Tsubaki 海石榴 – Okuyugawara, Japan

The mountains, a baby pink hue of blushing spring cherry blossoms, turns a vivid green in the summer to a lively chorus of shrilling cicadas, then transforms into a stunning background of reds and yellows as the autumn maple leaves take on their fiery colors.  In the dead of winter is when I find these majestic mountains in its most beautiful state, a steely landscape hushed by the deep snowfall and the valley below blanketed in pure white.

Every year I look forward to this serene view of the Okuyugawara mountains from my private outdoor onsen, a rotenburo bath made with hinoki cypress wood that gives off a refreshing forest aroma as I soak in the healing hot springs at Tsubaki ryokan. There is nothing quite like a ryokan experience in Japan where guests travel from afar to indulge and relax in the comfort of true Japanese hospitality.  Tsubaki, a traditional ryokan opened in 1978, is only an hour by express train from Tokyo and an additional 30 minutes by car along the coast line, straight past the mikan orchards that grow on the slopes of Atami and deep into the hidden mountains of Okuyugawara.

As I take that first step through the entrance of Tsubaki, I leave all of my stress and worries at the doorstep and enter into a haven of beauty and serenity.  Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns where people come to rejuvenate their body in the healing waters of the local natural hot springs, rest their weary feet in the comfortable tatami rooms and nourish their souls with traditional kaiseki meals.

It is quiet at Tsubaki, a good soothing silence save for the occasional soft rustle of leaves swaying in the cool wind and the gentle babble of the stream that runs below.  A faint aroma slithers through the hallways, a brew of incense and freshly whisked green tea, while guests shuffle along the cobblestone paths in their yukatas to the communal bath for their first soak of the day.

There are 15 rooms at Tsubaki, each tastefully decorated in wabi sabi aesthetics of simple and understated beauty with accents of ancient scrolls, beautiful ceramics and breathtaking ikebana flower arrangements.  Some, like my favorite room, have an unobstructed view of the forest and the snow capped mountains, while others look over the koi pond and the zen rock gardens.  The room smells like fresh straw, and I lay down on the floor, my body flat against the green tatami mats as I deeply inhale its aroma into my lungs for my first real moment of relaxation.

Since 1978 Tsubaki has been one of the most exclusive ryokans in the country, maintaining the same level of hospitality and quality of service since its opening.  There is a Japanese term called ‘ichigo ichie’ 一期一会, meaning ‘one time, one meeting’.  Each new encounter, each new meeting is a unique and special moment that will never recur in one’s lifetime, and therefore, must be treated with utmost sincerity.  The staff at Tsubaki live by these standards, and make every moment truly unforgettable and exceptional. For this reason, each room has an attendant, a nakai-san, that sees to your every need.  One of their many important duties is to work with the chef to ensure an enjoyable kaiseki meal.

A stay at a traditional ryokan is as much about the food as it is about the hot springs.  A full course kaiseki meal is part of the allure of this exquisite Japanese experience, and at Tsubaki, Chef Tadanori Igarashi has been creating tasting menus for its guests since its opening in 1978.  Kaiseki is a type of art form that paints edible murals of seasonal landscapes on canvases of beautiful ceramics and lacquerware.  It is a labor intensive process for the chefs, a precise craft that takes years to master, to be able to express such artistry and elegance.

Each plate is a study in balance and refinement, and there is a smooth flow of concepts and flavors from course to course.  It is important that this elaborate meal, a ritual that when properly done takes 3-5 hours, follows a traditional formal structure in order to observe an overall sense of harmony.  The menu, beautifully handwritten in Japanese calligraphy, presents the courses in its appropriate order.

Sakizuke (先付): an amuse bouche

A shot of plum wine commences our meal, followed by the sakizuke course of kelp wrapped sayori gently curled around green bouquets of brassica with a touch of Kamo rice vinegar from Kyoto.

Hassun (八寸): the second course, sometimes called the zensai course, sets the seasonal theme with one type of sushi and an assortment of smaller bites

This kaiseki meal at Tsubaki, enjoyed this past winter shortly after the New Year, is about celebrating new beginnings and prosperity.  Slices of flash seared sea cucumber with ponzu are presented in a crane shaped ceramic bowl to symbolize longevity, with ribbons of gold and silver mizuhiki strings expressing joy.  Komochikombu (herring egg coated seaweed), a caviar topped potato chip, cured karasumi bottarga made with mullet roe, a bitter orange syrup of salted cod ovaries in an aromatic bowl of carved yuzu and a cut of ayu with its roe simmered with sansho berries symbolize fertility and new life.  A green fukinotou butterbur stem, simmered with peppercorns, gives me a bitter bite that I love with my glass of cold sake, to which I follow with the delicious pieces of pressed salmon matsumae sushi.  This hassun course brings seasonal gifts of land and sea together on the plate for a picturesque arrangement of colors and shapes.

