All my friends who’ve been to Japan recommended staying at a ryokan for at least one night while we were there: this is traditional Japanese accommodation where you are served your meals in your room, sleep on a futon, and are waited on hand and foot. I thought we’d end up missing out on this experience because of our dietary requirements, but Stephanie at Lazy Smurf’s Guide recommended Kansuiro in Hakone and this fit perfectly with our plans. It’s not an all-vegan establishment, but they understand the concept of veganism and are happy to accommodate as long as you specify when booking.
I’d been expecting Tokyo to be overwhelming, and that turned out to be a bit of an understatement: it was total sensory overload, and I’m sure the jet lag didn’t help. I mean, just look at the Robot Restaurant! When I try to explain it to people now, I just end up shaking my head and saying: “I can’t really describe it…”
So a trip to the more rural and relaxing Hakone was definitely a good idea. There were plenty of tourists there, but it was also a lovely serene place with a river racing through the town and trees towering above it.
There’s a beautifully scenic train ride up a nearby mountain that I would highly recommend: in July it’s nicknamed “the hydrangea train” because there are so many in bloom, though Dr HH lamented the fact that the nickname wasn’t “the hytraingea”.
And then the accommodation is essentially an attraction it itself: the building was beautiful, and it was quite the experience! We had a dedicated person essentially waiting on us to bring us whatever food and drink we needed and oversee our stay. On the one hand, it was nice to be doted on. On the other, it’s vaguely uncomfortable to me to have people serving me to that degree. I hate to feel like I’m inconveniencing anyone, and that was basically how I felt the whole time. Also, the person assigned to us did not speak much English, which made us feel like more of a burden. Still, she brought us great food, so I can’t complain!
On arrival, she took us into our room and made us a pot of tea and served us this welcome mochi – the equivalent of leaving a little chocolate on the bed, I suppose! (Incidentally, there were no beds at this stage – the floor was all mats and the low table so we could sit cross-legged and eat, and after dinner the staff came and set up some futons for us. The room was so lovely, with sliding paper doors, and the sound of the river right outside.)
We were told to be in our room by about 5:30pm ready for dinner to start at 6pm – this is my ideal dinner time, so I was delighted! She brought us in one or two dishes at a time, explained what they were and suggested how to eat them, then scurried out. She’d bring the next dish 5-10 minutes later. Honestly, I wish everything had come at once and we’d been left alone, because I wasn’t confident that we were eating everything in the correct way, which is always embarrassing! However, I’m not sure the table could have borne the weight if everything had come at once: we got a lot of food.
This first tray contained some strangely addictive gelatinous slabs which we think were rice-based. We dunked these in the soy sauce. The bowl in the bottom left corner contained a little mountain of shredded radish, a cucumber spire, a piece of red pepper, and some delicious mock meat. And the one at the back had some very good tofu (we ate some excellent tofu on this trip!), with root vegetables and edamame. It was fun having lots of these weird bits and pieces, Dr HH especially is a fan of this approach to eating.
Next up was this soup, which was so close to being amazing! It was essentially a rice cube topped with a juicy mushroom, with a few cucumber slices and an incredibly flavoursome broth. The only problem was that the mushroom was topped with a piece of lime rind, which really overwhelmed everything else – I wish I’d spotted that and removed it first. Still, this was one of the highlights.
This plate was also excellent, though I can’t say with any certainty what things were! On the skewers were some bright green gelatinous slabs absolutely coated in miso sauce – they were incredible! We think the tasty yellow and red vegetable was a yam, and there were some delicious green beans.
This course was a bit of a miss: a huge portion of cold noodles with a fairly bland sauce (there was a dollop of wasabi which we were advised to use to season the sauce, but I hate wasabi and Dr HH said it wasn’t that much of an improvement anyway). So there wasn’t much flavour going on, and it was such a big portion that it really filled us up when we would have prepared to save room for the more exciting elements.
This was also a fairly hearty serving, with some rice, vegetables, and pickles. Again, it wasn’t the most exciting, but there was a piece of delicious charred aubergine in there which just toed the line between pleasantly charred and acrid.
This was more like it! Everybody loves the tempura course! The batter was nice and light, though some of the veg choices (green bean) were a bit uninspired. The two big round pieces seemed to have some miso in the middle, though we couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. Either way, it was sensational!
After that, the quality dropped off a bit: the miso soup was fine but unspectacular…
…and the less said about dessert, the better. But overall it was a lot of food, and the first time we really got to see all these exciting little components of Japanese cuisine.
We were quite full after all of that, and probably didn’t need the massive breakfast we got in the morning. But we ate it all, obviously! This time, we got all the food at once and were left to eat it in peace, which made for a more relaxing experience for us. In the bottom left corner you can see a colourful plate of pickles – I probably ate more pickled things on this trip than in my entire life beforehand, and they did grow on me a bit. We were really excited to see that charred aubergine again just above the pickles, but this time it was definitely acrid and was not enjoyable at all. It was also paired with a lot of ginger, which didn’t help matters. This was quite a disappointing dish. We ate the nori sheets dunked in soy sauce and paired with rice, which made for a nice recovery after the aubergine disaster.
In the top left corner was something we described as “mushroom mush”, and I can be no more specific than that, except to say that it was really earthy but a bit samey. The dish to the right of that was delicious: some greens and tofu skin in a little bit of flavoursome broth. We both loved this, and the tofu in the top right corner which was really nicely prepared. In the bottom right is a soup with tofu cubes in it, which was an improvement on the dull miso soup of the night before. The big tray also included some rice, nori sheets, and soy sauce, which reliably filled us up.
The side salad was quite boring, though I was excited to see white asparagus. And I’m not a big fruit eater, as you may have realised, so I could have lived without that.
There were a few bland or unremarkable bits in both meals, but overall they were real feasts and we loved pecking at all the different things.
Besides the food, part of the ryokan experience is the onsen, or public baths. Dr HH and I are deeply, deeply British in our aversion to sitting naked in a bath with complete strangers, so I decided to splurge on a room with a private bath, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The hot spring water was just lovely (though very, very hot!), and it was nice to be able to dip in and out at leisure.
It was an expensive night, and the experience of being waited on was weird, but I would go back again in a second. This was one of my favourite locations of the holiday, and it came at just the right time as well.
Being waited on hand and foot: dream holiday, or mega awkward?