Five Questions: Shuji Tanaka of Izumi En

Japanese Chef and Inn Owner

Shuji Tanaka of Izumi En

Mr. Tanaka (he likes to be called Shu chan), is the sixth generation farmer/community gardener/inn owner/chef at Izumi En.

His house and the inn sits on top of the hills in beautiful mountainous town of Kobuchizawa in Yamanashi prefecture. One can walk through a picturesque Japanese garden in the back of one hundred year old house and find a community garden. Busy professionals from Tokyo rent plots of land in the garden as way to get out into nature and relax. His farm-to-table breakfast is to die for!

Pouring local white wine from the Shikishima Winery. Shikishima Winery is known for making wine with tartaric acid-free filtration.

What inspired you to start a business?

When I was younger, I wanted to work in finance, especially trading stock. However, my family was scammed (financially but he did not explain further), I agreed to help them maintain the family business. About 18 years ago, my parents sold their business and invested in this house (owned by my uncle who died suddenly), we made many upgrades so it could operate as inn and serve customers.
Typically, the house and the farm is run by the eldest male member of the family. In my case, my uncle who was the oldest, but he died suddenly. My mother inherited the family business and I decided to help out. My sister, parents and myself operate the business together.

What is important to you when running your own business?

To enjoy work and life.

Japanese Breakfast at Inn

What is the hardest thing doing what you do. Happiest moment?

My philosophy is that if one thinks something is hard, then it becomes hard and difficult. Therefore I keep positive attitude towards work. I consider my work “stress-free”.

What part of Japan or Japanese culture would you most like to share with a travelers or guests from another country.
I want people from the other country to understand that Japanese way of thinking is based on the old culture of “hyori ittai or ura omote” in another words two-faced. Many of our culture and values are build on our history and the way we think. Things in Japan are often not able to explain in terms of “black or white”. Some cultural norm here has deep roots and history and might not be accepted by foreigners, but I want people to understand this is who we are.

Japanese White Wine From Yamanashi

What is your favorite food?
I lover raw liver, especially beef liver. It is ashamed that the government/health department banned raw consumption of liver after recent e-coli outbreak.

This interviewed took place after me, fellow travelers and Mr. Tanaka over some wine from Yamanashi (did you know Japan has great wine!). Mr. Tanaka has a great sense of humor is also extremely knowledgeable about history, politics and pretty much everything else he cares about. He loves to ski, go on horse back riding and speaks some English. Thank you Mr. Tanaka for opening up to us and sharing a good time with us.

Soba Noodles

Soba Crop in Nagano
Soba Field in Nagano


Soba, The Beloved Buckwheat Noodles of Japan

The Nagano region of Japan is famous for its soba noodles. The area’s soil has all the necessary nutrients to produce high quality soba noodles or Shinshu Soba. During our culinary tour of Japan, we make a stop at a quaint, soba dojo (school) in the high elevations of Yamanashi. Here we learn the art and craft of handmade soba noodles. While that might sound intimidating, the class is one of the most loved activities of the tour. If you go, you’ll discover, it’s not has hard as it seems.

Soba School in Yamanashi
Soba Dojo

A Little Soba History
Like boulbase and bbq and other great foods, soba noodles were born in the kitchens of the working class. Under the feudal systems in Japan, farmers grew both rice and soba crops. Much of the  rice crop was used to pay taxes, and the soba crop kept for themselves. Like its counterpart Udon, ground buckwheat was simply mixed with water and made into dough then cooked in hot pots, grilled or simply eaten as a porridge. During the Edo period, 1603 and 1868, of Japan, knives became widely available, and people began making noodles from the dough.

Making Soba Noodles
The basic recipe for soba noodles is simply buckwheat flour and water, but that can be difficult to work with.  Often the buckwheat flour is mixed with other ingredients to change the flavor, texture and to make the noodles less brittle.  At the Soba Dojo, you’ll see your instructor add in a little white flour to make the noodles a little easier to work with. Often mountain potato is added to enhance the flavor and texture of the noodle. This was the style we used at our restaurant for many years.  Overall, aroma, texture and taste is what makes a good soba noodle.

Join TanpopoStudio’s Culinary Tour of Japan and Learn to Make Soba!

Getting to Know Japanese Sake

Sake Barrels at the Meji Shrine

Sake Introduction

One of the best things about visiting Japan is a chance to try many different kinds of sake with your friends. You’ll find the sake to be very fresh, vibrant and the perfect companion to whatever you maybe eating. In Japan, sake is referred to as ninhonshu as the word sake is a general term for alcohol. So if you’d like to order sake with your meal, it’s easier to just ask for nihonshu.

Understanding sake can bit a bit confusing at first glance, but with a little knowledge you’ll find yourself understanding the different grades and gaining richer appreciation of the suitableness and complexity sake.

