Satoyama Italian Ajikura
Do not be misled by its name; the country restaurant Satoyama Italian Ajikura serves up Japanese food. Its innovative and contemporary Japanese cuisine showcases the high quality foodstuffs being produced by the farming community of Onan in the mountains of Shimane prefecture through a community-supported program of sustainable agriculture designed to preserve a rural way of life and the natural beauty of the environment.
Tucked up against the forest’s edge on the side of a mountain in the Chugoku highlands of western Japan, the restaurant Satoyama Italian Ajikura is an excellent example of the kind of inspired regional cuisine that can increasingly be found while traveling through Japan’s countryside. Known simply as Ajikura, the restaurant is housed in a renovated old sake kura, or sake brewery, and has a charmingly rustic yet elegant atmosphere. It is small, just eight tables, which can accommodate up to thirty guests. Chef Etsuko Nabana does all of the cooking, and she runs the restaurant with the assistance of two other staff. The cooking consists of fresh local ingredients prepared simply to create light yet flavorful dishes. Restaurants like Ajikura are always a welcome surprise while on the road. In Ajikura’s case, though, the restaurant’s sublime setting, high quality food, and role in helping to support the local farming community make it worthy of being a destination in itself and not just a pleasant and convenient place to eat.
For starters, Ajikura’s location is breathtaking. It is situated outside the town of Onan in Shimane prefecture, which is one of a string of farming communities that are linked by a series of high mountain valleys to form a fertile basket providing much of the food for the western portion of the country’s main Honshu Island, including Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori, and Yamaguchi prefectures. The valley in which Onan is located is Shangri-la-like in its setting and quality of life. The landscape is a harmonious blend of terraced fields, rolling hills, and steep forests that is almost completely enclosed by some of the highest mountain peaks in western Japan. It is a lush valley, and its misty mornings, sunny afternoons, warm summers, relatively short winters, and abundant clean water enable its many small farmers to produce an exceptionally diverse range of high quality food that is used at fine restaurants across the region as well as at Ajikura.
Japanese Cherries, Cheese, and Caviar
Onan’s farmers owe much of their vitality to the town’s efforts to promote the production of high quality foodstuffs and regional cuisine as a way to preserve the farming culture and natural beauty of the valley and make it an “attractive and happy place to live,” according to a town official. Through education and a variety of incentives, the government has worked to make farming in the area natural and organic. This means that no pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers are used. Natural and organic also means that small family farms are encouraged to maintain their traditional biodiversity because combining different types of plants, and also combining plants with animals, regenerates the land and makes the plants and animals more naturally robust. The result is the sustainable production of better tasting food, both farmed and foraged, because of the beneficial effects that a pure, healthy environment has on the wild fruits, vegetables, and game collected in the area.
The town government is also working with local farmers to produce a variety of unique and premium foods. These include the region's famous sour mountain cherries and large, purple-skinned Pione grapes, an indigenous variety of grape that commands a premium price as a delicious table grape as well as for its use in making a Japanese rosé wine. There are many other examples. A 35-year-old local entrepreneur, Masaaki Suhama, is one of the few dairy farmers in Japan that is pasture-grazing his cows and producing all-natural, non-homogenized milk, which is sold through his company Sixth Produce. The town also raises two hundred Shimane Black wagyu beef cows each year on an open-range and grass-fed basis instead of being confined to cowsheds and fed lots of grain, which is the common practice. Called Iwami wagyu, Onan's beef is as tender and richly flavored as more famous types of wagyu beef but much less fatty and also less stressful for the animals. Perhaps the most revolutionary development is a local sturgeon farm that is one of Japan’s very few sources of domestic caviar.
It's All in the Name
Ajikura is the centerpiece of Onan’s program of preserving its rural heritage and sustaining its economic development based on organic agriculture and regional cooking. Owned by the town, the restaurant was started two years ago to showcase the local foodstuffs and demonstrate the delicious and creative ways they can be used in cooking. The town brought in chef Masayuki Okuda as a coach to provide training and ideas on what to make. A leader of Japan’s Slow Food movement for nearly two decades, Chef Okuda advocates cooking with native and other seasonal, locally-produced ingredients to promote quality, a taste of place, and sustainability. His cooking style focuses on optimizing the flavors of the ingredients, and he has been a key driver in the revival and redefinition of Japan’s native, ingredient-based cuisine.
