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Friday, May 5, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Time to head for the hills
Sunlight filters through fresh young foliage, dappling mossy thatched roofs. On the hills above, the wind sighs through stands of pine. In the background, birdsong and the constant trickling of a mountain stream; outside our wood-framed window, blossom floats on the surface of a placid pond. Spring has arrived at the timeless rustic setting of Ukai Toriyama.
Tucked away along a narrow fold in the foothills of Mount Takao, to the far west of the metropolis, officially this is still Tokyo, but effectively you have escaped to the most remarkable of rural idylls.
At the front gate, you are greeted by the sight of a stately minka, a traditional timber-framed farmhouse with steep roofs and wooden gables. This is not the restaurant; it is just the reception area, where you rest, sipping tea and admiring the view, allowing the dust of your journey to settle. From here you will be ushered through the lush garden, along narrow paths and over steppingstones to your own private dining area.
Not so much a restaurant as a village unto itself, Ukai Toriyama consists of 39 buildings, with a total of 79 separate rooms. Some of these structures are venerable farm buildings or thatched teahouses transported from other parts of the country. Others are new, but built with traditional materials -- wood, bamboo, stone, mud walls, tatami mats and washi screens.
The largest can accommodate parties and wedding receptions; the smallest are intimate bowers perfect for couples. All have garden views onto goldfish ponds, wooded glades or, right in the middle of the extensive complex, an open-sided, thatched hut where a crew of chefs skewer and grill small fish over glowing charcoals.
The centerpiece of any meal at Ukai Toriyama, though, is chicken or beef, which you grill yourself over the irori grill set in the middle of each room. It is this mixture of refinement and rusticity, polished service and hands-on earthiness that makes eating here such a pleasure.
There are no specific meal times -- and if you book at short notice, mid-afternoon may be the only slot you can reserve -- and the menu is the same whatever time of day you arrive. Set meals range from 4,730 yen to 8,830 yen (there are also a few side dishes, which can be ordered a la carte). So, having decided your budget, your only choices are chicken or beef, and what you want to drink.
On our most recent visit, for lunch on an unseasonably chilly day before winter had relinquished its grip on the Kanto Plain, we ordered the basic chicken course, which they call Seburi (literally "Mountain Wanderer"). This is how our meal unfolded, carried to our room one course at a time by kimono-clad waitresses or, when explanation was deemed necessary, by a bilingual waiter.
Our first two courses comprised appetizers featuring seasonal vegetables -- the first a cold preparation of donko shiitake mushrooms, diced lotus root and konnyaku; the second a lacquered bowl containing a couple of steaming-hot ebi-imo yams, thick, starchy, slightly sweet -- and very tasty.
These were followed by a thick, warming soup -- shake-sanpei-jiru, a Hokkaido specialty made with morsels of salmon and vegetables, thickened and perfumed by sake-kasu, lees from the sake brewing process. Appropriately (given the fish pond outside our window), our sashimi course was koi no arai, tender cuts of carp, the bland flavor well complemented by a dip of sumiso (sweet yellow miso blended with rice vinegar).
One of the treats of traveling inland in Japan is always the chance to eat freshly grilled river fish. Our iwana (river trout) had been simply rubbed with salt, pierced with a long bamboo skewer, grilled over charcoal and arranged on a bed of pebbles and sasa leaves. The white flesh was perfectly cooked and released a delectable aroma as it fell off the fine bone structure.
Once all these preliminaries were finished, we were ready for the main event. A brazier of glowing coals was brought in and arranged in the center of the hearth, covered by a handsome, concave, semi-spherical grill not so different from the kind you find in jingisukan restaurants. Once it was up to heat, we began grilling.
Besides the generous chunks of chicken meat -- taken from free-range Satsuma jidori -- we also had shiitake, shishito peppers and chunks of negi leeks, which we cooked slowly, a couple of skewers at a time. The technique is to cook the chicken with its fatty skin down, until it is nicely browned, then to turn it over and cook the inner meat until it no longer sticks to the grill.
At that point you plunge the whole skewer into the soy-based tare dipping sauce, replace on the grill for a couple of moments longer, then slide it onto your plate. Knife and fork are provided to cut up the meat, seven-spice to season it, and chopsticks to eat it.
As any barbecue-meister knows full well, the food you grill yourself always tastes the best -- especially when the quality of the ingredients is this good. Unless you have a very modest appetite, you will not feel satiated without ordering second (or even third) helpings. When we had eaten our fill, we rounded off the meal with rice and miso soup, some Japanese desserts and ryokucha tea.
No meal at Ukai Toriyama is complete without a leisurely stroll through the garden afterward. It is far larger than you first imagine, extending up the valley past sections where shiitake and wasabi are cultivated, to a wide area of marshland, where rushes grow and (right now) skunk cabbage are in bloom.
What makes the countryside here so beautiful at this time of year is the fresh green foliage. But the best season to visit Ukai Toriyama is in the early summer, from late June to July, when they release thousands of fireflies into the wetlands to illuminate the evenings with their glow. With the frogs croaking and the cicadas whirring, and more stars overhead than you can ever see from the center of town, it is a magical experience -- and now is not too early to reserve your room.
It is surprisingly easy to reach Ukai Toriyama by public transport. From Shinjuku, it takes about 45 minutes by express train to Takaosan-guchi Station by the Keio Line. From there, a free shuttle bus runs every 20 minutes into the hills, stopping en route at other restaurants operated by the Ukai group.
If you want to work up an appetite beforehand, then budget time (perhaps two hours extra) for a brisk hike to the temple at the top of nearby Mount Takao.