Modern Mitate at Gion Matayoshi

hassun.gion.matayoshiWriting about food is such a pleasurable experience. While recalling the flavors and reviewing photos from a particular meal, one has chance to re-live the experience. And recently, we had a meal worth remembering at Gion Matayoshi, a tiny ryotei (traditional dining establishment) that was upgraded from one- to two-Michelin stars in 2012. It is the current featured article on Savory Japan.

gion.matayoshi.tsukimiIn the article I talk about mitate, a term used in the world of tea: That rarified, yet omnipresent way of thinking, seeing and living that makes Japan, well, Japanese. I didn’t have the space to explain it fully there, so I will attempt to do so here. Mitate means to “see with new eyes.” To arrange something in a new way so that it represents another idea, form, or time — so as to bring beauty and poetry, as well as a feeling of gratitude — for both. Take, for example, Matayoshi’s opening course, pictured here. What do you see?

What at first glance appears to be an egg yolk is actually a soft sphere of delicate and creamy corn kuzu, topped by two elegant slivers of sudachi rind, immediately bringing to mind the yellow-orange glow of the full moon, adorned with another version of itself,  a crescent moon. Even before Matayoshi set the bowl before us and said, simply “tomorokoshi no tsukimi dango” (corn moon dumpling), we appreciated the poetry, contemplating for a moment the beauty of the moon reflected in a bowl, set gently in a pool of inky sauce, like the night sky.

For those who know what tsukimi dango look and taste like, how radically different was Matayoshi’s version, so much more fitting for the season than a rice cake with red bean paste? But why do I call it modern mitate? Because one could argue that true mitate is always modern because it is new. However, there are plenty of examples in Japanese culture where the mitate itself becomes old. At any rate, I call it modern because it opened our eyes. Not only were the ingredients unexpected — with corn coming from the new world and not traditionally used in Japanese cuisine — but here we could see two phases of the moon at once; a time-shift that we barely noticed at first.

And the taste? Sweet and gentle, like only corn can be, the texture so silky and soft as to barely hold together; the tosa-su (a kind of vinegar) sauce and sudachi lending just the right tart acidity to complement the sweetness. So fitting for the season of the harvest moon of early autumn, when the nights are still warm.

Just think. Four paragraphs just for one dish. Yet, I don’t know if I could properly convey the concept of mitate. The meal revealed more examples of modern mitate, so be sure to read the entire article and view the photos here.

In Season: Sansho no mi

If you’ve ever traveled to Japan during the month of May, you probably had a chance to try fresh sansho no mi, the delightfully spicy pods of the sansho pepper plant. At least, we hope so!

For the uninitiated, it’s hard to describe this intensely spicy taste sensation, but we soon became hooked, buying fresh sansho no mi to take home. I’ve kept a bag in the freezer, using a tablespoon every once in a while to make tsukudani, simmering it with kombu (kelp) in dashi, sake, sugar and soy sauce. The result is so delicious that my husband calls to thank me whenever I put some in his bento.

Learn more about this wonderful spice — which is actually only one part of the versatile sansho bush that can be eaten — in our “in season” feature for May.

Esaki: Contemporary Japanese in Aoyama

Featured on Savory Japan for April is Esaki, a wonderful three-star Michelin rated establishment featuring chef Shintaro Esaki’s innovative cuisine. Every single bite of our lunch was surprising and incredibly delicious. And midway through our meal, our server came to the table bearing the bounty of the season in a basket brimming with the wholesome, fresh produce that went into our meal.

Esaki is a place we’d like to return to again at different times of the year, as seasonal shifts bring varieties of seafood and produce into their shun (the peak of flavor).

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.

Sencha Basics

If you’re like us, no matter how much time you spend in Kyoto you feel like you’re only scratching the surface. The city holds so much knowledge that it can be both fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Well, if you have a few hours to spare, you can take part in a lesson on one of Kyoto’s most important highlights: tea, so you can delve a little deeper: Specifically, a lesson on brewing sencha (green tea) at one of the city’s venerable shops: Ippodo.

Although many visitors to Kyoto want to delve into the tea world, Ippodo’s lessons will give you the opportunity to learn how to brew a truly good cup of tea and might point you in the direction of what type of tea you want to study.

We thought we knew how to brew a good cup of sencha, but what we learned during our lesson was fascinating. For one thing, we learned we were using too little of the precious green stuff, but also that we could get three or more pots out of a such a generous amount of tea leaves.

Start your lesson on sencha basics here.

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.


Serious tempura from Osaka: Yotaro Honten

We’re back from an extended visit to Japan, where we ventured outside our normal route, sampling soba in Nagano, unusual types of fish in Hagi, and okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. We also tried a few places in Osaka, a regional section on Savory Japan that is woefully underdeveloped. Happily, this time we came upon a place we could energetically recommend: Yotaru Honten, serving Osaka-style tempura for four generations, since 1921.

If it’s tempura, why do we show a photo of a big fish on rice, you ask? Well, the other specialty of the house is taimeshi (sea bream rice), and it’s worth ordering ahead of time. Both rice and tempura are honest, direct and full of soul. This two-Michelin star restaurant is full of integrity. Read more.

