Odawara is a quiet coastal town on the shores of Sugima Bay just south-west of Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture. Once a seat of great power in feudal Japan, it is now a relaxing must-visit stop along the way to neighboring hot spring town Hakone or onward to nearby Mt. Fuji.
The town’s historic heritage extends beyond the walls and moats of its formidable fortress, Odawara castle. As a major post station along the Tōkaidō, an ancient road connecting Kyōto to modern day Tōkyō, Odawara prospered as a center of commerce and trade. Businesses flourished with the bounty of local agriculture and seafood. Some companies established centuries ago still operate today, the reins of each having been handed down from generation to generation.
With 150 years of history and an origin story directly connected to Odawara castle, Chinriu Honten is one such producer. In 1871 the last chief and cook of Odawara castle, Monya Komine, decided to use his culinary skills to open a restaurant; a restaurant that would eventually become Chinriu Honten.
Using the local bounty from both the sea and land, Monya Komine’s traditionally crafted products steadily grew in popularity with travelers making their way to the hot springs of Hakone. They quickly became renowned local gifts and would lead to Chinriu’s full dedication to the products they make today.
Now in operation under the fifth generation of the Komine family, Chinriu specializes in producing condiments, pickles, and sweets using ume (Japanese plums),akajiso (red perilla), and sakura (cherry blossoms). By maintaining traditional artisanal techniques that forgo the use of unnecessary enhancers and additives, Chinriu is dedicated to crafting natural products that introduce the tastes of traditional Japan to the world.
Quality Ingredients for Quality Products
Chinriu sources their ingredients from a select group of farmers to ensure their products remain authentic to traditional production methods. This then allows them to create products that are the highest expression of their tradition as possible. And with the renowned quality of ingredients grown locally in Odawara, Chinriu doesn’t have to look far.
For centuries, Odawara has been famed for their production of ume and salted sakura blossoms. In fact, they are responsible for producing 80% of the salted sakura blossoms in Japan and grow a special variety of ume only produced in Odawara: the jūrō-ume.
Jūrō-umeare slightly larger than other varieties and have a more tender skin, making them the perfect ume for crafting Chinriu’s signature product,three-year salt pickled plums.
The Journey from Ume to Umebōshi
A jūrō-ume’s journey to becoming a Chinriu umeboshi begins in the knowledgeable hands of an experienced farmer, ensuring that eachume is handpicked from the very tops of the trees at the peak ripeness for pickling. The bright yellow jūrō-ume are washed and sorted in preparation for their next big step: a three-week-long salt brine. And at Chinriu, the artisans follow tradition, doing without any unnecessary ingredients. They use only their years of experience and salt when transferring the washedume to barrels and carefully brining them.
Three weeks later, the salted plums are ready for three days and three nights of drying in the rays of the peak summer sun. In fact, this is the last sun they’ll see before being nestled inside a traditional wooden barrel to mature for the next three years. Historically, the production ofumebōshi became popular in Odawara as soldiers going on an expedition would bringumebōshi as a food given they last for a long time, even at room temperature.
Visit with Chinriu Honten
Chinriu’s main store is just a short walk from Odawara Station. Mr. Nicolas, who is German and married to the 5th generation owner of Chinrui, shared with us the history of the company, and his knowledge ofumebōshi and Odawara.
Immediately after entering the store, you will see Chinriu’s various types of umebōshi including those pickled in different years, those with shiso, and those made with jam and ginger. Chinriu offers more than 15 types of umebōshi, depending on the time of pickling, color, and size - all of which have been made in exactly the same way for over 100 years.
At the back of the store is the Umebōshi Museum, which is lined withumebōshi that have been pickled in various years. Since the condition of theumebōshidiffers depending on how long they’ve been pickled for, some can still be eaten while others are not edible. After 5 years, most of the water and juice is gone, while those pickled for over 10 years are more often purchased for commemoration than for taste.
Can you find the umebōshi pickled in the year you were born?
One popular way to enjoy Chinriu’sumebōshiis their comparison set, which allows you to enjoy different tastes and flavors ofumebōshi that have been aged for 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years. Many people find the one yearumebōshito be rather sour, while the three years one is said to be the most delicious as the saltiness has mellowed.
The barrels used 150 years ago are taller than people and were first used for making sake before being used to makeumebōshi.In those days,ume and salt were layered on top of each other to create 600kg ofumebōshi.
This historic cash register is made of iron and was actually used in the past. It works even now, but can only accommodate up to 99 sen (just under 1 yen in value).
Chinriu also sells umeshu (plum wine) in partnership with a local sake brewery in Soga, Kanagawa. They offer a wide variety of sake-based products and brown sugar-based products as well. Even if you don't like sweet wine, you will surely find a plum wine that you like!
Like rice, which is a main food in Japan, the consumption ofumebōshi is steadily declining. Mr. Nicolas is always looking for new ways for people to enjoyumebōshi. This ume ginger dip, made with ginger,shiso (red perilla) and dried ume paste, is the perfect blend of sweet and salty, and is one of the uniqueume items Chinriu produces.
"Foreigners don't often eatumeboshi on rice, so we try to make it easier to taste. It’s refreshing with vegetable sticks and salads. I look forward to seeing how you enjoy it!" - Mr. Nicolas
Innovation with a Dedication to Tradition
Chinriu’s dedication to authentic flavors in Japanese tradition has allowed them to expand their products to include jams, jellies, sweets, seasonings, and other treats as a gateway to these flavors for customers from around the world. Some of these innovations includeumepaste, perfect for salads, meats, and pastas;shisoumebōshi vinegar, a great salad dressing and starter for home-made pickles; andsakura petal syrup, a sweet topping for ice cream and pancakes or a flavorful addition to sodas and cocktails.