Sen­sa­tions to savour

Fab­u­lous food ex­pe­ri­ences, from tem­ple meals to heav­enly ice cream

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan -

KY­OTO’SKY LUXE NEW INN

STARWOODST Ho­tels & Re­sorts will open its first Luxury Col­lec­tion ho­tel in Ja­pan in May; th the Ky­oto prop­erty, Suiran, will sit within the her­itage-listed Ten­ryuji tem­ple es­tate and of­fer 39 gue­strooms. Star­wood has 15 ho­tels in Ja­pan across the Sher­a­ton, Westin and St Regis bra brand­ings. More: star­wood­ho­tels.com. GREEN TEA AND TATAMI: The pa­per shoji screen slides open and a young monk, bal­anc­ing a stack of four red­lac­quered trays, kicks off his shoes and steps into our room. My hus­band and I are stay­ing in a Bud­dhist tem­ple in a monas­tic retreat southeast of Osaka. Set in a forested, high­land val­ley, Koy­asan was es­tab­lished in 819 far from the dis­trac­tions of the world, but then the world came to Koy­asan as monks and pil­grims flocked to the area. Fiftytwo of the town’s 117 tem­ples still of­fer lodg­ings, known as shukubo, to vis­i­tors.

Our ac­com­mo­da­tion is a spa­cious, tatami-mat­ted space sparsely fur­nished with a low ta­ble and piles of cush­ions; later, our bed­ding will be laid out on the floor. The monk sets the trays, which have lit­tle legs, on the floor and care­fully ar­ranges the nu­mer­ous plates and bowls for our evening meal, each hold­ing a dif­fer­ent type of food. Bud­dhist veg­e­tar­ian cui­sine, or Sho­jin-ry­ori, is based on five flavours, five colours and five cooking meth­ods. In ad­di­tion to rice and green tea, we have miso soup, tem­pura veg­eta­bles, pickles and fruit. Served in richly lac­quered bowls is a lo­cal spe­cialty, goma-dofu, a tofu made from white sesame seeds, roasted and ground and mixed with kudzu starch, a type of ar­row­root. An­other lo­cal spe­cialty, named for the town, is freeze-dried tofu, koya-dofu. This style is be­lieved to owe its ori­gins to a happy ac­ci­dent when some tofu frozen by ex­treme win­ter con­di­tions proved to be not only long-last­ing but de­li­cious when re­hy­drated. More: eng.shukubo.net; tb-ku­mano.jp/en/lodg­ing/list.

STELLA MARTIN

HEAV­ENLY CONES: Even the tourist lit­er­a­ture for the port of Otaru, on the west coast of Hokkaido, shows merry vis­i­tors hold­ing ice cream cones — big, swirled af­fairs rem­i­nis­cent of Mr Whippy’s finest. But for­get any no­tion of an­o­dyne flavours such as vanilla. In­stead, think car­ni­val colours, and tastes as won­drous as laven­der, musk melon and golden ap­ple and as perky as soda wa­ter.

Ja­pan’s north­ern­most is­land, Hokkaido, is a rev­e­la­tion of rich­ness. Springy green pas­tures are dot­ted with dairy cows; cold, clear wa­ters yield hauls of fine seafood, from sea urchins to snow crabs; the or­chards of the south are thick with stone fruit trees. The ice cream is made from farm-fresh milk, with no ar­ti­fi­cial ad­di­tives and min­i­mal sugar, and the best, my guide Narita-san tells me, is from Ya­manaka Dairy Farm near Otaru, which has a shop in town sell­ing just three ba­sic flavours in­clud­ing de­li­cious matcha, made from pow­dered green tea.

Three gen­er­a­tions of con­fec­tion­ers have been work­ing at Amato Sweets Shop in Otaru since 1929; up­stairs is a cafe where the sur­pris­ingly good spe­cialty is cold red bean por­ridge topped with a swirl of whiter-than-white ice cream that tastes faintly of honey. But things can get gim­micky and if you head for Kita-no-Aisukurimu Yasan ice cream par­lour, you’ll find that black-coloured scoop is not trendy licorice but squid’s ink, and if you’re up for it there’s the de­bat­able prospect of a beer flavour or, per­haps more pleas­ingly, sea­sonal of­fer­ings of cherry blos­som or white peach.

I rec­om­mend the six-lay­ered cones, mostly known as rain­bow, and sold at many ice cream shops in the ware­house dis­trict along Otaru Canal. Choose fruit or flo­ral va­ri­eties or go for Coca-Cola, espresso or lemon­ade. Then there’s the “fa­mous” cheese­cake at Urato patis­serie and green tea bis­cuits pack­aged like jew­els from the el­e­gant Ki­takaro store. Down the hatch. More: jnto.go.jp/eng/lo­ca­tion/re­gional/hokkaido/.

SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

GET FRESH WITH FISH: We are dining at the counter at Shinbe, one of 200 restau­rants, tiny bars and iza­kaya in the al­ley­ways near the sta­tion in Tan­abe City, a re­gional cen­tre on the coast of the Kii Penin­sula on the main is­land, Hon­shu. Tan­abe en­joys a rich va­ri­ety of lo­cal seafood and with two fish mar­kets a day there’s fresh, and then there’s re­ally fresh. Apolo­gies are of­fered if some­thing is avail­able only from the morn­ing catch rather than the af­ter­noon’s bounty. Our chef is a fish­er­man and he’s choos­ing the sashimi. “Ah, so you like fugu,” he says with a wicked smile as I wolf down an un­fa­mil­iar piece of white fish. “But fugu is poi­sonous,” I blurt, be­fore be­ing as­sured I’ve eaten a harm­less rel­a­tive of the deadly puffer­fish.

The piece de re­sis­tance is a halved ise-ebi, the highly prized Ja­panese spiny lob­ster that’s in sea­son for only a cou­ple of months each year. In the past I’ve eaten a raw prawn — though thank­fully not the “danc­ing” ver­sion, which is still wrig­gling — so why not this crus­tacean? The flesh is translu­cent and wa­tery, with an elu­sive flavour that cer­tainly sug­gests lob­ster, but it’s far too sub­tle to con­sider bom­bard­ing it with the usual wasabi or soy. We move on to cooked dishes — scal­lops, crumbed oysters, prawn balls — and lily roots in a jammy sauce made from ume plums. Mean­while, my lob­ster car­cass is be­ing boiled and strained. Its essence re­turns as the base for the most sub­lime miso soup I may ever taste. More: tb-ku­mano.jp/en/dining/.

ALIS­TAIR JONES

IF YOU KNEW SUSHI: Kushiro, a port city in eastern Hokkaido, wouldn’t win too many beauty con­tests. It’s a friendly enough town, and lies in close prox­im­ity to high­qual­ity fish­ing and bird-watch­ing in nearby marsh­lands. But where it does excel is in serv­ing some of the fresh­est seafood on the planet at very rea­son­able prices. At Kushiro Washo Mar­ket (13-25 Kuro­gane-cho, near the sta-

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