This Japan-focussed article is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
For many the archetypal image of Japan is the buzzing, sprawling megacity exemplified by Tokyo. But, to state the trite and obvious, there’s another side to the country which is just as compelling – the countryside. One sliver of Japan’s expansive rural hinterland is the Kumano Kodo, a centuries-old pilgrimage trail valued by both Shinto and syncretic Shino-Buddhist adherents. It’s a terrific way to soak in serene and bucolic scenes of rural and coastal Japan while also eating well for modest sums of money.
The Kumano Kodo consists of numerous hiking routes running from West to East through Wakayama Prefecture’s Kii Peninsula, roughly three hours south of Kyoto by train. The very idea of hauling my bloviating, globular arse through forests and mountains will probably seem counterintuitive to most of you, but few things work up a ravenous appetite better than a boot-scuffing 20km a day trek over four days taking in breath-taking scenes of rural tranquility.
There are hiking itineraries of varying durations for all skill levels with the surprisingly detailed municipal reservations website handling everything from accommodation to luggage transfers and packed lunches. It’s this kind of attention to detail that can make holidaying in Japan elegant and integrated.
Staying at a traditional Japanese inn (either a minshuku or a ryokan – although the differences between the two can be very fluid) isn’t just about having room and board. At their best, they provide a warm and charming welcome, a multicourse meal of dishes made with seasonal ingredients, before or after which you can take a steaming hot communal bath (a sento or ofuro) or a geothermally heated mineral spa (an onsen) to soothe your bones.
Tanabe izakaya – Kanteki
Tanabe is the rather non-descript city which many foreign tourists use a jumping-off point for their trek along the Kumano Kodo. Despite allegedly having 80,000 inhabitants, the downtown core can seem all but deserted. That all changes once you step through the door at Kanteki, an izakaya located on an out-of-the-way side street.
While the stoic cliques at the Sakagurakomachuu izakaya in Tokyo was a rather sedate crowd, Kanteki’s clientele revelled in their warm and friendly boisterousness. Although you could just chug beer and sake at Kanteki, it would be a crime to skip the food. Scabbardfish sashimi was simultaneously meaty and delicate with a crisp skin and subtly citrusy flesh. It was irrestibly addictive.
Light, inoffensive and somewhat crumbly prawn patties had a Dim Sum-like moreish quality to them, while grilled squid was firm and lightly chewy.
The light crunch of the chicken cartilage will put some people off. If you can get past that though, then you’ll be rewarded with a firm and moist bite, a gentle level of caramelisation and a dash of sweet and sharp lemon juice.
Meaty, salty fresh and lightly chewy clams would’ve been more than delectable enough on their own, but a thin yet punchy sauce brought the rich taste of butter and chives into the mix.
Tender fillets of grilled eel came lacquered in a rich, dark glaze that balanced both umami and sweetness to great effect.
Mackerel on sushi rice sounds quite prosaic and ordinary on paper, but these nigiri-esque rolls didn’t just look unusual. The fish was a delightful surprise, tasting very different from the mackerel any of us were familiar with. Light yet meaty, the mackerel had a delicate citrus-like flavour rather than the usual punchy tang. As expected, the small-grained rice was suitably soft and fluffy.
Kanteki’s tempura wasn’t in the same league as Shinjuku’s Tempura Tsunahachi. While free of excess oil, the batter wasn’t anywhere as soft and fluffy. Still, most of our deep-fried, battered seafood choices still managed to shine through. Octopus was firm and meaty, while plump scallops were springy and moist with a zingy edge. Only the scabbardfish, so delightful in sashimi form, let the side down with their light inoffensiveness.
We eventually managed to communicate our desire for more sashimi using our broken Japanese, so it was somehow apt that the selection that arrived was a mixed bag. Scallops made a repeat appearance, a light searing on the outside emphasising their chunky meatiness. Mackerel, of the more traditional variety, was suitably visceral. Yellowtail and tuna were unremarkable though, while flying fish was far too subtle for its own good. At least the barramundi was dense in its fleshiness.
