Maebashi, Gunma Pref. – Forests and mountains, hot springs, ski resorts and hiking trails: Gunma Prefecture has plenty to explore in the great outdoors. Down in the lowlands, though, this landlocked region just an hour or so north of Tokyo offers fewer reasons to visit, especially when it comes to hotels and gastronomy.
Until now, that is. The launching of the newly reborn Shiroiya Hotel in Maebashi last month has put Gunma’s capital city back on the map with a bang. Bringing together outstanding art, architecture and interior design, it has generated international interest and brought back some buzz to a part of Japan that has lost its sparkle in recent decades.
The hotel’s history has mirrored that of the surrounding region, once a thriving center for sericulture and livestock. With roots going back nearly three centuries, the Shiroiya first gained its reputation as a traditional ryokan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). In the 1970s it was replaced by a functional, boxy concrete business hotel. But, as demand continued to fade, in 2008 it too closed.
The building was saved from demolition by local entrepreneur Hitoshi Tanaka, as part of a larger project to inject some life back into his hometown. Led by renowned architect Sou Fujimoto, the entire structure was gutted to its basic concrete frame, leaving only the front facade. Given a remarkable makeover, the result is a stunning, art- and greenery-filled 25-room design hotel.
One of its key components is The Restaurant. With an open kitchen surrounded on three sides by comfortable counter seating, it offers the kind of theatrical experience you expect at some of Tokyo’s top restaurants, much like a scaled-down version of the dining room at Florilege. That’s no coincidence, as both were designed by the same company, Esquisse, Inc.
The connection goes even deeper. Florilege chef Hiroyasu Kawate has been working closely with Shiroiya executive chef Hiro Katayama to create the initial menu. Together, they’ve drawn from the wellspring that has always underpinned Kawate’s cuisine, developing innovative dishes while shining a spotlight on the best local food products.
Katayama had already opened his own restaurant in his native Gunma, but he jumped at the chance to join the Shiroiya project. While the hotel was under construction, he spent two years building up his repertoire, studying not only under Kawate but also in Europe, where he worked with chef Gert De Mangeleer at the (now closed) three-Michelin-star Hertog Jan in Belgium.
The meal opens with a warming, golden consomme to prime the appetite. For one of his appetizers, Katayama marinates yamame, a very fine variety of freshwater trout from the uplands, wrapping it in slivers of Shimonita negi (leek) and konnyaku (devil’s tongue jelly), both Gunma specialties. It also comes with a creamy bisque that is thickened by boiling down the bones of those same fish.
One standout course is his reworking of a classic local dish known as okirikomi, a hotpot of chunky flat wheat noodles, chicken and root vegetables. He reinvents this by draping a delicate sheet of udon dough made with carrot puree over local jidori chicken, covered with a puree of Jerusalem artichoke and maitake mushroom foam.
The centerpiece of dinner is roast Akagi gyū, a local breed of beef reared on nearby Mount Akagi. The cut is lean, firm and imbued with the aroma of straw smoke. The deep red color of the meat is nicely complemented on the plate with a spoonful of red beans and crisps of local red miso.
From the cooking techniques to the presentation, the Kawate influence is strong. But Katayama is already putting his own stamp on his cuisine. Although his menu is likely to evolve much further, he is off to a very promising start.
While The Restaurant is only open for dinner, the adjoining The Lounge area serves lighter meals at both lunch and dinner, and doubles as a bar in the evening. This is also where hotel guests are served breakfast, a choice between Western-style or (strongly recommended) Japanese.
Meanwhile, there are other signs that Maebashi is already starting to embrace a more contemporary food culture. 13 Coffee Roasters (Wakamiyacho 1-7-12, Maebashi, Gunma 371-0032; 027-289-4260; 13coffee.shop) is a classy specialty shop that well repays the leisurely 10-minute walk from the Shiroiya’s door.
And if you fancy a more traditional sweet with your drink, head no further than Harashimaya (Heiwamachi 2-5-20, Maebashi, Gunma 371-0027; 027-231-2439) for a few miso-yaki manjū, soft wheat buns slathered with sweet-savory miso and grilled to order.
Honmachi 2-2-15, Maebashi, Gunma 371-0023; 027-231-2020; bit.ly/shiroiya-restaurant; open daily 5:30-11 p.m. (currently last entry 6 p.m.); omakase dinner menu from ¥12,000, alcoholic drink pairing from ¥7,000; nearest station Maebashi; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; Japanese menu; English spoken
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