+81 3 5772 7500
Okay, I promise this is the last French restaurant I’ll talk about in this Japan instalment of my blog. In fact, it’ll be the last fine dining restaurant too. Funnily enough though, this restaurant – L’ATELIER de Joel Robuchon – calls itself a ‘casual dining’ establishment. I compared to the other Joel Robuchon restaurant in the world (there are heaps), the L’Atelier ones are considered less formal.
The Tokyo one in particular gets diners to sit at the long counter so they can watch the chefs prepare their meals and chat with them. Sure, the overall atmosphere is still pretty refined and up there (you can’t rock up in bum clothes, for example) but it was definitely the most relaxed Michelin-starred restaurant I’ve been to so far – and L’Atelier has two stars.
I had a pretty big one the night before, involving lots of drunken karaoke with random Japanese folk at a bar, sharing a bottle of whisky with a fellow Australian from whisky and getting locked out of my hotel room and being forced to spend the night in a love hotel (don’t ask). So when I rocked up to the lovely Roppongi Hills restaurant, I was still feeling a little seedy; ordering that wine was probably not my best idea to date.
For lunch, there is the option of going two courses for ¥3050(AUD32), or three for ¥4050(AUD42). You also get to choose from three different dishes for each course. Again, my decision to go for three courses was not my brightest given my state at the time.
Amuse bouche: pork rillettes
Still, I managed to act respectable and finish everything I was given – it wasn’t too hard, the meal was delicious. First up, I had some lovely pork rillettes served on crackers.
A bread basket was placed in front of me and if I wanted more bread, I was told to help myself. I liked this idea – it saves the waiter from having to be all like “any more bread, madam?” five times during the meal. I love bread like the next person but I didn’t want to fill precious stomach space so I just stuck to the one piece of delicious warm white bread.
Creamy autumn mushroom soup with small croutons
My entrée was a very generously sized (and filling) cream mushroom soup. I wouldn’t say it was anything special; it was just a really, really good bistro-style mushroom soup that ticked all the right boxes – wonderful smell, great flavours and depth – and not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Sautéed sea bream served with white wine butter sauce
My main was another rich one, a beautifully cooked sea bream drizzled in a sauce made with white wine, champagne and butter. Ooh yeah, baby. The sauce was also infused with clams from France, giving it that lovely extra depth while the potato wafers on top provided a lovely crunch.
Apple compote and maple syrup mousse served in a chocolate shell
I chose this dessert, not knowing what to expect (and the only reason why it was chosen was because it sounded like the least richest dessert on the list). Imagine my delight when I saw it plated up so beautifully and whimsically like this.
The pale pink quenelle is an apple sorbet and the white blobs are bits of coffee mousse. As for the toffee apple-looking thing?
Why, it was a pink chocolate shell filled with frozen maple syrup mousse and apple compote. The playful presentation and the taste of all the elements (not too sweet, yet the flavours were still pronounced) made this baby one of the better desserts I had on this trip.
After such a rich (yet delicious) meal, I was ready to call it a day. However, I still needed enough energy to get my ass from Roppongi Hills to my hostel in across town so I accepted the offer of a black coffee. It didn’t taste any better than a Starbucks long black but that was to be expected.
I don’t remember exactly how much I paid for the meal but factoring a glass of wine, service charges and taxes, it was still less than AUD100 which I thought was pretty good given the high quality of service and food being presented. And although I’ve never been a big fan of chain restaurants, I enjoyed my first experience at a Joel Robuchon – in fact, it left me wanting more.
+81 3 3348 1234
The second French restaurant I visited in Tokyo was Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros, perched on the first floor of the Hyatt Regency. This was actually a last minute addition to my list of restaurants to visit and the only reason why I ended up booking there was because I just happened to be staying at the Hyatt Regency the previous night so it wasn’t like I was going out of my way for lunch.
Michel Troisgros happens to be the son of French haute cuisine great Pierre Troisgros, whose restaurant Frères Troisgros won the first ever Michelin Star. Frères Troisgros has since been a three-Michelin star winner since 1968 and Michel is no stranger to success either having opened a few of his own restaurants in France in addition to this baby right here in Shinjuku. The Tokyo restaurant itself received two Michelin stars in 2015.
Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros, like most fine dining restaurants in Japan, is elegant and refined. So far, it’s been interesting to compare the fine dining experience in Australia and Japan. Back home, things are much more relaxed at even the most expensive restaurants. Here, there’s a strong level of formality that’s to be expected regardless of whether you’re a diner or staff there. At the same time, service is still friendly no matter where you go and during my time in Japan’s fine dining restaurants, I’ve never experienced a server who’d acted like a wanker – in Australia on the other hand…
But anyway, I digress.
