Yamaura, a hidden gem in the mountains of Japan

I have been coming to Japan my whole life, ever since I was a baby, my Japanese mother would bring me home with her to visit my grandparents. In 1985, when I was about to turn five, the government made a law that children of Japanese women could now claim citizenship and I got my first Japanese passport, a complicated privilege since children can only hold this dual citizenship until they turn 20 years of age. We continued visiting, every single year until both my grandparents passed away within a year of each other, 17 years ago. One summer I even flew over alone, I think I was 12, and spent the entire summer with my grandparents at their home, attached to a Buddhist temple where my grandfather was the priest, about 45 minutes outside of Tokyo. Their home was my only constant, rooted place, growing up moving back and forth between China and Australia. Visiting Japan for me now is pure nostalgia. Every sound, sight, smell and flavour makes my heart leap. The ravens calling; the electric green of lush vegetation; the smell of the Kinmokusei or the Autumn Osmanthus tree with its unassuming but powerfully scented orange flowers; the texture of chilled, sweet mochi with a warm, fluffy whipped matcha tea.

I haven’t been back to Nagano since I was a child — we visited one summer and picked blueberries, buckets of them, which my Obaachan turned into the most delicious jam I can ever remember having tasted. So I was curious to come back after so many years and spend a couple of days with my parents and my sister. My mother said she wanted a place to relax; I was on a mission to capture artisan tofu being made and if possible, in my very last days before speeding back up to Tokyo on the train (a 2 hour journey) and heading straight to the airport, to visit an onsen, the hot springs. We found all these and more at our stay in Chino.

Chino is a town in Nagano prefecture that sits at the foothills of an ancient, long inactive volcano, Mount Yatsugatake. There are in fact several beautiful mountain ranges that surround Chino, and this is mostly what it is known for — beautiful mountain trails, skiing in the winter, hiking in other seasons, lush moss forests and lakes. It’s also a rural area with fields everywhere you look, but its cold climate and high altitude (Chino sits at 800 metres above sea level but goes up as you head into the mountains past 2,000 meters — the highest peak is 2,899 metres) mean that there is a “rice line” — literally a boundary where the rice paddies stop and the mountain forests start. The rice paddies and their interlocking shared irrigation system were built by samurai centuries ago to encourage people to move to the area. The dark, volcanic soil means it is fertile land but the winters are long and frosty so farmers took on a tradition of freeze drying goods during those long cold months and this is still what the area is known for, gastronomically speaking — in particular freeze dried daikon, tofu and kanten (a seaweed used for its gelatinisation effects). There are also soba fields (sporting pink flowers when we were there), fields of hozuki (Japanese lanterns, also known as winter cherries) and plenty of vegetables — namely cabbage and daikon — and perilla seed fields (known as egoma in Japanese, the seeds are used much like sesame seeds, to be ground into a delicious, sweet paste to top rice balls or turned into a highly prized, expensive oil). Cosmos flowers are blooming everywhere while we were there, popping up on the side of the road as much as in people’s perfectly curated gardens.

We turned to Chino Tabi, the local tourism organisation, to help us organise our dream stay here and the whole experience did not disappoint. In fact, the moment we arrived I knew that 2 days was nowhere near long enough, we should have stayed at least a week, and I immediately started planning in my head another trip here — perhaps in the summer, which is humid but thanks to the elevation is not as hot as Tokyo.

Through them we found our accommodation at Yamaura Stays, a series of traditional Japanese farmhouses — they call them “retreats” and they are in every sense of the word a place to retreat to, a sanctuary — run by Chino Tabi, which have been so thoughtfully and beautifully restored with the help of Alex Kerr, a Japanologist who restored his own 300 year old Japanese home in the 70s and who founded the Chiiori Trust, a non for profit organisation that helps develop sustainable tourism projects — giving people the opportunity to experience traditional village life.