Japan's cuisine is undergoing transformation, and is amidst the type of adopt-assimilate-and-reinvent process that the country is known for, whereby it takes in outside influences and makes them its own. At the heart of the current culinary redefinition is a return to the origins of Japanese cuisine—cooking that is the taste of nature. This follows centuries of Chinese-influenced, sauce-oriented cooking during the Edo period (1603-1868), years of wholesale adoption of heavy, animal-based, foreign dishes and other culinary novelties in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho eras (1912-1926), and the rise of processed and fast foods in the 20th century. The process that is underway includes producing better quality, more natural food and relying once more on local, seasonal foodstuffs and simple seasonings. It also includes producing more foreign ingredients locally, adapting them to suit Japanese tastes and cuisine, and incorporating foreign cooking techniques and ideas into a Japanese style of cooking rather than mimicking them.
Not surprisingly, this culinary revolution is being led in the countryside, and Ajikura’s long, formal name “Satoyama Italian Ajikura” signals its participation in it. “Satoyama” is a unique Japanese expression that essentially means “to live in harmony with nature.” “Italian” by its foreignness conveys a sense of the new—different and contemporary. Many innovative country restaurants have Italian or French words in their names or describe themselves as Japanese-Italian or Japanese-French fusion cuisine. This is because Italian and French cooking have many similarities to and affinities with Japanese cuisine, especially their passion for the ingredients. “Ajikura” literally translates as “flavor brewery.”
Ajikura encompasses all of these attributes, and is very much a Japanese restaurant and culinary laboratory. All of its ingredients are domestically produced, whether native or foreign-inspired such as cheese and caviar. While most of the ingredients come from Onan, the restaurant also features the best of what Shimane prefecture has to offer, especially the exquisite seafood from the Sea of Japan, which is less than an hour's drive from Onan. The menu features vegetables, farmed and foraged, and the cooking is light, typically seasoned simply with salt and citrus. Meats tend to be served front and center on the plate Western-style, but this is because the restaurant is justly proud of Onan's delicious and thoughtfully-raised beef and pork.
Lunch at Ajikura
Ajikura offers several dining options. The default at lunchtime is a five-course lunch at the very good value of ¥3,780. This can be modified to exclude the pasta course for a new total of ¥2,700 or exclude the meat course for ¥1,944. Going in the other direction, there is the Special Course, which adds the local caviar and one more dish for a total of ¥6,480. This course is the main one served at night and requires two people and a reservation. There is also a kids' course for ¥1,296, which is a dish of the day's pasta.
The first course served at lunch is soup, and is an introduction to the taste of the season and region. Harvesting begins early in Japan, and the months of April and May are rich with the first weeks of farmed vegetables and the last weeks of wild mountain foods. This mid-spring soup is a hot blend of shiitake mushrooms from the forest and fresh snap peas (called snap-end in Japanese) and new yellow onions from the farm, seasoned with spicy sansho citrus, olive oil, and salt.
Called hassun or zensai in Japanese, and antipasto in Italian, the second course is the chef's selection of tasty seasonal tidbits. In Italy this course usually consists of preserved animal-based foods like cured meats and fermented cheeses together with pickled vegetables. In Japanese cuisine it is largely vegetables, usually presented fresh or simply prepared. The light, green-tasting medley above is clock-wise from the left: locally-made mortadella wrapped around spicy wasabina greens on a bed of urumi leaves (wild cabbage), wild cress mixed with arugula, baby broccoli in a light béchamel sauce seasoned with parmesan cheese, and a small plate of kogomi (fernbrakes), white soy beans, cucumber, and couscous dressed with black vinegar.
The pasta dish (which one can easily think of as a Japanese noodle dish) always showcases Shimane's seafood or fresh water fish. In spring, a base of Lake Shinji clams and their broth are mixed with cubes of crunchy bitter daikon radish cubes and sweet spring cabbage leaves. To add a touch of salty umami, the dish is topped with tiny white shirasu fish (whitebait).
The meat course is a choice of Onan's perfectly grilled Iwami wagyu beef (pictured here) or a confit of its equally tender Iwami pork. Both are served with sautéed new yellow onions and shiitake mushrooms, beet greens, and local Hamamori sea salt.
Dessert is an Italian Paradise cake served with mikan gelato and strawberry coulis.
Dinner at Ajikura
Evenings are less crowded at Ajikura than lunchtime. It is also a chance to sample more of the foods that Onan produces as well as the skills of Chef Nabana. If everyone in your party drinks alcohol, the staff will make sure you get back to your lodgings safely by either driving you or your car for you.