I was given a lovely table by the window. We were in the government district so it wasn’t like the view was amazing but I do love my window seats.
Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros do set menus for lunch; a few different options are offered with the shortest (and least expensive) menu starting at ¥6000 (AUD62). I decided to go al cheapo by going for the ¥6000 option. For certain dishes in each menu, there’s also the option to have a white truffle supplement for an extra ¥4800 (AUD50). I was going to have the veal with gnocchi for my main and figured that a few slices of truffles would bring the dish to another level. After all, it was white truffle season in Europe so why the hell not?
Côtes du Jura Blanc 2008 (¥2000/AUD20 a glass)
My wine for the meal was the very lovely Côtes du Jura Blanc 2008, a Chardonnay that was more peachy and caramel-y than oaky and, in fact, shared similar flavour profiles to a port. To me, it was almost like drinking a dessert wine (hell, it paired well with the coffee I later consumed) but strangely enough, it also matched with all the dishes I ate.
Taro chip with salmon roe, sesame rice ball filled with curry sauce, tuna on sesame bread.
Even though we were at a French restaurant, the nibbles took on a very Japanese flavour; a lovely array of textures and flavours to whet one’s appetite.
I also enjoyed some warm corn and buckwheat bread along with some plain ol’ white bread with French butter.
They also offered me some books to read while I was waiting for my meal. Granted, the books were blatant endorsements of the chef and his restaurants but still, I wished more restaurants offered reading material for solo diners.
Pumpkin tortellini with hazelnut and ‘strong juice’
The first course was a playful twist on the tortellini. The little shells you were are potato ‘skins’ that are sliced so thinly that they almost felt like rice paper. They were filled with pumpkin soup, lovingly perfumed with chicken stock. I did have a bit of a giggle when I saw ‘strong juice’ on the menu – that term referred to the parmesan-infused white sauce you see on the plate. It was a beautifully presented dish and a creative way to enjoy ‘pumpkin soup’ without feeling too full.
Veal fillet, buckwheat and gnocchi
So this was my main: veal topped with a salty buckwheat crumb (which you can barely see because of the truffles) and well, two pieces of gnocchi and greens.
The veal was so succulent and tender while the two gnocchi were beautifully fluffy. The dish would have worked well even without the truffles but I really did think they added a nice earthy element to the dish. It was a fantastic main and I guess my only complaint was that there wasn’t more of it, dammit.
Meringues, muscat grapes
I’m not much of a meringue fan so I did grimace when I saw that meringue was being served. It wasn’t a bad dessert though – perfectly formed meringue tubes were filled with a smooth walnut ice cream and muscat combination while a single pear added a lovely visual contrast on the right. It was a nice strong finish to what had been an excellent meal but it’s not a dessert I would have picked if I had been given a choice.
I was left to browse the rest of the book with some mediocre coffee (this is a fine dining restaurant in Japan after all) and petit fours to nibble on.
Of course, my meal ended up being over AUD100 given the truffle supplement, service charges and taxes so don’t let the ¥6000 fool you into thinking that you’re getting a bargain. However, the high quality of ingredients, execution of each dish and fantastic service made it worth every yen.
+81 3 6450 5755
Being in Japan helped me kick my coffee habit. Not that it was a terribly nasty one – I usually drink two cups a day, which is relatively fine – but the less coffee I drank, the better I would sleep. And if I was going make myself be less dependent on the liquid gold, a good way to do this was to be in a place where good coffee is hard to find.
Japan may not have much of a coffee culture but like many big Asian cities, it’s slowly gaining legs. And by the last week of my Japan trip, I had a craving for coffee. After a quick social media search on where to find better-than-Starbucks-Coffee, I decided to give The Roastery by Nozy Coffee a spin.
Situated on a Shibuya street where quirky boutique stores lure Tokyo’s fashionistas and western tourists, The Roastery isn’t exactly easy to find – I myself walked past it twice. But here’s a tip for you guys: look for the massive Denim & Supply Ralph Lauren store; The Roastery will be tucked away underneath.
The staff here are really friendly and know their coffees; they try to push the single origin thang here but a lot of customers were happy to stick to the lattes. Meanwhile, the setting is very Melbourne warehouse chic (it reminded me of Seven Seeds) but with the lights dimmed down to give it more of a refined feel. Props for a mad soundtrack too – I heard a really sexy acoustic mash-up of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ and Billy Joel’s ‘Just The Way You Are.’
