‘Can you pass me the Yuzu facial foam please darling, I’ve got yoga before breakfast!’
Never before have those words been uttered by me, and I doubt they ever will again. This really is a holiday of firsts! In this case it is a first, after coming full circle from a beginning.
Thirty four years ago I started my culinary career in a Michelin star hotel and restaurant called Gravetye Manor; part of an exclusive chain of independent establishments, grouped under the flag of the Relais et Chateaux organisation. I had gotten the job quite by chance. They had advertised for an apprentice manager and my school careers advisor had misunderstood and organised an interview for me, thinking the position available was for an apprentice chef. I took along my school cookery theory projects and they were so impressed they gave me a position in the kitchen anyway.
I started the day after I finished my school exams, and I can still distinctly remember Mum driving me to work on my first day, telling me to make a good impression and to not swear. I was a bundle of nerves as I was greeted by Bernard, the German sous chef, who took me down to the chefs’ changing room. As he opened the door he exclaimed in a heavy German accent ‘Fucking hell, asshole chefs! This place is always such a fucking shit hole!’ I relaxed and instantly knew that the next three years were going to be a blast! Bloody hard work, grafting all hours under the sun (and moon), but I still look back on those three years with such fond memories.
To celebrate Kate’s and my twentieth anniversary, we decided that a small splurge would be in order. I thought that a return to Relais et Chateaux would be a suitable choice, and I was sure that a Japanese establishment would be really special. We had also wanted to stay at a Ryoken, a traditional Japanese ‘inn’, complete with rice paper walls, tatami mats etc, so we thought we’d kill two birds with one stone and combine them.
Beniya Mukaya is all that and more. When we arrived we were welcomed with a hot towel and a glass of freshly squeezed apple juice each. We were then shown round the hotel and to our room, I thought we’d stepped into the lair of a James Bond villain! Kate drew comparisons to Nathan Bateman’s estate in the film Ex Machina. Nestled in the skirts of the Japanese mountains, it is a haven of peace with a zen-like atmosphere. The hotel’s architecture elegantly emphasizes contrasts between light, shade and neutral colours and is a quite magical mix of raw concrete, wood, bamboo and rice paper. In the restaurant they serve a Kaga Kaiseki multi-course dinner and choice of authentic Japanese breakfast, or European option. Well that’s what the hotel literature says, and it’s spot on, but I’ll add our impressions too.
Once we had unpacked our belongings we explored our room in more detail. I wasted no time in synchronising the room’s bluetooth speaker to my iPhone and let the gentle tones of Buckethead’s Electric Tears accompany our exploration. We made ourselves a cup of Japanese brown tea, that was the most delicious and savoury we have ever had. We checked out the bathroom and marvelled at the range of soaps, lotion, balms and moisturisers available – Kate was going to have a field day! Towels squeezed and stroked, we went onto our balcony and drank in the views of the Japanese moss garden, the Japanese maple trees swaying gently in the breeze, bathing us in the most delightful dappled greens. It was impossible to not feel calm and relaxed while looking out onto the garden, such was its tranquility.
This was all quite tiring, so we headed to our own private open-air hot spring bath, still with a wonderful view of the Japanese moss garden, and had a long, hot soak, to sooth away the deeply rooted aches and pains of modern living. After a while the 40’C heat was too much for us and we had a refreshing cool shower, with yet more views of the garden, before heading off to join the hotel owner, and tea master, to a welcome tea ceremeony.
Watching him prepare the matcha green tea, while engaing us in effortless conversation, was truly a sight to behold. Such calm precision, such ceremony, as he took hot water from a gently bubbling cauldron, whisked up the lightest green tea imaginable, then passed first Kate, then I, a cup to drink from. It was, of course, delicious – so light and refreshing, yet full of umami flavours, but never a hint of bitterness. He wore a dark brown and grey kimono, perfect in every detail, not a hair out of place, and before we knew it the ceremony was over and, excusing himself, he left us to discover the library and reading room by ourselves.
After a while we headed back to our room, to relax before dinner, and were met on the way by a hotel receptionist. ‘Would we like a down pillow, or memory foam, or a buckwheat pillow?’ Every cell in my body wanted to try the buckwheat pillow, but I hesitated, worried that I’d get a crap nights sleep. ‘You can have all three if you wish’ he said, no doubt sensing my hesitation. Great! ‘I’ll have a buckwheat pillow and down pillow please’ I answered, always good to have a plan B. I needn’t have worried, the buckwheat pillow was absolutely amazing and I had two of the best nights sleep I can remember!
