Hoshinoya Kyoto: Redefining the Luxury Ryokan

Last Autumn, just after we stayed at Hoshinoya Karuizawa and made a brief detour to Nagano, we arrived at the boat launch for Hoshinoya Kyoto, the latest addition to the luxury modern ryokan (Japanese inn) resort as envisioned by Yoshiharu Hoshino. Stepping onto a specially designed wooden boat, we traveled for just a short distance in a matter of a few minutes, yet the separation from the outside world immediately began. Then, the elegant roof lines of the complex of 16th-century buildings came into view and we noticed two Hoshino staff members standing ready at the boat landing. We knew we were about to experience something unique.

We can’t say enough about this resort — it’s otherworldy. But what surprised us the most was that in the midst of all the pampering in luxurious surroundings, there were also ample opportunities to learn. And this made all the difference — leading to something much deeper. Read more.

The Art of the Jubako

Happy New Year! May 2012 be filled many delicious meals shared with good friends and family.

We thought we’d share some tips we’ve learned over several years of putting together the oshogatsu (New Year’s) meals in jubako (tiered lacquered boxes). It was only a few years ago that we finally purchased a high-quality, four-tier antique black lacquered jubako, and we’re starting to really enjoy the art of filling them with osechi ryori (New Year’s cuisine).

Above, we have a detail of one of the more colorful boxes, filled mostly with things we didn’t make, but purchased. In the center is a gold kozara (small dish) filled with ikura (salmon caviar). Nestled closely around it (clockwise, from top left) are; two dishes made with eggs: Datemaki flavored with yuzu (citron) and Nishiki tamago (egg separated into yellow and white and pushed through a fine sieve); Several kinds of kombumaki (kombu rolled around a center and simmered until tender) filled with salmon, anago (sea eel) and tarako (salted cod roe). We were able to keep the bright color and round shape of the shrimp by first skewering them into shape, quickly parboiling to set the color and then gently boiling them in dashi mixed with sake, shoyu and mirin. Ferns and cedar branches — as well as parboiled snow peas — serve to set off “zones” for each type of food.

It’s always nice to have a few large focal points as well. The gorgeous prawns in the center of the box pictured above serve this function well. It’s important to keep to the lucky numbers such as one, three and five. Therefore, even though the prawns were sold in packs of two, we placed three here and one in another box. Around the prawns are kombumaki, simmered sato-imo (taro); yuzu filled with ikura, pink and white kamaboko (fish cakes); creamy, golden kurikinton; tataki gobo (pounded burdock) and kiku kabu (turnip chrysanthemums).

Take care to place contrasting colors next to each other, and pack them tightly so as to portray abundance.

Osechi ryori is designed to be eaten at room temperature, so it’s a wonderful way to throw a party. If kept simple, you only need to replenish the boxes as the night progresses. And while I always aim to include ALL the dishes for the party in these lovely boxes, we invariably find that some things — such as salads — are better served in bowls. I suppose we just need to find some small black lacquered boxes to hold such items. Oh well, that will be for next year.

The anticipation of the year’s jubako is always a joy. We talk about what and what not to include during the year. But we always include the classics. For recipes and an explanation of the history and symbolism of nine of these important dishes, please refer to the Oshogatsu page on Savory Japan.

Report from the road

It’s been a busy few weeks here in Japan. During this visit we’ve strayed from our usual path, visiting Hagi, Hiroshima and Karuizawa in addition to Tokyo and Kyoto. The trip isn’t over yet, and we have some Osaka restaurants on our ‘to do’ list.

As time is limited (a good meal is just around almost every corner!) we wanted to share a just a few photos from the road. We’ll post proper reviews and articles upon our return home in the coming months. The tranquil setting above is the Hoshinoya Resort in Karuizawa, an onsen resort hotel that provides an updated version of the classic ryokan (Japanese inn), in a pristine natural setting, with clean mountain air, adjacent to a bird sanctuary, complete with flying squirrels and the occasional bear! It also has some inspiring dining options, including the creations of a young Japanese chef working in the French tradition, where we had one of the most memorable meals of our life.