Japanese Hotel Breakfasts

Many of my American (and even Japanese) friends don’t care for Japanese breakfasts. They somehow can’t fathom the thought of having fish for breakfast. That’s too bad, because we at Savory Japan think that Japanese breakfasts are one of the joys of life.

While many dutiful cooks prepare Japanese breakfasts at home, few have the time — or skill — to prepare the lavish versions featured at fine hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).

So if you’re given the choice of a Japanese or Western breakfast for the same price (or included at ryokan), go the Japanese route! You’ll not be disappointed, and it’s worth taking a detour from your usual routine.

For example, we’re currently staying at the Park Hyatt Shinjuku, and while they make some of the best bread and bakery products in the city, their Japanese breakfast is amazing.

The meal comes on a round lacquer tray with a two-tier bento box and a myriad of plates and bowls. While the usual suspects — grilled fish, miso soup, rice and pickles — are all there, stand-outs include the dashimaki (egg omelete) which is made richer with cream cheese, and covered in a delectable dashi-rich sauce that is filled with green nori.

Also included is yudofu — usually a dish served for lunch or dinner. We had the Japanese breakfast on multiple days, and the tofu and several other dishes were thoughtfully changed for us. On day two, the upper tier of the box held a stellar ohitashi of kiku (chrysanthemum petals), myoga (ginger bud) and maitake (dancing) mushrooms.

If this sounds like an awful lot of food to eat at breakfast, it is. For people used to fruit and yogurt in the morning, it can take some getting used to. But it’s a great way to start a day of walking around the city. You’ll also be able to sample some unique seasonal pickles and umeboshi (each hotel has their own specialty).

Finally, the price is right too. The Park Hyatt breakfast is 3,800 yen, which is the norm at deluxe hotels. A similar-sized meal at lunch might be 5,000 yen, and dinner, 10,000 yen. Even if you’re not staying at a luxury hotel (as we often don’t) it’s worth it to go for their breakfast.

Savory Japan in Tokyo

We’ve been in Tokyo now for a few days, for this, our first visit since the triple tragedy of 3/11. The country faces some major challenges after that devastating event, and while the earthquake’s aftershocks have subsided, the financial aftershocks are still rippling through the economy. Setsuden (energy conservation) is officially over, but the bright lights of Shinjuku and Gion aren’t at their pre-3/11 glory, and we’ve arrived to find that some of  city’s small and unique niche galleries, shops and restaurants have closed. The financial strain caused by the public’s pulling back from spending proved to be just too much. And foreign tourists are much less prevalent than normal, during this — the start of one of Japan’s peak travel seasons. The typhoons are over, and the weather is perfect, with highs in the 70’s and cool, humidity-free nights.

The high value of the yen might also be keeping the foreign tourists away, but the economic slump has spurred a price war for Tokyo’s low-end dining. Bargains are many, and the city’s commuter restaurants have been competing with each other, slashing their prices to levels unseen since perhaps the 80s. It’s easy to find lunch sets in the 800 yen range, as well as 1,000 yen all-you-can-eat buffets (called”viking” here).

At the high end, it’s easy to make reservations at the city’s top restaurants — even on the same day — for weekday dining. Many of the 2011 Tokyo, Kamakura and Yokohama Michelin Guide’s restaurants are small, with only 6-12 seats. And yet, we were able to get into every one we called. Apparently, while things have improved as time has passed, the old days of lines around the corner are gone, at least for the time being.

Are the high-end restaurants slashing their prices? Not from what we can see, and you wouldn’t expect it, as the quality of the ingredients, high rents and labor-intensive preparation can’t bear it. Besides, it just isn’t in keeping with the spirit of excellence. And we, as diners, are glad. Just yesterday, we had perhaps the single most succulent piece of sushi we’ve ever tasted at Sushi Kanesaka, and it wasn’t the rarity of the fish — saba (mackeral) — but the chef’s skill that made it transcendent: the neta (sushi topping) melted in our mouths. It was so good that we considered ordering another, but as there was more sushi coming (sets of 10 and 15 pieces) we didn’t dare. But of course, right after we finished our lunch we longed to go back.

It’s good to be back in Japan.


Robata: Art + Food in Tokyo

We’re in Tokyo, but today we’re featuring a restaurant from our last trip. Why? Well, it took me this long to muster up the courage to ask our friends if I could write about the secret place they take their special guests. It’s such a unique restaurant that to use that word hardly describes it. As soon as you walk into Robata, located in central Tokyo in the shadow of one if its’ most famous hotels, you enter another dimension.

For instance, take a look at the setting here, at the strangely beautiful painting of the maneki neko (becoming cat) behind the irori hearth. I would flip over this if I were to find it at a gallery or antique shop, and yet, I’ve never seen anything like it. And this little corner represents only 1/100th of the collection in this remarkable place.

Every single inch of Robata is filled with something unusual, beautiful and fascinating. It’s too much to take in at one time, and the feeling is just overwhelming. It’s almost better understood in photographs.

And the food, you ask? Oh, I almost forgot this is a blog about food. Honestly speaking, the food takes a back seat to the setting, but it’s home-style, eclectic and full of flavor. The tableware too, is bold and impressive.

While we love Tadao Andoh and Japanese classic and modern minimalist design just as much as anyone, we can appreciate how special Robata is, especially for Tokyo residents who want to escape its hard edges for even a brief while.