slightly bitter with a hint of floral.

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When our next sake is served, we are offered a box of sake cups to choose from, each one a very different design. I recognise the distinctive look of an unglazed Shigaraki piece and of course, I select that one. This sake, in the very pretty blue bottle, is a junmai daiginjo made by Eikun, a sake brewery located in Kyoto’s Fushimi district, an area known for sake production. It has a rich, deep flavour, strong and punchy, not at all like the lighter one we started with. It’s unlike any sake I’ve tried before, and I like it.

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The selection of appetisers served next are beautifully presented; each item listed separately on the menu.

From left to right: bamboo shoot and cuttlefish marinated with cod roe dressing, lady fish sushi, simmered hamaguri clam and river lettuce with umami jelly, deep fried Japanese dace, broad bean stuffed with shrimp dumpling, simmered baby octopus with sweet soy sauce with simmered sea bream roe with ginger

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The dace fish, Tomoko explains, is threaded onto the skewer in an Ƨ shape so that it looks as though it is swimming!

I don’t pay much attention to the little leaf sat on the octopus and sea bream, and don’t realise until later that one of the intense flavours I detect on eating this is from the leaf rather than the braising spices used to cook the seafood.

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The next course is one that the chefs at our counter are responsible for, and throughout our meal we watch them make it again and again; their intense focus and attention to detail as they construct each plate is a pleasingly practised choreography.

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Described on the menu simply as Seasonal sashimi Hoshinoya style, Tomoko is on hand to give us all the details. When she tells us the plate itself is a design known as ‘blossom falling in the wind’, I realise I’m so focused on the beautiful food that I didn’t even glance at the plate. A good reminder to observe all the wonderful details.

The two pieces at the edges are the same; the one in the centre is different. The two pieces are both baby melon on fresh seaweed, wrapped in sea bream with diced wasabi and sea urchin on top. The ‘crystal jelly’ spooned onto the plate at the two corners is made from konbu stock and the white foam ball is sakura flavoured. A home made soy sauce dressing is provided for the outer two pieces.

The centre sushi is a piece of fresh sea bream roe which has been briefly boiled and then grilled. On top is a tiny layer of pureed leek topped with a circle of Japanese tangerine jelly (the citrus fruit chosen for its exact balance between sweet and sour) melted over the top, and a single Japanese red peppercorn sat on the jelly. The plate is garnished with crisp sugar snap peas and edible leaves and flowers.

The entire plate is altogether stunning, especially the sea bream roe which melt-pops in the mouth as though it’s filled with a mild and creamy liquid center. This dish is about beauty, freshness, seasonality, texture and flavours and it’s delightful!

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As we open the poached greenling coated with Domyoji sweet rice crumbs in a clear soup with yuba cake and fern root Tomoko tells us to check for the fish artwork under the lid before explaining how best to enjoy the soup. First, on lifting the lid, bend over the dish and inhale the aromas released, especially of the fragrant sansho leaf sat on top. Move the leaf into the broth so it can impart a little flavour, then use your chopsticks to hold back the other ingredients as you sip the broth. Finally, enjoy the other ingredients in the bowl.

This time, when I eat the leaf it’s a knockout punch to the taste buds! Not only is the flavour intense, it comes with a tingling numbing sensation akin to eating Sichuan peppercorns – I wonder if the two plants are related? The numbness lasts for a good few minutes, so you may prefer to nibble just a tiny bit of leaf for a hint of the flavour, and set the rest aside.

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Next comes charcoal grilled king fish glazed with rapeseed sauce. The fish is rich and meaty, and the seasonal topping of spring onions with rapeseed greenery is delicious. To visually represent the yellow of rapeseed flowers, bright yellow karasumi (salt-preserved mullet fish roe) is grated over the top – it contributes to the flavour too, of course. Also on the plate are baby ginger, shiitake mushroom and udo, a mountain vegetable.