Dinner, on both nights, was amazing. They were ten course extravaganzas, accompanied by matching sake the first night, and matching sake and wine the second. Kate retired from the excessive drinking after the first night, but I just couldn’t resist the second nights pairings! Our sommelier was so stoked, she said most people go for a bottle of wine only, and she hardly ever got to show her skill at matching the drinks to the food. We were more than happy to let her choose, as we know little enough about wine, and even less about sake!
The first night we had:
Clam, shrimp and lotus root mochi in broth,
Tuna and mackeral sushi,
Seasonal assortment #1,
Flounder, shrimp and sea urchin sashimi,
Char-grilled black throat,
Duck meat balls served in hot pot rice soup,
Pistachio ice cream,
Kate rounded off her dinner with a large glass of Yuzu liquor, while I had a generous glass of Japanese single malt whisky.
The second night we had:
Plum wine aperitif,
Seasonal assortment #2,
Sea salt crusted abalone,
Seasonal vegetables in broth,
Tuna, grouper and shrimp sashimi,
Tuna boiled in soy sauce,
Noto beef steak,
Salt gelato with wafer.
I went for a glass of Japanese blended whisky on the second night, just as big and just as good as the first night’s digestif!
Breakfast was just as extensive. The first morning I went for a Japanese breakfast, while Kate went for the European variety. The second breakfast, a little worse for wear, I joined her for the safer option! Both included your choice from three freshly squeezed fruit juice blends, or all three if you’re indecisive, along with a glass of fresh milk from a nearby farm. The Japanese breakfast included such highlights as fish roe, raw or grilled, dried whitebait with tiny, but mighty, Japanese green peppercorns, warmed seaweed, assorted pickled vegetables, steamed vegetables, rice, miso soup, dried flounder, Japanese omelette and Japanese stem tea . The European variery included toast, jam, eggs and bacon, vegetable salad, fresh fruit, homemade yoghurt and local honey and freshly brewed coffee
For both dinner and breakfast, both days, we had a wonderful Indian waitress who was on three months internship, as she studied hotel management in New Delhi. I was struck how, just like the Japanese, Indians have an effortless warmth and charm about them. She was so kind, gentle and soothing, gliding about the dining room, bringing us food as it was ready and taking away what we had finished. By the end of our stay we had struck up quite a freindship and relaxed in each others company. Both Kate and I felt a return to India was long overdue. There are many parallels between the two countries that make them extremely appealing to us – wonderful people, amazing food, rich in culture and extremely photogenic. Plans have been laid…….
We had intended to go into Kanazawa on our second day, to see the sights and have lunch in a Michelin restaurant, but decided to chill out around our hotel, and have lunch in the local village restaurant, recommended by the hotel receptionist, instead. I’m glad we did, we had an awesome time relaxing around the hotel, then strolling around the village, before having a ‘simple’ lunch at the local.
A totally unassuming place, with a couple of elderly ladies working in it, provided yet another culinary suprise. The hot soba noodles with herring was awesome – the herring having an intense, yet not overpowering, sweet umami flavour, the broth clean, clear and savoury, the noodles slightly firm, earthy and mellow. Delicious!
As we were finishing up, our Indian waitress and another of the waitresses at our hotel came in for lunch. We exchanged pleasantries like long term friends, then left them to enjoy their break in peace. Oh the joys of split shifts, I remember them well!
That afternoon Kate enjoyed a first of her own, her first spa session. A two hour plus treatment of total relaxation, which she said was absolute bliss. She struggled to stay awake, so soothing were her massages. Her skin was glowing and she looked totally refreshed when she emerged from her appointment, just in time to have a relaxing cup of tea back in our room, before the second nights dinner.
I could waffle on for pages and pages about how awesome our two days here were and I could add a dozen more images to try to illustrate the various wonderful aspects, but I’ll leave you with the video I watched while researching staying at Beniya Mukayu. As soon as I finished watching it the first time I knew we had to stay there. You have been given fair warning!
Thanks Beniya Mukayu and team. We had the most wonderful experience ever!