Maze is not your usual tourist destination.
It’s a small mountain village of 1500 people in Hida area of Japan’s Gifu Perfecture.
With lush greens and crystal clear river, Maze is known mainly in Japan for fishing, especially the ayu (sweetfish) – an indigenous freshwater fish found only in Japan and some parts of Korea, South China and Taiwan.
From Kyoto, it takes about 3 hours to get to Maze.
We took a detour to this lesser known village solely for one thing – the multi-course meal in Maruhachi Ryokan.
We arrived at the ryokan one late autumn evening. At the entrance to greet us was Chikako Hora, the okami (mistress of the inn) and her staff, Kayo.
Chikako is exactly what I’d imagine traditional Japanese would be – clad in silk kimono, soft-spoken, graceful, polite and especially warm and charming.
In the lounge, slices of hoshigaki (Japanese dried persimmons) laid on a plate, waiting for us. I was intrigued by the slightly chewy, jelly-like texture. The persimmon flavor was intense, with a faint taste of caramel. If this was any inkling of things to come, I knew I’m in very good hands.
‘Oishi!‘ I gushed. Chikako smiled and said it was made by her in-laws. This was followed by profuse apology for her limited command of English.
Maruhachi is a small inn run by the second generation, which is relatively young by Japanese standards. It gets by mainly through word of mouth and regulars.
Except for the ‘western toilet’, everything else is pretty much what one would expect to find in a traditional ryokan - tatami floors, sliding paper doors, futon beds, Japanese style bath.
Dinner is served in a separate room. As we entered, I notice our first course laid on the table. The autumn-themed presentation was gorgeous.
Chikako came to greet us, and I couldn’t contain how besotted I was. She smiled and ushered us to the table.
With each sliding of the paper door came the next course. Kayo kneeled down by the table explaining the ingredients as she presented each dish.
I’d been looking forward to the ayu fish – simply salted and grilled to retain its natural flavor. The flesh was very fine and sweet-tasting.
I had my first taste of raw river fish – the iwana sashimi. The flesh is almost transluscent, slightly fatty, extremely fresh and taste amazing.
Here, it’s all about local, seasonal produce.
The rice is planted by Chikako’s husband. Fish from Maze river. Vegetables from nearby farms or foraged from the wild. Even the decorative autumn leaves were hand-picked, in various shades and sizes, from the back yard.
Melt-in-the-mouth hida beef
With the later dishes, Kayo even brought a slip of paper with the main ingredients written in English.
For a ryokan that caters mainly to native speakers, I knew they had gone out of their way to welcome and accommodate us.
A simple dessert of green tea ice-cream with mashed persimmon may seem like an anti-climax, but here, it works.
Breakfast the next day was less elaborate, and no less delicious.
Barely any English is spoken in Maruhachi but this was farthest away from my mind.
It didn’t matter that my Japanese proficiency is limited to barely ten words (and that’s counting sushi and ramen). Or that most of our conversation may have been lost in translation. The service was impeccable and food, sublime.
What was intended as a detour for one good meal turned out to be a culinary pilgrimage and much more.
Maruhachi Ryokan 丸八旅館
One night in Maruhachi Ryokan is about 13,000 yen per person, dinner and breakfast included.