A direct train ride from Shinjuku courses through a dense cityscape until it passes over the Tama River near Noborito. Here, the Tanzawa mountain range starts to rise in the distance. As the train makes its way southwest into Kanagawa Prefecture, fields increasingly dot the spaces between buildings, the mountains loom ever larger, and the landscape becomes laced with hiking trails, temples, and mountain huts. When I step off the train in Ebina, it’s difficult to believe that Japan’s second-largest city, Yokohama, lies just to the east.
IZUMIBASHI SAKE BREWERY
The first thing I notice on arrival at Izumibashi Sake Brewery in Ebina is the heron. The huge gray bird carefully picks its way through one of the adjacent rice fields, searching the flooded surface for a snack, seemingly oblivious to me or the hum of trains in the distance.
“Such encounters are not unusual in our rice fields,” President Yuichi Hashiba tells me with a broad smile as we tour the brewery that his family has run for 160 years. Rice for their sake comes from the fields surrounding the brewery, plus four other sites scattered throughout the Tanzawa watershed. The pure mountain water that runs through these fields has made this plain an ideal place for farming and brewing the traditional Japanese drink. “We use river water for our fields, and spring water for our sake. It has a high mineral content, which is perfect for making a dry sake such as ours,” explains Hashiba.
Izumibashi practices fully integrated production. They do everything from growing the rice to brewing and bottling the sake. Hashiba carefully combines traditional and modern practices in every part of the process. The starter for the sake is mixed by hand and dried in cedar boxes, and a machine presses and filters the 30-day fermented brew into a large metal vat before bottling.
“We till the rice straw back into the soil in the fall and use the bran from polishing as a mulch in the spring,” Hashiba says as he shows me photos of the fields throughout the growing season. In summer, fireflies appear, and in fall the sky is filled with red dragonflies, the symbol of Izumibashi.
The next stop takes me to Kuramoto Kako, the restaurant Hashiba opened a handful of years ago with Chef Shin Nemoto. Here they offer a seasonal menu of local fruits, vegetables, seafood, and meats paired with Izumibashi sake. The aim, Hashiba tells me as we sit down in the sun-filled interior, is to give visitors an intimate taste of the region.
“The sake is made here, so it only made sense to use local ingredients in our dishes,” he says. “Most restaurants get their ingredients from all over Japan, but ours only come from here.”
The menu changes every two days depending on what is available and in season. The experience—modeled on Hashiba’s experiences while visiting the wine regions of France—is quite extensive, and visitors should plan for a three-hour stay to best enjoy each of the eight courses.
Our shortened version starts with a fluted glass of Izumibashi’s sparkling sake. Its light flavor shimmers on my taste buds and matches perfectly with the fresh salad of winter greens, gently boiled lily bulbs, slices of kumquat, and strawberries atop a base of mashed potatoes and red daikon.
Next comes a selection of starters that includes sardine poached with pickled plums, burdock root pickled in sake kasu (the leftover bits from the brewing process), and a thin slice of dried persimmon stuffed with cheese and potato paired with Izumibashi’s Megumi, a dry junmai ginjo sake with a smooth finish. This balances the sweeter notes of each appetizer perfectly.
A little further down the Odakyu Line, near Tsurumaki-Onsen Station in Hadano, is Jinya. Established as a base of operations by Wada Yoshimori, a close aide of a founder of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 12th century, this classic ryokan is an oasis just moments from the station.
The banto-san greets me in perfect Jinya tradition, banging a small drum three times before leading me up a gravel path through the garden to the main building. He pauses for a moment to point out a large camphor tree on the right side. “Do you know of Hayao Miyazaki?” When I nod, he tells me that the anime legend spent much of his childhood here playing in the gardens. “This 200-year-old tree is the inspiration for his film My Neighbor Totoro.”
As evening falls and lights along the path flicker to life, it’s easy to see how Miyazaki, a relative of the owners, was influenced. Graceful bamboo rises out of the hillside while red, white, and black carp swim lazily in the darkening waters of two ponds. A gray bulbul calls from the branches of a nearby maple tree, while inside yukata-clad guests pad their way down carpeted hallways where photographs of famous Japanese chess players hang. Jinya has hosted major title matches, welcoming enthusiasts and masters alike.
“We are not Hakone, and we are not Yokohama,” said Tomoko Miyazaki, Jinya’s landlady, her lavender kimono and sparkling white toed socks the perfect complement to the warm wood of the Edo-Period wing where we sat drinking hot tea. “People come here to relax, to enjoy the food and the garden. We offer them the feeling of the mountains.”
The calcium-rich waters that fill the inn’s cedar-lined baths have long been a draw for travelers on their way to Hakone, or to the temple at nearby Mount Oyama. The food is traditional, seasonal, and extraordinary. Much of it is harvested on the grounds throughout the year—fragrant citron citrus fruit in winter, bamboo shoots in spring, plums in early summer.
“The idea,” Miyazaki says with a smile, “is to take your time, to talk, and enjoy the natural feeling of being here.”
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