New York ring ¥350
Haha! They call cronuts ‘New York rings’ here, which I thought was really cute. They were just like the ones I’ve had back home in Australia – crispy, flaky, buttery and sprinkled with a motherload of sugar. In fact, I struggled to even eat half of mine and had to save the remainder for later. At less than AUD$3.50 though, it was cheaper than a plain cronut from a good bakery in Melbourne or Sydney (where you’d be paying around AUD$5).
I had the single origin espresso from Costa Rica (Salaca red honey) which, strangely enough, came in a champagne flute. The coffee itself was very chocolate-y and punched a punch just like Campos’ Superior Blend but there were also grape notes, giving it more acidity than I would have liked. Personally, I think this coffee would have worked better as a latte (the milk would have evened it out, I reckon) but hey, it was still a good drop to try and definitely the best coffee I had during my Japan trip – which isn’t really saying much considering the only other coffees I had were at fine dining restaurants.
+81 3 5456 5011
I knew the Japanese love celebrating Halloween but I had no idea just how INSANE they go over it until I experienced a Tokyo Halloween. The days leading up to the actual day involved countless strangers (mostly Tinder guys) asking me what I was doing on Halloween and when I gave my “I dunno, probably nothing” responses, they reacted like I voted for the LNP in the recent Queensland state election.
I had been planning to spend the night in my very nice hotel room but somehow I got talked into braving the streets of Shibuya by a Tinder match who, funnily enough, happened to be staying in the very same hotel as me. And so after a drink at the New York Bar, we braved the massive flock of people commuting from Shinjuku to Shibuya. The train ride was uncomfortable as hell but we still made it to Shibuya in one piece – and on time too. Take that, delayed NYE trains, Melbourne!
It was cute to see most people go all out with their costumes. And although I’m not usually one for dressing up, I kinda did wish I made more of an effort.
Even this gaijin got into it.
Yup, this was Shibuya at 10PM on Halloween! It was extremely hard to get around.
Eventually, my companion and I decided to take a breather at the Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden where a decent size crowd had gathered in the spacious outdoor drinking area. As soon as we entered the bar, we were ushered into a little room where we were made to sit and watch a five-minute documentary about Kirin beer – how beer is made and what makes Kirin so awesome. Because it was entirely in Japanese, I can’t tell you exactly what makes Kirin awesome and neither could the rest of the room – we were all just anxious to get the hell out of there and drink beer, dammit!
Finally, we were able to slam down some beers. Or more specifically, beer slushies. My companion went for the original Kirin beer slushie while I decided to go for the banana-flavoured version (yes, how fitting). It was an interesting way to drink beer – I liked the texture but all that water did dilute the beer’s taste significantly (both mine and my companion’s). I also wasn’t sure if I liked banana beer; it wasn’t as diluted as the original Kirin slushie but it had that really strong artificial banana flavour taste which I’m not a fan of. It tasted like they had a vat of Kirin and someone poured a shitload of banana flavoured syrup in it.
Regardless, the Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden had a great laidback and vibrant atmosphere making it the perfect spot to people-watch on Halloween night.
2 Chome-26-4 Nishiazabu
Minato Ward, Tokyo
Tokyo Prefecture 106-0031
+81 3 5766 9500
In a country where delicious AND TRADITIONAL food can literally be found in every second corner, why did I choose to book lunch for one at a French restaurant? And more specifically, a restaurant whose name I could barely pronounce?
Well, folks, L’Effervescence happens to be a Tokyo up-and-comer. Its head chef Shinobu Namae trained under culinary greats Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal and it debuted at a very respectably #25 in San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 list. Not a bad effort, hey. Given its accolades, getting a dinner booking at L’Effervescence can be difficult but I had no issues with getting a table for lunch.
L’Effervescence is a bit of a walk from Roppongi station and it’s not on a main road. You’re required to meander along a few residential streets, which is actually a fun exercise in itself.
Some of the houses on my little walk were all prepped up for Halloween. I’m not a big Halloween person but I did find it cute.
You could be fooled into thinking that the restaurant was just another house on the street. It’s very nondescript, save for a neat tile installation in front as well as a sign displaying the day’s menu. As soon as you walk in though, its plush floors, team of smartly dressed waiters and very wealthy clientele is a sign that you’re, well, in the right place.
Sancerre Les Baronnes 2013
I was led by the English-speaking French maître-d to my table by the window, a lovely spot to enjoy a sip of wine and watch the calming light autumn rain.