Futamono (蓋物): a “lidded dish”, also referred to as wanmono, which presents a warm soup

A floating leaf on the surface of a pond, a green kinome pepper leaf creates a beautiful scenario in this futamono course where a white fluffy hamaguri clam shinjo infuses its bold flavors into the suimono broth.  A green udo stem, crisp both in texture and in its fennel-like flavor, create a contrast against the delicately constructed temarifu, a pillowy ball of gluten with colorful decorations to resemble a traditional New Year toy called a temari.

Mukōzuke (向付): a seasonal sashimi plate

The mukozuke course presents the freshest offerings of the sea in a simple presentation so that the guests can enjoy the pure flavors of the fish.  Divine cuts of fatty bluefin toro are augmented with a hint of Japanese karashi mustard and soy sauce, and meaty akagai clams of a warm orange hue are perfect with freshly grated wasabi.  The final sashimi presented in the hamaguri shell-shaped ceramic, a symbol of love and harmony, is hirame wrapped in a rich coating of uni that woos with its sweetness.

Meshimushi (飯蒸し): a steamed rice course, a special dish that is not often included in a standard kaiseki

Kuri okowa, a steamed glutinous mochi rice dish with chestnuts and a sprinkling of black sesame salt, is another celebratory dish that the Japanese commonly prepare for festive occasions.  The red hue imparted by the azuki beans is what makes this dish a symbol of happiness and joy, a standard offering at birthdays and weddings.

Takiawase (焚合): simmered vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu

In keeping with the traditional Kyoto style of kaiseki, this takiawase course keeps the seasonings light and subdued to appreciate the true flavors of the vegetables at their peak. Horikawa gobo, a thick spongy burdock root that is a winter standard, is stuffed with minced chicken meat and simmered in a light dashi until the vegetable has been plumped full of umami.  Lightly sake braised abalone, tender and moist, is accompanied by boiled mibuna greens and a dash of yuzu rinds for aroma.

Yakimono (焼物): broiled seasonal fish

2 delicacies that pair beautifully with cold dry sake find its way onto my plate for the first of the yakimono courses.  Sweet luscious cream oozes from within the seared membranes of the fugu shirako, poisonous puffer fish sperm sacs that are particularly plump and lovely this time of year.  To contrast, there is a triangular wedge of lightly seared bachiko, dried sea cucumber ovaries with a salty briny flavor that intensifies with each successive bite.

We each get our own plate of ise ebi, a majestic Japanese spiny lobster that is arguably the most festive culinary symbol for New Year celebrations.  The sweet flesh is briefly tossed in shuto, salt marinated bonito innards, then baked on a hot stone to a dramatic orchestra of sputters and sizzles as we all wait, impatiently, for our moment to pounce.

Shiizakana (進肴、強肴): also called azukebachi, is a course designed to encourage the consumption and enjoyment of sake

As if the 2 yakimono courses aren’t enough to encourage happy sake drinking, we get a trio of delights representing cardinal Japanese winter delicacies that make the sake flow even more freely.  Suppon nikogori, a thick gelatinous soup of snapping turtle with enough collagen to equal a Botox treatment, is served in an aromatic yuzu bowl, and Matsuba crab competes with Kegani hairy crab for a stand off where both ultimately win.

Onmono (温物): a warm braised dish, sometimes presented as a hot pot

The onmono course, as it is one of the last courses of a kaiseki meal, is intended to aid digestion and be gentle on the nearly full stomach.  A mixture of madai (tile fish), grated turnips, gingko nuts and wild mountain vegetables are simmered in a dashi broth, the result a simple and mild flavored course infused with the chef’s love.

Gohan (御飯): a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients

Kō no mono (香の物): seasonal pickled vegetables

Tome-wan (止椀): a miso or vegetable soup

Rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables are how a kaiseki meal typically ends, a simple combination that echoes the roots of Japanese cuisine.  Chef Igarashi himself comes out to present this last course, a fuki gohan made with tangy butterbur stalks and an assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) that includes yellow takuan, thinly sliced senmaizuke turnips, matsutake mushrooms infused with kombu, cucumber asazuke and red shiso calabash (hyoutan shibazuke).

In the winter, traditional Kyoto style kaiseki calls for a white miso base soup. In the summer, a more robust and intense dark red Hatcho miso. Spring and autumn incorporate both for a blended miso base.  For this winter tasting menu, we slurp a nameko mushroom white miso soup- comforting, warm and delicious.

Mizumono (水物): a seasonal dessert of fruits, confections, ice cream or cake

First a plate of sweet juicy fruits- strawberries, blueberries, papaya and melon with a sprinkling of clear kanten crystals, followed by a Japanese dessert of koshian azuki bean paste encased in a fluffy green tea shiroan icing.

Beautiful arrangements of seasonal ingredients with intricate garnishes, course after course, presented on attractive plates that enhance the appearance and theme of the food forms the basis of a multi-course Japanese kaiseki meal, and within the structured flow of the banquet, the chef expresses his sensitivity and style to delight his guests.  It is a special experience to enjoy this in between relaxing dips in the hot springs, and to have the staff pamper you with their kindness and hospitality.  For the ultimate kaiseki experience you can even have geisha accompany you for the meal.  Geisha, who are highly skilled female entertainers versed in traditional Japanese song and dance, will keep the conversation lively and most importantly, as your dinner hostesses, they will ensure that your sake cup is never empty.

Tsubaki ryokan                                                                                                              776 Miyakami, Yugawara machi                                                                    Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa prefecture            Japan                                                                                                                             TEL: 0465-63-3333

Random trivia: Did you know that there can never be a married geisha? If a geisha marries, she must retire.

Shigeyoshi 重よし revisited – Tokyo, Japan

I have said this before and I will say it again.  Shigeyoshi, an elegant 40 year old restaurant in the heart of Tokyo, is my favorite restaurant in the world.  While I have been fortunate enough to experience numerous meals all over the world that have blown me away, this is the place that I always come back to, and look forward to returning to the most.  It’s not just the attentive yet unobtrusive service- that is almost a given in any restaurant in Japan.  It’s not just the highest quality ingredients that represent regional specialties and seasonal offerings.  It’s not just the consistency of astoundingly delicious meals, plate after plate, course after course.

It is Chef Kenzo Sato, the quintessence of the soul of traditional Japanese cuisine, that attracts me to this quaint 2 Michelin star haven.  He is humble and unassuming, doing it all for the simple and pure love of food and people.  He has kept the same loyal staff at his side for the majority of the 40 years (and they have happily remained by his side), knowing the importance of consistency, especially for his regulars who depend on it. He pours his heart and soul into each and every plate, and it comes through in his beautiful presentations and unforgettable flavors.

My first experience at Shigeyoshi was 6 years ago, and I will never forget the magical feeling that I had on that fateful night.  Sitting at the pristine wooden counter, directly in front of this chef who immediately drew me in with his bright smile and charisma, I remember watching his every move with wonder as he skillfully prepared each course.  It quickly became apparent to me that this man absolutely loved his restaurant and his craft, and I could taste it in every memorable bite.  His food is exciting, but also comforting, and always saturated with love and care.  At Shigeyoshi, there is no thinking, critiquing or analyzing.  One just feels, and that feeling is pure- ‘delicious’.

That extraordinary feeling has brought me back to Shigeyoshi every year since then, and through every successive meal I have fallen more in love with this amazing chef, the tranquil space that he has created and the exquisite food that has changed my life.

Every meal at Shigeyoshi is a testimony to the beauty of Japanese cuisine.  There is something so incredibly wonderful about the simplicity and sensitivity of Japanese aesthetics.  Sayori sushi, layered with a slice of perfectly pickled Kyoto turnip senmaizuke and neatly wrapped with a kombu seaweed ribbon, was served with a side of nanohana brassica lightly dressed with sesame paste- nothing more, nothing less, and it was perfect.

Coarsely chopped Japanese kuwai potatoes and arare rice crackers were made into a shinjyo, deep fried and served with warm dashi broth and spinach for a comforting earthy dish with just the right balance of moist and crunchy textures.

Matoya oysters from Mie prefecture, a staple on the Shigeyoshi menu, are famous for being sterile and bacteria-free through a special method of breeding and harvesting.  These oysters had a clean crisp cucumber finish, pairing especially well with the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2000 that we brought that evening to celebrate Chef Sato’s second Michelin star, a well deserved recognition.

The tempura course featured two delicious items- shirauo, little tiny ice fish that were still alive and kicking when they were tossed in the hot oil, and kansouimo, dried sweet potatoes from Ibaraki prefecture with a chewy and dense texture.  A smidgen of sea salt accentuated the freshness of the delicate fish and brought out the intense caramel-like sweetness of the satsumaimo potatoes.

One of my favorite courses at every Shigeyoshi dinner is the chinmi mori, an assortment of Japanese delicacies that serves as the ultimate complement to chilled sake.  This time it was sweet luscious Hokkaido uni, tender namako sea cucumbers with ponzu, sweet amaebi shrimp with its eggs, asari clams with bitter butterbur sprouts, and an unohana of shime saba, pickled mackerel coated with soy pulp.

The futamono course, a ‘lidded dish’ of warm soup and hearty seasonal offerings in ornate lacquer bowls, usually signals the halfway mark of a traditional kaiseki meal.  In stark contrast to the simplicity of his signature suppon turtle soup that he usually serves every year, this time Chef Sato presented a bold and dynamic dish of hongamo duck shinjyo topped with warm mochi and garnishes of baby turnip, thinly sliced daikon and carrot.  The shinjyo was like paté, rich, airy, buttery and divinely delicious, but Chef Sato insisted that it was only made from duck meat.

Tai sashimi (red snapper) from Naruto at its fattiest winter peak was served with thick seaweed and a rare vegetable called kanzou no me, a Chinese medicinal plant that tasted like licorice.  One of the charms of dining at the counter at Shigeyoshi is to be able to see all of the action in the kitchen, including Chef Sato’s swift and skillful hands breaking down the whole majestic tai into a beautiful sashimi plate.

Young tender bamboo shoots from Kyushu, the southern part of Japan, lightly seared and dusted with katsuobushi, were served with braised butterbur sprouts in a gorgeous black lacquer bowl for a simple aromatic mountain vegetable dish.  These fresh takenoko bamboo shoots, which don’t resemble their canned counterparts in the slightest bit, were crisp and vibrant with a slightly sweet milky flavor.

No part of a perfect red snapper goes to waste, especially when it’s a beautiful specimen from Naruto, Japan.  After we enjoyed the sashimi course, Chef Sato prepared a traditional tai no nitsuke dish with the fish head, briefly simmering it in a soy ginger sake broth.  While slurping up the gelatinous coating around the fish eye and nibbling every tender morsel of meat and skin off the bones, I realized that this is exactly what sets Shigeyoshi apart from all other restaurants for me.  Michelin star or not, it is not about complicated technical artistic plates with multiple components that aim to impress and ultimately overwhelm.  It’s about what sings to the soul, and this expertly seasoned and perfectly executed dish of braised fish head, while not sexy nor fancy, was one of the most delicious things that I have ever eaten.

Echizen gani, a type of crab that is often called the ‘king of winter food’, was served with a side of its tomalley, the savory creamy green innards that I personally find to be the best part of the crab.  These large snow crabs, whose season runs from November to March, are sold at auctions with special yellow tags on their right claw to distinguish their supreme brand.  Sweet, moist and light, this prized crab meat was particularly delicious paired with our cold sake.

For the final savory course at Shigeyoshi, the diner is always given multiple options to accompany rice, tsukemono pickles and miso soup.  In the past I have enjoyed traditional Japanese comfort dishes of kaki furai or breaded deep fried oysters, ebi ten don or shrimp tempura rice bowl, kaki age don or mixed tempura rice bowl, and oyako don which is simmered chicken and eggs over rice.  At Chef Sato’s recommendation (‘I got the most amazing toro this morning from Tsukiji!’), I ordered toro sashimi, thick tender marbled slices of buttery heaven that effortlessly melted in my mouth.

A simple dessert of intensely sweet grapefruit wedges was the most perfect way to cleanse our palates and end our wonderful kaiseki meal.

For the past 40 years Shigeyoshi has continued to maintain the same level of quality and service, staying immune from fickle trends and unnecessary pretentiousness despite its recognition as one of the best restaurants in Japan.  Shigeyoshi has it all- the finest seasonal ingredients, perfect execution, beautiful presentation, heartfelt service and memorable food.  The special added touch is the chef’s character, and the intimate experience that he has with each diner through his food, which is an extension of his soul.  His food satisfies my palate, and also conjures up tender memories from childhood and a strong sense of comfort and peace.  Dining at Shigeyoshi always reminds me of what food is ultimately about- to nourish.  I look forward to going back to Shigeyoshi on my next return home to Tokyo, where Chef Kenzo Sato will be waiting for me with that same warm welcoming smile.

Shigeyoshi 重よし                                                                                                             6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor                                                                                 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo                                                                                            Tel 03-3400-4044

Crab trivia- did you know that the Japanese Spider Crab, which is known to be the biggest crab in the world, is also the oldest, the most deep-living, and with the highest longevity (they can live for more than century)?