Monday, August 4, 2008

Yuzu Wonderland

The Ajimi team's hands-down favorite Japanese fruit is yuzu(柚子), that sweet, winter-bearing citrus fruit that is used to spice up everything you can think of, including your bath. It shows up whole in stores around mid-November, in spice and pepper mixes throughout the year. It has a nicely warming effect when you squeeze it into the bathtub, making your body tingle. So imagine our delight when we found a ryokan for our weekend getaway that is as crazy about yuzu as we are.

The place is called Yuzu no Sato (ゆずの里)and is perched on the northern bank of the Tamagawa in Mitake, about two hours west of central Tokyo on the Ome line. Sato means village and the ryokan itself is village-like, a collection of small, wooden buildings, traditional in design but modern in execution and comfort level, connected by covered walkways and surrounded by landscaped ponds. Even completely full as it was it on the busy weekend, it was very quiet and relaxing.

We chose to have our multi-course dinner served on the large wooden deck along with two other groups at separate tables. We started at 6 sharp with a shot of yuzu liqueur then on through a dozen courses including vegetables in aspic, salad, tempura, and ayu (鮎), that sweet river fish that is served on sticks at Japanese festivals. But unlike the matsuri version our fish was fresh from the river. Awesome. We also ate sashimi of river fish: trout or masu (鱒)which tasted a lot like salmon, and koi or carp, which was a bit on the chewy side, but salvaged somewhat by the delicious miso and yuzu dipping sauce. Every course had yuzu in some form, shredded, squeezed, dried, powdered, even whole, scooped out and used as a serving dish for a seafood gratin. We ate the bowl afterward. The meal was accompanied by a bottle of nihonshu we had acquired down the road that afternoon at Sawanoi, the local sake brewery. After sunset, we could hear the sounds of fireworks drifting up the river from Ome mingled with the screeching of cicadas.

The Tamagawa hereabouts is as wild as rivers around Tokyo get, cutting through a gorge and providing lots of pools for wading and fishing, rapids for doing the things one does in rapids. The pilgrimage site of Mitake Shrine is atop a nearby mountain, a cable car ride away. But beyond that there is not a hell of a lot to do in Mitake. The precipitous climb of the landscape away from the river doesn't leave a lot of room for development and the entire area is within the confines of a national park. This certainly helps reduce crowds and maintain the relaxed atmosphere but makes it tough to go down the road for a nightcap at 9 pm on a Saturday. We attempted to do that and found one barlike establishment open, a fried pork emporium that one member of the Ajimi team found brimming with local color and the other declared simply fetid.

That night, following our piping hot yuzu bath, we slept with the windows open, bathed in breezes. At 4 am we were awakened by a chorus of frogs. We hiked up the hill before breakfast, to a shrine dedicated to the water god.

For additional images of Okutama and Mitake, click here.
For more on Yuzu no Sato, click here: http://www.est.hi-ho.ne.jp/yuzusato/e-top.htm


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