I ATE a bear. Sorry. I didn't mean to. It was a weird case of what happens when: a) you're greedy; b) do not question three Michelin-starred Japanese chefs who tell you about a mind-blowing meal to be had in an obscure mountain location outside Kyoto; c) do not speak Japanese; d) mistake cute bear cartoons to mean that tea sessions can be organised with friendly neighbourhood grizzlies.
Our bizarre eating experience begins at Kyoto station, where a one-hour ride with the first unfriendly Japanese taxi-driver we've come across takes us on a slow route through bad traffic and the winding mountain roads of Shiga prefecture before we finally reach Kuzukawa valley, near the capital city of Otsu. In the middle of nowhere, he suddenly pulls up in front of a random, weather-beaten old wooden house, cleans us out of some 12,000 yen (it's usually around 7,000 yen), dismisses us with a jaunty Ja Ne (Bye) and speeds off, leaving us to our own devices.
"Hirasansou?" We hesitantly ask the lady who opens the door with a broad welcoming smile and reassuring Hai!Dozo!
We were already warned that the accomodation at Hirasansou ryokan would be basic. And it is. The rooms are spacious if spartan, and have no locks (but no one walks past anyway). There's one communal shower (scrupulously clean) and no central heating (it's May but the room is freezing and we don't know how to say "heater"). But we're bowled over by the consummate hospitality shown by the staff, who do all they can despite their near non-existent English to make us feel at home.
The simple countryside inn spans three generations, run currently by Ito Takeji - grandson of the original ryokan owner - and his wife Yukiko. Once you get your bearings right, you can see why the place is so well-patronised. It sits smack within a vast mountain range with lush vegetation and ample hiking trails - proof of that being the morning sight of local trekkers armed with backpacks and poles marching past below your window before you've even ventured downstairs for breakfast.
Pick of wild greens
Mountains. Rivers. Forests. With such rich flora and fauna in his backyard, Takeji-san literally has his pick of the best produce, so it's clear why the culinary elite head out to his neck of the woods, literally. Considering that Kyoto vegetables are the cream of the crop in Japan - even justifying its own label, kyo yasai - Hirasansou goes even further with its pick of wild greens.
Fish variety is one thing they don't have, since the region is surrounded by the large Lake Biwa, but in the spring, the waters are flush with fat ayu - sweet, succulent finger-length specimens with their trademark bitter stomach that is an acquired taste - and local carp.
You know that food is the star at Hirasansou because the best view is reserved for the dining room, which looks out into a postcard-perfect garden view - complete with koi pond - that could even rival that of three-starred Kitcho in Kyoto's Arashiyama. And - the room is heated. Do not expect a meal of haute kaiseki proportions, though. You're looking at pristine ingredients, minimally prepared to showcase the natural flavours.
We kick off with a plate of delicate tempura - airy, crisp batter surrounding wild vegetables - a chunky, meaty, asparagus-like stem as well as dainty, flower-shaped leaf clusters. Following up is an appetiser presentation of cold, cooked baby fish, shrimp and vegetables seasoned in varying degrees of soya sauce and vinegar.
A sashimi platter is composed of what's available locally - pale, curled boiled unagi, raw slices of carp with its distinctive freshwater flavour and minuscule bones and the surprise hit that is raw deer meat or shika. If you've been conned into eating horsemeat sashimi before and secretly liked it, this is similar - like very rich, marbled, meaty tuna with a silky bite. If you're a fan of ayu - it's hard to get anything better than these grilled morsels of delicate sweet flesh. The bitter innards, though, are a different matter.
When our server starts to assemble a charcoal stove at our table, a dim, distant memory suddenly clicks in our heads. A vague mention by our Tokyo chef friends about bear hotpot, a very rare delicacy that's really hard to find in Japan . . .
Takeji-san himself places the plate of immaculately sliced squares of glistening deep-red meat matched with an equal layer of pure white fat, looking like a luxurious display of top-quality jamon iberico bellota. The affable, almost bear-sized owner-chef motions to his chest to indicate the cut of meat - the best part.
From what we gather, bears are indigenous to Shiga, and taste the best just before they go into hibernation, when they've been eating to fatten themselves for the winter and which accounts for the thick layer of fat which is sweet, nutty and not oily at all.
They're not a protected species, and professional hunters are good enough to fell the bear with a single shot - to ensure the integrity of the meat. You don't get bear meat all the time at Hirasansou, especially this cut. We subsequently find out from our chef friends that they didn't get any bear hotpot the last time they were there. You have to go at the right time, and in this case, we apparently lucked out. Right.
Bear meat has to be cooked properly or it can cause trichinosis, a parasitic disease. Hence, Takeji-san personally cooks it at the table - swirling it in boiling dashi stock sweetened with soy and mirin, with a spicy kick from the sansho flowers that speckle the stock.
Big game trail
Yam, bamboo shoots and sansho leaves are also added to the stock to simmer, and the cooked meat is ladled into a bowl with the root vegetables and sansho. The flavour is hard to describe - it's surprisingly not gamey, slightly chewy from being well-cooked, and tastes like a cross between beef and duck. The fat is clean, with no oily aftertaste. It tastes infinitely better than game meat, if we can shake off our guilt and mental images of cute cuddly bears, that is.
Weird food moment aside, follow-up courses such as simmered fiddlehead fern and whitebait, milky miso soup made with carp, and exquisite fresh peas cooked in plain rice seal Hirasansou's appeal as a destination dining adventure.
It's a pricey side trip for sure - expect to pay 35,000 yen (S$430) per person which includes a night's stay, dinner and breakfast. That's not even factoring in the cab fare from Kyoto. But as an experience in itself, it's one of those things you have to do just once. If we do go back, it'll be for the nature trails and the wild vegetation. And if we meet a bear, it will be from a safe viewing distance, or hopefully in a pleasant afternoon tea session. So long as he is not an ingredient in the sandwich filling.
- Hirasansou, 94 Katsuragawa Bomura-cho, Otsu-shi, Shiga. 520-0475 Japan. Tel 077-599-2058. www.hirasansou.com