NOTE TO READERS:
All good things must come to an end. After years of offering high quality Kaiseki dinners and great service as a traditional Ryokan, Ryori Ryokan Hanaoka has finally closed its doors, perhaps forever. While this is certainly bad news for visitors to Takayama, many Ryori Ryokans, or traditional inns specializing in gourmet dinners, do exist in Takayama. The following is a list of Ryokans within Takayama City with promising dinner options. As usual the price listed are per person (not per room), including dinner and breakfast. Don't worry if you can't read Japanese -- you can always email the Tourism Office (www.hida.jp/) and ask them to make the reservation for you!
- Ryokan Seiryu - 8,000 to 17,500 yen
- Muhyoukan - 8,888 to 13,500 yen
- Honjin Hiranoya - 10,500 to 16,800 yen
- Ryori Ryokan Komakusa - 13,650 to 15,750 yen
Our fond memories of Takayama was due in no small part to the wonderful, wonderful Ryokan that served us the best meal of the trip. IMHO that's a hard-earned title considering the effort we put into our search for authentic local cuisine in each city, with competition ranging from Kobe's steak teppanyaki, Osaka's Kansai-style broiled unagi, Kyoto's traditional Kyo-zushi, Kanazawa's fresh seafood, and Nagoya's Hitsumabushi etc. At the end, our cheap Ryokan in Takayama came up on top, and I'll pass this information to you in this article, probably the first English review on the Internet for this Ryokan.
Hotel Review: RYORI RYOKAN HANAOKA (Takayama)
Address: Gifu-ken Takayama-shi Hanaoka-machi 2-36
Price: 6600 yen per person including dinner and breakfast
How To Book: Based on experiences from myself and contributing readers, we've found several ways to book:
1) If you can read Japanese, you can book through the popular hotel booking site of JALAN like we did. The price was around 6600 yen per person as of mid 2008.
2) If you can't read Japanese, you can try sending an email in simple English to: firstname.lastname@example.org
3)A fellow blogger Poppy has been able to book it through the Hida Tourism Board at email@example.com. The price was 6800 yen in mid 2009.
3) Alternatively, fellow blogger Mlle was successful in asking the staff at another hotel earlier in her trip to call up Hanaoka and book the room for her. This resulted in a bargain price of 6300 yen in mid 2009.
Just for everyone's reference, at the rack rate posted at Hanaoka's official site is 8000 yen on weekdays and 10000 yen on Fridays and Saturdays.
Directions: Exiting the JR Takayama station, turn left and walk for about five little blocks. You'll see a tall government building (Takayama City Hall) on your right and the police headquarters on your left. Hanaoka is directly across from the far end of the police headquarters ... there is hardly a safer location in ultra safe Japan, and it's only 8 minutes walk from the JR Station.
6600 yen (CAD$66) per person for a 13-course Kaiseki dinner that ranks top in our half-month trip, plus a 7-course breakfast, AND a restful night in a Tatami-mat room with private bathroom? You read correctly. If we consider the room charge alone to be worth 4000 yen per person, then we're only paying roughly 2000 yen for dinner and 600 for breakfast. This was actually the cheapest room-with-dinner-and-breakfast (Ippaku Nishoku) package ever in our travels throughout Japan, a full-fledged Ryori-Ryokan (gourmet inn) at rock-bottom Minshuku guesthouse prices.
How did we find this Ryokan? By browsing through JALAN, one of Japan's most popular hotel booking websites, where it had an incredible user's review rating of 4.9 out of 5 for its dinner ... and a 1400 yen discount below the regular price listed at the Ryokan's official site. To steal a line from The Godfather ... it's an offer we can't refuse!
It's only proper to start off this review with the Kaiseki dinner, which was given the long name of "Hida-gyu Miso Toban-yaki to Shun no Mikaku." Presumably it's got Hida Beef, cooked with Miso paste on top of a Toban ceramic plate, and accented with various seasonal delicacies. So what's in it really?
