It sucks that my sister is an insomniac, but all those sleepless hours online (coupled with the fact that she is an academic: professional researcher!) meant that we struck gold on our recent Japan trip. We took a detour between Osaka and Kanazawa and spent the night at the tiny seaside town of Mikuni and stayed at the fantastic Bouyourou ryokan.
Bouyourou literally translates to ‘a building which overlooks the sea’. And overlook the sea it did. With only 6 rooms and a private, slightly salty onsen in each one, Bouyourou offered every guest an uninterrupted view of the Sea of Japan and the neighboring cliff formations. As with most ryokans, we were served a kaseki dinner in our room and also breakfast the next morning. (And we went for a hike to watch the sunset at the famous Tojinbo cliffs, and 4 dips in our onsen! It was a fun filled, action packed day!)
If this was a review about the hotel I would probably have waxed on lyrically about how perfect the baths were (we didn’t bother with the public baths and stayed in our room) or the quality of their beauty products (super fake smelling) and how lovely the staff were (they picked us up from Tojinbo when we had to called them from the tourist information because it was too dark to walk home, and gave us a lift to the train station the next day). But since we’re here for the food, let’s just crack on with one of the best kaiseki I’ve had in my life. (I think I’d rate the dinner/experience at Bouyourou as one of my top 10s.)
The funny thing is, unlike some kaiseki houses where they wheel out a tableau of food (actually, [a good few years ago] Kitcho Sagano literally wheeled out a mini mountain decorated with morsels of sashimi… another top 10, but that’s also another story), the food at Bouyourou was surprising in its simplicity. Rather than some fancy architectural craziness, the food was super simple so that you could properly appreciate its freshness and locality. Everything served on the table was locally sourced from Fukui prefecture and they even had a map to show you where they got each ingredient from the Sakai peninsula!
Honestly though, I didn’t know what I was eating at least 30% of the time. Personally, that’s ok, but I get that some people don’t like it. Having been brought up in Asia, I’ve come to accept that what you eat in Japan, stays in Japan and you’ll probably never figure it out *shrugs*. Especially when eating Kaiseki/omakase! They never really explain what you’re eating and then there is the language barrier (fair enough, I don’t know what pomegranate is in Chinese and it’s my mother tongue), but that’s half the fun right? So, these are the highlights:
The appetizer of a Kaiseki meal is usually my favorite (along with the soup/ simmered course [suimono]) as it is here that the restaurant showcases the seasonal theme of the meal – since I visited in late autumn, they used ginkgo, maple leaves and persimmon (look at all the pretty leaves in the picture!). I also love the fact that there are lots of little bits to try. This one was a simmered local fish with grilled ginkgo, salmon roe on salmon, a persimmon and pomegranate salad (in the persimmon pot obviously) and in the other pot some spinach, sweet/spicy Konbu and other savory stuff, erm… sauce (seriously, no idea). It sets a pretty scene that echoes our trip so far including a serendipitous visit to Todaiji in Kyoto at sunset, the day before they were open for the winter season (lit up in the evening). A TV crew was filming in preparation for opening night, so we were literally alone in the complex with 4 other people at twilight, surrounded by maples, temple and zero tourists. It was absolutely magical (even my normally boisterous nephew was silent, in awe of this perfect moment). We also had been eating these super ripe, super perfect (it’s Japan after all, with their slightly too perfect produce) persimmons with a jelly texture inside; orange balls of joys that had to be carefully transported to the hotel every night, in case they burst and turned our bags into an explosion of orange goo. The first course reflected our holiday so perfectly that it was kind of like a home movie in a series of delicious bites.
After the appetizer comes my other favorite course – the suimono: a clear, super flavorful fish soup with the fluffiest cloud of prawn dumpling in it. Because it is autumn, this one was served with mushrooms and had a hint of yuzu in it. I can’t describe how these fluffy clouds of prawn make me feel. It’s like being hugged from the outside – like when you eat a fantastic matzo ball/chicken soup, but way better (because prawn trumps bits of dried crackers). Or maybe snuggling a really fluffy prawn flavored duvet. Just thinking about it makes my normally wonderful silk-filled duvet feel incredibly inadequate. Nope, it certainly doesn’t look like much in the picture, but suffice to say one foodgasm later, I don’t remember much of the next few courses. Urm… the sashimi was really tasty and fresh (it better be, since the ship landed in the harbour all of 2 minutes walk away)?