L’Effervescence’s menu is all about modern French cuisine using native Japanese ingredients and a liberal dose of whimsical touches, which makes it stand out from Tokyo’s other French restaurants. There are a few options for those who want to do lunch at L’Effervescence. They start from the four-course ‘through the pathway’ menu at ¥5000 which is approximately AUD50, not a bad deal but then you also need to include taxes and service charges – and wine because as if you wouldn’t. The options then get a bit longer and as tempting as it was to go for the longer and more extravagant options, I decided to go (relatively) simple by ordering the ‘through the pathway’ menu. After all, I had dinner to go to that night.
The lunch began with an amuse bouche. The green thing on the left is an olive oil emulsion filled with kawahagi fish (liver and all) while the glass on the right holds little liquid nitrogen bits of Japanese apple and beer to cleanse one’s palate – after all, that metallic aftertaste you get after eating liver can be unpleasant.
That’s a lovely buttered baguette and rye with a nice pat of French butter, embossed circles and all, yo.
Grilled sanma and its guts, pan-fried potato, garlic soup, chrysanthemum leaves, matsutake mushroom
My first course was the grilled sanma, a mackerel-like fish that was, as the menu so eloquently stated, served with ‘its guts.’ The guts were dried, then powdered and sprinkled on top of the potato cubes (underneath the fish) to give the dish a slightly bitter kick. I wasn’t sure if I like that kick, but whatever.
Meanwhile, the garlic soup was made with garlic cooked in cold water that was then brought to the boil. This process was repeated about four or five times, a labour intensive process to get rid of the pungent garlic smell and taste. The result was a lovely silky soup with a sweet, mild flavour accentuated by the slightly earthy matsutake mushrooms which the maître-d said were the most expensive (presumably non-drug) mushrooms you can find in Japan.
The next course was simply called ‘vegetable plate’. Today, I received a kabu turnip that had been cooked in low heat for four hours. It is the only dish at L’Effervescence that is served all year round, however the turnip’s taste changes according to the season. For example, the turnip I got was juicy and sweet thanks to the massive amount of rain the area gets during the autumn months. Other times, you may get a turnip that’s crunchier or even bitter (screw that, I thought).
For the final savoury course, I was allowed to pick my own olive wood knife. I don’t normally care about the shade of my knife handle but I have to admit that being able to choose was pretty boss.
‘From the idea of apple pie’
L’Effervescence’s famous apple pie dish features heavily on this menu, though the filling changes according to what’s in season. This rendition of the apple pie dish was the fourteenth one in Namae’s very impressive repertoire. Stuffed with a hearty filling of wild boar cheek, neck and sweetbread along with lotus root, foie gras langoustine, fig, confit onion and wild grape sauce, the pie was insanely rich as it was delicious. If I had any doubt that I’d walk away full after my subsequent courses, this dish flicked those doubts away. And what of the little garden surrounding the pie? Why, it was salad made with 47 different ingredients – and no, I’m not going to list them all for you.
Butternut squash, dandelion root angel food cake, peanuts and lime, maple syrup hailstone
Dessert was a deconstructed cake, a nod to Namae’s time as pastry chef at Fat Duck. There were alternating bits of Cognac-soaked butternut squash and dandelion root angel food cake with blobs of lime gel to balance out all the sweetness. The little bits on top are dehydrated maple syrup ‘hailstones,’ tying each element of the dish neatly.
At this point in time, the maître-d came and had a chat with me. He said that he did a Google search my name (which he got from when I emailed them to book), saw my LinkedIn profile (and that I worked in the food and travel industry) and had a quick look at my blog. Initially, I was a bit creeped out that a stranger would ADMIT TO looking me up on Google but that feeling didn’t last long – the next minute, the maître-d brought Chef Shinobu Namae to the table where we had a lovely chat about the direction of his restaurant and whether he’ll visit Australia one day (‘of course, and Melbourne is the first on my list!’).
Coffee and petit fours
A fairly mediocre coffee was served with a very impressive plate of petit fours featuring: a coiled up raspberry and lychee ‘Roll Up’, passionfruit caramel with edible rice paper wrapper and a ‘reverse chocolate ball’ where the chocolate was inside a crème anglaise coating. Leaning awkwardly in the glass was a ‘Chupa Cup’ – and the waiter refused to tell me what was inside.
But holy wow, it was an explosion (literally) of popping candy, raisins, maize and chocolate. Yup, the ultimate party in my mouth (oi, get yer mind out of the gutter).