At the other end of the spectrum, (though no less loved), we’ve found some great home-style places including an izakaya in Arashiyama (an area of Kyoto) that serves scrumptious obanzai fare at reasonable prices. The food on the countertop is only part of the offering each night. We’ve heard the sashimi is some of the best in the area, so we’re planning to return soon.

Gotta go. Vegetable shopping at Nishiki market is next.


The Japanese Diet: the secret to staying slim

For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed more and more people at the gym. It’s virtually as crowded as it was in early January! I suppose it’s because summer is just around the corner and everyone wants to look their best. So we at Savory Japan thought it would be good timing to post an article on health, and how switching to an all-Japanese diet can make you slim without suffering from food cravings, because the cuisine is based on fresh, wholesome, (and in most cases) low-calorie ingredients prepared simply.

We also list six low- and no-calorie foods to help you jump-start your diet, including zero calorie konnyaku, served here as sashimi with creamy miso dressing.

We’ve been sampling too much summer party and picnic food lately, and although potato salad and barbecued ribs are fun to eat and taste great, they’re not for every day. (I’ve gained five pounds in just a few weeks!) So we’re going to take our own advice and get back to basics.



Making your own Shichimi Togarashi (seven spice powder)

Savory Japan is updated for March with a feature on Chobunya, a little shop in Kyoto where you can make you own shichimi togarashi (seven spice) blend.

Shichimi togarashi is delicious sprinkled on udon noodles, yakitori or domburi (rice) dishes. It packs a flavorful punch without a lot of  heat.

Curious about the ingredients that go into this tasty and fragrant blend? Visit Savory Japan to find out.

Everyday Japanese Brings Japan’s Ingredients Home

Today I opened up my order from the new e-commerce store, Everyday Japanese.  Carefully unwrapping each item, I was filled with joy — and a tiny bit of envy. You see, when noted food writer Harris Salat announced his new venture earlier this month on his popular blog The Japanese Food Report (as well as his Facebook page of the same name), I felt a twinge of jealousy because it was something we at Savory Japan had been wanting to do for a long time: Offer Japanese regional food products and homespun, artisanal ingredients, kitchen tools and more. It wasn’t just an opportunity, but something we strongly felt needed to be done to help support small family-owned businesses in Japan. But our work on Mizuya, our gallery for fine Japanese tableware delayed that step, and Everyday Japanese beat us to the kitchen, so to speak.

But I quickly got over such thoughts and promptly placed an order. I ordered ingredients not easily found in Chicago, such as the rich and flavorful kiriboshi shoyu (freshly pressed soy sauce) and iburi jio (smoked sea salt) shown above. How do you smoke salt, you might ask? Well, you must go to the site to find out, because Mr. Salat does a wonderful job of explaining where and how it’s made, as well as how to use it in the kitchen. My little container smells wonderfully smoky, and I’m waiting for just the right recipe to match its particular flavor.

There’s even free shipping on orders over $60 and 10% off orders placed by Dec. 31. I ordered two of some items above to give to my dear old dad for the holidays. He’s something of a salt connoisseur, and I just know he’ll be delighted.

Kenchin-jiru: Buddhist vegetarian soup recipe

November’s essay for Savory Kyoto is about shiru (Japanese soup). What a welcome thought it is — during bone-chilling days like today — to cup your hands around a nice hot bowl of hearty soup and letting the fragrant steam rise to your face before the nourishing liquid warms you to the core.

Featured is this recipe for Kenchin-jiru, a hearty Buddhist vegetarian soup that  can either be made with miso, or with soy sauce and salt. My mother always made a version with pork and miso, but recently I’ve taken to this vegan version because you can really taste all the wonderful vegetables. Richness comes from the intense flavors of the gobo (burdock) and shiitake mushrooms, as well as the creamy texture of the sato-imo. This hearty soup is more like a stew, and can be considered a meal unto itself when served with rice and pickles.

