Hidden in the lush mountain on the northeastern end of Kyoto, Hirasansou continues to evolve an old tradition. For over three generations, the small inn has greeted hikers who have made their way to savor seasonal catches like wild sweetfish and game meats. Set in a gorgeous decor that marries modern aesthetics and traditional craftsmanship, the experience brings you true appreciation for life in the Japanese countryside.
Founded in 1959, Hirasansou is located at the foot of Mt. Hiei, about an hour away from central Kyoto. As you arrive in front of a traditional wooden house with a wide entrance and large brown drapes, you are warmly greeted by Chef Takeji Ito and his wife. First opened by his grandfather as an inn for passing hikers, his father later began building a reputation as a top-notch restaurant, attracting Kyoto gourmands and geishas. Today, it’s among the most raved restaurant inns, famous for sweetfish and jibie dishes like bear and softshell turtle stew.
“Our guests travel a long way to come here,” Ito says. “That keeps us on our toes.”
The well-maintained property has undergone a series of renovations since his grandfather’s era. Behind the main building is a picturesque Japanese garden and a little path to the newly built annex. The building features a 600-year old shinboku, or sacred tree. It also uses beautiful planks of Japanese wood from hinoki, chestnut and cedar. The antique lighting adds to the warm ambiance of the place.
Blessed with a great water source, the garden is lush with bushes and plants, all brought from the hills nearby. The garden is designed to symbolize the presence of water from the waterfalls, the river and the Biwa Lake that surround the area. The stones, important features of a traditional Japanese garden, are the works of Ano-shu Guild, stone wall craftsmen from Kyoto. On the far corner there is also an impressive wine cellar, a passion of the head chef, where thousands of bottles rest.
A real hidden gem
The locally-inspired meal of Hirasansou presents seven to eight courses, followed by a rice dish and dessert, each designed to bring out the seasonal flavors of the mountains.
“A cook’s role in a dish is only a small part,” Ito says. “My job is to make the best of the gems of nature.”
Since his father’s time, sweetfish has become the signature of the restaurant. During the peak summer season, the fish appears as many as 10 times throughout the meal. The secret behind their famous grilled sweetfish is simple: salt, grill, and serve hot. The best part is to bite into the hot fish right from the head, so it needs to be cooked well through, the chef explains. To keep the fish hot, they come served in a shallow pot. Infused with the scent of dried bamboo leaves, the warm sweet aroma fills the air the moment you open the lid.
Another beautiful way to savor the fresh river fish is by cooking it in a hot pot over a bed of rice. Served also hot off the stove, the soft fish is mixed in with the rice right in front your eyes at the table. The grains are cooked using broth of sweetfish caught in the fall. The slight bitterness adds a wonderful undertone. A favorite among fans that can be enjoyed throughout the year is the sweetfish narezushi, where the fish is fermented and pickled with rice.
Another of their signature dishes is “The Moon and Suppon,” a hot pot of local wild bear and softshell turtle, inspired by bear meat sukiyaki that the chef used to love as a child. The stew is rich in umami from the sweet and soft meat of Asian black bear, which is called “Moon ring bear” in Japanese. The fatty chunks of loins are slow cooked in broth of softshell turtle from Biwa Lake. The pieces of white taro stalks have absorbed all the flavors. The leaves of mitsuba add a refreshing accent.
“We use honey to sweeten the stew,” he says. “I guess bears like honey?” Every dish at Hirasansou is full of ingredients local to the surrounding hills and rivers. The assortment of small-bite appetisers for example celebrates fresh local picks of the season. The day’s plate included sweetened dried plum, Aoba zenmai, or Asian royal fern, spring bamboo shoots, baby carp, venison loin marinated in sansho oil and lake prawns.
The soft squares of Walnut tofu are paired with flavorful Iwatake mushroom. The grilled eel is dressed with sansho soy and tossed with fresh mountain picks like sponge gourd, mountain spikenard and myoga flowers. Fresh from the pond in the garden, arai sashimi of carp is a wonderful summer dish. The arai is made by putting the fish in an ice and water bath to tighten its muscles and flavor. Drizzled with vinegared miso, the sashimi is refreshing with great texture.
The wild sweetfish used in so many of Hirasansou’s dishes come from Ado river. They must be fresh and tasted only during summer and early fall. If you are lucky to visit in the fall, you will get to enjoy ayu-matsu, a dish with sweetfish and matsutake mushroom, a seasonal delicacy.
The bear meat used in the hot pot comes from bears caught in the Hira mountains just before the winter. The meat is juicy and sweet from all the nuts and fruits they have been eating to prepare for hibernation. “I think bear has this incredible pure flavor,” Ito describes.
Ito keeps a school of black carp in the garden pond. He makes sure to keep at least 50-60 of them for at least six month in the clean water of the pond before they are fished. The restaurant’s water comes from the spring that his grandfather dig up in the mountain. Sourced from 800m deep, the soft water is pure and flavorful. The rice they use is Oumi rice from a farmer they know well in Adogawa town.
In addition to the rows of beautiful wines stacked along the restaurant’s hallway, another two thousand bottles rest in the brand new cellar in the garden. Most of the collection comes from France, all from fantastic vintages.
The beautiful architecture is a product of talented local craftsmen. The overall building is designed by Sankakuya, a group of Kyoto builders, while the floor of the entrance is the work of Tsutomu Mizugaki. The main floor and tiles are made by Toshihiko Hirono, an artist of oribeyaki pottery, whose dishes are also used throughout the meal. The engraving written by his loving wife on the back of the entrance sign sums it all: “Third Generation Takeji Ito—a true lover of the drink.”
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥4,000
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥4,000