Satoyama Jujo

Hush conversations overheard through washi paper sliding doors, modest splashes of neighboring bather’s bucket water and faint simmering of freshly cooked rice as it reaches ‘niebana (flavourful al dente)’… all perfectly in tune with the rolling hills of Niigata landscape, disciplined attention to service and gentle yet confident design at Satoyama Jujo describe my two night stay at the modern luxury ryokan.

This new ryokan in Osawa onsen comes fully stocked with well behaved elderly guests in modern cool garb marvelling at inhouse artwork and occasional young families drawn to the region’s rugged landscape (and ski slopes in the winter). The property is one  of Design Hotels’ latest outpost in Japan and it deserves the mark of that design authority.

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Early morning clouds blanket the Osawa village in Minamiuonuma, Niigata

The site comprises two buildings, the main heritage structure and the new, smart and economically developed, extension.  Reception and dining space is in the century old house made entirely of timber with traditional pegs and joints. Dark timber columns, massive beams and wide parquet floors set the somber and rich dark tones in a typically Japanese tranquil atmosphere.  As you enter the the annex where 12 guest rooms and onsen are in, hinoki stairs and walls accented by brighter lighting invites and modern artworks with traditional motifs draw attention. And the owner Isawa-san’s chairs, mostly mid-century modern danish with occasional, bolder placements of Arne Jacobsens accentuates.


I spent the first night in Room 303, collaboration with the Tokyo purveyor of relaxed casual wear 1LDK and the second night in 301 with sweeping views of Hakkaisan (八海山, eight wave mountains).

All rooms are twin bedded with modern fittings like sofas, chez lounge and shower.   Each day onsen water is filled in the ensuite (actually in the balcony) traditional bath. I was here in early November when the mountain region temperature falls so opted instead for the public onsen bath on the second floor.


Probably the most intense hours in the otherwise lull of my stay was dinner.  Each evening, modern twist to traditional kaiseki (course menu) is served at Sanaburi dining room with a focus on locally grown vegetables and foraged leaves, nuts and mushrooms. ‘Sanaburi’ is the communal feast shared among the village-folk after rice planting and signifies the wealth of Mother Nature presented on the plates.

My ten-course kaiseki more than showed off the bountiful produce of Niigata inside a 2-hour, slow-burning nevertheless a culinary assault. My favourite was soba soup with wild mushrooms, deeply savoury and rich, and Buri (amberjack) shabu shabu.  Of course you cannot not dwell on rice and sake in a Niigata meal, in many ways the centerpiece rather than accompaniment. Koshihikari(コシヒカリ, particularly esteemed rice varietal) was cooked on my table complete with ‘how to cook Gochisou-gohan’ instruction guide. This being early November, I was being served new rice just harvested a few weeks back and probably polished days ago.

There were two tasting flights, one high-grade Niigata sakes and the other more local Osawa varieties. I tried both on each night with additional orders of daiginjo for the ginjo variety which was served. The Osawa variety include the renown Hakkaisan (jumaishu and daiginjo) both with incredible nose with deeper straw hues for junmaishu and crystal clarity for daiginjo.


As I leave the professional and friendly staff of Satoyama-Jujo behind (almost all of service staff speaks impeccable English, a rarity in countryside accommodations) and head to the nearest Shinkansen station, I mark my calendar for the next Niigata visit.

Short excursions –

Days are short but sun rises early in this mountain region so after an early morning bath in onsen go for a walk to the neighbouring village when the air is crisp and clear. About an hour’s lazy walk round trip.

If you get friendly with staff and they’re unoccupied enough to accompany you, ask for a short drive to the ski chairlift peak with viewing point into the Minamiuonuma valley and Hakkaisan in the backdrop.

Satoyama Jujo (www.designhotels.com/hotels/japan/minami-uonuma-city/satoyama-jujo)

Pirouette 

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Just down the street from my apartment towards Toranomon on the street level of Toranomon Hills Mori Tower is glass encased, airy and hanging Edison bulbs lit Pirouette.  Pirouette is one of those cozy, elegant neighbourhood über-canteens, if there ever was one.  Cass and I looked at each other and exclaimed ‘this is it’ as soon as we were seated at the counter for the first time.

