Soft candy balls of happiness. That’s all I can think about. As I journey up the 1,368 steps of cascading staircases to the Konpira shrine atop Mt. Zozu, I wipe my brow and stare meditatively at the panoramic expanse below, dreaming about the cone of Bride’s Ice Cream that awaits my return. It’s a creamy blend of sugar cane and sweet potato bejeweled with pastel-coloured puffballs. I’m told a walking stick would have relieved the burn. Well, pain begets piety in us all. At the sacred summit, I find a bench on which to collapse. Touring the island of Shikoku reveals a surprising array of exhilaration and flavour, and redefines steep one step at a time.
The best way to experience Old World Japan is through a Shikoku Farm Stay in Tokushima Prefecture. From remote towns in the Iya Valley with vine bridges, like Miyoshi and Oboke, to thatch-roofed houses in Ochiai Village, to impossibly steep agricultural fields up mountain slopes, there’s no room here for vertigo. We rise early and are assigned organically grown vegetables to pick, like sweet potatoes and kabocha pumpkins, eggplants and mountain vegetables, and peanuts, shiso and tealeaves. For lunch we reap our harvest and cook up a fresh tempura fry. In the afternoon we leisurely sip tea and weave baskets. River fishing here is an exercise in serenity. We balance on rocks in the rushing glistening water while reeling in abundant local amego fish. Skewered with a bamboo stick, our catch is then encrusted in salt and, along with miso-lacquered soba balls and tofu, cooked over what feels like a Japanese campfire. The island’s mountains prohibit rice cultivation, so locals harvest whole grains for soba, and prepare nurturing bowls of soup with hand-ground soba and fresh mountain vegetables. A large flat river rock is suspended above the fire. On it, our host builds a perimeter wall of miso paste. Within this circle, he places dense potatoes, tofu, konyaku, shishito peppers, onions and the fish, which slow cook together for our feast. We are replenished.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but accidents are its father. When Masaki Ishii discovered his cattle had wandered into a neighbouring olive grove, the result was a gold medal for fat quality at the 2017 Wagyu Olympics. Now Japanese foodies at the top restaurants in Japan covet this premium beef. This Sanuki Olive Wagyu from Kagawa Prefecture is the most rare brand of wagyu, and highest in oleic acid and umami. This is also home to 99 percent of Japan’s olive production. Purebred Kagawa cattle are drawn to the caramel scent emitted from the sugars of dried olives, and eat 300 of them every day.
Seated in Nishiki Restaurant at Royal Park Hotel Takamatsu, I can hardly contain my excitement. Chef Toshimi Ebisu appears with a coffee siphon, which he gently sets on the table and lights to brew the most revitalizing chicken soup, resplendent with local shrimp and earthy matsutake mushrooms. Then, in the spirit of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” a platter of olive-hamachi is presented. Local yellow tail is fed powder from ground olive leaves for 20 days, because if it’s good for the cattle, it’s good for the fish, too. This thickly cut sashimi is silky and voluptuous.
For the main event, Chef Ebisu artfully plates a checkered row of delicately sliced olive-beef and mountain yams with a blend of soy and olive-egg from olive-fed chickens. I unfold a steamed hoba leaf to uncover a mélange of olive-beef, shishito pepper and shitake mush- rooms luxuriating in miso. The texture of this beef is simply exquisite. It is uniquely elegant. It rounds my palate as though it was marinated in a pure olive oil with harmonious sensations of soft walnut and fresh artichoke. Subtle and mild, it is sublime. I would return to Shikoku if only to enjoy this dinner again.
- Okinawa: Japan’s Sun-Kissed Archipelago
- Shikoku: A Traveler’s Checklist
- For the Love of Soba in Hyogo
- Journey to Well Being in Nagano, Japan
- Memories of Matsushima