Hoshinoya: Imagining another Japan

Recently, we had a chance to stay at two remarkable resorts: Hoshinoya Karuizawa and Hoshinoya Kyoto. We’re big fans of the traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) experience, but after our blissful stays we became fascinated by this new style of accommodation, one that marries Japanese tradition with modern comfort. At both resorts, we were impressed by the impeccable service, great food and beautiful surroundings, but we also experienced a level of freedom that led to a deeper sense of relaxation. We didn’t have to worry about our Japanese language ability or manners (as the staff speaks excellent English, as well as other languages), and we had the freedom to dine where and when we chose. Excursions and cultural enrichment activities were abundant and readily available, but we could also choose to do nothing, browsing the libraries’ excellent selection of books and magazines, enjoying the spa and/or hot spring baths or taking strolls through the woods.

The difference was apparent upon arrival at both properties. Cars are not allowed on Hoshinoya Karuizawa’s small paths, and arrival at Hoshinoya Kyoto is by boat. Welcome ceremonies, played upon instruments both modern and traditional, strike a primal chord, floating above the sounds of rushing water and wind through the trees. In just a few minutes, visitors are transported to another place.

And that is exactly how Yoshiharu Hoshino, the President of Hoshino Resorts Co. Ltd., wants it. We caught up with the globe-trotting, youthful 51-year-old powerhouse during a recent visit to Tokyo, and were able sit down for a few minutes to learn more about this concept.

Hoshino is the fourth-generation owner of a family business that started as Hoshino Onsen in 1904: a traditional hot spring ryokan in Karuizawa. But since then — due mostly to Mr. Hoshino’s innovative ideas — it has grown into a resort management company that owns and/or manages 28 properties throughout Japan (as of 2011).

An avid skier and outdoorsman with a Masters in Hospitality Management from Cornell University, Hoshino grew up wondering about the fate of the traditional ryokan. Many foreign guests (as well as young Japanese) found the rooms to be small and the futon bedding, uncomfortable. As modern Japanese are also accustomed to tables and chairs, they also found it tiring to sit on the floor without backrests. In the meantime, Hoshino also saw the luxury domestic market flocking to Western resort hotels. He knew he had to find a new way forward.

Hoshino also wondered what Japan would be like if it continued to modernize without the influence of the West, as he felt Japan had become too Western. So, he did something unprecedented: He closed Hoshino Onsen for 10 years and invested in a complete overhaul of the complex, essentially re-imagining a new Japan in the process. In 2005, a new vision and a luxury ryokan concept — christened Hoshinoya Karuizawa — was born.

The gamble paid off and Hoshinoya Karuizawa prospered. Other companies started to change the way they designed and ran their resorts. But Hoshino Resorts stayed ahead of the curve. It was the first eco (green) resort, generating as much as 70% of its energy (via geothermal heating and three micro-hydro generators), and remarkably, no trees were destroyed during the construction. It also became one of the few truly bi- and multi-lingual resort companies as well, one that is to this day able to cater to an increasingly international crowd.

Arrivals and departures are by boat at Hoshinoya KyotoHoshinoya Kyoto came next, opening in December of 2009 (A review of this property will appear on Savory Japan in the coming months.) It quickly became known as a destination in a league of its own. No expense was spared in the exquisite restoration and transformation of a riverside cluster of 400-year-old Sukiya-style buildings, once the library and summer home of Ryoji Suminokura. While a small road connects the property to the nearest road, travelers are transported to and from the resort by custom-made wooden boats. Although the trip takes less than 10 minutes, the journey marks a departure from the outside world, one where TVs, phones and worldly concerns are left behind.

Hoshino has a particular knack for hiring talented and gifted people in the construction and operations stages of his business, and this roster extends to the staff, artists, designers, and especially culinary talent. Each chef managed to capture the essence of each region and location and yet, at the same time, surprise and broaden our expectations with their innovative creativity — so much so that future articles will hopefully allow you to enjoy their skill and artistry as well.

Up next in the Hoshinoya line are Hoshinoya Okinawa, on Taketomi Island, opening in June of 2012, and Hoshinoya Fuji, expected to open in 2013. With the completion of this “circuit,” visitors will be able to have a range of experiences with the same level of luxury combined with traditional Japanese hospitality.

It is this hospitality, in fact, that was most memorable during our stay. While visions of the beautiful and harmonic colors and proportions of its architecture and gardens and the exquisite flavors of its inventive cuisine were all enjoyable, it was the heartfelt will of the staff to help us in every way that left the most lasting impression. So, while the setting may have drawn us to Hoshinoya, it will be the people who will draw us back. Let’s hope it’s soon.