An autumn dinner included the following dishes shown in the photo gallery below, starting with the first row: kabocha pumpkin soup; a platter of chozamei seafood carpaccio topped with locally-raised caviar, rillettes of Iwami pork, a frittata stuffed with kabu turnip, and a composed salad of shungiku chrysanthemum leaves, mizuna greens, akai daikon radish slices, lettuce, and sweet red peppers; and a bowl of tomato, sweet red pepper, and cabbage stew seasoned with roasted Iwami pork shoulder. The photos in the second row include a pasta of roasted nodoguro (fatty, tender Blackthroat seaperch), fresh tomatoes, and leeks topped with slices of kabosu citrus; grilled Iwami wagyu beef served with somen uri (a kind of spaghetti squash), and roasted kabu turnip, cauliflower, carrot, spicy manganji togarashi peppers, and shiitake mushrooms; and a dessert medley of Satsuma imo sweet potato pie, jizake cheesecake (made with the lees of the local sake), and chestnut gelato.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
里山イタリアン Satoyama Italian Ajikura
3123-4 Yakima, Onan, Ochi-gun, Shimane Prefecture 696-0103
Tel: +81 (0855) 95 2093
The restaurant is open everyday except Wednesday for lunch. Hours are lunch, 11:00-15:00, and dinner, 18:00-22:00. Reservations are required for dinner and are recommended for lunch.
Ajikura offers a variety of beer, wine, and sake, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, still and sparkling, most of them made locally. The local beer is craft beer made by the Iwami Bakushu brewery in the town of Gotsu on the coast. They creatively use a range of regional citrus to make their beer refreshingly aromatic and flavorful. Belgian White uses sansho berries from Onan and lemons from Hiroshima. American Pale Ale is brewed with four types of lemons from Hiroshima and the towns of Gotsu, Hamada, and Kawamoto in Shimane. Saison beer is made with yuzu from Hamada city, and Session IPA is made with shikwasa from Tsuwano in the southern part of Shimane prefecture and also natsu-mikan from Hagi, which is just over the border in Yamaguchi prefecture. The citrus acidity and yeasty richness of these beers pair well with Japanese food.
The local sakes—Tamazakura from Onan, Kamofuku from Iwami, and Ikezuki from Hasumi—also go well with the food because they are all made traditionally and have intense flavors. A non-alocholic alternative is a Lemon Squash made with the famous green lemons from Osaki-kamijima Island in Hiroshima prefecture. While the restaurant offers a tempting selection of drinks, including natural fruit juices and teas, it has a BYO wine policy, which includes a corkage fee.
Shimane prefecture no longer has local train lines. The only train serving the area is the JR Sanin Line, which runs along the Sea of Japan side of the prefecture and links the large coastal cities. In any event, the best way to experience the prefecture is slowly and casually, by car, motorcycle, or bicycle. By car, the restaurant is easy to get to. Just follow the signs for Koboku-no-mori (香木の森) from the Mizuho exit of the Hamada Expressway that links the cities of Hiroshima and Hamada. It takes about 10 minutes from the exit. If you are traveling along the back roads of Shimane, the town of Onan, where Ajikura is located, is roughly in the middle of the prefecture, making it a convenient rest stop or destination while touring the prefecture. There is a robust network of buses serving Shimane, and Onan is one of the regular stops.
Onan is a market town, and the main things to do there are to eat and buy food. There are several farmers markets scattered around the valley and many restaurants, most of which use fresh local ingredients in their cooking. Just up the hill from Ajikura, Gelateria Café Mui is the outlet for many of the products—fresh milk, home-made soft cream, gelato, cakes, etc.—that the local dairy company Sixth Produce makes with its non-homogenized, additive-free milk. Shimane's food can also be obtained at the prefecture's "antenna shop" in Toyo, which is located across from Mitsukoshi's main department store in Nihonbashi. The shop offers a wide variety of local foodstuffs, including a full selection of Iwami Bakushu's citrus-infused craft beers and cans of Shimane's prized nodoguro fish packed in water, soy sauce, or miso, which can be used as an alternative to fresh fish when making a pasta dish like that served at Ajikura. The adjacent restaurant "Mondo" serves regional Shimane cuisine and sake. The address is: Fukushima Building 1F, 1−5−3 Nihonbashimuromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0022. It is open 10:30 to 19:00 daily, including Sunday.