Sake is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. The term brewed is notable since it is beverage, similar to beer, that is made from a fermentable grain, rice in this case, water and yeast. The modern sake that you enjoy at your favorite restaurants has been in production for about 1000 years.

Most available sakes will have an ABV ( alcohol-by-volume ) ranging from 12 to 18%. However, the vast majority are around 15-16%, making sake very similar to a heavier red wine in alcohol content. Unlike wine, the fermentation process allows sake to reach a higher natural ABV of around 20 percent. At this level, the alcohol can be overpowering, making it difficult to notice the complex the flavors and aroma, so it is normally diluted with water to a level of 15-16 percent.

Sake is a wonderful beverage to enjoy with all kinds of food, but it pairs especially well with Japanese food. While the types and grades can be a source of confusion at first, no knowledge is necessary to enjoy sake and explore its flavors.

Sake Brewery

Sake Ingredients: Water, Rice, Koji & Yeast

All alcoholic drinks that we humans enjoy have very simple origins. Yeast is added to some type sweet liquid and the process of fermentation will convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The production of sake is similar to beer in that the starches present in the grains are converted to sugars. However, the process of making sake is much longer and involves many more steps than beer.


Because of the simplicity and purity of sake, water is very important.  A pure supply of water with the right amounts of minerals will yield the highest quality sake. Nowadays, brewers have a better understanding of how minerals in the water affect the flavor of sake. Generally speaking, mineral rich waters will produce sake that is full bodied and strongly flavored, while ‘softer’ waters will produce sake that is clean and bright, but with a subtle finish.


Just like the grapes for wine, the type of rice used in sake making will leave its mark. The rice used in sake making has is not the rice you eat, but a special kind of rice that is larger and contains more starches.  It also needs to easily absorb water. Different types of rice do change the flavor of sake but it is not as pronounced as it is in the wine world. Consequently, sake is not categorized or labeled base upon the underlying rice variety.


The yeast used will have a big influence aroma and taste. Up until modern times, sake brewers relied of the natural yeast present in the air for brewing. The Brewing Society of Japan distributes and maintains the collection of yeasts for sake. There are more than 18 different strains of yeast used in sake production, and new yeasts strains are always being developed.


Koji or aspergillus oryzae is the mysterious ingredient used in sake making. It’s presence in the brewing process has a outsized influence on the final flavor and aroma of the sake. A portion of rice is inoculated with spores of aspergillus oryzae in a heated room over a period of time. The result is a sweet, aromatic rice kernel that will be added at various stages of the brewing process.

Sake Grade Info Graphic

Sake Classification & Rice Milling

The above graphic describes how sake grades are classified by how much of the outer portion of the rice kernal has been removed. The outer portion of the rice contains fats and proteins that will cause undesirable flavors in the final product. So the outer layer of the rice is milled away before brewing. Generally, speaking the more rice that is milled away will result in a more expensive, more complex sake. However, each category of sake has its own unique style and varying levels of quality within those styles.

Junmai vs Non Junmai
Junmai sakes is pure rice, water, yeast and koji and Non-Jumai sake has an addition of brewer’s alcohol, usually during pressing. This addition is sometimes used to extract volatile flavor compounds from the rice and improve the taste.  However, the addition of alcohol is also used to cheapen the cost of mass produced sake.

Understanding the Labels

Tokubetsu means special and it is added to the label of to indicate the extra effort and cost require to brew the sake. An example of tokubetsu might be milling the rice to ginjo levels but keeping within the style of a junmai. Even though the sake could legally be graded as a ginjo, the brewer will label the sake a Tokubetsu Junmai.

Kimoto or Yamahai
Yamahai and Kimoto are older traditional methods for raising the ph level  in the starter batch by the cultivation of lactic acid. The result is a more refined fermentation process. The two methods are similar but the Kimoto method requires more tedious mixing with poles. These processes will take longer to make the sake but result in a richer flavor with more umami.

Nigori sake is unfiltered sake that contains some of the rice present from the brewing process and is creamy and cloudy. Nigori’s are fuller bodied, sweeter and make a fine starter or dessert sake.

We usually don’t see high end nigrori’s, because the presence of the rice tends to over power the subtler flavor profiles found in premium sake.

Nama Sake

Aromas, Tasting Notes & Food Pairings

Fruity, Aromatic Sake
Cured meats, melon
salty, side dishes
Higher Acidity
Best with oily fish
Fresh and Light
Earthy, Rich, Full Bodied
Pork, Stews

Visiting Matsumoto Day 2

Street in Matsumoto, Japan

On my second day in Matsumoto, I woke up early due to jet lag, or perhaps I was too excited about the hotel’s award winning breakfast. Japanese people take breakfast seriously and so do I. A well-dressed Japanese salaryman beat me to the breakfast line this morning but I was only the second person there. This hotel serves mainly western style breakfast along with a few Japanese dishes.  Starting out with a good cup of strong black coffee, I loaded my plate with fresh mizuna salad, local apples, sauteed broccoli with bacon, an omelet, sweet raisin bread and vegetable soup. As I finished my breakfast, a Japanese phrase came to me, “haraga hetteha ikusawa dekinu-One shall  not go into battle on an empty stomach”, and that was exactly how I justified my big breakfast.