Linden Gallery/Mizuya show update

We just returned from Door County after a weekend showing of tableware and kimono from Mizuya at the Linden Gallery. We had a very full two days and wish we could have spent more time with gallery owners Brian and Jeanee, as well as their kids, Shane and Bryce. The gallery is located in the small town of Ellison Bay, almost at the tip of Door County, and makes its home in an modern building with a soaring arched ceiling. They told us the building was originally used as a church!

We showed tableware, including ceramics and lacquerware, but also brought along some vintage kimono, juban (kimono undergarments) haori and michiyuki (coats to go over kimono). It was our first foray out of the closet instead of the kitchen — you could say — and it was very successful.

So successful, in fact, that we’ve extended the show through the month of September and have committed to another show next summer. Details will be shared here and on Savory Japan.

Kirk did some beautiful, sparse ikebana in Bizen, Tamba and Shigaraki vases as well. I was surprised by the speed at which he created them, and everyone commented on how they added beauty to the displays.

It was a great chance to show how living with Japanese tableware can bring a measure of calm and beauty to everyday life.

We also presented a talk and demonstration on the releationship between Japanese food and tableware, using just the items from the show.

After a brief introduction on the basic principles of Japanese cuisine, we traveled through the seasons — starting with a spring arrangement of shrimp, takenoko (bamboo shoots) and wakame (seaweed). Next came a summer otsukuri (sashimi arrangement) on a cool-feeling blue & white Imari plate, followed by roasted mushrooms for fall, and a selection of winter appetizers on a Shino platter. The final dish was a  jubako (lacquer box) filled with osechi-ryori (New Year’s cuisine), which elicited a gasp when the lid was lifted. Finally, we shared the food and no one went home hungry.

To see more photos, friend us on Facebook (link to the right).

Mizuya exhibit at the Linden Gallery

Mizuya is heading to beautiful Door Country, Wisconsin next weekend to co-curate an exhibit of Japanese textiles and tableware at the Linden Gallery.  The gallery’s founders — Brian and Jeanee Linden — have created a Chinese oasis in the north woods, and a visit to their gallery is like taking a trip to China. I was lucky enough to also stay at their exceptional learning retreat (it’s SO much more than a hotel), the Linden Center in Xizhou, China last October. The gallery and center both serve as vehicles to allow the Lindens to share their love of Chinese culture with the West.

But they love Japan — and Japanese antiques — as well, which is how this exhibit came to fruition. On July 30 and 31 from 10:00am to 5:00pm, my husband Kirk and I will be on hand to share our love of Japanese antiques and talk to visitors about how living with beautiful (yet entirely useful) objects can help bring a measure of richness and calm into our lives, causing us to slow down and reflect upon the present.

This is particularly true of tableware, especially in the Japanese tradition. Perhaps no other culture pays such close attention to the presentation of food; even for simple home-cooked meals. So at 3:oopm on both Saturday and Sunday, I’ll give a talk about the special role tableware plays in Japanese cuisine, and will give a demonstration on Japanese plating and table setting. If you’re in the neighborhood, please come and join us!

Read the article in the July 27 issue of the Door County Gazette about the show.

Kunio Tokuoka, Kitcho’s Kaiseki Visionary

Savory Japan is updated for December with a new page in the LEARN section for Seminars and Classes. Featured there is an overview of the Japan: Flavors of Culture conference we attended last month and featured here in three postings. The page will be a home for links to more in-depth articles that will be added in the coming months. Kicking off the series is a cooking session with legendary Kitcho chef and owner Kunio Tokuoka, whose book we reviewed  a few weeks back.

Featured in this beautiful book on page 155 is this photo of Oyster Rice that would be perfect for the coming cold and snowy months, when oysters are at their most flavorful.

 Oyster Rice 

 Photo and excerpt from the book Kitcho; Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience, courtesy of the author and publisher, Kondansha International. All rights reserved

SERVING VESSEL: Black earthenware pot, ca. 2000

ARTIST: Masatake Fukumori

 The lid of the pot comes off to release the irresistible aroma of oysters mingled with a subtle hint of soy sauce. Some of the oysters are deep-fried; others are simmered briefly in kelp stock, which is then used to make the rice. Just as the heat is turned off, both kinds of oysters are arranged on the rice and chopped water dropwort (seri) is scattered on top. Kunio has removed the black edges from the oyster meat, as he maintains that they do not taste good—once again defying conventional thinking in pursuit of pure, perfect flavor.