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Shiraki Brewery in Gifu are the makers of this unusual Daruma Masamune sake that has been aged at room temperature for 15 years. The flavour is incredible, reminiscent of mushrooms though that makes it sound unpleasant when it’s actually very delicious!

Although aged sake is nothing new, today’s market is predominantly focused on new sake, released every spring – to the extent that Shiraki faced both bemusement and confusion when they first started to sell their 3, 5 and 10 year old aged sakes in the 1970s. Aged sake is still not very common, but these days there are enough aficionados to make this a premium drink.

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The next course arrives in a very unusual dish, unlike any I’ve seen before. If you’re starting to feel full just reading about this multi-course meal, I can assure you, it’s exactly how we feel as the containers are placed before us and we wonder if we can do justice to the contents.

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Inside the custom-crafted clay container (with one clay lid and one made from wood) are pieces of beef fillet and simmered spring vegetables. Wasabi and salt crystals sit in the condiment spaces, though for me the beef is perfectly seasoned as it comes and it’s absolutely superb – full of beefy flavour, meltingly soft without being pappy and cooked to just the right point. Hard to beat beef (and cooking) of this quality!

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Lest you think the savoury courses are over because the ‘main’ dish has been served, as with any Japanese meal, the rice course is still to come. Tomoko brings out a black lidded dish of seasoned rice with bamboo shoot topped with charcoal grilled conger eel which is served with red miso soup, assorted Japanese pickles and green tea.

We ask for small portions to be served, and the eel is delicious, so we do dig in even though we manage just a few mouthfuls each.

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Next comes an elegant strawberry and mint financier, strawberry sauce and rich milk ice cream served on a chilled metal block. The flavours are vivid, and brought to life by the tiny fragments of mint on the top.

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But lest we think that a more traditional Japanese dessert has been dropped in favour of the French-style patisserie, a second dessert arrives of melon and papaya with mint, served with a cup of hojicha (roasted black tea).

The papaya is nice enough but the melon, oh my goodness, this is the most delicious melon I’ve ever tasted! I ask for more information and learn that it’s a green melon from the musk melon family and grown in Shizuoka Prefecture. It’s so perfectly ripe that the perfume is heady and the flavour intense, with a texture that is almost liquid in the mouth. It’s glorious and a genuinely revelationary experience!

Full to bursting, yet a little sad that such an incredible meal has come to an end, we are walked to the reception area to settle our drinks bill before one of the resort’s private cars drives us back to Togetsukyo Bridge for our onward journey back to our hotel.

On this trip, we experienced several high end kaiseki meals and this one was our clear favourite (though others were certainly excellent, more of which soon). Kubota’s delightful weaving together of traditional Japanese techniques, ingredients and dishes with global influences from his exploration of world cuisine, along with his whimsical, artistic, delightful presentation lifted this meal to another level.

Kavey Eats dined at Hoshinoya Kyoto as guests of Hoshino Resorts.

Images from Toji Temple Flea Market, Kyoto

I’m conscious that nearly a year has passed since our last trip to Japan and I still have so much about the trip that I haven’t shared yet.

One of my favourite mornings was a visit to Kyoto’s Toji Temple for the monthly Kōbō-san flea market that’s held in the grounds on the 21st of each month. It was surprisingly busy, with a food-to-eat-now and produce market alongside the stalls selling both second hand goods and new products. I loved it! I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Click on any image to view a larger version.

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Approaching the entrance; entering; within the temple grounds

 

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An area of prayer by a statue of Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan and the head priest of the temple about 30 years after its establishment

 

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Random market wares

 

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Food vendors, to eat on site and to takeaway; I was surprised to recognise the man in the yellow apron and headgear from our trip the previous year, I remembered him being at Takayama Miyagawa morning market!

