Tranquility: Hakone’s Green Landscapes and Nature-Rich Cuisine Part II: Afternoon Food Adventures
For centuries, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture has been a destination for people to relax and enjoy its famous onsens (natural hot springs). Just over an hour away from Tokyo, it’s an easy getaway from the city and has numerous activities to enjoy including hiking, art museums, traditional craft-making and all its delicious local food.
TOTOYA: DRIED SEAFOOD
On my way to lunch, I passed by a beautiful building that had a grandiose gate. There was a line up at the restaurant where I had planned to have lunch, so I headed back to the mysterious store that resembled an art studio filled with colorful fish replicas.
Mysterious wonders of the fish replicas displayed in Totoya | MARY HIRATA MCJILTON
The shop owner rushed to the counter to greet me and excitedly began to explain the cured seafood products he sells in his store, including the dried hotaruika (firefly squid). He joyfully told me the best way to eat hotaruika is cooked over a flame and in the blink of an eye, I was holding the squid while the owner lit a fire using his hand-size blow torch. He held the flame to my tiny hotaruika and a smoky aroma filled the room. I took a bite and was astonished by how the smoky taste mellowed the fishy flavor of the squid.
The smoky aroma of Totoya’s hotaruika | MARY HIRATA MCJILTON
The owner also later explained that the interior of the shop was designed and decorated by local art students to the theme of “Gods of the Sea”.
Address: 694-5 Yumoto, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa 250-0311
NAOKICHI: YUBADON (TOFU SKIN RICE BOWL)
Naokichi is a popular lunch spot located along the Haya River falls, with a footbath out front for guests to relax their feet in while they wait for their food. The restaurant is famous for its yubadon (tofu skin rice bowl). Yuba is the thin tofu skin collected while making tofu. It’s possible to make yuba at home by skimming the thin top layers from boiled soy milk, but it can take years of practice to achieve the delicate silky layers that can be enjoyed at a restaurant. Naokichi’s yuba also includes “Hime no Mizu (Princess Water)” made from Hakone mountain springwater, which is named after the secret ingredient in a facial toner that an ancient lord had made for his beautiful daughter.
Naokichi’s yubadon served in a hot iron bowl | MARY HIRATA MCJILTON
As I watched the beautiful river, a steaming iron bowl of yuba mixed with a dashi broth and a scrambled egg was brought to me on a tray with a bowl of rice and a plate of pickles. It was time for me to create my yubadon. I slowly scooped the steaming yuba onto my don (bowl of rice) and added the pickles for a bit of crunch. The steaming yuba dish had a wonderful flavor that blended perfectly with the broth.
Address: 696 Yumoto, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa 250-0311
SHUNSAI: KAMA-AGE SHIRATAMA (BOILED RICE SWEETS)
Shunsai is an organic restaurant located next to the Koen-Kami station and has a panoramic view, allowing visitors to enjoy a casual bite before their trip on the cable car or as a stop for lunch before embarking on an afternoon at the museums and Gora Park.
I was already full from lunch, but still had room for my beloved dessert: shiratama (mochi balls made from glutinous rice boiled in hot water). Shunsai’s kama-age shiratama includes tofu, which makes it softer than traditional shiratama, and is served simmering in the boiled water it was cooked in.
Shunsai’s shiratama served in a ceramic pot | MARY HIRATA MCJILTON
My shiratama arrived in a palm sized ceramic pot along with a cup of molasses and kinako (roasted soybean flour). Under the cone shaped lid, five shiratama were swimming in a warm bath of water. I’m embarrassed to say that I hurriedly dumped the kinako into the shiratama bath, before realizing that it should have been the other way around. The proper way to enjoy shiratama is to take it out of the pot, dip it into the molasses, and then cover it with kinako! Despite my mistake, the shiratama was spectacular and much softer than I had expected given the added tofu.
Shunsai’s shiratama swimming in a warm bath | MARY HIRATA MCJILTON
Address: Koen-Kami Station, 1300-466 2F Gora, Ashigarashimo District, Hakone, Kanagawa 250-0408
SHIKA JAYA: TRADITIONAL TOFU AND YAMAIMO (JAPANESE YAM) CUISINE
Across the Yumoto Bridge stands a traditional three-story wooden building. A former ryokan (Japanese-style hot spring inn), it has since been transformed into a local restaurant that serves regional tofu and yamaimo (Japanese yam). Greeted by an okami-san (owner) in her refined kimono, I traveled back in time to a room of antique items and an irori, a traditional yet rare sunken Japanese hearth.
I ordered yamaimo tenshin and upgraded the yamaimo to jinenjo (the local king of Japanese yams). Yamaimo can be sautéed or even served raw. However, the most common way to prepare it is grated using a mortar until it becomes slimy. The longer you grate, the smoother the texture.
Shika Jaya serves each item individually as a course, which allowed me to carefully and slowly taste each item. My first plate was fresh-diced tuna topped with jinenjo. I added some soy sauce and wasabi and slowly scooped the jinenjo with my chopsticks. I was in awe of how thick it was compared to typical grated yamaimo, which can be a bit watery. I relished my first bite as the thick jinenjo dangled from the chopsticks like a blanket hanging on a closeline. The earthy taste of the jinenjo paired wonderfully with the salty soy sauce, the tingly wasabi and the fresh-diced tuna.
The second dish was soft silky tofu covered with jinenjo and served warm in a kelp-based miso soup. It had both an earthy and nutty flavor.
The final dish was a bowl of barley rice, clear soup, pickles, and miso flavored grated jinenjo. All of the dishes had a mellow flavor that settled my stomach without making me feel full.
Address: 640 Yumoto, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa 250-0311
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.