Shino: Shades of White

In honor of the coming snowy months, Savory Japan brings you an introduction to Shino ware. Shino is actually the name for the white glaze (Japan’s first), which varies from snowy white to beige, with red or orange scorch marks. There are also variations in gray, called nezumi (mouse) Shino, and e-Shino, which features painted drawings.

Spiritual, ephemeral and other-worldly, Shino-yaki is loved for its zen-like simplicity and is one of our favorite types of pottery.

The large platter above–which reminds us of pines seen through a snow storm — is currently available on Mizuya.

Iga ware: Strength in Fire

Rice cooked in an Iga donabe at Kitayama Akiyama. (c)2010 Kirk VuillemotWe’ve expanded our Ceramics section with an introduction to Iga ware. Made in Mie prefecture, Iga-mono (Iga “things”) are regular companions in Japanese kitchens, able to withstand extreme changes in temperature. What’s more, they can go from burner to table because of their beauty.

We recently enjoyed  rice cooked in a Kyoto-style Iga donabe at Michelin-starred Kamigamo Akiyama (watch for a review in the coming months) and have been coveting one ever since.

Read more about Iga ware and its rugged good looks on Savory Japan, updated for October.

Inekari, the rice harvest

September is the month for inekari — the rice harvest — in Japan, and to celebrate the season we feature this most vital grain —  the heart and soul of Japan — on Savory Kyoto, published by Kyoto Visitors Guide.

A simple but satisfying way to serve rice is by making onigiri (rice balls). Onigiri are made by simply forming balls of hot rice with your hands (after wetting them and dipping them in salt). It takes some doing, as the rice should be fresh and quite hot, and you must move the rice along, turning and squeezing with both hands, taking care not to burn your hands.

You can either make classic triangle shapes, or barrels — as shown here — to evoke the straw-covered rice barrels that were once distributed in flat-bottomed boats along Kyoto’s canals. We used different varieties of rice (including kurogome (black rice) for the purpose of the photo shoot, but they are most commonly made with plain white rice filled with a variety of delicious ingredients. Recipes for onigiri and other rice dishes can be found on Savory Japan’s Rice recipe page.

The antique raku boat is one of a handful of items originally purchased for our online gallery for Japanese tableware, Mizuya that we just can’t bear to part with.

Raku: Fire and Earth

I love Raku ware.  Molded by hand, low-fired, light and delicate, raku pieces heighten a feeling of connection with the earth. Yet, when crafted by a skilled artisan, they have a transcendent quality that is at once humble and spiritual. Learn more about one of the most popular forms of Japanese pottery; the only ware that is named after a family (or, more accurately, the family was named for) and whose lineage is still active to this day; just added to Savory Japan’s ceramics section. Slowly but surely, we’re adding short introductions to Japanese ceramics and tableware, focusing primarily on its uses for food.

Intoducing our online gallery, Mizuya

We’re excited to announce the opening of our online gallery, Mizuya. Come and check it out! Coming up with a suitable name was quite a challenge, and grabbing the domain name took a fair amount of patience. But we’re so glad we did. If you’ve ever been to a traditional Japanese kitchen, you might have seen these lovely antique wooden kitchen cabinets lining one of the walls, which typically house the family tableware. We have a narrow Kyoto-style mizuya in our home that holds our growing Japanese ceramic and lacquer ware collection, and we hope something from Mizuya will find a place in your kitchen cabinet as well, wherever that may be.

New items will be added periodically, so please stop by often. We’ll also put the occasional item on Ebay, so you might be able to pick up a bargain. And, we plan to hold trunk shows at various galleries in the future. Announcements will be made on the site.

Enjoy shopping!

A kosode (small sleeve) chawan by Edo era potter Aoki Kibei
A kosode (small sleeve) chawan (tea bowl) by Edo era potter Aoki Kibei

April: Hanami Bento and Kinmata’s Tableware

The April features for Savory Japan are now online. In honor of Cherry Blossom season, we show you how to create your own hanami (flower viewing) bento so you can celebrate spring under any flowering tree in your country. Some new recipes are included.

And, we profile Kinmata Ryokan’s fine tableware collection, once again illustrating the important relationship between food and tableware. This traditional Japanese inn in Kyoto has a long history and an excellent collection of ceramic and lacquer ware which is used to great effect.

There’s also a link to an article written during a prevuous stay, along with a slide show that shows Kinmata’s spring dishes and the marvelous table settings, complete with sakura blossoms, from that memorable dinner.

A selection of Kinmata Ryokan's fine tableware
A selection of Kinmata Ryokan's fine tableware