The clear stream of Arakawa River flows through the center of the town that’s surrounded by mountains on all four corners. Occasionally on Saturdays and holidays, a steam locomotive runs on the Chichibu Railway that’s built parallel to the river while making a whistle. The Chichibu region, which is located in the northwestern part of Saitama Prefecture, and is known for having rich nature and idyllic sceneries while being only about 1.5 hours from the metropolitan area. The mountain streams that form from the spring water that flows through the Chichibu Mountains are well-known fishing spots. It is said that in Chichibu, which has such a beautiful river nearby and has benefited from it, people used to eat river fish daily, which is now regarded as a luxury food. In addition to ayu (Japanese sweetfish) and minnows in the Arakawa River, Chars and Cherry trouts can be caught at the upper stream, which can be simply salted and grilled, or hung above a hearth to dry it and stew it in soy sauce and sugar.
Iri river, Otaki area, ChichibuMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Taste of “Ayu” that are nurtured by the clear streams and rich nature
Today, I visited an establishment called “Kaiseki Cuisine - Inakaya,” a historic, quaint house located 7 minutes on foot from the Seibu Chichibu Station, where they serve dishes made from ayu fish that are caught in the Arakawa River. The owner, Mr. Kikuji Hashimoto, manages the operation with his wife, and specializes in Kaiseki cuisine that takes full advantage of river fish and local seasonal ingredients, which can be enjoyed on plates that the owners hand-made themselves.
Kaiseki Cuisine Inakaya: Loosen Ayu Meshi (Sweetfish Rice) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Ayu fish can be fished starting June 1 every year. The “decoy fishing” technique is popularly used to catch them, which takes advantage of their territorial behaviors, and uses decoys to capture them. When water starts warming up in spring, ayu fish starts migrating upstream from the river mouth, and grows to three times the size by eating moss in the Arakawa River that’s rich in water and nutrition. The ayu fishes caught during this time are called “young ayu,” which is the perfect season for ayu fish, as it exhibits soft skin and bones. Mr. Hashimoto made me a sashimi using live, natural ayu fish with the bones intact, which he says is a rare treat that can’t be easily had nowadays. I thoroughly enjoyed its crisp texture, and refreshing flavor.
Kaiseki Cuisine Inakaya: Segoshi (Small Fine Slices of Boned Fish) (Sashimi) of Ayu (Sweetfish) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
They mature in autumn, and swims back down the river to lay eggs. You can catch them during this time, which is known as “ochi ayu” (descending ayu). Ayu fish during this season is also referred to as “sabi ayu” (rusty ayu), as it turns darker in color, which is sometimes eaten during New Years as a stew, or wrapped in konbu kelps.
Next on the course was the popular salt-grilled ayu, along with fried young ayu karaage, and ayu-mixed rice. A nice aroma spread throughout the room, and a beautiful ayu was shining on the rice. It was accompanied by a dish called ayu kotsuzake. This dish is made by pouring almost-boiling Japanese sake on a thoroughly grilled ayu, which exhibits fragrant aroma and umami that can be enjoyed with some sake.
Kaiseki Cuisine Inakaya: Ayu Meshi (Sweetfish Rice) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Kaiseki Cuisine Inakaya: Fried Iwame (Malkless Masu Trout), Hot Sake (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
The wonders of a river fish can only be enjoyed in certain seasons, says Mr. Hashimoto. “Ayu is sometimes called ‘nengyo’ (annual fish) because it has a lifespan of only a year, as well as ‘kogyo’ (aromatic fish) due to its distinctive, grassy flavor for eating moss.”
The course also featured a “phantom mushroom” called iwatake, Japanese freshwater crabs, as well as mountain vegetables, day lilies, etc. that grow on the ridges between paddy fields, which surprised me with the seasonal delicacies that are unique to the Chichibu region that’s filled with blessings from the mountains and the rivers.
Kaiseki Cuisine Inakaya: Restaurant Owner Mr. Kikuji Hashimoto (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Culinary Experience is a Form of Asset The Story and the Wonders of River Fish that have to be told
Mr. Hashimoto, who entered the world of Japanese cuisine at the age of 16 and trained at restaurants in Ginza and Nihonbashi in Tokyo, returned to Chichibu at the age of 26 and established his own Kaiseki restaurant. It’s been about 50 years since he relocated his operation here. They only serve a single group a day, and decide on the menu on the actual day according to the customer’s preferences. The menu consists of ingredients grown in Chichibu, as well as dishes inspired by the season, etc. “In the past, intermediary merchants of Chichibu Meisen used us frequently for receptions and banquets.”
Kaiseki Cuisine Inakaya: Grilled Ayu (Sweetfish) and Edamame (Green Soybeans) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Chichibu's river fish cuisine is said to be for tourists now. Although there are places you can go to set up a streamer along the river and salt-grill some catches, there’s actually barely any opportunity for the local residents to eat river fishes on a regular day. Mr. Hashimoto believes that this may be due to the changes in the water quality from the construction of dams in recent years, as well as proliferation of great cormorants resulting in decreased number of river fishes, and the aging of decoy fishers. As logistics and distribution systems have improved, fishes from the ocean can now be obtained easily and affordably, which may have led to the reduction of people consuming river fishes.
Kaiseki Cuisine Inakaya: Freshly Cooked Ayu Meshi (Sweetfish Rice) (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
“Times have changed, and beef is now the top luxury ingredient above all, and many people are shying away from fish,” says Mr. Hashimoto, who “hopes to spread the river fish cuisine as a way to enjoy the seasons.” Japanese cuisine was originally developed in accordance with the local climate. It values “visual enjoyment” by sensing the seasonal changes, and the beauty of plates and presentation. Hence, Mr. Hashimoto started making his own plates because he wanted his customers to fully experience the wonders and enjoyment of Japanese cuisine. My desire to use the local ingredients of Chichibu and spread the culture of Japanese cuisine has strengthened more than ever before in recent years, as there’s a shortage of successors of long-established inns and restaurants that serve river fish cuisines.
OkkirikomiMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Here in Chichibu, regional cuisines born out of its abundant nature are deeply rooted here, besides the river fish cuisine. Among them, there are various types of “kojuhans” (small lunch meals) that are eaten as a light meal or snack during breaks from a mountain or agricultural work to starve off any hunger. Representative examples include “miso potato” (fried potato drenched in miso sauce), “okkirikomi udon” and “zuriage udon” that were said to be eaten while huddling along a side of well during a cold winter, “soba manju” made from buckwheat flour harvested in the fall, etc., which all exhibit a homey taste that have been loved since long ago. And recently, shaved ice using naturally-made ice and famous spring waters have been becoming popular.
Miso PotetoMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
In Chichibu, where winters are cold, ice makers among the very few that exist domestically continue to make ice using traditional techniques. It’s characterized by a soft texture like that of fresh snow, and each establishment seems to make elaborate efforts in their syrup as well.
Bishamon-Kori: Tomato (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
The Chichibu region, which can be easily accessed via day trip from Tokyo, has retained its unique culinary culture that takes advantage of its climate. The people there are exploring ways of continuing to convey the wonders and flavors of the region, despite the problems of aging society and lack of successors.
Mr. Hashimoto, the owner of “Inakaya,” says, “Just try it out first. Culinary experiences will surely be a part of your lifelong asset.”
Moto Green Café
Photos: Yusuke Abe(YARD)
Text: Renna Hata
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation