Off the Top of My HeadBy Paul Murray
There is an obscure adage in New Zealand “First socks and then shoes.” It refers to the correct order of things and the need to follow that process to achieve the desired result.
When my family and I recently visited “JiJi no Ie” a country inn in Isumi in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture, the adage came to mind. The inn is a stunning replica cominka house that has been converted into an up-market accommodation facility that specialises in providing guests with high quality, locally grown, organic meals in an aesthetically pleasing tranquil atmosphere.
The Isumi region in Chiba Prefecture is about 1 1/2 hours from Tokyo by train, it is famous for its fertile soil and organic farming. Many of Tokyo’s top restaurants source their produce from Isumi farms. The region is a window on old-style Japanese rural living and is dotted with traditional cominka farmsteads, terraced rice paddies, sculptured gardens and plenty of greenery, bird and animal life. It is very pleasant to stroll around the Isumi region enjoying the sights and sounds of nature and experience a somewhat bygone era of Japanese aesthetic and architectural sensibility.
JiJi no Ie literally means “Grandfather’s House” and is the brainchild of famed macrobiotic cooking specialist and author Deco Nakajima and her fine art photographer and journalist husband Everett Kennedy Brown.
My wife Sanae read a book by Deco san and was sufficiently inspired by her life philosophy and skill in the kitchen to want to visit on our trip to Japan.
On arrival, however, we wondered if we were in the right place as the entrance to the inn was overgrown, there were several construction projects on the go and the decrepit boardwalk leading into the entrance of the inn was rotting and broken…the wow factor we had envisaged from a ¥15,000+ per night spend was somewhat lacking.
However, after we were greeted by JiJi no Ie Manager Miho Okada and shown through the building and to our room, our spirits lifted as the interior of the building is very much what we had expected and more. The property is still being developed and they decided to open for business, perhaps to generate income to finance the remaining works projects.
My wife Sanae and I were offered a choice of room and chose a private corner room on the ground floor as our daughter Diva is quite adventurous and has a fondness of stairs and waking at dawn, so the room we chose was away from other guests so as not to disturb them at 4:00 a.m. when Diva’s (and, by association, our) day begins. But, as it turned out, we were the only guests; we had the inn to ourselves for two luxurious days of fine food, relaxation, peace and quiet and great family time.
The JiJi no Ie staff had prepared the bathhouse for us prior to dinner and we enjoyed a good soak in the large wooden bathtub before our evening meal. A path from our room through a beautiful Japanese garden leads to the bathhouse building, which houses a large ofuro-style bath and several showers. The bath looks out onto the garden and provides for a very relaxing bathing experience.
Okada san was an excellent host and with support from her capable assistant Maki Imazek, we were made to feel very much at home during our stay. Both ladies were incredibly gracious, they were knowledgeable about the local region and offered advice on excursions and activities we may enjoy during our stay and they also prepared the fantastic breakfasts and dinners we had come to enjoy.
The food was simply superb, beautifully presented, creatively assembled, locally grown, organic, nutritious, macrobiotic and totally delicious. Each bite had the body singing hosanna to the highest as the food contained everything the body required and nothing it didn’t. Taste was not compromised in the delivery of healthy, nutritious food, the flavours were exquisite.
The meals were filling and the quantity sufficient to satisfy a large Western appetite. The aromas emitted from the kitchen, which is adjacent to the dining room prepared our palates for the spectacular array of flavours presented with each meal. Fermented foods are a feature of the macrobiotic diet and each meal had a significant component of such foods: ume boshi (fermented plums), tofu no shio kogi (fermented tofu) and tonu (soy-yoghurt).
Everett Brown, who is clearly a fine wine aficionado with a realistic grasp on economy, compiled the beverage list. The Austrian and Italian wines on offer were unfamiliar to me, but were excellent and reasonably priced. The selection included Japanese sake and we sampled wine called “AFs” made by the local Kidoizumi Sake Brewery. It had the characteristic colour and flavours of a fine white wine and was as the Japanese say “nomi yasui”…easy to drink.
Over dinner, Okada san told us that Brown has an interesting connection with Japan to do with the camera. A distant ancestor Eliphalet Brown was apparently the official photographer on Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ship” that was sent by the U.S. Navy to re-establish trade with Japan after the country was closed to U.S. commerce for over 200 years. Today, Brown continues the family tradition for photography and Japan and has developed quite a reputation for his Japan-focused images.
After dinner we retired to our tatami matted room to recline on the futons, which had been magically laid out while we were at dinner, to relax, digest the sumptuous repast and drift off to sleep to the rhythmic croaking chorus of the myriad green tree frogs and other amphibians in the rice paddies around the inn. Being awake at first light thanks to the enthusiastic quest for knowledge, experience and activity exhibited by our lovely daughter, enabled us to appreciate the mournful crow of a distant rooster and the avian symphony that greets every new day at JiJi no Ie.
Breakfast was again taken at the dining room and featured a sumptuous array of finely prepared and presented delicacies from the adjacent kitchen.
A feature of the communal eating area is a large rocket stove that has been constructed from white ferro-concrete to absorb the warmth from the stove and fashioned into a bench that in winter must make for a cosy seat. Rocket stoves are highly efficient and maximise the warmth produced from the wood fuel burned. Efficiency and environmental awareness is a feature of the venture and Deco san is an advocate of such sensibilities.
A consummate chef and author of numerous cookbooks, Deco san hosts cooking classes at JiJi no Ie and shares her knowledge, experience and recipes with aspiring foodies.
It is pleasing to see such modern design ideas tastefully incorporated into old building style in an aesthetically pleasing way that improves the quality of life for people in an interesting and energy-efficient fashion.
A short stroll down the road is Rice Terrace Café, which is also owned and operated by Deco and Everett. The café is operated by a few staff and several Wwoofers (volunteers) who come from around the world to experience life in Japan and to learn about macrobiotic cooking, organic food production and farming techniques and sustainable living from Deco san.
The groovy café is situated on the Brown’s Field, a farm where much of the food it serves is grown. The café offers a range of wholesome meal sets in a peaceful rural setting, which made for a pleasant lunch. The fertile Isumi region is known for organic food production and many of the Michelin rated restaurants in Tokyo source their food from farms in the region, so the quality of the food served at Rice Terrace Café is top notch and Deco’s skill in the kitchen and her extensive recipes ensures that the taste and variety of meals on offer is also superb.
While the project still has a few rough edges, there is a diamond waiting to emerge. Okada san assured me that they have contracted a professional landscape gardener to give the entrance to the property the requisite WOW factor it deserves and complete a few other design features that seem a bit half done…like the garden path to the bathhouse that begins beautifully, but finishes in a pile of rubble, which is presumably there to complete the job.
First impressions aside and after having experienced a thoroughly enjoyable two-day stay at JiJi no Ie, I now consider that the socks and shoes are on, but the laces are still untied. The venture is a work in progress and all signs are that the project is coming together nicely. My family and I can highly recommend JiJi no Ie, it’s great now and will soon be even better.
For more reading about Deco Nakajima, Everett Kennedy Brown and JiJi no Ie: