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Monday, March 30, 2015

Week 13 part 2 - Kurokawa Onsen

After breakfast we picked up our rental car to drive to Kurokawa hot spring area. Due to the minor issue of my lost-and-found iPad, we had a late start so were famished half way to our ryokan. I didn't want to eat at some restaurant chain so I kept driving until I saw a little place by the road side that looked promising.
Once I sat down and had a look around I knew I had picked the right place. The space was divided into three sections: a restaurant on the left, a retail space in the middle and a coffee shop on the right.

 The owner's pride in what they do shines through little details that dotted throughout the space, such as this little flower arrangement.

The menu didn't have too many items on it, which makes the selection easy. J picked the set meal on the right, which is the restaurants signature sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. I ordered the set on the left, which is a persimmon leaf rice ball soup with anago chirashi-zushi bowl.

When the food came out we were pleasantly surprised again, first by the impeccable presentation:

My set came with a little cup of shiitake soup, marinated vegetables and a piece of pickled daikon.
The daikon was pickled in pink vinegar and cut into the shape of a sakura flower!

J's set had a piece of temari-zushi that had a daikon flower on top, it's hard to see from the bad photo but the flower was perfectly shaped.

My main dish of anago rice and rice ball soup. It was a lot of food but the soup was so nice I drank it all.
And J's persimmon leaf wrapped sushi and a bowl of ikura-don.

This style of sushi is not particularly our favorite but the stock for the clam soup was so light yet full of ocean flavors we couldn't put it down.

After finishing my food I went to check out the merchandise and chatted with the owner. She said their shop won the Heritage award of traditional (文化遺産)Japanese food for their persimmon sushi and when I told her the soup was very delicious she proudly said that it was a very special stock that they spent a lot of time making. I saw their extensive coffee selection and even though I was full by now I knew I shouldn't miss out on dessert and coffee if their food was anything to judge by. And sure enough the coffee jelly was probably the best I've ever had.

Before leaving we bought his and hers slippers (zori) hand made by a grandma to wear as room slippers back at home. I am happy to report that I am wearing them now as I type and they're very comfy.

After another hour of driving through some narrow mountain roads we finally reached our ryokan, Yamashinobu やましのぶ in the town of Ota 小田. We were promptly led to our room and tea was served.

After tea we changed into yukata and went to explore the three private onsens (hot springs) and the two public outdoor onsens. This is the women's outdoor onsen

Dinner was in a central dining building instead of served in room, like some traditional ryokan. I prefer it this way so that at least you have to walk a few steps back to the room after eating instead of going straight to bed.

Our dinner menu:

Dinners at ryokans are always served Kaiseki styled, which follows a very strict formula: a selection of small dishes to start, followed by a soup, sashimi, a covered dish, a hot dish, a grilled dish, some kind of meat, rice with pickles and miso soup, and a small dessert. 

Our amuse bouche was a tempura of white tree fungus topped with ikura, and the selection of small dishes were: white bait braised in pickled plum, broad beans stewed with honey, small squid, glutinous rice ball, grilled chicken, pickled eggplant, mountain yam tempura and baby daikon.

The clear soup had lotus root croquet, yuba and seasonal vegetables in it, and the sashimi consisted of tuna, fresh yuba, botan shrimp, and a squid that was so fresh it tasted creamy.

Next came a covered dish of tofu, sakura gluten, shiitake, and burdock roots, a chicken and daikon soup with komatsuna, and a grilled Yamame fish.

The meat dish of Aka-ushi sukiyaki was simply delicious. The Aka-ushi beef is a specialty of Kumamoto prefecture and has just the right balance of fat:lean meat ratio so it's melt in your mouth tender without being too greasy. Before the traditional rice with pickles and miso soup, Yamashinobu served an extra soba dish from a famous local restaurant 草太郎. J is not usually a fan of soba due to its limp texture, but these soba are different. They are firm and chewy, almost like udon.

 Dessert was soba chiffon cake and melon.

After dinner we went to sit by the fire in a hut in the middle of the ryokan ground and met a very talkative Japanese retiree who is an avid skier and scuba diver. Despite not speaking a word of foreign language, he spent the last twelve years traveling the globe. He had some really interesting stories to tell and was very keen to convince us that a cruise is the best way to travel.

 During the sake fueled conversation I looked up and saw this haiku and thought it described the scene to the T
Enjoying simple cooking, listening to interesting stories from the past, with a subtle fragrance in the air we drink sake together.