 

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There were peaceful corners even amid the bustle of flea market day

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Making Japanese Yakiniku at Home & New Zealand Grass Fed Wagyu Flat Iron Steak

During our two recent holidays to Japan, we discovered a real love for yakiniku.*

I was determined to recreate this indoor barbecue experience at home. But there were obstacles: no smokeless charcoal; no indoor barbecue container; no working extractor fan in the kitchen (it died and we’ve not had it fixed); and it can be tricky to find the kind of tender and beautifully marbled beef that is prevalent in Japan.

The first two, I decided to ignore. The third too, though we opened the large kitchen window as wide as it would go. And Provenance Butcher came to the rescue on the fourth.

Founded by a team of three Kiwis and a Brit, this Nottinghill-based butcher’s shop opened just eight months ago. None of the founders have a background in the butchery business – Erin, Guy and Tom grew up on farms in New Zealand and Brit Struan gave up a career in marketing to retrain as a butcher a few years ago – but all four are committed to sourcing and supplying top quality meat. The team have a deep love for 100% grass fed beef, which they currently source from New Zealand wagyu herds. These cattle spend their entire lives outdoors, eat a natural grass diet and are not given growth promoters, hormones or antibiotics. The meat is broken into sub-primal cuts at a New Zealand processing plant, vacuum-packed and transported to the UK by boat. It’s chilled rather than frozen, so further wet-ages during the six week journey. Here, it’s butchered into individual cuts, ready for the customer. Of course, Provenance also sell lamb, pork and chicken and this they source in the UK; the lamb comes from two British farms, one in North Yorkshire and the other in Wales; two fourth-generation farming brothers in Staffordshire supply free range pork and chicken.

When they asked if I’d like to try their New Zealand wagyu I figured it would be perfect for my yakiniku experiment.

One of the cuts they sent was Flat Iron. According to this 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, Flat Iron is filleted out of the chuck. Care must be taken to avoid a line of tough connective tissue running through the top blade of the shoulder area and, as there are only two such steaks in each cow, many butchers don’t bother, hence the cut is not that widely available. In the UK, it’s more traditionally known as Butler’s Steak or Feather Blade; the Aussies and Kiwis call it Oyster Blade.

Regardless of what name it goes by, it’s a very tender cut that is perfectly suited to being cooked rare or medium rare.

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When our Provenance wagyu Flat Iron arrived, we were hugely impressed at the deep colour and beautiful marbling of fat.

Pete sliced this 500 gram piece thinly across the grain. I arranged some of the slices on a plate and the rest I submerged in a bowl of miso yakiniku marinade (see recipe, below).

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As well as the marinade, we had three sauces in which to dip cooked meat – some beaten raw egg (with a few drops of soy mixed in), a goma (sesame) dipping sauce and another yakiniku sauce I made with dark soy sauce, sesame oil, shichimi (seven spice powder), sugar, fresh ginger and garlic.

The raw egg dip didn’t add much (I was way too stingy with the soy) and my yakiniku dipping sauce just wasn’t very balanced – way too much sesame oil and soy, not enough sugar, ginger and garlic. We quickly discarded these as failed experiments.

Our favourites proved to be the miso yakiniku marinade (which we dunked beef into before cooking) and the goma sauce (which we dipped the non-marinaded strips of beef into once cooked). We bought our goma sauce back from Japan; it’s Mizkan brand, a Japanese vinegar and condiments producer and available online from Japan Centre.

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Vegetable wise, we had some thin spring onions, mild long peppers (from our local Turkish grocery store) and thinly sliced sweet potato. We’d meant to have mushrooms too, but forgot to buy them!

The sweet potato didn’t cook well, blackening on the outside before softening at all inside. It’s definitely a vegetable we’ve been served in Japanese yakiniku restaurants so I’m wondering if they par-cooked it first, though I hadn’t thought so at the time. Or perhaps some varieties of sweet potatoes are better suited than others? I am on the hunt for the answer!

The spring onions and peppers worked very well.