The only truly duff dish of the evening was the deep-fried aubergine. Stodgy on the outside and filled with soft, flaky and bland meat on the inside. Unworthy.
You can feast like a king at Kanteki for very reasonable sums of money – our bevy of dishes, including a small flight of sake for Vicious Alabaster, came to around £30 each. It’s not just the food that makes Kanteki special though – this izakaya wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable without its warm, welcoming atmosphere.
There would be little reason to visit this inn if it wasn’t situated on the Kumano Kodo’s Nakahechi route as it’s located on a ridge overlooking a non-descript village. That’s something of a shame as the hospitality at Minshuku Tsugizakura puts many bigger, better-located accommodations to shame. From the charming warmth of the proprietors to the cosy yet spick and span interior as well as neat extras from free makeup and a free-to-use washing machine to surprisingly fast WiFi, it has almost everything you could need (¥10,300 per night person, including all three meals, approx. £71 at the time of writing).
Multi-course kasieki ryori meals have a reputation for being expensive, stiff and haute affairs, but they’re almost always included in the price of your stay at a ryokan and some minshukus. That makes a minshuku or ryokan stay an accessible way of trying out this stylised, multi-course form of eating.
Dinner kicked off with cubes of meaty, firm and glossy tuna sashimi dressed in sesame seeds and a lightly sweet mirin-based glaze. It wasn’t the finest tuna we’d end up having on our trek through Wakayama’s Kii Peninsula (that honour goes to the Hotel Nakanoshima in Kii-Katsuura), but it was pleasing enough – especially when taken with the gently sweet wasabi and crisp radish slice.
Meaty prawn nigiri, a meaty nugget of neatly fried fish and starchy gingko nuts were a well-formed trio bound together by fresh gingko fruit which had some of the nuttiness of the more familiar gingko nut, but with a cleaner, fresher aftertaste.
Small bits of mushroom were bound together by a light application of batter. It was a surprisingly transient, unmemorable affair for a deep-fried dish.
Far more interesting was the moreishly sticky broth dotted with salty and umami fish sticks and sharp, fleshy aubergine. An unusual concoction that tickled my fancy.
A moist and meaty selection of thinly sliced beef, pork belly and sausage along with some cabbage were bound together with a reasonably umami miso sauce. Although I’ll never say no to a meaty sausage tip, this dish was an ultimately prosaic and by-the-numbers if warming affair.
The thin slice of lightly smoked salmon seemed like an unnecessary concession to our Western sensibilities. Its very subtle smokiness and lack of grease allowed the crisp fruit and lightly sharp and brined cucumbers to take centre stage. It was by no means bad – it was just underwhelming compared to the world of both smoked and brined salmon dishes out there.
A Japanese-style curry came topped with crutons and a thin filmy skin on top. Aside from these oddities, it sat well within the confines of most Japanese curries – sweet and warming, but not particularly interesting. I found its best use was as a topping for the gently-stewed salmon, vegetables and tofu fried rice which were otherwise lacking in flavor.
A lightly umami miso soup acted as an effective palate cleanser, paving the way of the blood orange sorbet. Although true to the fruit in taste, its grainy texture and startlingly uncomfortable coldness were unwelcome intruders.
The warabimochi wasn’t quite as accomplished the version of this dessert at Kyoto’s Sagatoufuine, but its squidgy texture and nuttiness, emphasized by the dusting of roasted soybean flour, still made for a fine finishing dish.
Dinner at Minshuku Tsugizakura was a mixed bag with some sterling dishes sitting cheek by jowl with other, far more mundane ones. Breakfast was a more consistently well-executed meal, stemming perhaps from the simpler nature of some of the dishes here.
Julienned strips of squid were firm with a clean after taste, paving the way for crisp and equally fresh kiwi fruit, grape and Nashi pear.
