Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Restaurant # 11: Matsuzakaya Honten Ryokan in Hakone

After leaving Kyoto, we headed to the very scenic, mountainous, Onsen (Hotspring) retreat of Hakone.
Being our first trip to Japan, we wanted to sample a little bit of everything on offer. The metropolis of Tokyo, and Osaka, ancient cities like Kyoto and Nara, still very deeply rooted in tradition, and finally Hakone, a mountain retreat famous for hotsprings, a great Japanese pastime.
Much of the journey from Kyoto to Hakone was abourd the Shinkansen (bullet train) after which we took a local line for the last section of the journey. Only after you begin the mountainous ascent towards Hakone, do you realize how impressive the mountains and forests that make up some 80% of Japan's land area really are. Very lush greenery and extremely tall trees make up the flora of the region. I was surprised to see such a pristine landscape in the world's second industrial nation, so close to Tokyo.

This is an example of the terrain in the Hakone area.

We soonafter arrived to our Ryokan (Japanese Guesthouse). It has been in operation since the 17th century. Another striking aspect of Japan was the number of restaurants, shops, specialists, and ryokans with extremely impressive pedigrees, often going back 500 years. Many of these commercial establishments were in business during Tokugowa era (1600 AD), which just goes to show that Japanese commercialism is so well established in the past and is nothing new.

The ryokan was in very traditional Japanese style, and was indeed quite large, catering mostly to wealthier, and older, Japanese clientele. We were sort of the odd ones out and we did get quite a bit of stares from the other clients, mostly out of curiosity rather than rudeness.

The ryokan had a large, and extremely elegant dining area. It was clear that the food was one of the major attractions at this ryokan.
As you can see above, the chef took utmost care in the presentation of this first course.
The above plate consisted of: sweet potato, a form of kamaboko (fishcake, incidentally a specialty of the Kanagawa region), a shrimp, rolled eel, and baked scallop in a large snail shell. Strangely enough, the snail itself was not removed from the shell, but we were advised not to eat it. The very first thing that the we were advised not to eat in Japan. Prior to that, i thought that nothing on the table was off limits!

The next course was simply a boiled shrimp and scallop on a slice of orange.

Followed by some Tofu, decorated exquisitely with a slice of okra, some fish roe, and a star shaped slice of yellow caspicum.

Next came two successive courses of sashimi, the first of which was very fresh local fish, elegantly presented. I think the varieties were Tai (seabream), and Red Snapper.

The second course was more interesting... I am not sure what the fish was. As for the orange stuff on the leaf.. At first I thought that it was Uni (Sea Urchin) of lower quality perhaps, however I later learned that it was "Konowata" or fermented Sea Cucumber intestines!
The leaf was "Shiso" leaf, very popular in the cuisine of this region, and very aromatic.
The Konowata was not too bad, bud i guess it did help that I thought it was Uni before I actually ate it.

Next course was beautifuly marbled beef sirloin, topped with some butter and Miso, accompanied by various vegies, placed on waxpaper.
A candle was lit under the pot and it was covered for some time, before being unveiled to us, ready to eat.
It was not quite as good as the beef that we had before on our trip (Okahan and Mishima Tei) but the places we tried before were renowned beef specialists serving top quality Japanese beef, so it would not be fair of me to compare this to the previous beef that we had.
It still was good in its own right, although not as tender as i would have expected, owing to the preparation method where the beef was simmered under very low heat.

Next course was Kyoto Eggplant, topped with Shrimp, asparagus, and mushrooms, and a starch based sauce. I did not enjoy the sauce quite frankly, it was rather weak in taste, and ruined the eggplant.

Finally, Seabass with grilled sweet corn, and asparagus. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Nothing particularly Japanese on this plate either for that matter. A rather dissapointing final plate.

On to the breakfast. Top left we have Kamaboko (fishcakes) and freshly grated wasabi, clockwise we have Chawan Mushi (egg custard), bottom right dried tiny little fish and grated radish, in the elongated central plate pickled kelp and "Ika no Shiokara" or fermented squid intestines. Finally on the left rolled spinach with bonito shaves. The squid intestines were wey too fishy for my taste, especially so early in the morning (7:00 AM).

Top left, a potato like root vegetable, slightly sweet in flavor. To its right is some very high quality Tofu, very freshly made, top right is a glass of "Yuzu" juice (Japanese citrus).
Bottom plate is some pickled radish.

Not shown here (could'nt find a picture on my camera unfortunately) was 1 day dried and salted fish, grilled on a griddle. We could choose among barracuda, mackerel and yet another type of fish. Here shown are the condiments of salad, rice, and some Otoro Tartare (fatty tuna tartare).
The breakfast was very colorful, carefully prepared and large in terms of portions. Excellent way to start the day!

We were terribly unfortunate in that the weather was cloudy, windy and rainy on our only full day in Hakone. Nt only did we not get to see mount Fuji, we could'nt take the boat trip on the lake. We did still manage to take some pictures! We spent the afternoon in the hot spring facilities of the Ryokan, so it was not a total waste...

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