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We used a disposable barbecue, which Pete lit outside, and bought in once the worst of the initial smoke had died down. We placed it over some old cork boards on a folding garden table we’d set up in the kitchen. It worked well enough, and wasn’t as smoky as we’d feared (though the smell did linger in the house for several hours afterwards). But the main weakness was that the disposable barbecue didn’t generate the level of heat we needed for a sufficiently long time, which meant the last several items took too long to cook.

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Oops! It was only when Pete took the disposable barbecue back outside that we discovered this little scene underneath!

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All that said, I was utterly delighted with our first home yakiniku!

I was also hugely impressed with the New Zealand grass fed wagyu which was full of flavour and wonderfully melt-in-the-mouth because of its beautiful marbling.

 

For next time:

  • I want to find food-grade smokeless charcoal – the British brands I have found seem to be sold for use in fireplaces rather than barbeques. What I’d like to use is Japanese binchōtan, a white charcoal produced from Ubame oak steamed at high temperatures; it is prized for burning characteristics which include very little smoke, low temperatures and a long burning time. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty expensive.
  • I’ll need to source a small bucket barbecue that can safely be used indoors.
  • And perhaps a cast iron trivet or a concrete paving slab might fare better than our cork boards to protect our table from the heat of the barbecue; they did protect the table but didn’t survive themselves!
  • The miso yakiniku marinade was super but I need to find a better recipe for the yakiniku dipping sauce. I might investigate some other tasty dipping sauces too.
  • We definitely need more vegetables and I’ll need to think harder about which ones will work well and whether they need to be par-cooked ahead of time.

 

Miso Yakiniku Marinade

Ingredients
100 ml light soy sauce
1 tablespoon miso
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon garlic, grated or pureed
1 tablespoon ginger, grated or pureed
1-2 teaspoons shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix) or half to 1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 tablespoon cooking sake
1 tablespoon mirin (slightly sweet Japanese rice wine) or additional tablespoon of sake plus teaspoon of sugar

Method

  • Mix all ingredients together.
  • Either heat gently in a saucepan or for 10 to 20 seconds in a microwave. This helps all the ingredients to melt and combine more easily.
  • Add sliced beef to marinade about 30 minutes before cooking.

Note: As we were using this as a marinade, the slightly runny texture suited us well. However, if you’d like a thicker yakiniku sauce, continue to heat gently to reduce and thicken.

 

* Read more about the history of yakiniku in Japan and what to expect at a yakiniku restaurant.

Kavey Eats received samples of New Zealand grass fed wagyu from Provenance Butchers.

Enjoying Yakiniku in Japan

In China, Taiwan and North America, yakinuku (literally “grilled meat” *) is often referred to as Japanese barbeque but in Japan itself, it’s very much considered a Korean import. In the UK, it’s not well known at all.

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Showa Taishu Horumon in Osaka

What is Yakiniku?

Yakiniku is DIY dining at its finest! Diners gather around a charcoal or wood burner, usually placed in the centre of the table, and cook their own meal, piece by piece and at their own pace.

Many specialist restaurants have yakiniku grills built right into the tables, with extractor systems to whip away smoke and smells. Others bring portable grills to the table, quickly switching them with a hotter replacement should the coals die down during your meal.

Most commonly, thin slivers of raw meat are ordered according to the cut. A variety of vegetable accompaniments is usually available, though the choice is sometimes limited, and the vegetables are clearly secondary to the meat! Most restaurants also offer a range of side dishes (such as rice, noodles and salads) which don’t need to be cooked on the grill. Again, these are simply a supporting act to the meat.

Yakiniku is perfect for 2 to 4 diners (any more than that and you’ll need multiple grills so everyone can reach). Sit down, check the menu, order your favourites and cook them just as you like them.

Some of the raw meat will come plain – thinly sliced and ready to grill; some will come marinated in a sticky tare (sauce); you may also be given raw egg or other sauces in which to dip pieces of meat once they have been cooked.