Creamy and distinctively flavoured lychee yoghurt was a light and sweet pleasure. A different kind of sweetness was on display in the squidgy tofu. Bouncy and soft in texture, but soaked in mirin for a gentle, almost boozy sweetness. I could’ve done with a little more mangetout and yuba, but less is usually more with Japanese food – especially when you’re faced with just one dish of many.
Earthy root vegetables had a hint of zingy tartness and came dusted with sesame seeds. All that might sound heavy or dull, but it proved to be light and surprisingly energising.
Templeton Peck remarked, both seriously and sarcastically in the understated way that only he can manage, that Japanese breakfasts seem to be much like any other meal. His groggy-eyed desire for something a little more familiar was met with a creamy omelette, almost akin to a Spanish tortilla with its thin, folded gossamer layers. Served alongside it were a pair of nigiri rice rolls topped with more egg and then bound with ham – a playful and surprisingly light way of enjoying hearty, salty meat.
Vicious Alabaster had a different hankering – one for bread. She got it in the form a buttery, creamy brioche-style roll filled with a whipped egg-cream filling that was not only viscerally enjoyable but also reminded me of Hong Kong-style baked breakfast goods. Disappointingly, the onsen egg was a non-event with a surprising lack of yolky richness.
One of my personal highlights of this breakfast had to be the oden – squidgy, umami fish cakes with the latter quality emphasised by the broth it was served in. Hearty and warming, it felt more like winter lunch or dinner sleep-inducing fodder rather than an energising breakfast dish. Still, I couldn’t fault it for taste.
My other highlight had to be the Japanese pickles. Whether sweet, sharp and tangy or earthy and beetroot-like, they never failed to impress. It sounds silly, but it shows that even the simple things in life can benefit from attention to detail.
Of all the pre-ordered boxed lunches on our trek, Minshuku Tsugizakura’s had to be the best and most varied. Generously sized onigiri with a nutty crust had fillings ranging from surprisingly sweet umeboshi to salty and meaty grilled salmon.
The firm squid from breakfast made a welcome repeat appearance in a miniature bento box alongside creamy tamago, earthy vegetables and a moreish hot dog. The jewels in this lunchtime crown had to be the sweet, tangy and dense candied pork cubes and the juicy blood orange that was so intensely sweet, it almost reminded me of an Opal Fruit.
While the sento at Minshuku Tsugizakura is soothingly steamy and relaxing, it’s a consolation prize compared to having a proper onsen such as the one at Ryokan Adumaya. A surprisingly large place and essentially a hotel in all but name, Adumaya draws its stress-easing hot spring waters from the same source as the public Yunomine Onsen just outside its doors.
The large communal baths and the much smaller outdoor bath are well-maintained and picturesque, helped along by their stone cladding, but the rest of Ryokan Adumaya is much more worn around the edges. While comfortable and cosy if you don’t look too closely, peeling paint on the odd door, musty wardrobes and the buzzing of ill-fitted/misbehaving fluorescent lights gave this ryokan a sense of faded grandeur.
The staff were surprisingly lackadaisical in our experience, with the notable exception of our chirpy, warm, easy going and rosy-cheeked waitress who served us both breakfast and dinner in our private dining room (starting at ¥17,800 per night per person, including breakfast and dinner, approx. £124 at the time of writing).
Although Ryokan Adumaya served up a mackerel sushi roll that looked a lot like the one at Kanteki back in Tanabe, it wasn’t as well-formed. Reasonably punchy mackerel lay arched on top of a large serving of rice. While the latter was spot-on, the mackerel wasn’t as distinctive as Kanteki’s yet nor did it have the same level of bold intensity as the best mackerel back home.
While the rice porridge had a creamy and eggy mouthfeel, the dominant taste here was of the sweet goji berries. Although a tad unbalanced, I’m starting to come over to the idea of congee and other jook-like dishes if it can be as polished as this.
