Friday, June 10, 2016

The best rice I've ever had - Warakuen, Ureshino Onsen, Saga

Warakuen 和楽園 in Ureshino, Japan, decked out for the New Year
Months after our road trip in Kyushu (the western-ish side: Fukuoka - Nagasaki - Ureshino - Saga - Fukuoka), there is only one thing that keeps coming up in conversation - the rice we had at our ryokan in Ureshino.

This trip was in January, hence the New Year's decor in the opening pic, but in true e_ting style, I almost never wrote this up.

The ryokan and the town themselves were fairly quiet and had seen better days, but, possibly because it was still the New Year holidays, was actually fairly busy. When we were checking in, there was an interesting mix of grannies, young men in their late 20s (not in the same party!) and a large extended family travelling together.

Ureshino is known as a spa town, with natural onsen water, so our hotel had pretty impressive indoor & outdoor public baths. (It's also known for tea, and tea leaves were even steeped in the baths). We had nonetheless booked a room with a private onsen, because my friends aren't exhibitionists like I am (I exaggerate, of course, but really, I don't mind being butt naked if everyone else is, and it's not like people stare or anything. I also like that the bathing area is usually steaming hot - it's almost like a steam room.)

Japanese style dan dan noodles, and a ceramic "grill" on the left with a knob of butter, being prepared for grilling our three measly slices of beef
We had booked a package that included breakfast and dinner in the room. At both dinner and breakfast, we were waited on by a middle-aged lady, and although she didn't speak English, and we only pretended to speak rudimentary Japanese, it went smoothly. She would enter periodically with the various courses and explain a little. Because of our rudimentary Japanese, we thought we'd ordered a meal with loads of Saga beef (a specialty of the area), instead it turned out that it was just one course, with three tiny -, but rather good - pieces. (Note to self - use Google translate). (P.S. I like booking through Rakuten's Japanese site because you don't need to pay upfront, so cancellations are less costly, but as this example shows, in the wrong (my) hands, it has its problems!)

The meals we had at Warakuen weren't groundbreaking, but some of the local products really stood out. The first, as mentioned, was the rice. On the menu, it was simply called "Hizen rice" (肥前) - which could have either referred to the historical province covering modern-day Saga and Nagasaki, or an actual town not far from Ureshino.

The most amazing rice I've ever had
Now, I don't know what your relationship with rice is, but for me, it's elemental. There's a word in Chinese I can only translate as "the fragrance of rice" (faan heung, 飯香), but it isn't just about fragrance and flavour - there's definitely something Proustian there. The rice came in a little cylindrical lacquer box, and once the lid was taken off, it filled the room with a rich, sweet scent.

Hizen rice. Find it. Eat it till you feel sick and/or are too embarrassed to ask for more. It's worth it.

Breakfast at Warakuen
The second surprise was a super soft-set tofu, which was served at breakfast in it's own little hot pot, simmering away. Usually, tofu is about compromise - the more silken, the less flavour; the firmer, the more flavour, but obviously they're doing something different here in Ureshino because the tofu was really the best of both worlds. If I remember correctly, they use onsen water - don't know how/if that helps, but it was divine.

I tried to find the rice at the hotel's souvenir shop (where they had all sorts of other food omiyage) and the tofu was there, but alas, we checked out sans rice.

After the sad state of the beef at dinner, we drove to Saga city proper and had a pretty full-on beefy lunch. You'll find all you need about that on Instagram...

33 Shimono
Ureshino City

茶心の宿 和楽園

Tel: +81 (0)954 43 3181

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