Beef and pork are the most common choices. Some yakiniku restaurants specialise in horuman (offal), their menus listing more different types of offal than I ever imagined existed! My first choice is the fattiest and most tender cuts of beef, which work well when flash grilled for mere moments until the fat starts to melt. I’m also addicted to thin slices of fatty belly pork, cooked a little longer until the fat starts to bubble and brown.

* Yaki most commonly refers to cooking on a grill, but can also mean frying or tempering.

The History of Yakiniku in Japan

According to most web resources, including Wikipedia, yakiniku originated in Korea.

The Meiji Restoration (the revival of Imperial rule) gave rise to a burgeoning interest in western culture, including foreign food. In 1872 The Emperor broke a 1,200 year ban on meat eating, though it took some time for long-ingrained cultural taboos to dissipate. ~

Korean food became popular in Japan during the 20th century, especially in the years following World War Two. Korean restaurants advertised themselves as offering chōsen cuisine; the term came from Joseon, the name of the old, individed Korea but when Korea split into two North and South nations following the Korean War, Joseon was appropriated by the North. Businesses in Japan, more sympathetic to the South, removed all chōsen references and instead labelled their food as kankoku (South Korean).

Restaurants serving bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) and galbi (grilled ribs) were known as horumonyaki (offal grills).

Although this is the history trotted out whenever the origins of yakiniku are discussed, isn’t it a little simplistic not to take into account the fact that grilling meat was already prevalent in Japan before the influx of Korean cooking, even though beef was not widely eaten until the late 19th Century?

Perhaps it is the use of the wonderfully-flavoured marinades that mark yakiniku as a Korean-influenced cuisine? But yakiniku, as it is enjoyed in Japan today, is not wholly Korean either – the prevalence of offal and the use of dipping sauces (in which the meat is dipped after cooking, rather than before) are, apparently not common in Korea.

Regardless of the exact origins, the association between yakiniku and Korean food is a strong one and many yakiniku restaurants in Japan commonly offer a range of Korean dishes including kimchi and spicy tofu.

I’m not sure when the general yakiniku (grilled meat) term came widely into use for this kind of cooking but the All Japan Yakiniku Association was established in 1992 and proclaimed August 29 as an annual Yakiniku Day in 1993. The date is described as goroawase (numerical wordplay) because the numbers 8, 2 and 9 can be read as ya-tsu-ni-ku, an approximation of yakiniku.

Yakiniku has seen its fortunes rise and fall according to a variety of influences. In the 1980s, the introduction of modern ventilated systems, which allowed restaurants to easily eliminate smoke and cooking smells, gave open grill restaurants a big boost. So too did the easing of beef import restrictions in 1991, which resulted in a drop in the price of beef. However, the 2001 occurrence of Mad Cow Disease (BSE) in Japan was a set back.

Today, yakiniku is hugely popular and that popularity is still growing. ^

~ This (PDF) article on The Meat Eating Culture of Japan gives a fascinating, detailed history of ancient meat-eating customs, the prohibition of meat and the lifting of restrictions.
^ Here’s an entertaining article from Japan Today with a theory on why and how diners may be forming an addition to meat!

Our Yakiniku Feasts

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The best beef we had in Japan was also our first yakiniku experience, at Maruaki, a Hida Beef restaurant in Takayama in 2012.

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On that same trip, we came across this restaurant in department store restaurant floor. A sign outside invited overseas customers to tell the restaurant manager he was handsome in return for a free beer. We did, he giggled, we received our free beers!

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Gyu-Kaku is a large Korean yakiniku chain with several hundred branches across Japan (and quite a few internationally too). Many of the meats come marinated and there are various dipping sauces, including raw egg ones, to dip the cooked meat into before eating. We really liked the spicy tofu with mince meat side dish as well.

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Another visit to a different branch of Gyu-Kaku, on our second trip.