Ryokan Adumaya’s kitchen can clearly compare and contrast textures to great effect. Firm octopus was served alongside a crisp yet yielding and sweet turnip, as well as soft and squidgy seitan. All three had a clean aftertaste, allowing the focus to rest on the mouthfeel.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the randomly meaty and garlicky morsels served alongside some crisps. Another baffling oddity was the firm prawn served with a small, whole but unimpressive saury and an odd nut that resembled coconut, but with less sweetness and milkiness. The only accompaniment to the prawn that wasn’t a let-down was the sweet and starchy little potato puff, even though it didn’t really gel with the prawn.
The kitchen’s selection of sashimi may have been small, but it was perfectly formed. A firm and lightly citrusy coil of a difficult-to-identify white fish was delightful, as was the mouthfeel of the meaty yet tender and yielding tuna. Although the prawn head didn’t have as much suckable head goo as I would’ve liked, the body flesh was sweet and quivering.
A bowl of what appeared to be Japanese curry was actually a thick pumpkin soup dotted with various additions including prawns and mussels. It was a rather random selection of stuff in a bowl that seemed remarkably clumsy compared to the precision of the sashimi or the the octopus.
Salt-baked aju was satisfyingly well-seasoned, even if it did lack the odd but deliciously grainy texture that I’d come to expect from aju following my encounter with it at Nara’s Hirasō.
One of the few culinary regrets of this trip was that I didn’t have the chance to savour more shabu shabu hot pot. Exquisitely tender and well-marbled beef, simmered at your table, more than made up for the lackluster mushrooms and greens.
A gently umami soup flavoured with scallop and crisp, fresh vegetables was refreshing, while the pickles, similar in range and delectability to those served at Minshuku Tsugizakura, helped cleanse the palate.
All this paved the way for sweet and crisp Nashi pear and syrupy sweet cantaloupe. This choice pair of fruit made up for the anticlimactic chestnut miniroll.
Eating breakfast in your own tatami-lined private dining room is an imminently civilised way to start the day, but I’d trade it all for more flexibility in timing. To be fair, almost all ryokan and minshuku have immutably fixed meal times, but the option to have an earlier breakfast is especially welcome when you’re trekking and need to make the most of the dwindling autumn daylight hours.
Having said that, there are few better ways to gird yourself for a hard day’s hike then meaty and lightly oily grilled fish or crisp, earthy greens topped with quivering and lightly umami bonito flakes.
The superlative pickles made a repeat appearance, joined this time by potently bitter, sour and somewhat astringent umeboshi. It’s very much an acquired taste (even The Lensman, a sectioned Japanophile, can’t stand it), but I lapped it up and I would’ve snapped up my dining companions’ discarded umeboshi if I could’ve done so.
A runny onsen egg somehow managed to be both delicate and rich in equal measure, no doubt helped by a carefully chosen soy sauce on the side which wasn’t too overpowering.
Vicious Alabaster was more than welcome to my helping of the watery, loose-grained rice porridge. I was much more taken with the fluffy and lightly earthy fish cake served with tart pickled vegetables.
Silky, squidgy tofu paired with crisp, lightly sweet greens was fortifying despite its lightness. A delicately sweet and umami miso soup dotted with curled bits of potato made for a refreshing end.
Ryokan Adumaya can be surprisingly variable in everything from its interiors and service to various individual dishes, but it’s worth putting up with for the onsite onsen. If you want a more cohesive all-round experience though, there are other minshukus and ryokans surrounding the Yunomine Onsen that might be worth considering – some that also have their own onsens in addition to the public onsen.
Although much of Wakayama prefecture is suffering from a declining population as more people choose to move to the cities – a problem facing much of rural Japan – nowhere is this demographic shift more evident than the village of Koguchi. Abandoned houses dot the riverbank, while the junior high school has long since been converted into one of the village’s few accommodation options for transient tourist trekkers – Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie (¥9,300 per night per person, including all three meals, approx. £65 at the time of writing).
Although the tatami-lined rooms and shared sento bathing facilities at Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie were all perfectly modern and comfortable, it still felt like an austere place from the severe headmasterish figure at the reception desk to the harsh fluorescent lighting. It still feels very much like a school in places too, from the municipal public service posters lining the walls to the austere dining room converted from the former cafeteria.
