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Tradition, lineage, continuity: These are the fundamentals that underpin Japanese cuisine, and they are every bit as important as considerations of seasonality or seafood. Increasingly, though, the old ways are being rejected as staid, outdated and out of touch with the 21st century. But not at Nihonryori Yukimoto.

Ask chef Takayuki Hagiwara and he may admit this was one thing on his mind when he decided to build a new, larger branch of his father’s well-respected restaurant. Should he change his style and adopt the lively (and more popular) kappō format, with customers sitting at a counter overlooking an open kitchen, in direct contact with the chef?

Or should he stay loyal to the established kaiseki system, serving each party of guests in their own private room with the kitchen far out of sight? Ultimately, there was no question: Hagiwara was determined to stick with tradition, the one he’d grown up with and trained in for so many years. But that didn’t mean he was stuck in the past.

Inside and out, Yukimoto blends Japanese aesthetics with a quietly contemporary style that reflects Hagiwara’s approach to his cuisine. Though you leave your shoes at the entrance and there are tatami mats in the individual guest rooms, they are all fitted with standard tables and chairs, in keeping with more modern ideas of comfort.

River fish are a year-round mainstay on Nihonryori Yukimoto’s menu. In spring, ayu (sweetfish) are batter-fried whole and served with daubs of pureed tomato. | NAOH INC.
River fish are a year-round mainstay on Nihonryori Yukimoto’s menu. In spring, ayu (sweetfish) are batter-fried whole and served with dabs of pureed tomato. | NAOH INC.

Now in its sixth year, Yukimoto stands in a peaceful residential neighborhood in Iida, a small, slow-moving city in the Minami Shinshu region of southern Nagano Prefecture. Situated at the lower end of the steep Tenryu River Valley, this former feudal castle town is by no means a backwater. But it is far enough from the populous coastal areas and high-speed transport networks that few people from outside the area bother to make a detour inland.

Iida’s location is crucial to the menu at Yukimoto. Thanks to its mild microclimate, the fertile farmland surrounding the city provides superb produce virtually year-round. Fish from the local Tenryu River, such as ayu (sweetfish) and iwana (whitespotted char), play an important role in Hagiwara’s kitchen. But it is the sansai (wild plants), fungi and game meats from the mountainous uplands that have come to define his cuisine.

After learning under his father, Hagiwara trained further at Shofukuro, a renowned high-end Japanese restaurant in Shiga Prefecture, as well as at its central Tokyo branch. He says those three years taught him not just about cooking, but about the importance of keeping in close contact with produce suppliers.

The biggest confidence-booster he gained from the experience, however, came from learning that guests will come, regardless of how out of the way the location — whether to Shiga or Iida — if they know they will eat exceptionally well. At Yukimoto, Hagiwara makes sure of that.

His top-of-the-line omakase (chef’s choice) menu comprises as many as a dozen dishes, each reflecting the season through the selection of ingredients, preparation, garnishes and decoration, as well as the bowls and other tableware in which they’re served. Spring is greeted with sansai and bamboo shoots; summer offers wild unagi eel and suppon turtle; autumn is kinoko (mushroom) time, most notably matsutake pine mushrooms; and winter is popular for the variety of gibier (game meat), including boar, wild fowl, venison and bear.

The specialties of each season are highlighted in the opening hassun platter, an assortment of small dishes that gets the meal off to a superlative start. In spring, this will feature a remarkable gamut of foraged herbs and buds, many of them rarely seen in Tokyo restaurants.

Rather than the classic red bean filling, chef Takayuki Hagiwara takes a more unusual approach to monaka wafers, with fillings such as wasabi cream cheese and thick-cut tomato. | NAOH INC.
Rather than the classic red bean filling, chef Takayuki Hagiwara takes a more unusual approach to monaka wafers, with fillings such as wasabi cream cheese and thick-cut tomato. | NAOH INC.

