Sensations to savour
Fabulous food experiences, from temple meals to heavenly ice cream
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.
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/.
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/.
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-