Escape: Satoyama Jujo

For my first trip to Japan, I decided to keep things simple – instead of doing the very popular route from Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka, Hakone and back, our travels focussed on Tokyo, where we stayed for most of our time. I wanted to save Kyoto and Osaka for a second visit, with more time for each. But what I didn’t want to miss was staying at a Ryokan in the countryside. But where? There’s an abundance of choices, from high-end to casual, with Fujisan-view or nestled at its feet, I didn’t know how to decide. When a trusted friend recommended Satoyama Jujo, telling me their kitchen’s focus are the many edible mountain plants surrounding the place, I was instantly smitten. And this ended up to be one of the best hotel experience ever.

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Satoyama Jujo is located in the mountains of Niigata, a region north west of Tokyo. You will need about 2 hours on the super fast shinkansen from Tokyo’s main station, which is also enough time to eat all of the glorious food you bought at the station, in the area you can only access with a valid ticket. Every station is said to have its own special ekiben, station-bento and I will never forget the french toast slices with raspberries and white chocolate we chose as our Tokyo ekiben. Once arrived at Echigo Yuzama station, a 20min taxi ride brings you into the mountains, where Satoyama Jujo awaits you.

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Grilled zucchini with sweet miso glaze and Japanese pepper

The hotel is nestled between rice fields, farms, and forests, and we were welcomed in a building with impressive, thick wooden beam construction, and served a warm yuzu drink with a sake rice cheesecake while we waited for our rooms. The delicate and subtle flavors of both gave us an idea of what was coming – two days and nights of Japanese hospitality, kitchen art and unforgettable relaxation in a so well balanced mix of traditional and modern Japanese design with occasional insertions of Scandinavian chic. We spent our days between the hot tub on our balcony (showering and soaking on your private balcony is just the best), in the two open air hot spring baths with impressive views during sunset and long after dinner, wandering the tatami mat halls (ever so soft on your feet), losing our way while hiking in the forests surrounding the hotel without ever minding it, sleeping an awful lot in the comfortable beds with French comforters, having tea and later drinks in the lobby of the main building, studying the many different woods with picturesque knothole patterns, and, of course, eating all the food.

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Vegetable sushi
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My god, the food. Definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip, also because these were the first proper lavish Japanese menus we enjoyed. Eleven courses of pure bliss, prepared from ingredients locally sourced, many of them foraged from the mountains around the hotel, most of them not to be had outside of Niigata. Like the aubergine, which grows in over twenty varieties in the region, but are exported neither in nor outside of Japan. After enjoying the many plants in surprising varieties – among them a thick slice of grilled zuchhini with topped with sweet miso paste and served with shredded fresh green Japanese pepper, and vegetable nigiri sushi with grilled glazed eggplant and mushroom that were both outstanding in taste –, the main dish arrived – Koshihikari rice grown in Niigata, some say it’s the best rice in the world. It was cooked at the table, and we had a little tasting just seconds after it was cooked, and then a generous helping when it was finished, served with pickles, and miso soup. For our first dinner, we went all out and chose the Sake pairing, which gave us six different sakes from the region, ranging from sweet to dry to taste with the different food.

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Our Japanese breakfast
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The feast went on with a traditional Japanese breakfast, with a miso soup with all kinds of vegetables cooked by the table, freshly pressed carrot juice (another speciality of the region), a small bowl of natto, egg, and mountain plants. And since we stayed two nights, we enjoyed another dinner, with completely different courses, and more of the glorious rice. The two night stay also had us enjoy a full day at Satoyama, which meant we arrived back in Tokyo for our last three nights completely, thoroughly relaxed. The many images I soaked in will remain with me for a long time: the view of the mountains beyond the clouds, the taste of the rice, the sensation of tatami under naked feet, the scent of the hot spring water, the walls overgrown with plants outside our window, the slight breeze on the balcony, the open air shower, the complimentary candied sweets in the bar, the reduced elegance of every item in the hotel, from the black slippers worn in the bath to the tiny ceramic man holding the tooth picks. The latter came home with me, since many of the objects, and some of the food can be bought in a shop directly at the hotel.

If you find yourself in Japan, looking for a beautiful place to stay in the countryside, I can very much recommend you to stay at Satoyama Jujo.

Disclaimer: Satoyama Jujo generously replied my request and granted me two nights free of charge. 

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Hiking around the hotel
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Fresh tofu
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A taste of Kohishikari rice when it’s just cooked
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Grilled soybean and onion wth pickled blossoms
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