Sunday, January 8, 2012

芦之湯温泉 美肌の湯 きのくにや Hakone Onsen: Celebrating Seasonal Freshness (1)

Avid audience of Channel News Asia Japan Hour would be familiar with the classic storyline. A couple or family going on a budget onsen trip but yet being able to indulge in wide spread of exquisite food and go on sightseeing during the day.


Hakone is a place outside Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture. It is famous for its 17 onsens and there are many traditional Japanese ryokans that offer various attractive 1 day or 2D1N packages for anybody who likes to break away from the hectic city life. Usually, a 2D1N trip would include a kaiseki dinner and buffet breakfast.
Our ryokan is Kinokuniya, a 温泉宿 that has been running the business since 1715. The ryokan is only 3 storeys high and can only be accessible by bus. The environment is so secluded as one cannot find any convenience stores around the area. (it has no affiliations with the kinokuniya bookstore for those who might think if there is any link between the two)
Be it in Japanese kaiseki dinner or a normal obento, there is always an order in how the food is arranged. 
Here is an example of the dinner that features the seasonal ingredients and also some elements of the Japanese New Year Food (御節料理)Those that expect the food to be served course by course might be little disappointed as everything except the soup, tempura and dessert is set in order on the table before the guest arrives.

seasonal special : the new year platter
御節料理
the ingredients on this plate is a mixture of Western & Japanese. From bottom in clockwise, 
Pine nuts, (Yellow rectangular cube) Sweet Fish Cake, (In Blue bowl) Sweet Persimmon coated with white sauce.  (Yellow) Fish Eggs数の子 that is extracted from ニシン herring, (White cube) Cheese Tofu, Prawn and Celery that is cut into bamboo shape.
数の子 is acually preserved food and hence it is extremely salty. It has a chewy texture but the eggs are so small and clumped together. Some might prefer mentaiko to this. It is interesting to find cheese tofu here and the cheese is not overpowering.

seasonal sashimi : 3 slices of raw fish & sweet prawn
According to the news, the price of meguro (the red one in the picture) has risen 3 times as compared to Year 2010, hence it is really becoming an indulgence to eat meguro. The 2 slices here are especially thick and soft.
Vinegared Dish 酢の物 : A shot of vinegar is supposed to be poured into this dish and eaten together with the fish, the ika (cuttlefish), the green kanten寒天 jelly. 

This is another cold dish. Do take a whiff of this before you eat it. Some might find this very fishy and even fishier than sashimi. Because this is marinated fish liver. Very interesting and an eye opener as this is my first time eating this.

The lady waiteress would ask the guest to pour these 2 items into the hot pot right after they've settled down and before they start to dig into the food. The white round blob is Collagen=) (Good news for ladies who want elastic skin) and the plate at the back consists of pork shabu slices, tofu, udon and leeks. So what is this hotpot called then ? Collagen Pork Nabe!
Collagen Pork Nabe 
a nice accompaniment to the cold winter 
Stewed dish : Pork belly, Mountain Yam, Daikon and the green thing is Ginko 
This was actually heated up like the pot but it was not as hot as expected. Or rather, it seemed like a cold dish. The pork belly was quite tough even though it does contain fatty parts. The brown sauce is sweet as it has been added with mirin.
中场加戏: This was served up in the middle of the course as tempura is best eaten shortly after they are being cooked. Served with the light dipping sauce. Note how the tempura is served in an open bamboo shoot. One cannot find the usual tempura prawn but Crab cake instead.
How can a kaiseki course end without rice and the accompanying dishes? It was nice of the chef to serve up salmon rice mixed with brown grains. 
Another fusion of east and west : Baked Potato Gratin (stuffed with cheese white sauce and topped with corn) and Grilled Gindara
New Year Soup
Unlike the usual miso soup, the chef served up this special item that is a light kombu soup with flower-shaped fishcake and meatball. A nice switch that prevents guests from a salt overdose.

Dessert : Matcha Bavaroise and Mikan with Sake Jelly 
The green tea flavour is very intense but the texture leans towards the chewy side. Paired once again with the familiar azuki beans. The sweetness of the seasonal fruit-mandarin oranges is accented by the mild wine jelly. 

Indeed, a kaiseki course consists of many varieties and  it is possible that the menu changes perhaps not even seasonally but monthly. Be prepared to be extremely full after the entire meal. But well, with the hot onsen awaiting one after the dinner, who can reject such an occasion indulgence?
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