top of page
  • Shelley Dark

12. where food is art

An extraordinary art installation, Tsukubai 2006 by Kenya Hara donated to the hotel by the maker. This is between the hotel library and the dining room. I think it was originally in the National Art Museum: water travels along a raised gutter on the right to fall into the far white disk, tiny droplets running around in circles until they disappear into the square hole in the middle, from there into the pool. It has many meanings, but mainly symbolises purification.

Beniya Mukayu is one of the most special hotels I have ever stayed in. And it's not just because of the the minimalist design and decoration, the art, or the vignettes at every turn. It's deep in the roots of this place, from the original temple site to the spirit of the extraordinary family who owns it.

Mr Nakamichi's grandfather started a noodle shop in 1928 in the village of Yamashiro Onsen. That's a photo of the family above. As the years went on they rented out their spare rooms to travellers. By 1958 they had 40 rooms and the son had taken over. In 1970, when the present owner was a young man, they decided to move to the site of the old temple on the hill and in 1980 they added more rooms. In 1996 they did a complete renovation, changed the name to Beniya Mukayu and in 2008 they joined the Relais & Châteaux group. And now the great-grandchildren are training to take over.

Mukayu is a word coined by the influential Daoist Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi in the 4th century BC. It means non-existence, non-purpose, or the natural state.

He philosophised that time is filled with freedom due to its emptiness. And therein lies its promise. In emptiness lies the possibility of abundance with time flowing silently beneath us. Buddha and Aristotle thought the mind critical in the human quest for happiness. The Daoists on the other hand, argued that we think too much, that it's our rational mind that has led us away from the intuitive Dao or path to happiness.

Zhuangzi famously said 'Running around accusing others is not as good as laughing. And enjoying a good laugh is not as good as going along with things.' In other words, laughing and letting things wash over you is far far better than stirring up trouble or worrying about it.

Don't worry, I'm not going to run away to become a Buddhist monk!

Although it's hard to start the day better than with a bit of hot tub meditation.

The dining room is all charcoal: floors tables, chairs, ceiling, posts.

The breakfast menu - it's fixed. You decide the night before if you will have western or Japanese.

This is the western. Have you ever seen such beautiful presentation? I didn't have to choose which juice. All three came to the table.

Next, omelette with bacon and brie and proper coffee.

Then a tour of the garden which until then I had only seen from this angle.

Mrs Nakamichi was waiting for me in the lobby at the appointed time. If I were Japanese this would be exactly the kimono I would want to wear. Isn't she lovely. Did you know that at the back the kimono must be tied immaculately in a square, flat against the body.

Please call me Sachiko, she said, may I call you Shelley?

Sachiko loves this garden like a baby. As we walked out of the foyer down a sloping stepping stone path, she bent down and exclaimed over this little bud. She was as charming as she is beautiful.

The garden is a quiet haven, a wilderness, quite different from the orderliness of most Japanese gardens. Its floor is covered in moss, protected by humid climate and the foliage of Japanese maples, tall red pine, camellias and native flowering cherry trees. There's a boundary screen of thick stems of grey-green bamboo. Gentle breezes move the branches but the essential greenness is deceptive - there are over a hundred flowering plants.

Sachiko is a knowledgeable plantswoman and we wandered chatting as best we could considering that we don't call anything by the same name, until it was time for the cooking class. As we re-entered the foyer, Kosuke from last night's dinner was waiting to escort us to our cooking class. I said to Sachiko, Kosuke is wonderful. Yes, she smiled, that's my son. Kosuke laughed with us. He'd been found out! How proud they must be that he's such a hard worker. We later discovered that another son runs the hotel shop which has a beautifully curated collection of pottery glass, toiletries and lacquer ware. A family business.

Cooking classes are held at the hotel on request.

This is chief chef Yoshinori Kinimoto who bases his kaiseki cuisine on the best fresh local seafood from the Sea of Japan, served simply without heavy seasoning. He has a very fine sense of presentation, plus he's a jolly good sport because he understood that John and I aren't keen on raw fish and adjusted the menu accordingly.

John and I were to make 3 dishes:

*Miso Shiro: baby Asari clams in dashi broth with miso paste dressing

*Chawanmushi: steamed custard with shimeji mushroom, prawn, chicken, yurine lily root and mitsuba Japanese parsley

*Sushi/Nigiri: with mushroom, asparagus, ginger, ochra, fish, pickles, wasabi and cherry blossom. We even grated the wasabi above on a grater made from real shark skin!

The custard was steamed for 12 minutes.

These baby clams were dropped into the simmering mix of clarified stock made with Kombu kelp and bonito shavings (dried fish flakes).

When they opened, miso paste was added to make a tasty soup.

These were our fish choices for nigiri (we used the silver aji or mackerel, but there's also nodoguro or blackthroat fish in the middle and tuna on the left). We also made nigiri with myoga (Japanese ginger), okra, asparagus, menegi (young onion shoots), sakura flower and grilled shiitake mushroom.

Making sushi was the fun part. The chief poured aged vinegar over the cooked rice and mixed it in well, without squashing it.

This is a messy shot of the real shark skin grater. That's the wasabi root in the middle which we cleaned with the back of our knives. On the left is the wetter wasabi from up near the top of the root which is milder. The stronger wasabi from the base is on the right. The chief and Kosuke and the sous chefs all roared with laughter when John and I did a taste test. Hot!

We made two rolls each. This one had wasabi, toasted sesame seeds and a slice of yellow pickled radish. The other had cucumber.

John and I both had a small knife. So incredibly sharp!

We also had a BIG knife. The Japanese are famous for their knives. I couldn't believe that I was allowed to fillet and skin this fish. One slip and I would have lost a finger!

We laughed and laughed our way through the whole cooking class - the chief and his staff were loads of fun. One sous chef brought out the fire extinguisher when John started searing his mackerel.

Here's a few of the photos taken by Izumi, a darling girl and one of the waitresses.

Finally, it was done!

What a great bunch of guys!

Lunch is served!

The sub-sous-chefs reap the rewards.

The Endei Spa’s signature treatment is named Yakushiyama which means mountain of the healing Buddha, because people used to come here to the hot springs and the temple on this site, to be healed. I lay on the futon with my forehead on a folded towel and my body on a pillow, with my mouth and nose in the space between. It was surprisingly comfortable.

My therapist's name was Cowl, or that's what sit sounded like. Maybe it was Carol. She was very cute. She didn't speak much English and I don't speak Japanese, but massage knows no international boundaries!

photo courtesy Beniya Mukayu

I had two treatments one after the other: the Yakushiyama Body and the Phyto Head treatment. Cowl chose the herbs I thought to pulverise to add to the massage oil based on my answers to a questionnaire. I don't know what it means, but I'm CHO. I watched her mix lemon grass, orange peel, turmeric, frankincense, camphor, safflowers, camomile and peppermint in a bowl which I then began to think she would take away to add to rice to make hot rice balls which she pressed down firmly for part of the treatment. Who knows, maybe she just waved them over me and said an incantation. Whatever the case, it worked.

photo courtesy Beniya Mukayu

Let's pretend this is my back. There was also normal wonderful massage with oil. Lots of pressing hard down on my legs and back, sublime head massage. Long smooth massage strokes. Chop-chop on the back of my legs. Heaven. Two hours of bliss. Then my feet were washed in the hot spring water with rose petals and I went on my way.

I'm still floating.

Thank you for being with me today. I'll leave you with another of Zhuangzi's sayings: Happiness is the absence of searching for happiness.

shelley dark, writer 

bottom of page