I may have happily paid the bill shortly after (I don’t remember how much it was but after all the taxes, service charges and wine, it was still less than AUD100) but the party didn’t stop there. No, I was given a moist spiced pumpkin cake to take home with me – which I ate for supper later that night.
I guess the moral of this story is: sure, eat lots of Japanese food in Japan. That is a no-brainer. But it pays to steer away from Japanese food for one meal if you can afford to (time and cost-wise) because you may be pleasantly surprised.
Chuo Ward, Tokyo
Tokyo Prefecture 104-0045
+81 3 5565 3636
Screw cereal and Vegemite on toast. To me, the best breakfasts involve fish and rice (and the odd leftover steak and green vegies from the night before). And there was no way in hell I was going to visit Tokyo and not have breakfast at Tsukiji, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world.
If you’re a foodie like I am, rocking up before the crack of dawn to reserve your place in line for Tsukiji’s famous tuna auctions is a must. Unfortunately, Tokyo’s public transport system doesn’t run that early so eager visitors must either fork out a fortune for a cab to take them there or book a hotel within walking distance from the fish market – I chose the latter option.
But as luck (or stupidity, really) would have had it, I ended up having a big one the night before. And when I woke up three hours later – at 4AM – the next morning, I took one look in the mirror and thought to myself, ‘Yeah nah, no tuna action for me.’ And so I missed out on my one chance to watch the auction. Oh well, next time.
Regardless, I was still keen for some morning fish and when I finally woke up in a slightly better state a few hours later, off I went to the market.
So the last two photos were my crappy attempts at playing around with layers and masks on Photoshop. And showing you the outskirts of the market.
As Captain Obvious would like to point out, there is a motherload of fish at this market.
Fish head soup, anyone?
Crustaceans can also be found by the 10 dozen billion. In some stalls, they can be cooked right in front of you for a fresh and delicious breakfast.
Also, plenty of fermented little fish and squid to sample.
If Australian customs weren’t so strict, I would have probably taken half the store home with me.
Pretty soon, I worked up a bit of an appetite so I decided to find a place to perch my toosh down for some sushi. The internets recommended Sushi Dai for the best breakfast at Tsukiji but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find it (even with Google Maps and my normally decent sense of direction). Finally, I gave up because I was hangry and stallholders were looking at me curiously as I passed their stall for the fifth time in a row.
Instead, I ended up at Sushizanmai. I later found out that this Sushizanmai is actually a popular franchise in Japan (think Sushi Sushi in Australia but obviously better and sans maggots). The popular Tsukiji branch is the first restaurant of the lot and given how packed it was, I knew that I couldn’t have a bad meal here My wait was only 10 minutes, which I thought was pretty good (it also helped that I was dining alone).
The extensive menu covers a range of sushi platters, chirashi bowls and nigiri topped with the usual suspects such as salmon, squid and prawn in addition to the less commonly found sardine and flounder. I decided to order one abalone nigiri to start.
Abalone nigiri ¥398/AUD$3.90
I love a good abalone and it was great to enjoy it fresh. Unfortunately, abalone is by nature less flavoursome than a fresh piece of salmon or tuna so it wasn’t a very exciting nigiri for me to eat. I’ll stick to my Cantonese-style ginger and spring onion abalone, thanks.
Complimentary miso soup was much appreciated, especially given how cold it was outside.
Deluxe chirashi-don ¥1480/AUD$14.50
And here’s my sushi rice bowl, artfully topped with 13 kinds of raw seafood on top including two different kinds of tuna and squid respectively. There was also a piece of sweet tamago, slivers of ginger, wasabi and salmon roe to keep things happy. It was fresh and simple, yet so delicious and filling. I could not have asked for a better breakfast.
Park Hyatt Tokyo
3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku
Shinjuku-Ku, Tokyo 163-1055
+81 3 5322 1234
As clichéd as it sounds, I had always wanted to make like Bill and Scarlett by having a drink or two at the New York Bar in Tokyo’s Park Hyatt hotel. So when I Tinder-matched with a guy staying not only in the same hotel as me (the other Hyatt just around the corner) but two floors away AND was also down for a drink at the Park Hyatt, I was on like Donkey Kong – for drinks, I meant, not for getting up to no good.
After meeting the guy at our hotel lobby, we walked across and took the lift up to the 52nd level where breathtaking Tokyo city views and soft live jazz music greeted us.
