Following our fantastic time in Kanazawa (which you can read about here) we were dropped off at Beniya Mukayu, a Relais & Chateaux Ryokan founded in 1928 (and still run by the same family) which is located in the village of Yamashiro. The word Mukayu is translated to “richness in emptiness” and that is the aesthetic that pervades this modern and sophisticated treasure. As soon as we arrived, we realized we should have booked for more than just one night.
The welcome we received was quietly effusive and highly professional. If Tobira Onsen Myojinkan where we stayed earlier in our trip was similar to going through Alice in Wonderland’s Looking Glass, Beniya Mukayu was the antithesis; sleek, and polished while still maintaining Japanese tradition. Beniya Mukayu is family run, and we had the opportunity to meet the owner, an incredibly charming older woman named Sakicho Nakamichi, as well as her son who manages the restaurant. It is clear that they are involved in every detail, and it shows; the property is pristine.
Upon arrival we quickly explored our accommodations, complete with tatami mats, futons, super fluffy duvets and private hot spring fed tubs situated on our balconies.
As is tradition, we all received Yukata’s to wear throughout our stay, the pattern was so beautiful we purchased some to take home. We fortified ourselves with a quick coffee and then took a look at each of the elegant nooks spread out within the Ryokan.
There were separate baths for men and women, as well as two separate libraries, and a very cool art installation on the top floor. Featuring just 16 rooms, we rarely saw another person aside from mealtime, although I believe every room was booked. The contemporary vibe was in such contrast to my preconceived notion of what a Ryokan is meant to be (colored by our last experience) that it made it all that much more satisfying. I am glad we experienced the two destinations in the order in which we did, because I think I would have been disappointed if it was the other way around.
Judging from our first impressions, we were very much looking forward to our Kaiseki dinner which was served in a beautiful simple modern dining room, Kaiseki Horin. The staff is international and very serious about service, both technique and presentation. Everyone in the dining room we encountered spoke some English, and they were well informed as to my dietary restrictions, making substitutions to the set menu as necessary. Because it was Snow Crab season, many of the courses incorporated that special ingredient.
Our dinner was beautifully presented, gorgeously plated, and truly delectable. The dishes were simple enough that the true flavors came through, and the ingredients were as locally sourced as possible. Several of the crab dishes were prepared table-side which was fun. The dinner was paced perfectly so that although there were many courses, it didn’t drag on in any way.
We enjoyed Snow Crab in every variation, it was impossibly sweet, and we were truly unable to pick out a single favorite dish. The mushroom rice was quite outstanding as well.
We retired back to our rooms and found a small snack waiting for us in case we were still hungry following our feast. We didn’t have any room left, but we did bring it with us on the train the following day.
At dinner we were asked whether we preferred a Japanese breakfast or a Western style breakfast. I opted for Japanese while my family went with Western. Both menus began with a flight of local fresh juices and milk but then the menus diverged. I enjoyed all of it, including the teeny tiniest whole fish (complete with little black eyes). I didn’t want to offend the Chef by not giving everything a try, so those tiny fish went down the hatch.
We were so sorry that our brief stay at Beniya Mukayu had come to an end. If I was to do it again, I would most definitely have booked two nights. It was an absolutely wonderful stay, and every detail was perfect. The staff bid us farewell, and we were given a complimentary transfer to the train station to catch the train to Nagoya where our experience would be enjoyable, but far from the zen we found at Beniya Mukayu.
While not on most tourist itineraries, Nagoya is the fourth largest city in Japan, and serves as an industrial hub (home to the headquarters of Toyota and Lexus) as well as a major port. What attracted us to Nagoya? It is famous for their Unagi (eel) as well as Tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlet). We also found a VERY hip shopping area similar to Harajuku in Tokyo.
The choices for luxury hotels in Nagoya were somewhat limited, so we settled on Marriott Nagoya Associa, a very modern tower located just above the train station. It seemed to serve a lot of business travelers, but we also noticed some families as well as a gathering of beauty pageant attendees who were staying there as well. The check-in was smooth and easy, and the room very clean, if a bit utilitarian.
We dropped our bags and stayed within the hotel/mall complex for perfectly prepared Tonkatsu. Alas I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but there was a long line waiting to get in, so we knew it would be a winner. As with many restaurants in Japan that feature a specialty item, there weren’t many vegetarian options for me, so I satisfied myself with numerous bowls of shredded cabbage and dressing which was more satisfying than you would expect.
The Tonkatsu itself was deemed to be quite delicious, as was the sweet and tangy sauce that went along with it.
After lunch it was time to venture out of our Hotel complex and start to explore the city. While nowhere near a “gritty” city, it was not on the same level of impeccable cleanliness as Tokyo.
We found that each city/village/town has their own manhole covers. I have a collection of photos of all the ones we came across, but especially loved this little critter, which I had thought was a butterfly but is actually an Amenbo, or a Japanese water strider, an organism that lives only in very clean and unpolluted water (like the water in Nagoya).
