Okutama in Tokyo, Japan is known as a nature get-away, lying about two hours west of the bustling metropolis by train. The name ‘Okutama’ conveys a mystical connection with the mountains, trees, rivers, waterfalls, caves, hiking paths, breathtaking vistas and even the unique gastronomic experiences that mirror the bucolic surroundings. Literally meaning ‘beyond the Tama area’, the word “Tama” refers to the spirit of the waters that sprang from the mountains, the abode of the gods, and was therefore deserving of reverence as a source of inspiration and livelihood.
And in the spirit of adventure, our first meal was actually made from scratch. At a soba noodle-making class, our hands-on mentor taught us how to turn a ball of buckwheat dough into a plateful of thin noodles. Once they were boiled we enjoyed traditional cold soba, served with soba tsuyu (a special dipping sauce). After the last noodle is slurped, hot water is added to the sauce to make a tasty soup.
Keen to explore the Japanese concept of ‘nominication’ (‘nomi’ means drink and ‘minication’ relates to having a good time with friends), we headed to Sawanoi-Ozawa Sake Brewery. After a short explanation of the brewing process and a tour of the facilities we tasted the newest product, Honjozo Shiboritate: smooth, dry and clear.
The Beer Café Vertere, right across from Okutama rail station in Tokyo, Japan was a second opportunity to imbibe locally. The ten craft beers on tap ranged from mild ales and IPAs to wheat beer and a chai latte stout (it was rich and creamy.)
As the setting sun silhouetted the forested mountains, we ascended Mt. Mitake by cable-car for a peaceful overnight stay in a shrine. The evening meal echoed the autumn colours surrounding us. We began with Shibukawani, boiled chestnut covered in bright green tea noodles, with yuzu (a yellow citrus fruit) and boiled peanuts on the side. This was followed by konnayaku (a purple taro-like potato) drizzled with soy sauce, an orange persimmon salad and then a medley of stewed pumpkin, burdock, daikon, and deep-fried tofu. The vegetable au gratin paired well with grilled local river fish (Ayu) garnished with salt, along with Takiawase (simmered avocado, onion, scallop, and mushrooms) and tempura (shitake and mountain jellyfish mushrooms, shishito pepper, persimmon, and shrimp). The arrival of sesame-wasabi rice and sumashi jiru, a kelp-based soup with nori (seaweed), completed the meal.
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However, breakfast was no less dazzling, with persimmon salad, tamagoyaki (layered cooked egg), grilled salmon, pickles, yoghurt with yuzu jam and chestnut steamed rice.
Shrine visits, mountain meditation, floating bridges, hiking trails, bright red Japanese maples and troops of macaques filled our second day, along with a stop at Yamashiroya, the wasabi store. Direct from the nearby wasabi farm, products ranged from wasabi root to wasabi cream cheese, smoked wasabizuke (pickled wasabi), wasabi flakes, rice toppings, crackers and more.
The final meal of our visit was at Chiwaki, a wonderfully friendly, family-owned restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. (The name ‘Chiwaki’ refers to a Buddhist blessing for peace). We dined on local specialties that included Shika no Yakiniku (grilled deer with onion), Inobuta Nabe (steamed boar in a miso-based broth with shirataki (a type of konnyaku), tofu and hakusai (Korean cabbage)), and Shichirinyaki: savory grilled mushrooms featuring Elingi, Shiitake, Maitake, Hiratake, and Hiratake shimeji. It was taste bud bliss!
The variety of Okutama’s energizing activities that include hiking, bicycling, kayaking, canyoning, white water rafting, swimming, caving, birding, and photography is tastefully eclipsed by the choice of culinary pleasures emanating from these natural surroundings. Think of it as a culinary vacation for your taste buds.