Autumn brings a very different bounty. The Minami Shinshu region supplies some of the highest-quality wild matsutake in Japan. Hagiwara’s network of foragers makes sure he obtains the finest and the freshest. Some will be simply grilled, then seasoned with a squeeze of sudachi citrus. Others are simmered in dashi stock in a dobin, a miniature ceramic “teapot” used to prepare clear soup of almost medicinal fragrance.

River fish are a near constant on the menu. In autumn, there may be grilled ayu, plump and full of roe. By contrast, earlier in the year, the small sweetfish are batter-fried whole and arranged on a plate as if they were swimming through water, with dabs of pureed new-season tomato providing a light acidity to a course that would be exceptional in any genre of cuisine.

Hagiwara is not hesitant to stretch the boundaries of his washoku by embracing ingredients that, a generation ago, might have been frowned on as foreign. He has no compunction about serving a monaka — traditionally a dessert, tightly stuffed with sweet red bean paste — filled instead with a layer of wasabi-accented cream cheese, then a thick slice of tomato and, balanced on top, the other half of the monaka shell.

But whatever the time of year, the high point of the meal is likely to be Hagiwara’s signature bear meat nabe hot pot, which is brought in and cooked in front of you by Hagiwara himself or an assistant. The meat is from a tsukinowaguma (Asian black bear) shot and dressed in winter, kept frozen till needed.

A highlight of chef Takayuki Hagiwara’s omakase (chef’s choice) selection is a bear nabe hot pot, cooked in front of you at your table. | NAOH INC.
A highlight of chef Takayuki Hagiwara’s omakase (chef’s choice) selection is a bear nabe hot pot, cooked in front of you at your table. | NAOH INC.

Once the simple, clear konbu dashi (kelp-based broth) is bubbling, he drops in strips of the meat until it is lightly cooked. Next, he will add wild greens such as kanzō (Siberian ginseng leaves), nomitsuba (wild trefoil) or seri (water dropwort) or, in autumn, a mix of foraged fungi. As he cooks, he will describe where and how the bear was caught, and how its fat melts at a lower temperature than that of domestic animals.

“Beef tends to harden the longer it’s left in the pot, but bear meat stays tender,” he explains. “As it cooks, it adds its rich umami to the soup. The more it cooks, the better it tastes — unlike beef, which gives the dashi a harsh, bitter quality.”

While he offers this bear hot pot throughout the year, the spring and fall versions are particularly good. “Cooking wild plants or mushrooms together with mountain meat, like bear, makes a really powerful combination.”

Quiz Hagiwara about other ingredients and he will readily explain the provenance and peak season for his produce. Almost all are grown by local farmers he knows personally, ensuring he has a constant supply of vegetables and fruit throughout the year.

To close the meal, he prepares soba made in-house from scratch, from grinding the grain — a longtime staple of the Nagano region — to rolling out and cutting the dough. The resulting noodles are delicate and fragrant, served with a simple dipping sauce and a small mound of grated karami-daikon, a sharply pungent daikon that is reputed to do wonders for digestion.

Delicate, handmade soba noodles round off your meal, with dipping sauce and spicy karami-daikon radish on the side. | NAOH INC.
Delicate, handmade soba noodles round off your meal, with dipping sauce and spicy karami-daikon radish on the side. | NAOH INC.

As a final parting pleasure, you will be brought a small saucer of fruit — strawberries, cherries, grapes and peach are local specialties — perhaps with some thick goat’s milk cream and a couple of spoonfuls of Meyer lemon ice cream.

In Hagiwara’s hands, there is nothing fusty about Japanese cuisine. Just as it should be, it is both intensely seasonal and also an expression of his strong connection to his ancestral home.

The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurants selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.

Towacho 2-43, Iida, Nagano 395-0086; 0265-23-5210; yukimoto-hanare.com; open daily lunch 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (L.O.), dinner 5-8 p.m. (L.O.), opening days and hours subject to change due to COVID-19; lunch from ¥3,500, dinner from ¥4,000; mail order available through Yukimoto’s online store; nearest station Iida; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; little English spoken

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