Glass encased, airy and hanging Edison bulbs lit Pirouette

Pirouette serves paired down continental cuisine prepared with the best of, and dressed up, local pedigree. It is bare essentials of fine dining using everyday ingredients (riso, chicken breast, white fish, beef cheek) perfected with clinical Japanese preparation. Calling it a canteen doesn’t take anything away from its impeccable quality because it is the unembellished elegance in a laid back atmosphere which sets it apart. You sit back and watch the team of young cooks scurrying back and forth the compact double alleys separated by impeccably clean stoves, ovens  and slate countertop littered with top quality stainless steel pots and pans. Each evening a small team of cooks churn out a dozen or so dishes in prix fixe menu.  Extra care and meticulous touch is everywhere. Order beer and one of the cooks will pull half pint of draft beer and carefully spoon out the extra head.
Broccoli mouse on a bed of grilled broccoli is served with dusted with fennel powder. Asked how fennel dust can retain such intense jade colour, Elena , one of the chefs from Jersey (hey home town!), says dehydrator does the trick.

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Cooks scurrying back and forth the compact, double alleys of Pirouette’s open kitchen

On the first evening of our visit, Y5,000 prix fixe menu included white asparagus, uni with white asparagus mouse on top or smooth, cooling, mint-flecked, pale green ceviche as starter, turnip risotto with wasabi and cilantro pure as first course and selection of meat dishes as second course.  Since then, I’ve seen seasonal vegetable salad with burrata, roasted lobster salad with organic lemon (additional charge) starters and roasted anchovies and bone-in lamb and beef sirloin with black pepper condiment main courses (both additional charge).

Compact yet excellent wine by the glass program, across all French regions complements. Rose features strongly in this wine list and they have a three-rose flight program.  I paired a rose to my white fish main course not knowing I was going to be served Spanish mackerel, which was too strong for a light bodied Pinot rose.

Pirouette is designed around three sections, cafe, counter and bistro.  Whether you’re sitting alone or a small group without a reservation, counter seating gives the vantage point of fruit of the young cooks’ labour. As each dish arrived at the counter top in front of me, I wondered whether receiving each course would be as delightful if I were to be sitting in one of the tables in the back, which I’m certain I’ll try at some point of my future visits.

Counter seat does get somewhat smokey as the dining room starts to fill and the hot tops get busy.  And Y200 extra for butter and olive oil is an unnecessary nuisance.

Pirouette +81 (0)3 6206 6927

Toranomon Hills Mori Tower 1F, 1 Chome 23, Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Cathay Pacific Business Class

Few business classes do minimalist travel better than Cathay Pacific. Their lounges are in transition from being kitted by Forster+Partners to Ilse Crawford replacing bright, airy and efficient spaces with more warm and comfortable elegance.  Professionally economical is their service and aesthetically adult are the fittings, you are distracted little from concentrating on things that matter to long haul travel like catching enough sleep and sufficient hydration. No hi-viz amenities, uniform that looks like a set of malfunctioning traffic lights and fluorescent lighting which wakes you out of your jet lag. No phones necessary for that Instagram shot in a Cathay journey.

So if Cathay can improve… those improvements will do wonders for the aspiring airlines sponsored by emirs and city states. And here are some noteworthy considerations.

Water glasses half the size of the wine bowls need recalibrating.  Measured Cathay attendants know better than to pour overly generously like it’s in a Johannesburg pub at 30,000 ft.  By the time I could see the bottom of my Malbec on my bowl, it was three water refills later.  Big bowls do disservice to the wine selection (recently Cathay added flight specific regional wine promotion-like the Argentinian offering on my flight-to an already excellent one) as it is prohibitive to sample more than a bowl.

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Wafer thin knives and forks you need at least three attempts at picking them up, especially when there are two sets of them-as seen on Downton Abbey- is a nuisance.  Crockery this sturdy and well proportioned deserves real utensils. Knives and forks are meant to rise at its heels so that resin need not be accompanied with your meal.

