By Bonson Lam
Color is the essence of life. The soft blue Kyushu skies, the soothing green meadows, the sunlight reflecting softly on a spring afternoon. All these colors are captured and reflected in the Kaiseki course, in the trickle of the stream that reflects the sunlight and carries the snow pink petals of the cherry blossoms, a meal at Sarasa is a journey for your palette, your eyes and your mind. You feel both alive and relaxed in this ryotei, a ryokan like retreat untouched by time. The Taisho period public telephone that speaks beauty and chic from the swinging twenties, the earthy copper brown ceramic tableware that captures the rugged beauty of the Aso Mountains, every part of the meal is a delight and a joy to behold. Long before color therapy was studied in the classroom, the creators of our Kaiseki course have captured the beauty of nature and distilled it for our appreciation.
At Sasara each guest, is provided with the luxury of a private tatami room with simple but exquisite decorations, giving a feel of a country ryokan. No matter where you sit, you have a view of the mature Japanese garden outside, with the gentle streams and manicured trees easing your mind as you prepare yourself for your meal.
The kimono clad waitresses are gracious and you feel transported to a more elegant time. All these careful considerations ensure that you are relaxed and ready to enjoy the meal when it arrives, and their efficiency ensures the timing is right for every course, though it is easy to lose track of time as you relax and admire your surroundings.
One of the highlights of this restaurant is the authentic Kyoto style Kaiseki cuisine. Their menus change each month to showcase seasonal flavors and healthy produce. The chef would carefully select each ingredient and dish, ensuring each dish and course complement each other. When you are experiencing a Kaiseki meal, you are communing with nature.
Seasonal produce may include cherry blossoms in spring and handpicked wild mountain plants in fall, as well as different kinds of tofu, some with medicinal qualities, and whose taste is creamier and much more flavorsome than those you may have been accustomed to at home. Each course strikes a perfect balance between color, taste and texture, from the sublime silky smooth tofu, the grilled fish with its smokey crispy skin, and as well as pickled vegetables from its surrounding gardens and mountains.
Even the shape, color and texture of every piece of tableware, from the matcha green and broad bean shaped chopstick holders, to the indigo blue plates in different sizes, is designed and matched to enhance your sensory experience. It is like the chef has used everything in his disposal to create a colorful landscape of a miniature garden of pinks, greens and yellows.
Whilst the menu is in Japanese, there are only two choices of Kaiseki menu, so it is easy to order. You can just point to the selection with the price tag that you want to order, for which we were fully satisfied with the cheaper option at 3,675 yen. I can barely imagine how sublime the more expensive option (4,725 yen) would be. The only choice really was whether to select fish or beef for the main course, as well as the choice of dessert. There are also set menus from 2,080 yen.
The first course consists of a Cassis aperitif, tofu appetizer, squid lightly grilled in egg yolk, mountain vegetables and a lightly battered asparagus that looked like a sculptured branch, and a fried sesame dumpling.
The second course consisted of lightly grilled fish, a savory but smooth egg custard, cheese gratin, peanut tofu. It is like they had incorporated some French elements in the gratin, but the Agedashi tofu is all traditional.
For the main course I selected Kobe beef which you cook to order on the hot stone plate and by having it medium rather than medium rare, the marbling taste is perfectly absorbed in the beef. But to enjoy Kaiseki in a more healthy tradition, the fish actually complements the other dishes a bit better. For those who are not accustomed in having fish, the fillets are easy to eat, with very few bones and not fishy smell to think of. For those with a peanut allergy, it is best to let them know in English in writing, for while the peanut tofu is fantastic, we would like your meal to have a happy ending. I am sure they would be able to provide an alternative dish. Otherwise, print this article and point to this message in Japanese: “私は、ピーナッツアレルギーを持っている”.
All these healthy ingredients ensure that even after a three or four course meal, you are not weighted down by the meal, as most items are like appetizers, and it may be said that the French and Japanese had perfected the art of degustation courses long before it became popularized around the world.
One of the delights of traveling is the surprising discoveries I make in the most unexpected places. Having just left the international temple of sophistication that Kyoto is in the height of the cherry blossom season, and making my way south to Kyushu, an island untouched by most foreign travelers, I was bowled over to taste what could be the best caramel pudding in the whole world, in a traditional Japanese inn in the middle of the Aso mountains in Kumamoto. The fragrance and smoothness of the brown sugar comes across beautifully in this rich yet light mousse like pudding, which was a lot better than the other dessert our party selected. Of course tofu cheesecake is available, but somehow it doesn’t translate as well as a dessert.
Please note that for many rural establishments like this, they only take cash, and the foreign card ATM is a long way away at the post office or seven eleven. And no, they don't take bags of rice or barrels of sake as payment, though in this part of the woods you often see farmers exchanging gifts of produce with their neighbours.
Nestled in the foot of the Tawara Mountains, Nishihara Village is a pleasant place for a stroll before or after your meal. With a number of golf courses and a cherry blossom lined lake nearby, this is a wonderful place in every season. If you can’t get here for the cherry blossoms, come here in late September when the hills are filled with lush green pastures and the humidity of August has dropped off.
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I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric lane ways of Kyoto last century. From the skies above Sapporo to the old charm of Naha's alleyways, I have been enchanted by the beauty and variety on every island. I am humbled to have met many distinguished people in my role as Regional Partner, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperial Family. From sushi cooking classes to Ninja training grounds I welcome your ideas on what you like from JapanTravel.com. Please visit us in Kyoto or Osaka and have some green tea or sake with us.