My crappy iPhone photo cannot do this view justice. But it wasn’t like I could whip out my SLR – for one thing, I was on a Tinder meet-up (I refuse to call them dates) and secondly, the New York Bar has a strict rule against bringing in cameras and video recording devices.
With a bowl of complimentary nuts on the side, we ordered some whiskies. I don’t remember what my buddy had but I had a lovely glass of Taketsuru 25 YO (¥5300(AUD55)). A rare edition of Nikka Taketsuru’s blended malt whisky (I haven’t seen it in Australia – no wonder, as only 120 bottles were made available in Europe), this beauty had strong floral notes with hints of cherries shining through, followed by a soft peaty finish.
Bar nibbles: smoked nuts, Iberico pork jerky, shrimp popcorn ¥1800(AUD19)
We were looking to get a proper dinner elsewhere but I wasn’t going to leave without trying New York Bar’s nibbles. Not only was it the most interesting thing on the bar menu (it was pretty much pizzas, salads and all that stuff), I can never turn down jerky – especially IBERICO PORK JERK because who the hell does that?!
The smoked nuts were lovely and moreish (I dislike using that word but it’s very apt in this situation plus, cut me some slack – I’m still recovering from a four-day migraine). The shrimp popcorn was nice – think salted butter with the lovely umami-ness of dried shrimp – but the pork jerky was the star of the show. Deliciously fatty and buttery, it melted in my mouth. And got me excited about making jerky again, a thing I used to do back home quite a bit.
We had another glass of whisky each – this time I had the Taketsuru 21 year old at ¥2100(AUD22), a more chocolatier and sweeter version than the older version.
I would have stayed here all night – the music was sublime and I was happy just to look at the views and people-watch. However, we were hungry so we got off our stools and walked out into the Tokyo night, vowing to return – without each other.
2222 Hirao, Shimotakai-gun
+81 269 33 3181
The Nagano Prefecture is a beautiful part of Japan, especially during the cooler months. Don’t just stay in Nagano city – it’s worth exploring the countryside even just for a day. If you can’t get yourself out there during winter, where snow-capped mountains make for a pretty Instagram photo or two, then walks through the region’s forests and orchards in all their vibrant autumn foliage glory is the next best thing.
Unfortunately, rural Japan can be a bit of a black hole when it comes to finding places to eat. During my stay in Shibu Onsen, I spotted only one izakaya and a couple of gift stores selling Japanese snacks and confectionery (think red pepper and apple Kit Kats) – unfortunately, these were the only places where I could effectively grab a feed if hunger struck.
Or I could grab a soft boiled egg that’s slowly been cooked using the hot spring water. I spotted a few of these on the streets of Shibu Onsen – they were found just outside the ryokans. You chuck in a 50 yen coin (equivalent to 50 Aussie cents) in the bowl and grab yourself an egg – yup, the honesty system was at play here.
Most ryokans (Japanese guest houses), however, provide some sort of meal option for guests. At Senshinkan Matsuya, the ryokan that I stayed at, breakfast is included in the room cost and if you wanted dinner, an extra charged applied.
Senshinkan Matsuya breakfast spread
Don’t get me wrong, I love soft boiled eggs but this was a much better option. Unlike last night’s dinner, Senshinkan Matsuya’s breakfast spread had an almost even east-west distribution. There was yoghurt with plum compote (as in most Asian countries, I did find the ‘plain’ yoghurt too sweet). There was a piece of red grapefruit. There was a lettuce salad as well as spinach, seaweed and miso soup with daikon. And then there was a piece of pan-fried salmon fillet and a ham omelette with steamed white rice on the side. To top things off, there was black coffee with a tub of creamer should you feel like white coffee.
It was a lovely breakfast; it was delicious and filling but without being too heavy. At the end of it, it was time for me to check out. My kind hosts then gave me a lift to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park where I would spend the rest of the morning. Tmomi and Keiko, thank you so much for your kind hospitality during my stay at Senshinkan Matsuya.
I probably took about a hundred shots like these guys. Unfortunately, they’re still sitting in my SLR and I’m too lazy to upload them.
2222 Hirao, Shimotakai-gun
+81 269 33 3181
If you’re ever in Japan, you’d be silly just to limit yourself to the tourist hubs of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. Sure, those cities have plenty of things to keep you occupied but if you do have a night or two to spare it’s worth exploring the Japanese countryside.
The Tokyo-Nagano dash was an overnight trip I did halfway through my holiday. I wanted to see the snow monkeys but to do that as a day trip from Tokyo would require some amazing time management skills, not to mention getting up super early in the morning. I wasn’t quite keen to make that sort of commitment.