Cereal must feature more prominently in the breakfast menu. After fruits and beverages and before the choice of eggs and congee you’re asked the question ‘would you like some cereal’ as if one couldn’t possibility want more food at God-knows-what-time in the day.  Even when asked being served corn flakes from paper boxes is unseemly. Cathay deserves a properly chilled muesli making its way into the lineup by portion controlling other items.

Sampling the best of Korean table at Jung Gang Won (정강원 한국 전통음식 체험관)

Perched in a quiet valley in the village of Jangpyeong in between Yongpyong and Pheonix Park (roughly 30min west of Yongpyong and 10min east of Pheonix) is 정강원 한국 전통음식 체험관 (Jung Gang Won Korean Traditional Food Experience Center).  It offers traditional home stay, cooking classes and a small tour dedicated the the art of ‘Korean fermentation’ but it’s main draw is the restaurant which offers traditional course meal.  As mentioned in my other blog posts, traditional Korean ‘course meal’ is a somewhat a misnomer as Korean tradition is to serve all dishes in one serving for maximum visual impact of plentifulness. Nevertheless Jung Gang Won (and many other modern Korean restaurants) do serve a set meal in courses.  What’s described here is their 전통한정식 (juntong hanjungshik, traditional Korean course meal) priced 35,000 per person, the hallmark of Jung Gang Won boasting various Korean cooking techniques and all the refined presentation.

Jo Jung Gang, proprietor, opened Jung Gang Won on this site in 1999 and  its origins can be traced back to Dongchon  in Seoul.  Dongchon had its reputation in its heyday as the presidential canteen frequented by the two Kims.  Mr. Jo is an advocate of fermentation, traditional and ubiquitous technique used in Korean cuisine to add depth to flavors and lengthen the lifespan of food in the days when refrigeration was poor. The cooking school and the museum arms are dedicated to this heritage and art of fermentation in various types of food preparation.

The meal kicks off with a couple of appetizer plates of cold cuts and vegetable strips in buckwheat wraps and salad-like dish consisting roots and nuts. Main course includes 떡갈비 (duk galbi, beef patty), 된장찌개 (deonjang chigae, spicy miso soup), 굴비 (gulbi, grilled) and 반찬 (banchan, side dishes).  Appetizers and banchan (side dishes) vary by season.  For those uninitiated the menu includes a small number of a la carte dishes such as bibimbap.

산채정식 (sanchae jeongshik, mountain vegetables course meal)

산채정식 (sanchae jeongshik) is the dining experience you can’t miss when in Pyeongchang area. Mountain ranges in the area boast endless variety of wild vegetables.  They are leaves, sprouts, fern, roots of all kind which are foraged, simmered, cured (mostly in soy sauce and vinegar but also in red chili paste occasionally) and then stored in low temperature until serving.  Low temperature controlled storage is the mainstay of traditional Korean cuisine which adds depth to natural flavors and allows convenient long term storage, particularly in winter when there is little to forage (!). At least a dozen variety of vegetable dishes in small portions are served with 된장찌개 (deonjang chigae, spicy miso soup) and house specialty tofu. Although 정식 (jeongshik) refers to a course meal, all courses in traditional Korean meal is served together, to be shared by the group.  Often 산채정식 is the only meal that’s is served in restaurants as their specialty and is priced simply per person.

부일식당 (Buil shikdang) is an utterly unassuming home dining experience. There isn’t much of an entrance and you walk through the storage cum alley into the dining rooms (there’s two) where there is floor seating only. Price is cheap (8,000 per person) but this home-style diner serves up flawless basics of a dozen wild vegetable dishes.

74-2 Hajinbu-ri, Jinbu-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, Kangwon, South Korea

서울식당 (Seoul shikdang), despite its out-of-place and non-descriptive name, is a rather refined affair with the main table dining area in addition to traditional floor dining option, all decked with fir tree tables ubiquitous in the area. Highlight of their sanchae set meal is 더덕 (deodeok, bellflower roots), tossed in 고추장 (gochujang, red pepper paste), sesame oil and various condiments. For those seeking an alternative from 산채, they serve 버섯전골 (beoseot jeongol, mushroom  and tofu hot pot). 18,000 per person for 산채정식 and 45,000 for 버섯전골 (serves 3-4).

109-9 Ganpyeong-ri, Jinbu-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, Kangwon, South Korea