True Luxury in the Japanese Countryside

Food journalist Kyoko Nakayama goes on a gastronomic tour around Ishikawa and Toyama, uncovering regional cuisines elevated to a fine art.

2020-05-13 18:21:32 2020-05-13 21:38:43
[Text by Kyoko Nakayama]

Wajima city, Ishikawa prefecture. I’m here, in the centre of Wajima, after two hours by bus from Kanazawa. This is where my gastronomic journey begins.

I’m here for “DINING OUT”, a premium outdoor restaurant project that seeks to illuminate the hidden food treasures of Japan. Held only several times a year around the country, each DINING OUT session is brought to life by a collaboration of chefs, creators and local residents eager to share the best of what their region has to offer.

The session I’m attending is themed “exploring the riches and unravelling the origin of the spirit of Japanese lacquerware.” It’s a two-nights-only pop-up, held in collaboration with Lexus. The venue is secret, even for diners. All we’re told is to meet the driver at the airport, who will then ferry us to the dining venue.

Guests being seated at the outdoor pop-up restaurant
Guests being seated at the outdoor pop-up restaurant

We arrive in the middle of nature. It’s an al fresco setting, with the tables, chairs and even the food covered with white cloth. Service staff guide us to our seats. There’s an American master sommelier on hand: Robert Smith. Chairing the event is Takanori Nakamura, an acclaimed columnist who happens to be the chair of the Japanese council for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

The organiser of DINING OUT, ONESTORY, works together with the regional government to invite guest chefs from around the world. Their aim is to use food as a platform, to highlight local ingredients and showcase dishes that express local charm. The CEO of ONESTORY, Tomoki Orui, tells us, “In the past, local prefectures tend to follow the trend from Tokyo. But now they’re realising that they have amazing resources and uniqueness. With this recognition, they are not passive anymore. They can build original charms to allure people from all over the world.”

I’m charmed already, even before dinner commences. Looking around, I take in my surroundings. Wajima faces the sea, but now I am in the middle of mountains. In the middle of rice paddies, to be precise. This place is Kanakura, I’m told, which has a prominent agricultural industry dating back thousands of years. Local residents live in harmony with nature, relying on environmentally-friendly farming techniques to conserve the landscape and biodiversity. Their efforts have won Wajima official recognition from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.

Since their land is steep, locals grow rice in terraced rice paddy fields. Where we’re sitting is right in the middle of the paddy fields, which have been painstakingly filled with soil to make the land stable enough for setting up the kitchen (and also to protect the shoes of guests from wet rainy grounds). “This is a fine dining event,” chuckles Orui, “but what we’re doing is almost like construction business!”

Chef Masahito Ueki and Chef Joshua Skenes plating food for the diners
Chef Masahito Ueki (center) and Chef Joshua Skenes (right) plating food for the diners

The guest chefs tonight are Joshua Skenes, of three Michelin-starred Saison in San Francisco, and Masahito Ueki, a French cuisine virtuoso who helms the kitchen of AZUR et MASA UEKI in Tokyo. Supporting them are many other local chefs and service staff – all in all, around 100 staff serving 40 diners.

Ueki, who trained in France and Italy, is a native of Kanazawa, the capital city of Ishikawa. In a nod to the region’s fermentation culture, he has made risotto using local rice, matsutake mushroom, squid and ishiru, a traditional fermented fish sauce.

Risotto made from local rice, matsutake mushroom, squid and fermented fish sauce
Risotto made from local rice, matsutake mushroom, squid and fermented fish sauce

Skenes, on the other hand, says he’s inspired by terroir. Last year, he stepped away from Saison to open a new restaurant, Angler, in Los Angeles – “a place with seas, rivers and mountains” — where he could communicate more with food producers and enjoy better fishing and hunting. Even though he had only visited Japan once before, he leapt immediately when offered the chance to cook for DINING OUT. Being out in nature, in the middle of nowhere, gave him the inspiration to create new dishes.

Amongst them is an unassuming but flavourful rice dish, with the rice cooked in wild boar broth, then wrapped with rice straw and smoked with cherry wood. “I have been dreaming of making a dish using rice straw smoke for three years, but in the US, it was very difficult to get rice straw. This is the dish in which my dream comes true,” Skenes smiles. And indeed it was a memorable experience, to be tucking into rice cooked in rice straw while surrounded by rice paddies.

Chef Joshua Skenes cooking with good quality rice straw
Chef Joshua Skenes cooking with good quality rice straw

True to the event’s theme, Skenes also drew inspiration for his dishes from local lacquerware. Wajima is famous for Wajima-nuri (輪島塗), an elegant style of lacquerware crafted entirely by hand. Often decorated with gold inlay and gold powder decorations, Wajima-nuri is recognisable by its distinctive undercoating, carefully applied in multiple coats using a mixture of locally-produced diatomaceous earth powder and lacquer. We’re told that the process of crafting a single piece involves over 120 steps, and only the final product can be deemed Wajima-nuri.

Renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has designed exclusive lacquerware for tonight’s dinner. To showcase the fastidious labour that goes into crafting Wajima-nuri, he has deliberately left each piece unfinished, starting from a wood base with just one light coating of lacquer polish, before progressing step-by-step to the complete detailed masterpiece.

One of the lacquerware pieces he designed is pure black. On this, Skenes plates local abalone, grilled over cherry wood fire and coated with squid ink sauce, so the entire dish appears dark. It’s a curious feeling, eating this darkness while being swathed entirely in twilight, that makes you ponder your existence of being there.