However, I was cool with an overnight stay in nearby Shibu Onsen, a hot springs area that’s only a short drive from the snow monkey park. Plus, it would give me a great excuse to stay at a ryokan (Japanese guest house).
Senshinkan Matsuya was the place I stayed at. It’s a beautiful two-storey wooden guesthouse that’s been around for more than 200 years and is owned by a lovely couple, Tmomi and Keiko. Tmomi was kind enough to pick me up from Yudanaka Station (the closest public transport stop to the inn) which I was grateful for seeing as it was 5:30PM when I arrived and pitch black (I didn’t have the hindsight to know just how quickly it got dark in the Japanese countryside in the cooler months).
This was my room for the night, complete with tatami mats and all. It was simple, yet beautiful and homely – the perfect place to have a quiet night in, away from the bright lights of Japan’s big cities. I paid the equivalent of AUD$100 for the night – this included dinner, breakfast and a key that granted access to nine hot spring baths in Shibu Onsen.
Senshinkan Matsuya did have its quirks – my room had a VHS player! (despite the fact there were no video stores nearby and people stopped buying video tapes a long time ago)
There were also Nagano 1998 stickers everywhere, because Winter Olympics pride.
Once I dumped everything into my room, I popped on my yukata (Japanese robe) and went downstairs to the dining room basement area for dinner. Holy hell, this was the spread that greeted me. Yup, this was yet another kaiseki dinner but unlike the Michelin-starred spectacular at Roan Kikunoi, this was a much more casual and homely version. Same same but different.
After taking a few sips of my plum wine and nibbling my way through the assorted sashimi, pickles and edamame, I got stuck into the herbal mushroom soup. Given how cold the autumn air was up in the Japanese countryside, this was a godsend. So earthy, so herby, so friggin’ delicious.
I was delighted to see kishimen (flat udon noodles) in the mix. It came in a cute little bowl with a lid on it. See that hole in the lid? It was full of beautiful steaming hot dashi soup.
Like the sashimi, I’d have to say that I didn’t particularly warm up to the tempura. The sashimi was nice enough but after getting used to insanely fresh sashimi in the larger cities, the kingfish and tuna here paled in comparison. Understandably though, we were up in the mountains where fresh seafood is harder to come by. The tempura batter was light but not as crispy as I had come to expect in Japan. I did like the green tea salt though – it injected a bit of flavour to the eggplant, zucchini and green tea salt tempura pieces.
And who doesn’t like a bit of creamy cheesy chicken? I definitely wasn’t saying no. It went down well with a bit of steamed rice.
Finally, some nice peppered salmon to get my Omega-3 fill for the day.
It’s hard to believe that this entire spread was for one person. And yes, I did eat it all!
I felt like a bit of a loser sitting there in my yukata alone while couples and groups around me were chatting and eating away. I’m not sure whether it was because it was such a small and homely environment or whether it was because I was in a small country town. Nevertheless, the host (and chef) was lovely and came over every now and then to converse with me in what limited English she had and with what limited Japanese I had.
After such a feast, it was time for me to go for an evening walk around Shibu Onsen and visit its spas. Sorry, no spa photos – I wasn’t going to be the creep who took her iPhone to a spa to take photos while other spa users were around.
118 Saitocho Kiyamachidori 40-jo Sagaru
Shimogyu-ku, Kyoto 600-8012
+81 75 361 5580
A gorgeous kaiseki dining experience marked my final night in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural and historical capital. Kaiseki dining is essentially a traditional multi-course dinner comprising of a colourful array of dishes showcasing the chef’s skillset as well as the season’s freshest ingredients. These little dishes are artistically arranged in little portions and presented to the guest during the course of the meal – yup, meet the original degustation.
Kikunoi is probably the most famous and lauded kaiseki restaurant in Japan. It also happens to be one of Tetsuya Wakuda’s favourite restaurants so the man gave Kikunoi two thumbs up, then it must be decent. Unfortunately, I was unable to score a booking at Kikunoi most likely thanks to its three Michelin star status so I tried my luck at its little sister restaurant Roan Kikunoi instead.
When looking to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, one knows that lunches are the way to go if you’re looking for the same top-notch food at lower prices. Unfortunately, Roan Kikunoi couldn’t squeeze me in for lunch but thankfully they had a spare seat for me at the bar for dinner.
Still, I’d definitely encourage you to try for lunch – lunches here are a steal from ¥4000 (AUD$43), whereas dinners start at ¥10000 (AUD$109). In this instance, I went for the ¥10000 dinner.
