Good Eats: Mujika (Hyogo Prefecture)

As I mentioned briefly in the Miyama entry the other day, things got a bit crazy right before the Christmas holiday with an unexpected writing opportunity. Practically as soon as our plane landed back in Kyushu after our Thanksgiving break in Kyoto, I received an email from the Japan Times asking if I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of a last-minute writing gig. I’ve been lucky enough to be a contributor to the Japan Times’ travel section for the past four years, a freelance job I have thoroughly enjoyed. In this case, however, they needed a writer to head to the Tamba region for some work on deadline and would I mind terribly turning around the next week and revisiting the same general area I had just flown out of?

I’m sure you can guess my response. 🙂

That’s how I ended up warming my hands over a cup of green tea in a lovely private room at Mujika, a venison restaurant in the small town of Kaibara. Yes, a venison restaurant and one with locally sourced meat to boot – all of the deer are raised in the Tamba region, an area that encompasses parts of both Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures. In fact, if I understood the waiter correctly, this is the only venison specialty restaurant in all of Japan.

The 'noren' gives casual visitors a clue as to what's on the menu
The ‘noren’ gives casual visitors a clue as to what’s on the menu

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania with relatives who were hunters, I can truthfully say I am no stranger to venison, though it has been many years since a deer steak graced my plate. Curious to see how deer would be “done” here in Japan, the lunch set seemed the best course of action and I settled in to enjoy the restaurant’s garden view as I waited for the first of my three plates.

Judging purely on presentation alone, the appetizer course blew me away. Of course, I am a sucker for a beautifully prepared lunch bento but it has to be tasty as well. Mujika’s appetizer course nicely mixed some local vegetables – chunks of pumpkin with a maple glaze, Chinese cabbage and persimmon salad, carrot jelly – with three different preparations of deer. The plain slice of deer, presented like sashimi but nonetheless cooked, was average in taste but the venison pate on toast, topped with pink peppercorns, was outstanding and the venison marinated in tomato sauce was even better.

The appetizer course
The appetizer course

While not quite as visually stimulating as the first course, the second offering was a small plate of venison drizzled with a sansho and miso sauce. Served over a perfectly carmelized slice of kabocha (pumpkin), this was perhaps my favorite preparation of all, and I wished the serving size was significantly larger.

Coffee was brought around to our table, and the waiter explained that it was a brew specifically selected to best complement venison. As he served my dining companions and I what appeared to be shortbread cookies for dessert, we jokingly asked what part of the deer they used for those.

Turns out it wasn’t en entirely crazy question.

Coffee and "deer cookies"
Coffee and “deer cookies”

Apparently, deer bone has been used as a popular remedy in Chinese medicine for years. The shortbread cookies we so happily scarfed down actually contained traces of deer bone “meal”, mixed in with Tamba black bean flour … and cocoa for taste, of course. 🙂

Kaibara isn’t really on any kind of tourist circuit. It’s a quiet town in the mountains north of Kobe with a few small sights and barely any crowds. It’s almost certainly “out of the way” for the average visitor to Japan, but for serious foodies it’s worth the train ride here to eat at such a unique establishment.

You can check out Mujika’s website for more information on hours and location.

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