My to-do list for was long for the day. Feeling stuffed, I walked along the river viewing sakura blossoms before my visit to Matsumoto castle – one of  Japan’s most scenic castles. It was built in 1504 and is a considered national treasure. Matsumoto castle is a spacious six story black and white castle with an inner and outer moat and  a beautiful view of the Japanese Alps. It attracts many tourist form within Japan and well as across the world.

On the other side of river outside of the castle, I found Marumo, an “arts and crafts” cafe my artist brother in London recommended. Marumo Ryokan and Cafe was built in 1956 by Sanshiro Ikeda, a founder of Matsumoto Mingei Furniture who was highly inspired by Yanagi Muneyoshi, a philosopher and a founder of the Japanese Folk Art movement.  The cafe was filled with local antiques and folk art inspired furnitures and I felt as if I fell back in time.

Traditional Wooden Japanese Shoes

Later, I walked along Nakamise Dori an old merchant and warehouse street filled with local craft shops.  One should not miss Chikiriya, a well known Mingei shop started by Taro Maruyama of the Matsumoto Folk Art Museum.  Beautifully arranged on the store shelves are local ceramics, colorful glassware and toys made with wood and bamboo.  It’s a perfect place to get gifts for friends and family back home.

I enjoyed strolling around this small castle town as it’s filled with nostalgic folk art, culture, crafts, music, hotspring and more.  No wonder why people have been coming here for an artistic inspiration and relaxation, just what we need for our next “Art and Culture Tour of Japan”.  By the mid afternoon, I enjoyed meeting and finalizing plans with our partners in Matsumoto, and they are all very excited to be a part of this upcoming tour.

TanpopoStudio July Update

farmhouse group photo

Happy July,
I have been back in the US for about two weeks now after finishing another round of our Culinary Tour of Japan. Weather was perfect with lush of greens and signs of summer everywhere. Food was delicious as always and we enjoyed freshly fried tempura, seasonal seafood, lots of Japanese sweets and local sake and wines. We also took time to explore a depachika or the basement of a department store as this is a much different experience in Japan. These areas are packed with food vendors of all kinds selling delicious things such as desserts, fresh vegetables, pickles, seafood, tea, ice cream and lots more.

My brother Kai joined us in Nagano and Yamanashi and gave us an insider scoop on life in rural Japan as he lives in Yamanashi prefecture. It’s a scenic area with wineries, ski areas, wasabi farms, mountains, and a thriving arts and crafts community. On the last trip, I was too tired to check out public hot spring in Suwa, but this time after dinner I walked to the nearby hot spring to “wash off my tiredness” (this is a Japanese phrase, tsukare wo arai nagasu). The town of ShimoSuwa (Suwa consists of ShimoSuwa and KamiSuwa) itself has over 10 public hot springs and 5 foot springs (not counting private hot springs ), and heavily used by locals.

On my visit, I purchased a ticket, which was about two dollars for an adult, I took my shoes off and put them in a cubby. Then I handed a ticket to a clerk and entered women’s changing room. At 7 o’clock in the evening this place was packed (at least on women’s side) with families with kids, high school girls, grandmas and others, like me. We have a post about hot spring etiquette on our website, to help you prepare for a visit.

In June, I had a wonderful opportunity to spend one-on-one time with people who share same passion as TanpopoStudio has, to help preserve Japanese local food and culture by providing hands on experience to people from Japan and other countries alike. In the August Newsletter, I will introduce some of the creative and talented people we are working with in Japan who have helped make TanpopoStudio happen, so stay tuned.

Here is what’s happening at TanpopoStudio.

Japan Art + Culture Tour, April 2019

We’ve just opened this for registration. This is a 7 day tour from Tokyo to Matsumoto with an additional extension to Kyoto. Matsumoto, a hotbed of arts, is also the birthplace of several well known Japanese artists including Yayoi Kusama. It’s also home to one of Japan’s finest feudal era castles.. Read more about Matsumoto and this tour on our blog.

Classes and Workshops

Don’t forget to join us for delicious and informative Japanese food and sake pairing at Cooks of Crocus Hill. We will be sampling sake from Shizuoka and Hyogo prefecture. Kanpai!

Sake it To Me!
July 21st at 6 pm at Cooks of Crocus Hill, Saint Paul

Happy Travels,
Koshiki and Benjamin Smith




Udon in Japan

Japanese Noodles

If you ever travel to Japan, at some point you’ll most likely find yourself eating some type of noodle dish. There are noodle shops on almost every street corner selling everything from cheap bowls of udon to fine dining restaurants specializing in artisan, handmade noodles.  Ramen, a chewy, alkaline pasta served in a rich, creamy pork stock is now popular across the world.