Okay. Course #1. I would have never expected the first course of a Kaiseki dinner to be a TERRINE ... the Owner-Chef seemed to be eager to announce his fusion creativity here. It's not a fine mousse kind of terrine, but a terrine of coarsely chopped broiled Unagi, pressed under a sushi mold and held together by the natural gelatin from the Unagi skin. The wasabi wasn't even necessary as the Unagi was very well executed and didn't have any hint of the "muddy flavor" (Dorokusa). It was a deliciously unorthodox presentation of Unagi, one which I never tasted before or after.
Course #2. Goma-Dofu ... now we're getting back to a traditional dish ... or is it? My idea of Goma-Dofu is always served with some variation of a soy-based sauce, but perhaps the Chef realized that would be too big of a shock to the palate after the sweet Unagi. This Goma-Dofu was as rich and thick as any I've ever tasted, but complimented by a smooth but only slightly sweetened Goma dressing as a transition to the milder dishes to come. Hmm ... very smart.
Course #3. A Moriawase of seasonal offerings ... I don't know what the Chef formally called this dish. The little square piece of pressed sushi was Masu (Sakura-coloured trout) Zushi, a local specialty of Toyama some 80 km to the north. It should be noted that Takayama is practically in the middle of a mountain range, so any seafood on our plate was conceivably trucked in daily from the Toyama Bay. That includes the conch and the Botan Ebi shrimp, which came with the same kind of impressive freshness I would expect of a Ryokan in Toyama. Our Chef was definite not skimping on quality ingredients here.
Course #4. The Sashimi was impressively fresh for landlocked Takayama ... in fact the freshness probably wasn't very different from what we had at the seafood capital of Kanazawa (see previous article) a few days ago. As you can see there's a slice of rolled squid with seaweed, a Botan Ebi prawn, some lean Akami tuna, and the best of all ... there's a couple pieces of superbly fresh and fatty Buri hiding behind the chrysanthemum. Wonderful quality, and this was only the second most memorable dish.
Course #5. Even in a Kaiseki dinner, our Chef did manage to squeeze one of the local Kyodo-Ryori (rustic cooking) dish into his presentation. The wild Kogomi fern is a springtime favorite of Central Japan, and the smoked Iburi-Dofu is a specialty of the neighboring city of Gujo. I don't remember how this dish tasted except for the crunchiness of the Kogomi, so it probably wasn't anything outstanding.
Course #6. My wife's favorite -- the Chawan-mushi. I remember the egg mixture being superbly light and smooth, but I don't really remember much about the ingredients at the bottom ... probably just the traditional sliced chicken and Kamaboko fish cakes.
Course #7. Of course a full Kaiseki wouldn't be complete without a Takiawase (slow-cooked) course, this one being a cut of salmon served with bamboo shoot and other veggies. Again it was well-executed, as the fish had stayed firm and plump, and served with a sweet, reduced Dashi soy sauce.
Course #8. The Yakizakana (grilled fish) course -- it looked like a sole on first glance but for some reason I thought it wasn't. Anyway I was sure that it wasn't just grilled, but slightly deep fried with the rest of the ingredients. This was an excellent course as well, as I finished even the crunchy tail of the fish.
Course #9. Finally ... the one dish we've waited for all evening ... the "Hida-gyu Miso Toban-yaki" which this Kaiseki Dinner Set was named after. Several slices of buttery soft, evenly marbled Hida Beef served in a rich, dark red Miso paste, grilled on a ceramic plate (Toban) instead of the traditional dried Hoba leaf.
The incredible softness was no different from Kobe Beef or Matsuzaka Beef, but when combined with the strong Miso, the exquisite combination of flavors was unmistakably Hida. The amount of Hida Beef was a little less than what we had at Shirakawago's excellent Shiraogi restaurant the day before, but when this whole Kaiseki Dinner of 13 courses cost only around 2000 yen (CAD$20), IMHO we're already getting twice our money's worth. I personally would be willing to pay 2000 yen just for this dish plus the sashimi.
Courses #10, #11 and #12. A wonderful clear broth for a change, after having so much Miso soup for the past week. I don't remember how I managed it, but I did finish the Soba noodles and most of the Koshi-hikari rice with marinated anchovies ... and this was after we racked up double digit number of dishes.
