(To start this series from the beginning, click here.)
As the sun went down on my first day in the restored Edo-period post town of Magome, I decided to rest my hike-weary feet in one of the teahouses that lined the sloping street.
Although I had several options, I decided to try Yomogiya, an inviting-looking teahouse that sat next door to my minshuku (guest house or traditional inn).
The sign out front suggested the teahouse also offered coffee – and although tea is the traditional choice, I love good coffee, so I decided to go inside and let the menu make the decision for me.
Like many teahouses in Magome, Yomogiya offers guests a choice between traditional Japanese seating on an elevated platform and Western-style tables and chairs, which sit on the teahouse floor.
Unlike Western tables, traditional Japanese tables are low–about knee high–and feature cushions for kneeling (or sitting cross-legged) rather than Western chairs.
I love traditional Japanese seating, so I left my shoes at the entrance and chose a table on the platform.
In addition to selling coffee, tea, and traditional sweets, Yomogiya sold a variety of local crafts, including these hand-carved wooden lanterns:
If I’d had a way to get one home, I definitely would have splurged on one. The photo doesn’t do them justice.
Within moments after my arrival, the hostess greeted me and offered me a menu. Although I could have read the Japanese version, the one she presented was written in English–a typical experience for Westerners traveling in Japan.
Most Japanese people want to make foreign visitors feel welcome, and if an English menu is available, most restaurants and teahouses will offer it if you look like you speak English.
The hot apple juice sounded fantastic, and I was tempted to try it, but I love traditional Japanese sweets, especially the chestnut varieties offered only in the autumn. The “chestnut yokan” (a type of jellied sweet with a base of adzuki beans) was only available on the set menu, which included both the sweet and a choice of green tea, “blend coffee” or matcha–a powdered form of green tea prepared with a special whisk that this menu translates as “green tea for ceremonies.”
I love matcha, but opted for the coffee because I thought it would match better with the chestnut sweet.
(I probably could have finished the apple juice as well, but it would have been awkward to order two drinks since I was there alone, so I decided to save the apple juice for another time.)
My treats arrived within a couple of minutes, and the yokan was everything I hoped for.
This type of sweet has a texture a lot like a cross between fudge and caramel. It’s slightly chewy, but not too sticky, and moderately sweet without being cloying. If you don’t like roasted chestnuts, this won’t be a favorite–but I love them, and this tasted exactly like a sweetened roasted chestnut paste. (Although it’s made with adzuki beans, there’s no taste of bean at all.)
The lacquered knife at the bottom of the plate is a traditional implement used for eating this kind of sweet. You use it both as a cutting tool and as an ersatz fork – slicing a piece of the sweet from the cube and poking the tip of the knife into it to raise the sweet to your mouth.
I savored my sweets and coffee, listening to the hum of quiet conversation from the tables around me and watching through the window as the setting sun made the wooden building across the street glow with a golden-orange hue. It was the perfect ending to a happy, peaceful day in the Japanese alps.