A Culinary Trip to the Countryside
Marina Villar October 10, 2015
As a foodie who wanted to organize a surprise trip for my husband`s birthday, I knew I had plenty of different choices in Japan. But I also knew, I had many requirements to fill. We had only 2 free days, we had a low budget and we wanted to escape from the busy and hectic city of Tokyo without going so far away. We wanted to reconnect us with nature and for sure we were looking for a unique experience that we would remember for a long time. Many requirements to fill and, lucky us, we did. And we exceeded all our expectations. The plans began the moment I started searching for options on the web. And somehow I ended up navigating Chef Ozeki`s cooking school website. After a few hours, those vague plans started to become more and more real. Before telling you all about this trip, I want to share some of Chef Shuji Ozeki´s beliefs: His family has a rich history in the Japanese cuisine and his soba restaurant has been opened for more than 100 years. Everything started with his grandfather. And Chef Shuji himself has been cooking for most of his entire life. But cooking is not his only passion. He also has been a practicing Buddhist and applying Zen philosophy to everyday life. It is Chef Shuji's belief that in order to create impressive dishes, any master chef must be in good health, physically, mentally and spiritually. He consistently keeps up his practice through the art of Aikido and Zen meditation and strives to remain in a constant state of mu (pure human awareness, free of dualistic thoughts). Chef Shuji has also a long experience working and living abroad. Something that not many chefs from the countryside of Japan have. So, as you can see, he seems to have it all: The expertise, the knowledge, the patience, the character, the warmth and the skills. Impressive? Yes, indeed. And something I did not mention but I think is equally important, he has the biggest welcoming smile in his face. Chef Shuji´s restaurant and cooking school are located in Seki, a tiny old town in the heart of Gifu Prefecture. This city with a population of 90.000 people has a deep history, rich heritage and plenty of nature. It is surrounded by mountains and crossed by the Nagara river. And the fields of rice all over are both beautiful and the best introduction to the food culture of the prefecture. As Chef Shuji says, good cooking starts with good water and good ingredients. In the area you will find the best of those essential ingredients like matured mirin from Kawabe-cho, authentic miso from Gujo, traditional fermented soy sauce from Gifu city. The area also has excellent sake producers and Seki is worldwide known for hosting the best producers of fine knives and swords. Having that history in mind, taking a cooking class there seemed like a religious experience. In my case, I love eating and trying new dishes but I do not consider myself good in the kitchen, on the other hand, my husband is, I would say, the expert in our home. As a surprise to him, Chef Shuji recommended two cooking workshops. First, we took four-hour Washoku training (Japanese food) that included sashimi, rice, assorted seasonal vegetables, marinated chicken and roasted fish. After finishing, we put all together into bento boxes, and we took them away to enjoy the cool breeze of the early autumn under a clear sky full of stars. Staying in a hotel was out of the equation. We wanted to take our local experience to the extreme, so we stayed at Chisako & Koji´s home. And we slept in a tatami room that was simple but very comfortable. Next morning we woke up earlier than usual and right after a delicious homemade breakfast prepared by our adorable hosts, we met Chef Shuji again and immediately we put our hands to work. We did four-hour soba training. And there is where we got in love. Chef Shuji masters the soba techniques with a special passion and inner feeling that is difficult to describe. He is patient to explain the little secrets of the process of making this ancient Japanese dish. We finished our day in Seki eating the soba noodles together with the most delicate tempura. If you are already planning a culinary escape, please note that Seki is located 70 minutes by bus from Nagoya. Nagoya is less than 1 hour and a half away from Tokyo by bullet train. Also, Chef Shuji will join his Master Soba Chef Yoshi Shibazaki to offer a soba noodle & seasonal washoku workshop in Tokyo next November 8th. If you are interested you can check his website for more information.