Grace Smith discovers Ishikawa, on Japan’s west coast, one delicate mouthful at a time
Less than an hour after stumbling off the red-eye to Tokyo I am settling my travel-weary body into a gargantuan leather seat in the new Gran Class section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. I lean back and accept a beverage menu from the attendant as we shoot away from the city, wondering if I should follow the lead of the businessman opposite me who is knocking back a pre-9am scotch. Sipping a slightly less daring but equally delicious sencha tea, I turn my attention to the view from the window, watching as the crowded city skyline gently gives way to a lush mountainous landscape dotted with lacquered black rooftops.
I’m on my way to Ishikawa province, a seaside region on Japan’s west coast, which has been attracting a steady stream of domestic tourists since the 2015 Shinkansen reduced the travel time from Tokyo from four hours to just two and a half. Known affectionately throughout Japan as “Little Kyoto”, Ishikawa has plenty to offer; one of the top three gardens in Japan, an historic Geisha town, and the sprawling grounds and castle of a former feudal lord. Handicrafts flourish there too, with shops selling everything from handmade gold leaf and lacquerware to traditional banjos made, somewhat unsettlingly, from authentic cat skin. But most interesting to me is the region’s highly respected food scene. Touted by many in Japan as home to the country’s best sushi, Ishikawa specialises in fresh seafood and premium beef, and I am eager to sample both.
As we pull up in front of Sushi Ikkan, I wonder why the driver has stopped – surely this can’t be the restaurant? We are surrounded by rice paddies and the low-slung concrete structure in front of us seems an unlikely home for a refined sushi eatery. Seemingly unperturbed by our agricultural surrounds, our guide ushers us confidently through the door. Inside, a bespectacled sushi master stands poised behind a single 10-seater bar. As we perch on our stools, he springs into action, moulding portions of rice with an artist’s precision, before layering on a dab of wasabi and crowning the creation with a perfect slice of yellowtail. He places one jewel-like morsel reverentially on each of our plates,along with a sliver of pickled ginger. This ritual continues for well over an hour as we are presented with one piece of sushi at a time, the procession including whelk, fluke, eel, abalone and shiro-ebi (white shrimp). Much of the fish is unrecognisable to me, but all of it tastes as if it was caught that morning (and it may well have been), while the silky white rice is rich and flavourful without overpowering the seafood. As we reemerge into the rice paddies, I realise with a start that I have probably just tasted the best sushi I will ever eat.
43-5 Kajiimachi, Kaga, Ishikawa | +81761 74 8555
Rokkakudo Grill and Bar
No self-respecting carnivore can visit Japan without seeking out some theatrically prepared wagyu beef, and I am certainly no exception. Although, at this teppanyaki restaurant, the chef’s culinary performance has to compete with the impressive leafy cityscape vying for our attention through the floor-to-ceiling windows of our private dining room. We exclaim over the views as the waitstaff take our orders, but once the chef fires up the grill in front of us he’s impossible to ignore. He begins by cutting expertly through what appears to be a giant root and it’s not until it begins to fry that I realise it is garlic, surely the largest single bulb I have ever seen. Next on the grill is the local wagyu beef, which is sliced and flipped with practised, fluid movements, before being served along with the crispy fried garlic and a pile of fresh sprouts. The tender meat contrasts terrifically with the crunchy garlic and I’m ashamed to say my bean sprouts go untouched as I savour the rich flavours of the region’s premium local wagyu.
1-38-27 Higashiyama, Kanazawa, Ishikawa | +81 76 252 5115
L’Atelier de Noto
The two-hour drive from Ishikawa’s capital, Kanazawa, to the Noto Peninsula is worth taking simply to experience the sizable portion of the journey spent driving on the beach, with the waves of the Sea of Japan lapping just metres from your tyres. We’ve risen early to attend the 1000-year-old fresh food market in Wajima, before heading to L’Atelier de Noto to taste a local specialty: Noto beef, a rare type of wagyu, raised on the Peninsula. Housed in a refurbished ryokan (traditional house), the restaurant has been outfitted in sleek, minimalist style. The chef trained and worked in France before returning to Japan to open L’Atelier de Noto, where he serves fine French cuisine using uniquely Japanese ingredients. I am dubious about the fusion, but my fears are allayed as an appetiser of tuna tartare is placed before us. The dishes that follow are an elegant marriage between the two cuisines, with the most memorable being the surprisingly meaty pufferfish, a slice of Noto beef accompanied by a beef-filled cigar pastry, and a crème brûlée to rival that of any Parisian eatery.
4-142 Kawaimachi, Wajima, Ishikawa | +81 768 23 4488
Yamato Soy Sauce Factory
When our guide announces that we are stopping off at a soy sauce factory for some ice cream, we think there must some kind of translation issue. We are mistaken. The soy sauce soft serve at Yamato Soy Sauce Factory is a local secret that we are about to be let it on. As I’m handed my cone, I sniff the light brown swirl suspiciously, trying to ascertain just how unpleasant the first mouthful will be. Throwing caution to the wind, I take a generous mouthful, braced for the worst. I’m surprised – the flavour is subtle malt, with a hint of salt and plenty of sweetness, and it’s actually quite delicious. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the menu of Gelato Messina in the near future, but hopefully it remains a local secret for a little longer.
4-E-170, Oonomachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa | +81 76 268 1248