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We chose Showa Taishu Horumon in Osaka’s Dotonbori district for a number of reasons – specialising in horuman (offal), but with regular cuts also on the menu, it gave me the opportunity to try cuts I’d never normally try; I found the retro ‘50s vibe to the decor rather appealing; I liked the bucket barbecue grills; everyone inside looked happy; staff were welcoming. By the way, Showa Taishu Horumon has a a few branches in the area, this one is located at Dotonbori 1-5-9 1F, on the area’s main street. We had a great meal – I discovered that oesophagus is definitely not for me but confirmed I’m happy to eat cheek and tongue. I chose not to explore the extensive tripe menu! And the regular beef and pork cuts were delicious!

 

Next, Pete and I bring yakiniku into our kitchen for a home made Korean-Japanese BBQ. Coming soon!

Kyoto’s Western Breakfast Sets

Although we always chose Japanese breakfasts when our morning meals were included in our ryokan or hotel stays, our Kyoto accommodation was room only, so we headed out for breakfast every day.

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On the first morning, we headed out to Toji Temple (for the monthly flea market) and decided to find breakfast once we reached Toji Station. Just as I was starting to despair of finding anywhere, we came across a lovely little coffee shop called Kissa Ippongi. We were warmly welcomed and took two seats at the large communal table to one side. We noticed most of the Japanese customers eating a Western breakfast set and followed suit. This was our first encounter with the fabulously light and thick-cut Japanese sliced bread and we both really liked it. We also appreciated the crunchy dressed cabbage salad and the fresh oranges that came as part of the plate. The bill, including coffees, was just ¥880.

We enjoyed our coffee shop breakfast so much that we sought out other Kyoto cafes for more egg and toast breakfasts throughout the week. Don’t worry – we made sure to eat lots and lots and lots of wonderful Japanese food during our trip!

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Coffee Smart on Teramachi Dori clearly belongs to a true coffee lover, judging from the careful attention given to roasting beans using an impressive Probat roasting machine just inside the entrance. I couldn’t help but be charmed by its retro interior and I suspect it’s original rather than a modern-day replica. For breakfast, Pete ordered toast and egg, which turned out to be a very generously stuffed omelette sandwich. My French Toast, made with that same thick-cut fluffy sliced bread, was superbly light and served with a pot of maple syrup. A little more pricey than our Toji breakfast, the bill came to ¥2000.

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Between the nearest bus stop and Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) we stopped at this “Morning Cafe Evening Bar” called Bear. Indeed, there were a number of soft bears inside including a large one perched on a bar stool wearing a Halloween outfit, who was our only fellow customer. Breakfast was ok but the coffee was too bitter for us here. The bill was ¥960.

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It was the resident cat that first drew us to Shiroi Hana (“white flower”), a coffee shop we passed several times during our stay, walking back and forth along Aneyakoji Dori as we made our way to and from Teramachi Dori (and its neighbouring covered shopping streets). Inside, we were charmed by the bright, polished interior and the row of fancy glass coffee syphons at the counter. Breakfast, with a particularly fine iced coffee for me, came to ¥1000.

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As we were leaving Shiroi Hana the waitress saw me taking a photo of the exterior and came running out to take our photo in front of the entrance; just another example of the proactive kindness we encountered so often in Japan.

We also tried similar Western sets in a couple of coffee chains, but they were not worthy of sharing.

 

You can read more about this and our previous Japan trip under my Japan tag. More to come soon!

Thanks to Michael for help identifying the names of a couple of these coffee shops and to Ish and Chloe for the coffee syphon know-how.

Japan Snapshots: Random

A random set of images from Japan:

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A friend of bread is a friend of mine

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Cupola Sanjo, the covered segment of Sanjo Dori (and its delightful chicken logo)

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Waiting at a tram stop, Osaka

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Details, Pontocho, Kyoto

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Children’s book, Kyoto Coffee Shop – rather surreal to try and understand it from the pictures alone

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Osaka Marathon support crew; Peeking into an Osaka games parlour

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Takoyaki stall octopus dressed for Halloween, Osaka

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Ice cream twins, Kyoto

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Fortune slips and berries, Kyoto

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My sweet and malty near-namesake