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Friday, April 18, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

On a higher plane


Spring is here -- time to head for the hills. And if you take the train south from Tokyo, the first topography of any significance you're likely to encounter will be that swathe of green that rings the genteel burg of Kamakura. A century or so ago, these hillocks were referred to (with no hint of irony) as the Kamakura Alps. But an invigorating stroll along the forest trails above the ancient capital does not require lederhosen and alpenstock.

News photo
Hachinoki Honten (above) and branches (below), serve refined shojin ryori. JT: YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
News photo

No need, either, to tote a rucksack packed with sausage and sauerkraut. If you find yourself, as we did last week, close to the imposing wooden gates of Kencho-ji, the largest of the major Zen temples in Kita-Kamakura, you can procure yourself a lunch of much greater delicacy -- and one far more suited to the surroundings -- at the nearby Hachinoki Honten.

It's a low-slung building clad in weathered timbers, facing right onto the main road but so modest in scale that it would be easy to walk past and scarcely register its presence. Stoop under the low eaves with their quaint fringe of dried leaves and slide back the front door. You will be greeted with due formality by a matron dressed in an understated silk kimono who, if you have not booked your meal in advance, will explain your options and take your order there and then.

Like the priests at Kenchoji Temple and many of the visiting faithful, Hachinoki Honten observes the precepts of shojin ryori, the traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. This means that not only are all meat and fowl shunned, so too are fish, eggs and dairy products. In their place, elaborate multicourse meals are fashioned out of, primarily, tofu and vegetables. This might sound like a penance to some people, but here it is a pleasure. Lunch courses are available at 3,000 yen and 3,800 yen (and pricier meals can be arranged ahead of time). The more expensive course offers greater variety and volume, but unless you are ravenous from your hiking and temple viewing, you will find the cheaper course absolutely adequate.

Hachinoki may have the weather-beaten exterior of an old teahouse, but inside it has been recently refurbished -- the tatami is new and everything spotlessly clean. There are a few Western-style tables and chairs in the small but unatmospheric dining area by the front door. Far more pleasant are the chambers at the rear of the building, where zabuton cushions are drawn up to low, lacquered-wood tables, and you can sit looking out at a miniature garden of fresh spring green dotted with the first colorful splashes of azalea blossom.

The waitresses -- all ladies of a certain age, all attired in kimono of similar fabric, all happy to take the time to explain things to you -- swish in and out of the room, ferrying oshibori, pots of tea and, without great delay, the first courses of your meal. It is served on utensils of bright vermilion lacquer, as if to emphasize that this is no ordinary cuisine. Indeed, although the basic format follows the standard sequence, there are many shojin preparations here that you would never find at regular kaiseki restaurants.

Before breaking open our chopsticks, we sipped a refreshing shokuzenshu, a thimbleful of liqueur based on umeshu, slightly tart, not too sweet and just the thing to kick-start the appetite.

From the assortment of dishes laid out on the tray, we were encouraged to start with the age-yuba -- a wide, circular frill of deep-fried yuba (soymilk skin), as warm and crisp as a freshly cooked papadum. Once it was broken up into the bowl of dashi broth, we found that it had in fact been fashioned into a small pouch, secured with a strip of kanpyo gourd and filled with fine cubes of savory-sweet cooked vegetables.

The nimono (simmered dish) was composed of a dark brown shiitake mushroom; a slice of firm-textured atsu-age (deep-fried cutlet of tofu); a smooth, white, young sato-imo (taro yam), small enough to pop into your mouth; and a section of kuruma-fu, those rings of brown gluten that look and taste like bland rusks when unreconstituted, but which soak up the flavor of any broth they are cooked with -- in this case a delectable dashi, steeped from prime kombu seaweed. Beside this there was a small saucer containing cooked urui, a sansai (seasonal wild plant) that is more stem than leaf, but soft in texture and blanched of all bitterness; and a cube of goma-dofu -- creamy sesame "tofu" (made with kuzu starch, not soybean), its nutty flavor given a piquant counterpoint by a tiny dab of wasabi.

A small, lotus-shaped dais was arrayed with more morsels of cooked vegetables -- lotus root, sweet potato, shishito green pepper, a couple of broad beans, bitter with the flavor of early spring; a slice of tofu fashioned to appear very similar to tamago-yaki Japanese omelet; and a small sake cup holding nama-fu shigure, a chewy, dark brown, savory preparation somewhat resembling minced meat but in fact derived from wheat gluten cooked down with soy sauce, fine-chopped walnuts and ginger.

This is the kind of salty-savory preparation that would go really well with sake. But instead we chose a bottle of the local Kamakura beer, an excellent amber ale with a frothy head, a full, fragrant malty body, and understated hop-bitter aftertones.

The next dish was rich, warming tonyu mushi -- similar to regular chawan mushi but prepared with soymilk in place of egg to create that steamed custard pudding effect. And it works very well indeed. As we found throughout the meal, there is none of the cloying sweetness that many places -- especially those that follow the Kyoto pattern -- too often use to compensate for the lack of animal fats and protein.

The last tray of food arrived. It was shojin-kaki-age, a deep-fried amalgam of slivered vegetables in a light tempura batter, the residual oil of which was nicely offset by a soy-based dip and a smidgen of grated ginger root. At this point, rice was also served, along with a small saucer of pickled vegetables and a bowl of savory miso soup. Nothing more was needed, save for a refill of their fragrant green tea and a couple of slices of orange, carefully peeled.

You cannot say this is food of enlightenment. The Zen path is not that facile. But no one would dispute that regular doses of wholesome food like this -- along with an energetic walk in the woods -- will lift the spirits and stiffen the sinews of any jaded city-dweller.

Hachinoki Honten
7, Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken; (0467) 22-8719
Open:11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (last order); Saturday, Sunday and holidays 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Nearest stations: Kita-Kamakura (JR Yokosuka line)
How to get there:From Kita-Kamakura Station, walk up the main road in the direction of Kamakura for about 10 minutes. Hachinoki Honten is the small wooden building on your left immediately after the entrance to Kenchoji Temple.
What works: Intimate scale and graceful service make a welcome oasis from the tourist throng outside.
What doesn't: It's never open for dinner
Number of seats: 50 on tatami; 10 at tables and chairs
BGM: None
Price per head: Set lunch courses for 3,000 yen and 3,800 yen; 5,000 yen course also available (must be ordered ahead of time)
Drinks: Beer from 530 yen; sake from 550 yen; wine 400 yen/glass
Credit cards:Most
Language:Japanese picture menu; a little English spoken
Reservations:Essential on weekends or holidays

Hachinoki has two larger, more modern branches just down the road, rather closer to Kita-Kamakura Station, one serving shojin ryori, the other more standard kaiseki cuisine, including fish and meat. Both are considerably larger and have parking space for bus loads of tourists. Although they are not as special as the Honten (main restaurant), both are open for dinner. Staff at Kita-Kamakura can handle enquiries in English. Call (0467) 23-3722.


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