We stayed in the Kiyomizu house in pretty Sasahara village just outside of Chino. It had been brought to Sashara over the mountains 150 years ago — traditional Japanese homes don’t have nails, just an interlocking system of wooden beams. So it was taken apart and transported on horseback and built again. Our beds were futons on warmed (ah modernity, underfloor heating bliss!) tatami mats. I slept like a baby in this place, I can’t remember having had such deep sleep in so many years. Perhaps it was not having my children around, perhaps it was just that this home reminded me so much of my grandparents’ temple home that I felt cocooned and so at peace there.

Everything has been thought of in this place, from the irreplaceable antique ceramics and decorations in the house to the coffee beans from a local roaster. The table mat was made by a local rice farmer who weaves the rice straw from his last harvest into these circular mats and the bed runners are made of old kimono that are torn apart and rewoven into new fabrics by local women. Even the beautiful lacquered chopsticks are made by an artisan from nearby Kiso (known as one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, I wish I had had time to visit but see, this is going on my list for when I return) and the folder that houses the manual for all the modern gadgets in the house (even the bathtub is filled by the press of a button) is made with rescued timber from the original house restoration. I mean, the thoughtfulness of every single detail in this place is staggering.

Outside, the house is surrounded by garden and this is the first greeting when you arrive. There is a kura, a traditional store house, that is virtually untouched. These kura were decorated with plaster of paris in the 1800s and you can spot them around the villages with different designs, colours and crests — this one is a leaping rabbit. Every garden in Sasahara has a pond and they are all connected by the same water. Let me back up because this is one of the things that struck me most about this community. To paraphrase what I learned at Kiyomizu house, there is a picturesque, mirror-like pool of water called Mishaka Pond, which is part of a network of streams known as “segi”, those waterways I mentioned earlier made to irrigate the rice fields. The villagers dug kilometres of these out themselves, helping transport water from the mountain rivers to each field to better the community’s chances at growing rice. In Mishaka Pond, the cold mountain water is warmed by the sun before heading to the fields. And it passes through each home, too. The ponds in each home were used to raise koi fish, carp, for food for the harsh winters. They are all cared for because the are each filled by the same water that flows from the mountains to the village, from house to house. Everywhere you go you hear this sound of running water that connects each home and if you take a stroll, which you should, especially in the direction of the most charming cafe I have ever stumbled upon, Tosenbo (about a 15 minute walk through rice fields and cosmos flowers and under chestnut trees from Kiyomizu House), you will see some of these gushing streams and the pretty gardens and ponds of other people’s homes.

You can also walk to the local tofu shop from here. It is the place I came to Japan for, basically. I have been wanting to capture artisan made tofu for my latest cookbook, Gohan, as one of my strongest, best memories of my grandmother’s cooking is her breakfast, which always featured a block of that morning’s freshly made tofu. She didn’t make it herself, but there were a number of small tofu shops on her street — sadly, all gone now — which made it so easy to have the freshest tofu. I’ve never tasted tofu like this outside of Japan and to those who don’t know what I am talking about, I liken it to proper buffalo mozzarella in Italy. It’s just not the same when you find a vacuum-packed, hard, tough version of “mozzarella” or “tofu” abroad. It’s so delicious that all you need to dress it in is some soy sauce and perhaps some katsuobushi bonito flakes or grated ginger. Or, as I learned in Chino, with just a sprinkle of salt and some herby egoma (perilla seed) oil. Incredible.

Chino Tabi actually organise tofu making classes at the tofu shop, with the tofu maker himself, Kobayashi-san, and his smiley wife and daughter helping too. He makes all the tofu for the local schools by himself in his tiny laboratory. We first watched him make tofu with the help of his machines – a surprising process that takes only about 30 minutes. Then he showed us how to make small batches of tofu for home (which I’ll share a version of soon) and we all sat down to a delicious tofu lunch of our own handmade tofu and some of their specialties like doughnuts made with okara (the soybean pulp, leftover from the soymilk making process) and a delicious miso soup warmed on the wood stove.

I couldn’t wait to make it myself as soon as I got home to Tuscany. I may not have the special mountain spring water of Chino flowing through my kitchen as Kobayashi-san does (full of minerals, he points out) but it came out as delicious as I could hope for.

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