6 cups vegetarian dashi
1/4 daikon, cut into cubes
1 carrot, cut into rangiri
3 shiitake mushrooms, soaked
1/2 gobo, peeled and sliced
4 satoimo, peeled
Soy sauce, to taste
Sea salt, to taste

Cut vegetables into a variety of pleasing shapes, as seen above. Soak the gobo in cold water to prevent discoloration and remove bitterness. Simmer the gobo and daikon in 6 cups of dashi for 15 minutes. Add the remainder of the ingredients and simmer for another 10 minutes, or until tender. Season with soy sauce and sea salt to taste, or add four tablespoons of country miso.

The soup is served in Meiji era (1868-1912) red and black lacquer bowls, available on Mizuya.

Join Savory Japan on Facebook

I’ve just added a Savory Japan Facebook page, which will allow greater connectivity and  real-time discussions. I’m rather new to Facebook, and don’t really know much about it, but it’s easier to post immediate comments there, (for now- I’m going to make it easier for conversations here too). Also, if you have a question, someone else might be able answer it for you if I’m not connected. You can also meet other people who are interested in Japanese cuisine and culture.

This is all new to me, so please bear with me. We’re also on Twitter, but I’m not very active there yet.

Savory Japan for July: Yoshihiro Murata; Imari Elegance

Salt-grilled ayu (sweetfish) served on a bed of bamboo leaves at Kikunoi Honten in May

Savory Japan is updated for July, and features a recent conversation with famed kaiseki chef Yoshihiro Murata. Read about this amazing Renaissance man and ambassador of Japanese cuisine and culture in the first of a two-part series- which continues in August with a visit to the singular Kikunoi Honten, one of Kyoto’s most respected ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants). At the moment chef Murata explained how the Kikunoi restaurants source their ingredients, illustrated by the story of a tilefish’s journey – plucked in the morning from the Inland Sea, stopping in Kyoto and ending up on a plate in Tokyo at dinnertime – I knew I had to make a reservation. The network of fishermen, farmers, artisans and chefs that make the magic of Kikunoi possible is a fascinating in its simple, poetic and entirely natural efficiency.

If you are inspired by the article and would like to meet chef Murata, you’ll have a chance when he appears at the upcoming World of Flavors conference Japan: Flavors of Culture in early November. I’ll be there to gain more inspiration and wisdom as well.

We also give a (very) brief introduction to Imari, the elegant and versatile porcelain ware that is an essential part of every Japanese kitchen. The subject is way too broad and deep to cover in a single article. We also share a few of our favorite Kyoto shops, where you can find a good selection of antique and vintage Imari ware.

Yoshihiro Murata, Renaissance Man

Risa with famed kaiseki chef Yoshihiro Murata in Tokyo last month
With Yoshihiro Murata in Tokyo last month

Among all the conversations I had during my trip to Japan last month, the most memorable was my interview with famed kyo-kaiseki chef and winner of seven Michelin stars, Yoshihiro Murata, chef/owner of Kikunoi Honten, Kikunoi Roan and Kikunoi Akasaka. This would not have been possible if it were not for the kind folks at the Culinary Institute of America, the organizers of the upcoming Worlds of Flavor conference: Japan: Flavors of Culture, which takes place from November 4-6, 2010. Chef Murata will appear as one of the conference’s featured experts, which will be attended by chefs and professionals in the food industry from across the U.S. (and worldwide.)

The man is amazing. Murata is not only the third-generation owner/chef of one of the most respected ryotei in Kyoto, but an ambassador of Japanese cuisine, writer, educator, mentor and all-around Renaissance man. However, as busy and famous as he is, Murata is also remarkably kind. He cares about struggling craftsmen and budding chefs. I’m writing the article now, it’s pretty difficult to stop gushing about him. Seriously, this guy is an inspiration.

Stay tuned for the article, part three of our Masters series, on Savory Japan, coming soon.