Local abalone infused with natural sweetness from its meat and liver, dressed with squid ink sauce
Local abalone infused with natural sweetness from its meat and liver, dressed with squid ink sauce

On the next day, we embarked on a cultural tour to visit the region’s artisans and food producers. Kiyoshi Ohasi, a lacquerware polisher, proclaims, “Wajima is isolated from other regions, so we have the culture and the pride to make the best produce. And we’re such a small community, we learn together and [benefit] from healthy competition.”

“Maybe this high level of craftsmanship in Ishikawa prefecture was brought about by the feudal lords from the Edo era, the Maeda family,” opines Shinichiro Takagi, the chef-owner of two-Michelin-starred Zeniya in Kanazawa. “The Maeda were the patrons of craftsmen and awarded the top craftsman every year. Since these craftsmen had the chance to meet the Maeda head on special occasions, they learnt the cultures of traditional tea ceremony and utai (the recitation in Noh theatre art). So even though they are laypeople, they are sophisticated.”

Chef Shinichiro Takagi with his younger brother, Chef Jiro Takagi
Chef Shinichiro Takagi with his younger brother, Chef Jiro Takagi

The Maeda legacy lives on today in Ishikawa’s dedication to craft and cuisine. Take Takagi, for instance: while the world-lauded chef is better known for his mastery of kaiseki cuisine, he is in fact pushing Kaga-ryōri – the regional cuisine of Kanazawa – to another level.

“We are blessed with fertile lands and close to the sea and mountain, which gives us access to a rich bounty of natural ingredients,” he explains. And true enough, he treats us to an exquisite bespoke meal at Zeniya showcasing the best of seasonal and local ingredients, all meticulously prepared and intricately plated.

Crab meat, mushroom and yam broth
Crab meat, mushroom and yam broth

Takagi’s owan (Japanese clear soup) comes in a beautiful Wajima-nuri bowl. Within the delicate broth is the brain of kegani (horsehair crab) wrapped with kegani meat, local matsutake, and smooth and sticky maruimo (indigenous yam). “This bowl was actually designed by my father,” says Takagi. “It took nearly three years to make, so my father passed away before he saw it.”

Fresh matsutake marinated in miso
Fresh matsutake marinated in miso

His other culinary creations, too, are inspired by regional flavours he grew up with. “My mother is from Noto, and her family lives by the mountain where there’s plenty of matsutake. During the season, they couldn’t finish the mushrooms, so they cut them in half and placed them inside miso to preserve.” Similarly in his interpretation, Takagi slices fresh matsutake that has been marinated in miso. “We can make this dish now, since matsutake is very fresh.” With a smile, he adds, “Cuisine is not only the food we serve; the plates and the atmosphere all come together to form Kaga-ryōri.”

Last year, Takagi launched a unique recipe-sharing platform and pop-up A Restaurant in his hometown, with the intention to preserve heirloom recipes. Not only of high-end restaurant food, but also of home-cooked food. “I would like to maintain food culture as a whole,” he explains earnestly, “we can exchange recipes and ideas freely via the Internet, and thereby evoke innovation.”

Chef Takagi's pop up A Restaurant
Chef Takagi’s pop up A Restaurant

Located to the east of Ishikawa, along the Sea of Japan coast, Toyama prefecture is known for its fresh sea produce and vegetables. I make a stop at Nihon Ryori Yamazaki, a three Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by Koji Yamazaki.

Toyama-born Yamazaki specialises in kaiseki-ryōri (会席料理), an elaborate multi-course cuisine rooted in the centuries-old heritage of traditional tea ceremonies. His philosophy to hospitality is wholehearted: omotenashi, to anticipate guests’ needs and to make each and every guest feel special, as though it were a once in a lifetime experience.

Chef Koji Yamazaki at his restaurant, Nihon Ryori Yamazaki
Chef Koji Yamazaki at his restaurant, Nihon Ryori Yamazaki

15 minutes prior to the arrival of diners, Yamazaki personally sprinkles water on the restaurant’s flower arrangements and the entrance, to signify a warm welcome. His attention to detail extends to his cooking style: pure and clean, adding simple touches only to enhance the original flavour of the ingredients.

Like Takagi, Yamazaki’s produce are locally-sourced. His owan is made from grated kabu radish, paired with benizuwai (red snow crab). The meat of benizuwai is sweet but very fragile, so Yamazaki mixes in some kabu radish and kuzu (Japanese arrowroot) to form a dainty crabmeat ball. Delicate sweetness from both land and ocean.

Not a fan of heavy seasoning, he prefers to use natural produce for flavour. For example, he serves mahata (a species of grouper) with slightly warmed uni (sea urchin). Eating both together brings out the richness of the dish. He also makes salted kelp, and replaces the salt in his dishes with shiroebi (signature small white shrimps from Toyama) ground into dried powder, which is milder in flavour and imparts an additional layer of umami. His chestnut claypot rice is seasoned lightly, with just kelp and salt.

Yamazaki’s menu concludes with a simple but traditional touch: a hand-whisked bowl of matcha. It’s a skill he had picked up from a tea ceremony master while honing his craft at Nihonryori Kagaman in Osaka.

In Japan, the epitome of fine dining is often considered kaiseki. My sojourn through the Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures, however, opened my eyes to even greater regional delicacies and gave me a better appreciation of what it means to truly eat local. It begs the question: what is haute cuisine? What is luxury?

A writer by profession, a gourmand by passion.