It’s the echoing hallways that really give it away though. Wide and tall enough to take cars never mind people, they once saw thronging hoards of babbling schoolchildren that have long since departed and will never return – an odd and unexpected hit of pastoral melancholia.
Following our pair of meals at Ryokan Adumaya, which were gutbustingly fortifying despite the strains of traversing the Kumano Kodo’s verdant valleys, forests and hills, the lighter fare at Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie was a blessing rather than a curse.
The limp and faded tuna sashimi couldn’t compare to the Ryokan Adumaya’s superlative selection, but the meaty and lightly oily grilled white fish was a winner.
Gently pickled and earthy vegetables were topped with crisp lotus root and was neatly complimented by a refreshing noodle salad served lightly chilled.
Tempura vegetables and prawns were underwhelming. While free of chin-staining oil and grease, the batter wasn’t crisp or fluffy enough, while the ingredients underneath lacked character. Even the seasoning salt on the side was tepid.
The best dish here had to be to the tofu – squidgy, hearty and served with taut and supple shimeiji in a satisfyingly warming broth. While both tofu and broth were satiating, they still managed to have a sparklingly clean aftertaste.
One of the best things about breakfast at Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie is that you can opt to have it as early as 06.00 or 06.30 – an important option given that the final stretch of the Kumano Kodo’s Nakahechi route from here on out is one of the toughest and potentially most time-consuming.
Although not quite good enough to match the best tamago, the omelette here was still a light, creamy and fluffy affair. Grilled salmon was meaty and stayed on the right side of stodge, even though it was a tad overcooked.
Despite British government drives to increase vegetable consumption, Anglo breakfasts remain steadfastly green-free zones. That’s an oddity and something of a shame, as Japanese breakfasts show that greens can work well first thing in the morning. Whether they were sweet or lightly bitter, the pleasing greens here were crisp rather than soft and floppy.
Earthy and tart pickled veg made a welcome repeat appearance, before a mildly umami miso soup finished things off.
While Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie’s selection of onigiri for lunch felt somewhat sparse compared to Minshuku Tsugizakura’s more luxuriant collection, they were still sufficient for a midday refuelling after a 900m ascent up the side of a mountain. Fillings of umami kelp, tart and bitter umeboshi as well as reasonably meaty and salty salmon were all satisfying enough despite their somewhat meagre size.
Although Hotel Nakanoshima doesn’t lie on any of the Kumano Kodo’s routes, it was a logical and fitting place to end our trek. It lies just off the coast of Kii-Katsuura town on the Kii Peninsula’s southern tip, which itself is a 20 minute bus ride from Nachi which is we triumphantly ended the Kumano Kodo’s Nakahechi route.
Built into the side of an island, the sprawling complex not only resembles a Bond villain lair but smacks of 80s era swagger and confidence. Hallways are tunnels cut through rock, while there’s space enough to spare for indoor rock gardens, cavernous restaurants, a mini arcade and a surprisingly large and well-stocked gift shop.
Even if this sounds laughably over the top, it’s definitely worth staying at Hotel Nakanoshima if you’re ever in this part of Japan, even if only for a single night as in our case (¥24,000 per person per night, including dinner and a subpar breakfast buffet, approx. £167 at the time of writing – cheaper options are available). Both room and hilltop views over the other islands in Kii-Katsuura’s bay were serenely beautiful enough – but with the addition of birds of prey skimming the waters for fish, it was nothing short of timeless. Soaking my bones in a skin-tinglingly steamy outdoor onsen under twinkling stars, while the waves audibly crashed upon the island’s rocky shore, was an experience that salved my aching body and hushed my racing mind.
Although you can take your multicourse kasieki dinner at Hotel Nakanoshima in one of the cafeteria-like restaurants, it’s worth upgrading to a private dining room if you can. Not for the sake of cocooning yourself away, although there’s nothing wrong with that, but because it’ll be located closer to your room – walking any distance in flippy-floppy indoor slippers is a strain if you’ve been going up and down hills and mountains all day.
