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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001


Those were the days . . .

There are several excellent reasons why we can recommend a visit to Rinkaen. Unfortunately -- and this is exceptional for the Food File -- few of them concern the act of eating. Nevertheless, this wonderful old place still qualifies (conditionally) as a classic of its kind.

In large part, this is due to the setting. The premises abut (and, in fact, used to be part of) the wide parklands of Sankeien, one of the finest gardens in all of Kanto. This great expanse of nature right next door emanates a tranquility that is even more striking, for being so close to the heart of Japan's second most populous city.

Time stands still at Rinkaen, in a building dating back six centuries.

And then there's the building itself, the main part of which dates back to the Ashikaga Period, some 600 years ago. Once the residence of a Shinto priest, it was brought to this spot from the Izu Peninsula, in 1930. A "new" wing has been added on at the back, which is a mere three centuries old.

The look is that of a prosperous farmhouse, with rough-hewn pillars of dark wood, exposed roof beams above your head, a floor of hard-packed earth underfoot, and off in one corner, the ancient kamado and other kitchen implements (now unused, but still kept in museum condition). A venerable Buddha looks down onto the irori fireplace set into the raised tatami area.

The rooms are sparsely furnished, just a simple scroll and basic flower arrangement. There are no tables: You lounge on zaisu, those floor-level rattan chairs with backs but no legs, and you eat off bon, low trays of polished lacquer.

But sadly, the food does not live up to the expectations generated by these atmospheric surroundings. The cuisine is country kaiseki of the kind you might have found at a rural ryokan in the least enterprising years of mid-Showa. It has neither the hearty wholesomeness of farmhouse cooking nor the delicate presentation of other ryoriya in the same price range.

This was exemplified by the two small bowls served as starters on our recent visit. One was a small mound of slivered yama-imo yam scattered artlessly with a few cooked greens and some shredded myoga. The other was a strangely bland mash of finely chopped chicken, green beans, celery, shiitake and sweet corn. Refinement is not a consideration in these kitchens.

Our zensai platter was composed of a shira-ae of carrot and konnyaku in a sturdy tofu cream; some spinach greens mixed with enoki mushrooms and small squares of nori seaweed; a nikogori aspic of eggplant that just tasted burnt; and a small green cube of coarse texture and virtually no flavor, explained to us as edamame-dofu.

The two fish dishes that followed were unexceptional, but not to be faulted. The cuts of raw katsuo (bonito), marinated in a basic shoyu-driven tsuyu, made a fine accompaniment for our Yebisu beer. And if the sashimi -- ama-ebi (shrimp), kisu (sweetfish) and a generous slab of vinegared shimesaba (mackerel) -- was not of a quality to demand a premium sake, that was just as well, since the only choice is Kikumasamune, an adequate if unexciting brew, well favored in times past and best taken heated.

The dobin mushi that followed was of similar caliber: The soup inside the small ceramic pot contained a couple of shrimp, some greens and a few gingko nuts simmered with slices of matsutake mushroom. But it signally failed to deliver the kind of intense flavor you expect from such ingredients.

Rather than the distinct accents of a fine dashi stock, all the edges were blurred by the over-liberal use of sugar. Likewise, the rest of our meal -- nimono, yakimono and the tempura that formed the agemono course -- exhibited all the finesse of a wedding banquet hall.

However, Rinkaen does produce one dish of genuine interest and originality -- their trademark Sankeimen noodles. Surprisingly, given the very traditional surroundings, these are neither soba nor udon, but fine wheat noodles of the kind you find quite easily down the road in Chinatown.

This is a colorful dish, light-hearted but still refined. The noodles are topped with a thick, jellified sauce of diced shiitake mushrooms, decorated with fine slices of pink ham, shredded omelet, and cooked spinach greens, doused in a light but satisfying broth. Not much more than three good slurps, you may find yourself wishing for second helpings.

So is Rinkaen worth a visit? Absolutely, but only as the culmination of a stroll around Sankeien. This should be your strategy: Call up well ahead of time, so you can make sure of reserving a room opening onto the garden (if possible the "To no Ma" with its view of the distant pagoda). Ignore the more expensive courses. Instead, book one of the simpler meals (3,500 yen at lunch; 5,000 yen during thereafter), both of which feature the specialty noodles and a few other tidbits. Then when you have had your fill of those wonderful surroundings, head down to Chinatown for a full-scale evening meal that will satisfy the stomach, if not the higher chakras.

Rinkaen 52-1 Honmoku-Sannotani, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi; Tel: (045) 621-0318
Open:noon-8 p.m (last seating from 5.30 p.m.)
Closed:Wednesdays; Dec. 26-Jan. 6; all of August.
Nearest stations:Yamate & Negishi (JR Negishi Line)
How to get there:Take bus No. 8 or No. 125 from Yokohama Station (it also runs via Sakuragicho, Kannai, Ishikawacho and Motomachi) to Sankeien. From the gate of the garden, walk back two short blocks and turn left. The entrance to Rinkaen is on the left at the very end of that street. Or get a taxi from Yamate or Negishi stations.
What works:Superb old house, beautiful garden
What doesn't: Beware the supplementary charges tacked on the bill (5,000 yen if you keep your room over two hours).
Number of seats:up to 80
Price per head:Courses: 5,500 yen, 8,000 yen, 13,000 yen, 18,000 yen (plus 10 percent service charge, 5 percent consumption tax).
Drinks: Beer 800 yen; sake 1,200 yen/glass, 3,500 yen/bottle.
Credit cards:Not accepted (cash only)
Language:No English spoken.

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