Course #13. My wife always had a huge dislike for strawberries. She didn't mind strawberry-flavored snacks, but if you presented her a whole strawberry as a fruit ... bleh. This was the dish that changed her perception of strawberries forever -- a plump, syrupy sweet strawberry with no hint of acidity whatsoever ... and look at its size compared to the slice of watermelon!
This was my most memorable dinner in recent years, with dishes after dishes of top quality Kaiseki courses prepared with the expertise and care of the Owner-Chef. To me the most impressive aspect was the choice of absolute top quality ingredients -- Sashimi with a freshness bettering one of the city's top Sushi-ya (see review of Michiya-zushi below), melt-in-the-mouth Hida Beef, even down to the selection of fruits -- all for an unbelievably cheap price.
So the dinner was excellent, but what about the room?
Located on the 3rd floor along with all other guest rooms, our room was 6-Tatami-mats in size plus a Genkan space at the entrance, a Western-style bathroom, and a balcony facing the snowy mountains to the East. As you can see, all the equipment had the "basic Ryokan" look to it -- an old TV sitting atop a small safe, unremarkable futons, and a little low table with a tea set. But most importantly to us, the room was spotlessly clean and was actually rather new.
Our balcony's view towards the 3,000-metres-high Norikura mountains, the third tallest volcano in Japan after Mount Fuji and Ontake-san. You can get a sense of the small size of Takayama's urban area, as the trees in the middle-ground marks the edge of the wilderness.
The simple bathroom was exceptionally clean again. In Japan, it's pretty rare to find cheap Tatami-mat rooms with a private bathroom -- typically you'll find private bathrooms only at western-style business hotels, or at the more expensive Ryokans geared towards rich retirees and higher-income families. This is one of the important but lesser-known considerations if you plan on booking Tatami-mat rooms.
We did go out for a walk at night, and made one interesting observation ... the locals disappeared, and the ratio of foreigners on the street suddenly increased by four times at night! Apparently nightlife isn't one of Takayama's penchants.
We woke up to another full and sumptuous meal, a 7-course breakfast providing the energy we needed as we prepared for our trip to the national park at Kamikochi this morning. Some of the dishes had become familiar to us by now, including the boiled wild Zenmai ferns (little pink dish at the centre of the picture) and the Miso soup with wild Nameko mushrooms. Being an urban Ryokan hasn't stopped Hanaoka from assuming its duty of introducing the region's traditional Sanzai ("wild mountain vegetables") to its clientelle.
The strong and delicious Hoba Miso had been the star of the breakfast for the third straight morning, but frankly I never got bored of it. The fragrance of the grilled Miso was the absolute best condiment for steamed rice, and as I'm writing this article I'm still regretting not bringing home a stack of Hoba leaves so that I could have this dish for breakfast on weekends. This is one of the Central Japanese dishes I miss the most.
Japanese-style layered egg omelette, grilled salmon, and cubes of dried Hida beef in mirin-soysauce marinade -- nothing out-of-this-world, but excellent as a breakfast dish nonetheless.
My wife's all-time favorite breakfast dish -- the Onsen Tamago (hotspring egg) served in a mouthwatering Dashi broth. Unlike the western poached egg which has a firm egg-white surrounding a soft yolk, the Japanese Onsen Tamago is a seemingly incredible semi-aqueous egg white orbiting around a firmer but still semi-soft yolk. Apparently this is possible since the egg-white start to become "cooked" at a slightly lower temperature than the yolk, a phenomenon recently re-discovered by 21st Century molecular gastronomy, a couple thousand years later than the Japanese.
At the end it was time to check-out and catch our bus to Hirayu Onsen en route to Kamikochi. Prior to getting the final bill my wife was still asking ... is it REALLY going to be 6600 yen (CAD$66) per person? Unbelievable, but true. 6600 yen for the best dinner of the trip, the best breakfast of the trip, AND one of the best views from the hotel room on this trip. The owner may not speak any English (my broken Japanese came to the rescue ... again), but don't let any language barrier deter you from making this your base for exploring Takayama and its surroundings. I seriously doubt you'll find a better deal elsewhere.