Late in the evening at izakayas  across the town, the word “Shime” is the term used to describe the act of eating a bowl of noodles after a long session of drinking and socializing.

This is the first of several guides on Japanese noodles you’ll find in Japan, and this one is all about the udon.

Tanpopo Noodle Shop

Udon Noodles-Thick and Chewy Wheat Noodles

Udon is a popular, hearty noodle made from refined wheat flour. It is believed that the ancestor of Udon was a dough made with flour, water and salt and was brought to Japan from China around 1200. Around the time of the Edo period (1603 -1868), people started to serving strips of udon noodles in a soup stock.

Noodle Pride.
The people in Kagawa prefecture take great pride in being number one in the country for consuming and producing Udon noodles.

The recipe of Udon has not changed much since it first arrived to Japan from China. Today, udon is still made from wheat, salt (2-6%) and water. The ingredients are combined and undergo a kneading and maturation process to bring out the most flavor and texture. The texture and the chewiness of udon is called Koshi, the more Koshi the better the Udon. After this process the dough is rolled out, folded and cut into noodles with the desired thickness. The most common way of eating Udon is to serve it in a traditional dashi soup stock with toppings such as tempura, seasoned tofu, poultry, mushrooms and other vegetables. In the summer, it is common to eat chilled udon along with a savory dipping sauce.

There are many types of udon noodles such as somen, sanuki udon, inaniwa udon, kishimen and hiyamugi. These are all wheat noodles in the family of udon but differ in thickness and length.

Nabeyaki Udon

Making Nabeyaki Udon

Below is a dish called Nabeyaki Udon and the recipe adapted from former the Tanpopo Noodle Shop. This dish is served in traditional Japanese earthenware and cooked directly on stove top. Perfect to serve on a chilly winter night (in Minnesota). We’ll start by making a few essential stocks and seasonings that are widely used in Japanese cooking.

Dashi Recipe (出汁)

Dashi forms a foundation for Japanese soup broth, miso soup, ramen soup and sauces. It is very simple and this recipe consists of only three ingredients: water, kelp and smoky, shaved bonito flakes. Because of its simplicity, the quality of ingredients used and the method to make dashi is crucial. In addition, unlike our western counterpart chicken stock, dashi has shorter shelf life and does not freeze well as its aroma diminishes rapidly over time.


  • 1 gallon water
  • 10-inch piece dried kelp
  • 40-50 grams dried bonito flakes


  1. In a stockpot soak kelp in cold water for 2-3 hours.
  2. Slowly bring the water to a gentle simmer and turn off heat as soon as it starts to boil.
  3. Add bonito and steep for 15 minutes.
  4. Strain the dashi through a sieve to remove bonito flakes and use.

Kaeshi Recipe (かえし)

Kaeshi is what is added to dashi to make tsuyu, soup broth for noodles. This kaeshi recipe has only two ingredients; equal parts mirin and light soy sauce.  Using light or thin soy sauce (usukuchi) is recommended for the best flavor and color.
In a large stock pot, heat equal parts mirin and light soy sauce, gently mix and let it mature in room temperature for a day or so before using. This will results in more complex smooth flavor with no “sharp edges”.

Tsuyu-Soup Broth for Noodles (汁)

The soup broth for noodles is called Tsuyu and is easily made by mixing the dashi and kaeshi.
Mix four parts dashi and one part kaeshi to make delicious soup stock to serve with udon or soba. Enjoy.

Nabeyaki Udon Recipe

Now that you’ve got your dashi, kaeshi and soup stock made, you are now ready for the final step. At this point, you’ll combine everything together and cook on the stove top. There is a a lot of freedom to be creative with Nabeyaki, so feel free to experiment with different ingredients and toppings. Enjoy!


  • 8 oz cooked udon noodles
  • Tsuyu (see recipe in Soba section), enough to fill a single serving nabe bowl
  • 1 piece shrimp tempura
  • 2 pieces cooked chicken
  • 2 pieces sliced kamaboko fish cakes
  • 2 slices tamagoyaki or 1 raw egg
  • 2 pieces simmered shiitake mushroom
  • Chopped green onion and wakame for garnish
  • Shichimi pepper as needed


  1. Add pre cooked udon in a single serving nabe bowl.
  2. Fill ¾ of the nabe with Tsuyu. Place the nabe directly on stove top and turn the heat high.
  3. When udon is warm, arrange all topping except shrimp tempura and green onions, on top of Udon.
  4. When tsuyu starts to boil garnish the dish with green onions shrimp tempura then put the cover.
  5. Serve immediately with shichimi pepper.