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.

A Japanese Farmhouse Inn

Mount Fuji

On fourth day, I woke up to a sound of a rooster at my brother’s cabin in Yamanashi prefecture.  It was a chilly morning but I headed for a jog in the narrow mountain roads.  As I walk through the dirt road, my brother’s two dogs looked at me with watchful eyes and don’t know what to think of me yet.  I crossed a railroad track and started jogging.  Now the only thing I feel is the weight of chilly air on my shoulders, sound of birds chirping and my breath.  As I started jogging the sun started to rise and in far distance I could see a peak of Mount Fuji with snow on its top.  The sun was finally up and along the road I saw cracked chestnuts and ripe persimmons waiting to be harvested.  Back at my brother’s cabin, I enjoyed a warm bowl of oatmeal and heaping cup of rooibos tea next to a wood burning stove, and how delicious it tasted.  Now my day is in full swing as we took a drive to 200 year old farmhouse that has been converted to an inn.

chesnuts

The farmhouse is about a twenty minute drive from my brother’s cabin, but there were no signs, to tell us that if in fact this is the inn we are looking for.  We parked our car a few yards away from what appears to be a path leading to the farmhouse and started walking.  As we strolled up the hill next to a vegetable garden with daikon radish and leeks, I can see hanging of about 100 or so of peeled persimmons on kitchen twine ready to be dried for the winter.  And along the “nokishita”, or under the roofline of the house were dried Umeboshi are plums that were ready to be pickled.  At this time, I knew that we had indeed found the right place.

umeboshi

The 200 year old  farmhouse has been converted to a  private inn by a professionally trained chef whose family owned the house and farm near by.  At the farm grow their own rice, vegetables and fruits in their garden and raise chickens. He also hunts deer and wild boar and forages for wild mushrooms and young bamboo shoots in the mountains to serve their guests for dinner.  In his farmhouse kitchen, there is a large stone grinder for grinding buckwheat flour for making soba noodles, and a wood burning stove for steaming rice.  I am amazed at the amount of food he makes from scratch from ingredients which are grown on the farm and or foraged in the mountains (one of the only an exceptions is the dried Bonito he uses for traditional soup stocks).  He brews his own soy sauce, pickles seasonal vegetables and fermented soybeans to make miso.

Japanese Farmhouse

The farmhouse serves local sake, craft beers and whisky from the Suntory Distillery nearby.

I have visited the distillery many years ago with my husband and then infant son. This famous distillery is located in the woods at the base of the mountains, and is a must visit during our food tour.  Along with guided tours of the distillery and tastings, there is also a restaurant, delicatessen and gift shop. Right now, Japan is making some of the finest whisky in the world, and this is the place to learn about the history and craft of whisky in Japan.

In the evening, I catch an express train back to Tokyo for more meetings with restaurant owners and chefs.  As I am boarding the train packed with salary men and women, I realize my travels in Nagano and Yamanashi seems like a dream and now it was time to get back to the reality.  I told myself it will only be a short goodbye until I return here next spring.