For most city folk, the best thing about Kamakura is the reassurance that it actually exists. We don’t need to go there so often: It’s enough to know that, less than an hour away down the JR tracks, there really are quiet backstreets to wander in, temples and monuments exuding a whiff of history, brine and beach for the warmer months, and wooded hills for a dose of what used to be known (in classic Japlish) as “green bathing.”
You don’t visit Kamakura for the food. Most local tourists seem to be content with fast food, curry-rice or noodle joints that are identical to anywhere else in Japan. But there are times — perhaps with parents, relations, friends or business clients — when you want to break for lunch somewhere that reflects the history and setting of the ancient capital. You should reserve a table at Kokotei, just minutes away from the temples and bustle around Kita-Kamakura Station.
Just the walk there is worth the price of a round-trip ticket down from Tokyo. You make your way down the narrow unmetaled road that squeezes between the railroad and the steep hillside. You pass through a vermilion gateway into a tunnel that pierces the very rock face, and emerge in a narrow residential valley so tranquil and timeless you could be in the depths of the countryside.
The entrance to the restaurant is a curving path carpeted with a thick, soft layer of pine needles. It leads to a huddle of low wooden buildings that have all seen the best part of this century, some considerably longer.
Picturesque as they may appear, it is not the rural architecture that makes Kokotei so special; it is the view. All of the dining rooms have sliding windows that look out over a spacious lawn with gnarled “old-vine” ume trees, azalea and peony shrubs, enclosed by a dense green wall of deciduous foliage rising vertically as a dramatic backdrop.
Kokotei serves kaiseki ryori: not the exquisitely precious cuisine found at the most exclusive establishments but a more relaxed rural version that demands no wearisome standing on ceremony. There are courses ranging from 7,000 yen to 16,000 yen, in ascending order of complexity and volume.
Those with more limited time, money and stomach capacity, will find the 4,500 yen kaiseki bento more than adequate. The large, square lacquered lunch box is divided into four sections, each containing choice morsels that represent in miniature the progression of a full-scale formal kaiseki meal.
You start with a few slivers of sashimi, perhaps some pink chu-toro tuna and kanpachi (yellowtail). This will be arranged on a bed of shiso leaf and finely shredded daikon — a garnish you will be encouraged to eat, since here it is produced not by machine or through a mechanical grater but entirely by the dexterity of the chefs’ long sushi knives.
The next quadrant will hold the deep-fried offering (agemono). There will be a prawn and one small, refreshingly bitter green pepper, both prepared in conventional tempura batter. Alongside these you will find a plump kisu (sweetfish), fried in multicolored fragments of arare mochi rice, as if scattered with a patissier’s hundreds and thousands.
The third section of the bento box constitutes the yakimono and sunomono courses. There will be a small, perfectly prepared portion of grilled white-meat fish, probably tai (snapper); some bright yellow tamago-yaki omelet; a slice of vinegared lotus root and perhaps a miniature cube of kanten aspic, in which slivers of crunchy tree fungus are flavored by the tart tang ofume plum juice.
The final dish will be a selection of seasonal vegetables, lightly simmered in the nimono style. These may include pumpkin, bamboo shoot, a slice of carrot carved to resemble an ume flower, and at this time of year perhaps a late sprig of nanohana (budding rape shoots), garnished with a sprig of fragrant kinome.
Along with the bento box, you are served a small covered pot of chawan-mushi egg custard, a soup of rich, savory akadashi (dark miso), and a bowl of rice topped with seasonal greens.
This may not be cuisine of the highest brilliance, but nonetheless everything is cooked with exactly the right sense of delicacy. Better yet, all tendency toward sweetness (so often the bugbear of tourist restaurants) is kept firmly in check — after all, this is rural Kanto, not the effete surroundings of Kyoto. The ingredients are all of unimpeachable freshness and quality; the presentation is simple but perfect; the service (from women in kimono) friendly and helpful.
And when you have finished eating, you can stroll around the grounds, or spend some time in the tiny gallery that has been created in a converted rustic outhouse. Alongside a selection of unremarkable local pottery, there is a surprising display of Pre-Raphaelite prints and first-edition books, which have been lovingly assembled by Kokotei’s owner, Genzaburo Takao.
In June, Kokotei runs seven days a week, due to demand from visitors to the famous hydrangea temple down the street. At all times of year, reservations are essential, especially if you want to ensure you get a window table, to book a private room or when ordering one of the more complex kaiseki courses.
Kita-Kamakura has several other eating places which, though worthy, cannot hold a candle to Kokotei in terms of setting. Up the road, near Kenchoji Temple is the main branch of Hachinoki, a beautiful old restaurant featuring shojin ryori vegetarian cuisine based around yuba (soy milk skin). Upmarket and always full of tourists, Hachinoki is still worth a visit (but avoid the sterile modern branch nearer the station).
Hachinoki, 7 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 22-8719. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat./Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Just round the corner from the station, Sasa-no-ha is a simple natural foods restaurant housed in a venerable wooden shack. They serve vegetarian and fish-based set meals, some featuring genmai, others with white rice. Because it is squeezed in, right by the walls of the railroad track, there is no view apart from the small stand of bamboo from which it derives its name.
Sasa-no-ha, 499 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 23-2068. Open 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
In hanami season, one of the most pleasant views is from the cozy second-floor dining room of En, which overlooks an ancient pond in front of Engakuji Temple surrounded by cherry trees. Lunch is a fixed-price 3,500 yen kaiseki-style set meal. In the evening, they offer a la carte snacks. The entrance is right by the main exit to the station.
En, 501 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 23-5233. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; and 5-9 p.m.; closed Mondays.