Over the Christmas holiday this year, my family and I went to Tochigi prefecture to a ryokan that I have had my eye on for years. I chose it in part due to its snowy setting in winter and also due to its unique cooking style – the guests’ dinner is prepared over an irori, or open-hearth fireplace.
Having booked the ryokan in far-off Tochigi, it would of course be Murphy’s Law that what should I stumble across in my own backyard of Kumamoto prefecture but a farmhouse restaurant that specializes in … yup, cooking their diners’ food over an irori.
Dengaku-no-sato is actually a collection of three thatched roof farmhouses on the southeastern side of the Mt Aso volcano. The main farmhouse, with its blackened beams and soaring ceiling, is the most atmospheric but the two annexes are equally comfortable and on weekends and holidays, you just might be shifted over to one of them. Don’t worry – they’re built to look just like the main hall. You’ll hardly know the difference.
There are several set menus on offer, or you can order a la carte. Choices range from fish, chicken, mochi, and tofu, most of which is then slathered with the signature miso sauce. Sets are joined by bowls of rice and side dishes such as pickles, tofu skin and various veggie salads. You can request more rice if you need it. The main choices – fish, tofu, etc – will be stuck on stakes in the firepit itself. The staff will leave you gloves to use to pull them out but they’ll also keep an eye on the cooking process, turning the food when so it doesn’t char on one side.
This is, by no means, fast food and for an occasional asthmatic like myself, I found the smoky atmosphere to be a bit overwhelming. (Our section surprisingly didn’t have a vent overhead, though I am not sure it would have helped.) We ordered a chicken set and the mounds of food that was given to us seemed to take forever to cook. Still, there was no denying the freshness of the meat, the atmosphere of the building, and the exquisiteness of the miso sauce slathered on our tofu skewers. If you can stand a bit of smoke and really aren’t in a rush, this would make for a really unique dining experience. But those of you who don’t appreciate smelling like you’ve just come from a camping adventure (or who have trouble with smoke in general) will probably want to pass.