Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Onsen: Hot Springs, Fine Gastronomy and Massive Quantities of Sake

For lodging in Japan, you can’t beat staying at a traditional onsen, or hot springs resort. On the island of Sado I stayed at Hotel Azuma, an onsen with a spectacular location on the west coast overlooking the Sea of Japan. Life at Azuma is comfortable and serene, and the outstanding service and beautiful surroundings make you wish you never had to leave. I loved the impeccably appointed Japanese-style rooms, with their quiet, elegant simplicity.

The waters of Niigata are soft and invigorating, and there’s nothing like being able to take a dip in one of Azuma’s outdoor or indoor baths before sitting down to a dinner prepared by the hotel’s renowned chef. Our array of dishes was nothing short of magnificent, from a delicate yet decadent amuse-bouche of monkfish liver to a lively tempura of fukinoto, a deliciously bitter local mountain vegetable, to a miso soup prepared at the table with a cake of flying fish. I particularly enjoyed the fresh and vibrant sashimi here, presented in a dome of ice along with a gavel to crack into it with. We dined with Mrs. Rumiko Obata of the nearby Obata brewery, and her Manotsuru sakes provided the perfect foil to the sophisticated and elegant cuisine.

Today I’m at Izumiya, a resort up in the mountains of central Niigata. The change in climate is surprising: back on the beach it was sunny and mild, if not exactly warm; here the surrounding hillsides are covered in half a meter of snow. Izumiya exudes a feeling of hospitality, and even approaching it from the road at night, the warm glow of its lights appears soothing and inviting in the winter landscape. The service is impeccably first-rate and the atmosphere luxurious: if you want to pamper yourself, a weekend at Izumiya would be just the ticket.

The waters here are renowned for having a particular quality known as tsuru-tsuru, feeling slippery, almost soapy against your skin. This is actually a recent development—while Izumiya has long been famous for its hot springs and its hospitality, its waters are said to have improved even further in the aftermath of the large Niigata earthquake four years ago. Like Azuma, Izumiya is also highly regarded for its gastronomy, and dinner here was an absolute feast for the senses. Sashimi and ice made another appearance together, here an assortment including some of the best fish I have ever eaten in my life, housed dramatically in a bowl made of ice. The array of sakes presented to accompany the meal was a veritable who’s who of Niigata, including Kubota, Koshi no Kanbai, Shimeharitsuru, Kikusui and Yoshi no Gawa. I particularly liked the ultra-rare Manju Junmai Daiginjo by Kubota, with its finely silky texture and elegant notes of white pepper and spiced pear.

As I sat in the hot outdoor bath in the crisp, early morning air, enjoying the restorative waters amidst snow-covered landscapes, I felt a slight twinge of pain in the realization that no matter where I go tomorrow or what I do, my life will definitely be the poorer for not being here at Izumiya.


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