Lobster sashimi was served with part of the carapace for dramatic effect, but it wasn’t just a delight for the eyes. Its bouncy, squidgy mouthfeel and delicate sweetness were both enhanced by the deep nuance of the sweet, creamy, warming wasabi.
The other cuts of sashimi didn’t play second fiddle and were more than capable of holding their own. Almost transparent slices of pink-skinned white fish were subtly citrusy, while cuts of silvery-skinned white fish were meaty and subtly moreish. Squid was tender with a clean after taste. The exquisite tuna was all about its sumptuous mouthfeel – gently chewy then tender, it was truly a sensuous bite.
Another serving of tuna was lightly seared on the outside, but still had the royal purple hue of the raw fish on the inside. The cut of tuna was tender, despite its denseness, which served as the perfect vehicle for its delicate then bold and immensely satisfying depths of umami.
A tender and fatty coil of roast beef would’ve been perfectly delectable on its own, but it was joined by a choice selection of accompaniments that helped elevate it further. The creamy custard-like taste of the light tortilla-esque tamago was a masterclass in the eggy arts, while the gingko nut, as expected, had its usual addictive potato- and cashew-like taste. It was the gently elastic mochi with the distinctive, unexpected but entirely complimentary taste of sweet potato that was the star accompaniment here though.
A squidgy, creamy and lightly sweet tofu had all of these mouth pleasing qualities enhanced by toppings of goji berry and wasabi. I could easily have eaten a whole cauldron of this.
The salty and richly umami qualities of a cloudy broth were no doubt helped along by the prawns, fishballs and shimeiji mushrooms bobbing about in it like savoury, tender buoys.
Tokyo’s Tempura Tsunahachi really has spoiled me when it comes to tempura. While the tempura here was far from bad, it just couldn’t compare in terms of crispness and fluffiness to the tempura back in Shinjuku.
Glossy triangles of beef were presented raw for dramatic effect before being cooked rare at our tableside. Chewy then tender, the lean cuts were deliciously moreish and finished with a surprisingly clean aftertaste. A selection of carefully simmered vegetables proved to be excellent accompaniments.
When we think of fish in Japanese cuisine, we inevitably think of the sliced swimmers used in sushi and sashimi with their generally sparkling clean aftertastes. More accessibly flavoured fish dishes can be had of course, such as these potently earthy medallions of fish served in a sticky, gooey sauce that started out subtle and finished with a powerful, cumulative level of umami. It proved to be a delightfully mouth-pleasing combination.
Carefully grilled slices of what I’m pretty sure was yellowtail were initially chewy, then tender. This fish didn’t just rely on texture to please though – it had a sophisticated, layered sweetness emphasized by accompaniments of grated and whole crisp greens. Rarely has a grill been put to a more delightful use.
I haven’t liked congee in the past, but this Japanese sojourn has been slowly changing my mind and opening it up to the myriad forms of rice porridge/jook that are available. Although loose and somewhat watery, the bowlful here was dotted with leaves of umami kelp, a soothing flavour profile followed up by another bowlful of refreshing and palate-cleansing kelp-based broth.
As much as I love sugary, rich and heavy desserts, anything like that would’ve felt inappropriate after such a decisively clarion pair of kelp-based dishes. This made the refreshing pairing of fruit all the more apt – richly sweet and juicy cantaloupe alongside crisp, tart apple.
Everyone’s experience of Japan and its food culture will be different, but what has never been clearer is the deceptive simplicity, understated artistry and timeless sophistication that makes so many Japanese dishes so utterly compelling.
Whether it’s misrepresented classics, such as tonkatsu or gyoza, little known seasonal seafood specialties, head-turning oddities, heartwarming comfort food or even just pickles, there really is something in Japan for everyone. And none of it has to be eye-wateringly expensive. Heck, even the konbini convenience store and vending machine food has me charmed. That only makes me more determined to return some day.
– The Picky Glutton