Food Review: MICHIYA-ZUSHI OKIMURAYA (Takayama)
Address: Gifu-ken Takayama-shi Aioi-cho 25
Hours: 11:00-14:00, 16:00-23:00
Website/Map: From GNAVI (Japanese)
Directions: Exiting the JR Takayama station, turn left, then turn right at the first major street, Kokubunji-Dori. Head straight on Kokubunji-Dori, then turn right at the little lane one block before the river. Michiya-zushi is on the left, just a few steps from Kokubunji-Dori.
If you've read some of the previous articles, you may notice my fetish for those really old and traditional culinary establishments, and this little Sushi-ya in Hida Takayama would fall into this category. At 103-years-young, Michiya-zushi is said to be the oldest existing Sushi-ya in Takayama. At lunchtime, it was as prototypical as a Sushi-ya could be -- one Chef working behind an old counter, a couple of Zashiki rooms, and an old TV playing yesterday's baseball highlights. Some may question the wisdom of having sushi 80 km from the coast, and I would usually agree, except for the ONE famous sushi ingredient you can't easily find anywhere else ...
... Takayama's famous Hida Beef, rumored to melt in the mouth like the finest Ootoro tuna ... which is why the locals proudly call their invention Hida Toro. And it cost just about as much as Ootoro, at 2100 yen (CAD$21) for four thin slices of certified A5-ranked Hida Beef.
Hmmm ... look at this shiny oiliness as the marbling fat was just starting to melt, accentuated by a slight torching of the surface. Unlike Ootoro tuna, the beef didn't turn into a full mouthful of fatty juices, but rather disintegrated into the soft, chewiness of the sushi rice upon the softest bite. My wife, who couldn't quite get over the psychological barrier of having raw beef for sushi, stopped after one piece ... which meant that I got to enjoy every bit of the smooth oily goodness of the other three pieces. Although it wasn't as magical as advertised, this Hida Toro Nigiri was still a delicious interpretation of Takayama's highly prized specialty beef.
Instead of just ordering the Hida Toro for 2100 yen, we found that it could be upgraded to a "Hida Toro Set" for only 1050 yen (CAD$11) more to include another local favorite, the Mushi-zushi (steamed sushi). Originated in Kansai where it is typically served only during the winter, this steaming hot variation of Chirashi-zushi ("scattered" sushi) is served year-round at mountainous Takayama.
Not you typical Sushi! Actually it's not even a typical Chirashi-zushi, as the entire egg was steamed on top of the rice instead of having it fried into an omelette and sliced into thin shreds. The toppings were nothing spectacular, but the Dashi soup stock absorbed into the rice gave it quite an attractive homey flavor. After all Kansai-style sushi is just as much about the rice as it is about the toppings, isn't it?
My wife had the more familiar Nigiri-zushi, a Torimase set for 2100 yen (CAD$21). There was little doubt that the toppings were transported in from Toyama, as the Chef gave us TWO pieces of Toyama Bay's famous fluorescent squid (Hotaru Ika). Though still fresher than anything we could get in Vancouver, according to my wife the freshness of the toppings here was noticeably a notch lower than what we had at Kanazawa's Omicho Market, just a few days prior.
So was this meal worth the 5250 yen (CAD$53)? I thought the Hida Toro was well worth its price to be honest, though my wife may disagree. The Mushi-zushi was interesting if unspectacular, while the Nigiri-zushi could have been skipped. Frankly if we had time for only one meal in this region, I would bypass the Hida Toro and pay a little more for a Hida Beef Steak grilled in delectable Hoba Miso. But since we already tried that the previous day in Shirakawago, the Hida Toro Nigiri was next on our list of must-try Takayama cuisines. And it was as excellent as A5-ranked Hida Beef should be expected, no matter how it's cooked ... or uncooked.
Bill for Two Persons
|Hida Toro Set||3150 yen|
|Torimase Set||2100 yen|
|TOTAL||5250 yen (CAD$53)|