If you want to cram as much of Japan into a short trip as possible I can't think of any better experience than spending a night in a good Ryokan. I'm not one to spend a ton of money on lavish hotel rooms because when I'm travelling, I want to spend as little time as possible in the room. Ryokans however are a little different. They're often nestled in remote mountainous areas without much else going on, so the experience often is the room.
While the Japanese inn tradition dates back to the Nara period (710-784), it wasn't until an elaborate highway network was built during the Edo period (1603-1867) that Ryokans as they are today really took shape. During that time, Daimyo lords travelling to and from Edo would stay at inns, which provided meals in addition to lodging for their large entourages.
These days, ryokans run the gamut from modest spare bedrooms in a family home, to ultra luxurious experiences complete with a chambermaid and a 14+ dish in-room dinner, that would put most Michelin rated restaurants to shame. My experience staying at Asaba Ryokan was the later.
You can read all about Asaba Ryokan and ryokans in general in an article I wrote for Tablet Talk, but today I'm going to tell you all about the food at Asaba. In most high end ryokans, dinner is served in your room at a low table placed on a tatami lined floor. While dining in the privacy of your own room is nice, devouring a delicious meal with the sound of a babbling brook outside your window is even better.
To give you a sense of the amount of effort that goes into dinner each night, the dinner menu for the evening comes hand-written on a scroll. How many restaurants do you know of that can make such a claim?
First up was amuse-bouche of grilled scallops in a creamy sauce with a small vessel of sake, complete with chrysanthemum petals. The scallops were very firm, bordering on tough, but what they lacked in tenderness, they more than made up for with an intense sweet flavor that I rarely see in scallops here in the US.
The next course was an assortment of seasonal dishes. Starting from the 10 o'clock position: 1) Ikura with grated daikon 2) sea snail 3) chrysanthemum flower, jelly fish and shiitake salad dressed with ground sesame seeds 4) marinated mountain vegetables 5) meat wrapped in a shiso leaf.
The next course was a soup that included burdock, shiitake, uddo, bamboo, bits of pork fat, and mitsuba in a light dashi broth (left). It had the richness from the pork, but was still light and refreshing thanks to all the different textures from the veggies.
The sashimi course consisted of flounder and red squid sashimi with two slices of hasu stem in between them (top right). The squid was tenderized by criss-crossing slices that didn't quite go all the way through the squid. It was sweet, creamy and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The flounder, by contrast was firm and almost crunchy; a testament to its freshness.
The next course came out on a charcoal grill and had skin that was a stunning shade of vermillion (bottom right), with firm flavorful meat and an earthy marinade that permeated every bite. It made for an interesting juxtaposition to the raw fish in the course before.
After the fish came a steamed chicken dish, topped with a mound of blanched mitsuba and dressed with a Japanese mustard sauce. It was spicy, tangy and had a wonderful crunchy texture and vegetal flavor coming from the mitsuba.
Next up was the Ise Ebi (spiny lobster) course. It was grilled first to give it a smokey flavor then added to a broth which takes on some of it's flavors. While there wasn't a ton of meat in it, the joy was in sucking out the sweet smoky roe from all the nooks and crannies. With a bit of momiji-oroshi (grated daikon and chili) and some finely sliced Tokyo leek, it was a smile inducing dish.
This one was particularly interesting. While you can't see it, under the big slab of anago (sea eel), lies a mound of black sushi rice that's grown locally. It has a purplish-black color similar to forbidden rice and a wonderful firm texture that was a joy to eat with the rich eel.
This was perhaps my favorite dish in the meal. It consisted of pork belly from Hanamaki-shi in the Iwate prefecture and a Kyoto turnip with just a bit of yuzu zest. Loaded with an insane amount of flavor and fatty and tender, the pork was paired with a perfectly braised turnip to balance out its richness.
By the time the gohan (rice) course came, we were both stuffed and glad we were wearing yukatas instead of regular pants. But when rice comes out in an emerald green enameled pot, with a sweet and savory aroma emanating from it, you just can't say "no". It was a simple rice, with aburaage (deep fried tofu), carrots, burdock and pork, but as with all the other courses its simplicity belied the thought that went into each component. Each grain of rice was perfectly shaped with a sheen that almost made you wonder if they were real. Firm between your teeth and perfectly seasoned, it made me realize just how bad the rice is that we get in America.
By this point I was having a hard time, sitting upright, so I opted for the lighter of the two dessert options. Kuzukiri are translucent noodles that have a gel-like texture similar to agar-agar jello. It comes in ice water and you dip it in kuromitsu, which literally means black syrup. Sweet and refreshing, it was the perfect end to an epic meal.
In retrospect, the dinner wasn't especially glamorous as far as Kaiseki meals go, but the attention to flavor, perfect execution, and the comforting simplicity made this a meal I won't soon forget. Add to it the creek trickling outside our private dining room, and the royal hospitality, and it's no surprise why Asaba Ryokan is considered one of Japan's best.
P.S. A stay at Asaba Ryokan also includes breakfast, which was followed by a final cup of tea before we packed our bags to leave the little mountain paradise.
Breakfast included some eggplant in dashi soy sauce with grated ginger on top (left), some blanched greens in a light dashi, and a skewer of nama-fu with a kinome-miso glaze (top right), rice, pickles, miso soup with small clams, dashi rolled egg, and grated daikon (bottom right) rounded out the meal.
Izu City, Shizuoka, Japan.
Full disclosure: The room at Asaba Ryokan was comped. While I strive to provide you with honest, unfiltered opinions on this site, the federal government requires that I disclose this relationship with you.