Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Spa and Kaiseki: the ultimate Japanese luxury - Part I

Thanks, Mogurin, for letting me use this beautiful picture of the view from our ryokan!

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with tatami rooms and complimentary yukata (pajama-like versions of kimono). Ryokans often boast gorgeous hot spas from nearby hot springs (onsen) and kaiseki dinners served in the comfort of your own room. As a child growing up in Japan, my family frequently vacationed at family-friendly onsen ryokans, where the adults spent countless hours bathing and soaking while the kids played in the arcades or at the ping pong tables.

As I grew up, I cared less for the arcades and more for the quiet baths and terrific cuisine. During my recent trip, my Mama arranged for us to stay at a beautiful onsen ryokan, known for its sophisticated Kyoto Kaiseki. This was high-end onsen vacationing, far removed from the onsen trips of my childhood. It highlighted my grown-up appreciation for quiet and peaceful calmness. And I appreciated my Mama's thoughts so much for selecting somewhere that fit my current (grown-up) state of mind - who I am right now - so perfectly.

Benkei, our ryokan, is located in Arashiyama, a district within the Greater Kyoto region. Arashiyama is the spot where nobles living in Kyoto during the Heian period went to vacation, which sounds funny now, seeing that it seems like Arashiyama is within the Kyoto city limits. It is famous for its cherry blossoms and claims to be the spot where the sakuramochi was first created. Arashiyama is also has a hot spring source, and its weakly alkaline water is supposed to help with muscle soreness, skin clarification, and fatigue. I think any fatigue will be gone, regardless of the hot spring quality, after the pampering and relaxing an onsen ryokan like Benkei offers!

Benkei is relatively small with only 15 rooms total and many scenic bathing options (two per sex and one 'for rent' by couples/families/individuals). I prefer small ryokans for many reasons. The first of them is the fact that I don't really like to bathe with other people, and the spas at small ryokan at off hours are empty. I was the only one in the ladies' outdoor bath both times I went for a long soak - and a giant bath tub all to myself is luxury at its best. I even did some yoga in between my soaks! Outside! Completely naked! It was so liberating. By the way, these baths are very well protected and no one can peak or even worse, sneak in, although I've seen footage of monkeys coming down from the mountains in the Northern onsens for a dip along side their distant human cousins.

The other highlight was dinner. My Mama chose Benkei for our Kyoto stay, since the food was supposed to be some of the best traditional kaiseki meals at a ryokan. And I have to agree, it was quite stellar. Dinner at ryokans are served in your room, and you get to lounge around in your PJ Kimono (yukata) with wet hair from the onsen soak and lay down in between courses. It's super-relaxed and it was exactly what I needed, since I was coming down with some terrible viral sinus congestion. And since I overloaded you with more traditional food presentation with my two Hyotei posts, I'll post some of my more adventurous food photos!

As with all typical kaiseki meals, we started with a bunch of small bites, but unlike a super-traditional kaiseki course like the one at Hyotei, they served us a bunch of courses at the same time. Being a ryokan, the focus is more on relaxing and less on super traditional service. The Sakizuke and Hassun (equivalent of appetizer courses) were served all at once. Here you see a shrimp sushi, two-layered crab 'cake', a yam-like potato, and salmon wrapped in yuba (counter-clockwise from the shrimp). There was a home-made green bean tofu with uni as well on the side.

Then, they brought us the sakisuimono, the first of the soups. This was a clear soup with a huge shirauo (small fish - remember my tempura post?) cake that was really delicate and tenderly soft. Seasonality is so big in Japanese cuisine that the same ingredients are used in many of these restaurants. The fun part is seeing how differently they are presented from restaurant to restaurant, which I suppose is the joy of dining out anywhere! The green leaf you see on top of the fish cake is different from the green leaves in the soup. The one on top is Kinome, which has a very distinct scent and is ubiqutious in Kyoto cuisine. I LOVE it. It's very fragrant and smells like nothing else - gotta go to Kyoto to try it! The greens inside the soup is just mitsuba, which is a bitter leaf vegetable, available in some of the more exotic grocery stores around here in the Bay Area.

It is bad manners in Japan to pick up more than one object at a time with your chopsticks, but the color contrasts between the clear broth on the bottom, the orange carrots, the green mitsuba stalks, and the creamy fish cake was so pretty, I had to snap a shot.

Yes, takenoko again!!! And it was very good too. Maybe not quite as 'clean' tasting as Hyotei, but to compare anything to Hyotei is not fair. This dish had a strong bonito backbone, and I really enjoyed it. Again, you see the kinome here, and it definitely added another aspect to the dish. So small, yet so critical to creating that Kyoto flavor...

Well, looks like I've used up my blog-time today, so I'll have to split this post in two too! I spent too much time yapping about the onsen aspect, I didn't get through the food! Oh well. Come back tomorrow for more wagyu, snapper shabu shabu, and my favorite dish of the night: unagi sakura mochi style!

Click here for Part II!


Uchipu said...

I want to go to Onsen toooooooooo

Clea said...

And I am looking forward to seeing unagi sakura mochi!

Alice said...

Unchi pu,

We should go to onsen together again sometime!


I hope you weren't disappointed with the unagi sakura mochi on today's post!

Have you been to Kyoto during your stay in Japan?

Clea said...

I am not disappointed at all!
Yes, I've been to Kyoto. However, I was too short of money to try kaiseki ryouri then. The first time I tried it was last January, in Dazaifu (a small town full of temples and shrines, in the suburb of Fukuoka), and it was tofu ryouri. The best meal in my entire life!