Places to Stay
There is a range of inns, rental cottages, and campgrounds to stay at in Onan. One of the best is Koyukan, a hotel with a hot springs bath that is sponsored by the town government. Located beside a pond and only a 10-minute walk away from Ajikura, it has bright clean rooms (all Japanese-style tatami mat rooms), friendly service, and very reasonable prices.
One of the oldest settled regions in Japan, Shimane is full of ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, medieval castle ruins, and picturesque towns and villages. The prefecture is one of the least populated in Japan and has some of the most unspoiled natural scenery. Although once a center of Japanese civilization and culture, it became a backwater during the Edo period (1603-1868) when the Tokugawa shogunate moved the center of the country's gravity away from western Japan to the city of Edo-Tokyo on the Pacific coast. The shogunate sought to isolate Shimane in particular in order to diminish the influence of its powerful clans and to keep people away from the silver mines at Omori, whose output financed the Tokugawa regime. As a result, Shimane missed out on urbanization and industrialization, which had the ultimate benefit of preserving its rural way of life and natural beauty. Today travel in Shimane is as much about experiencing and enjoying its beautiful landscapes and country life as it is about sightseeing. There is an abundance of good food from sea and land, nighttime exhibitions of ancient Shinto kagura dancing, hiking, cycling, and swimming, and the gentle slow way of life of Shimane's towns and villages.
A particularly fine time to visit Shimane is from mid April to early June when Japan's mountains are a vibrant tapestry of green due to the many different varieties of giant bamboo, broadleaf and conifer trees, and deciduous and evergreen shrubs growing in the forests. This spring landscape was considered a fifth season in olden days—the season of green when Japan harvests a robust crop of green foods, including asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans and peas, green tea, green plums, spinach, and the green shoots of garlic, onions, and wasabi among other varieties of wild and farmed greens.
The Grand Shrine at Izumo
Shimane's most famous sight is the Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, which together with the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie prefecture and Oyamazumi Shrine on Omishima Island in Ehime prefecture form the trinity of most important Shinto shrines in the country. Located in the north of the prefecture about two hours drive from Onan, the shrine is the oldest and largest in Japan. Built in a purely Japanese architectural style called Taisha-zukuri, the main kami, or deity, enshrined here is Okuninushi no Mikoto, who according to Japanese mythology was the son of the sea god Susano'o and the country’s first celestial ruler. Shimane is considered the place of origin of most of Japan's Shinto gods, and the entire panoply of them—roughly eight million deities—are believed to descend on the shrine each year during the month of November.
Iwami Ginzan UNESCO World Heritage Site
Near Onan is the Iwami Ginzan UNESCO World Heritage Site, which consists of three areas: Omori village, the ruins of the Iwami Ginzan silver mine, and the nearby spa town and port of Yunotsu.
Omori - Located about 45 minutes away from Onan by car, Omori is one of the best preserved, most beautiful, and visitor-friendly villages in Japan, thanks in large part to Daikichi and Tomi Matsuba. Two of Japan's leading sustainability pioneers, they have led the revitalization of the 400-person village, including the renovation of a 228-year-old former samurai home which they have turned into the enchanting guest house Takyo Abeke. Omori is also the home of the Matsuba’s very successful company Gungendo, which produces a line of clothes, household items, and food products using traditional skills, resources, and values to help create richer, more meaningful, and sustainable ways of modern living. There are many interesting and historic buildings in Omori, which are marked with numbers to accompany an audio guide available in multiple languages.
Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine - Opened in 1526, the silver mine was once the largest in the world and had a significant impact on the economies of East Asia in addition to that of Japan. In the forest along the upper valley beyond Omori are the remains of mine shafts and tunnels, administrative buildings, and massive stone embankments and fortifications. Cars are not permitted in the area to protect the integrity of the site as well as the environment, and the 2.3-kilometer journey from Omori to the entrance of the mines can be done very pleasantly by foot or bicycle.
Yunotsu Onsen - Also located about 45 minutes from Onan by car, Yunotsu Onsen has a 1,300-year history as a spa town in addition to being Japan's busiest port during the 16th and 17th centuries. Today it is a small, quiet fishing village and hot springs resort that is almost hidden among the area's lush hillocks and rocky coves. It has many good, old-fashioned hot spring inns, some of which can be enjoyed for a daily-use rate as well as an overnight stay.