Roan Kikunoi’s counter dining approach lends to a more casual atmosphere than its big sister. Sure, the restaurant is still refined enough for your typical Gold Coast bogan to look awkwardly out of place in but it was definitely less formal than Fujiya 1935. Plus, sitting at the counter meant that you get a more interactive (and hence, more fun) experience.
Things were already off to a fantastic start when I was quickly seated and presented with a personalised menu. Okay, I lie. It wasn’t personalised per se – it was essentially just the set menu they gave to everyone who ordered the ¥10000 dinner. Still, it was a lovely touch – it’s amazing just how much better a dining experience can be when only the littlest time is invested in these sorts of things.
The first cab off the rank was a hollowed out fresh yuzu (Japanese citrus) filled with yuzu tofu topped with yuzu miso. The yuzu tofu had a very faint hint of citrus notes but was the perfect catalyst for soaking up the strong nutty and citrusy flavours of the miso on top. A lovely yuzu-infused sake also accompanied the starter.
Series of appetisers: arrowhead root chips, dried mullet roe, duck liver paté with white poppy seeds, maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, Shimej mushroom, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake-glazed gingko nuts.
I was then presented with a small tray of the season’s autumn and among them, an assortment of little nibbles to get my appetite going. I loved how the whole thing was presented in a nonchalant manner, yet I’m sure each little element would have taken a lot of time and skill to prepare – I mean, hello, pine needle-shaped tea noodles?!
Red sea bream, Spanish mackerel with ponzu jelly, chrysanthemum petals, wasabi.
Next, I had the sashimi course. Moments beforehand, the chef came over to show me the still-alive fish he was going to cut up and present to me. Talk about super fresh, hey. Each bit of fresh fish was covered by a thin layer of ponzu jelly for a bit of zest with fresh wasabi on hand for a kick. There was also a dab of chrysanthemum petals but to be honest, the flowers didn’t do anything for me.
Pike conger soup, matsutake mushroom, mitsuba herb.
My first warm dish of the night was a fragrant pike conger soup that came in a neat clay teapot. The soup was insanely herby with few Japanese pine mushrooms thrown in for a bit of woody sweetness; this soup was perfect for those cold Kyoto autumn nights.
I was then presented with a little cup covered with a cute wooden lid. What was inside?
Yuzu and wasabi sorbet.
Oh, nice. More yuzu. More wasabi. I say it in a good way though – this sorbet not only tied the last few courses together neatly, it was also a refreshing palate cleanser. I loved the combination of icy texture and strong citrus flavours tainted by the slightest hint of heat.
Ayu with roe, shiitake mushroom.
The ayu seems to be the fish of the season here for it was the second time I’d seen it served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The duo of fish was char-grilled along with a piece of shiitake mushroom and then presented on top of some reeds.
I’m not sure why they decided to chop the fish heads off, especially since the Japanese lady next to me had her fish served with their heads intact. Perhaps they incorrectly assumed this gaijin couldn’t hack seeing fish heads. Nevertheless, the fishes’ intestines were still intact, giving them that really sharp bitter kick I’ve come to dislike. Not even the water pepper vinegar that accompanied this dish could get rid of the bitterness. Yeah nah, sorry, ayu isn’t for me.
Rice with matsutake mushrooms.
The final savoury course was the mushroom rice cooked in a claypot. This chef had seen me take photos of all the food with my iPhone so he decided to be a good sport by holding up the rice pot. Naw.
I was served half the rice, which was served with some Chinese cabbage soup and a trio of Japanese pickles (eggplant, daikon and seaweed). As simple as this dish may sound, it was probably my favourite. It may not have looked like a lot of rice but it did the job in making me full and I just loved how flavoursome the mushrooms were. Washed down with some tasty miso soup and the rest of my glass of white wine, the rice made me a happy camper.
Lemon ice cream, pear compote.
Dessert was a simple yet perfect affair consisting of lemon ice cream and pear compote. Much like the yuzu and wasabi palate cleanser, this sorbet was equally refreshing and tasty – the perfect way to end a well-executed dinner.
Where did the other half of my rice go? It was made into two pieces of onigiri and placed in a brown doggy bag…
… for me to enjoy the next morning for breakfast.
Roan Kikunoi, you’re very clever. Kudos to you. Not only did you have me buzzing as soon as I left your warm and friendly establishment, you also had me thinking about you the very next morning as I hopped on the train to Nagoya.