I recovered enough to have memories of the main course, which was a mushroom and yuzu shabu shabu with local wakasa beef. While shabu shabu isn’t my favorite way to consume beef, this was very tasty and the clean tasting yuzu broth with the mushrooms was a good juxtaposition to the fatty, melt-in-mouth beefy goodness. I really liked the variety of mushrooms they gave us, especially these really glossy looking ones that look like they might be poisonous (but weren’t).
The shabu shabu marked the zenith of the meal and was followed by the curious Japanese tradition of what I dubbed as “double carbing”- noodles and rice. This never ceases to amaze me, especially when I’m at a ramen shop and the guy sitting next to me has kaedama (extra noodles) AND a portion of rice. Seriously? No wonder catnapping on the job is totally acceptable. Anyways, Fukui is famous for soba, so of course we ate some fantastic hand made soba that is lovely and nutty, with just the right amount of bite to it. To finish off the savories, we had a ginger ochazuke. It was super tasty, with a fantastic balance between the warming ginger and “new rice” flavor. Funnily enough, it made you feel better the more you ate because the ginger really helped to settle the tummy. My sister and I both started saying that we would only have a mouthful, but ended up having seconds!
Finally, we ate a marron ice cream/mousse combo with a chestnut inside- by then I think my taste buds were beyond the ability to properly appreciate it (apart from saying yummy) and some melon. Filled absolutely to the brim, we stood up and watched the staff magic away the dishes, tables and chairs and conjure up the bedding for the night.
A stay at an onsen ryokan is never complete without an after meal dip (don’t worry, we already had one before dinner as well) so in the interest of excellent digestive practices, we trooped off again into our private bath (this is why if you can, you should have a private bath because you don’t have to go through the palaver of washing yourself super well again. And have old Japanese ladies judge you as you didn’t, in fact, wash yourself well enough) and steamed ourselves till we were also as fluffy as the prawn dumplings.
The next morning, we woke up early enough for another dip (I won’t describe it to you this time) before breakfast (virtues of going to sleep at 9:30). This was a proper full-on Japanese breakfast with assortments of mixed salady things (my personal favorites were split evenly between squid marinated in sake+miso and spinach with tiny fishes in), grilled fish, buttery tuna on natto (which I scraped off very carefully since I think natto tastes like wet socks and would only offer it to my worst enemy) and the star of the morning, the tofu (in the wooden pot). This was actually still a liquid when it came to the room and was ‘made’ while they assembled breakfast. I loved the fresh tofu- you can taste a tiny bit of wooden undertone to the beany goodness and wow, this particular one was so super smooth and set just right, not too soft and wobbly.
With breakfast finished, we squeezed in a final dip (hey, you got to maximize the room) and were taken to the JR station to continue our journey to Kanezawa.
The concept of ryokan fascinates me. Yes, I know there are spa/hotel/restaurant combos in the UK and I’ve been treated to a stay at the Manoir (de quatre saisons) when my sister finally finished her decade of studying. However, the combination of a room-serviced tasting menu, a lovely hot spring bath and a breakfast guaranteed-to-fill-you-up-till-at-least-lunch-time (and more bathing) just instilled a zen sensation that was quite unlike anything else. It’s as if someone blended yoga and a foodgasm and then made a panna cotta (or perhaps more fitting to the theme, a prawn dumpling) out of it. At first glance it seems crazy to spend that much on a fairly rickety hotel in the middle of nowhere, but when you think about it as a gourmet tasting menu that happens to comes with a stay, rather than a stay in a hotel with a good restaurant (that you have to pay on top of), the economics of it began to make much more sense. Let alone the fact that I’m certain I left the Manior with a banging headache and not this feeling of extreme wellness and peacefulness that Bouyourou afforded me.
Bouyourou is approx. one hour away from Fukui city via the Echizen railway (the most darling one cart train ever) or a 20 minutes ride from Awara Onsen JR Station. They are super kids friendly and made my nephew a special meal filled with popular kids food such as tempura, Japanese hamburger, salmon teriyaki and chips. They also have a restaurant (which I haven’t tried, but is quite highly rated) in Tokyo.