After quite a wander, we happened upon the Osu Kannon Temple, Nagoya’s main Buddhist temple dating back to the 1300’s (since moved and rebuilt) as well as the surrounding Osu Shopping area. This section of the city was filled with shopping opportunities, including many vintage stores which are extremely popular with Japanese youth. Stocked with a tremendous amount of American vintage clothes (think LL Bean, Levis, Ralph Lauren, College Sweatshirts and anything Nike) there were also antique stores, and a wide variety of restaurants and spots selling specialty snacks. I was on the hunt for a vintage Japanese satin jacket dating back to the 50’s and after some searching scored just what I was looking for.
The highlight for me in Osu, aside from my jacket was finding Kurin Montblanc which is homemade chestnut “phosphorus” or very thinly extruded paste that enrobes vanilla soft serve. There are several variations of this, I went with the purple. Since I only had a small dish of shredded cabbage for lunch, this Montblanc was an incredibly sweet and delicious belated lunch. I happen to love chestnuts, and it seems as though I am not alone, there are a lot of chestnut desserts in Japan, but the chestnuts sourced for Kurin’s desserts are from Kumamoto and Shimanto which in combination allegedly creates the perfect flavor profile.
This is exactly what I adored about Japan- the emphasis on every single ingredient and technique that goes into a final product is just remarkable.
As previously mentioned, Nagoya is renowned for its eel, and after some due diligence we decided to sample it at Shirakawa which specializes in Hitsumabushi, barbecued eel served atop rice with a variety of mix-ins to create your own delectable dish. Truth be told, I have never been a real fan of eel, not because of its taste, but because to me they are too similar to snakes though I bravely agreed to give it a try at Shirakawa, which happens to be famous for a reason; it was delicious.
The eels that are served are carefully selected, and of the highest quality and have a mild taste and moderate fat ratio. The sauce was excellent, and once mixed with the rice, it was really delicious. This experience may have ruined me for eel served any other way, and I was glad to have had the full culinary experience in Nagoya.
We walked back to the Marriott with our bellies full, and turned in for the night.
The next morning we had a fairly early train back to Tokyo, and found that many of the restaurants we hoped to try for breakfast would not open in time, so we settled on Komeda Coffee in the lower level of the train station. Sort of similar to a Perkins or Waffle House in the States (but with velvet seats) Komeda was packed with students and families enjoying their breakfast specialties. I limited myself to a hard boiled egg and some excellent hot chocolate while my guys enjoyed the pancakes topped with ice cream (and syrup) as well as an egg salad sandwich to share. Quick, easy, and satisfying.
We picked up our bags upstairs at the Marriott and we were off, back to Tokyo for one final day before we flew home (you can read about our Tokyo adventures here), while my youngest was headed to Kyoto for his semester abroad. Although we didn’t get to Kyoto this trip, we will be returning to Japan for a week in Osaka/Kyoto in April, so please stay tuned.
If you have read all of these blog posts, I am sure it is clear how much I adored Japan. There was nothing about our trip that wasn’t an eye opening revelation, everything seemed new and completely different from what we are currently used to in the US. Not that I don’t love being an American, but after spending time in a society that puts such an emphasis on quality, respect, customer service, as well as an appreciation for nature and beauty it is striking and saddening to see how many aspects of our culture have deteriorated in comparison. Most disturbing was flying back into Los Angeles, which is a city I love, and being met with homelessness, addiction and mental illness literally on every corner.
Traveling opens our eyes to different cultures and traditions and sometimes makes us see our every day world in a different light. Japan, while not perfect, is an incredible place to visit, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. It is truly one of the most unique places I have ever been. While we were lucky to have my son who speaks Japanese with us, if you plan to visit some of the less touristy areas you may want to have a guide to help you navigate.
One note about planning this trip, I have spoken often about my incredible Virtuoso travel agent of 20 plus years. For this trip I relied on him only for booking our Tokyo hotel, the Shangri-La. Because we were venturing off to destinations that he was not completely familiar with, and didn’t have someone he felt comfortable referring me to, I decided to put my American Express Centurion membership to the test. The Centurion Card (Black Card) advertises their travel services as being above and beyond, so I figured they should be able to help me here. Unfortunately they had no real contacts for the itinerary I had put together, so they called in a service they often partner with called Essentialist. Normally one has to purchase a membership with Essentialist to avail themselves of their expertise, but I was able to use their services for free as a perk of the Centurion Card.
This is where things take a turn for the worse. Although I specified each and every town, site, and hotel I wanted to visit it took 6 weeks and innumerable texts and calls to finalize the itinerary; actually the final itinerary wasn’t delivered until we arrived in Tokyo. Long story short, I am not going to complain because the trip was outstanding, but dealing with Essentialist was the most stressful travel experience I have ever had. They are the least transparent, most difficult, and confusing “professionals” you can imagine. Each conversation with them was like being in the Twilight Zone. I have voiced my complaints very clearly with American Express, and they could not have been nicer and more apologetic, even acknowledging they have heard the same from other cardmembers. So just a word of advice, save yourself the trouble (and money) and steer clear of Essentialist.
I have followed every word of your Japan posts and enjoyed reading them immensely. Your travel blog is my favorite. I look forward to reading about your Kyoto trip.
Thank you so very much!! Heading to Paris on Wednesday, I am sure I will have lots to report, and then Kyoto in April! Japan is truly incredible.
The Montblanc soft serve looks insanely delicious!