In the mountain escape of Karuizawa in Nagano, just a one-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo is a woodfire grill restaurant unique in its story and the firewood that imparts all the flavor. Make a trip to breathe in the fresh air, dine at Makiyaki Kakehashi, and savor the charms of the local land through the produce and apple trees.
Woodfired grilling has gathered pace in Japan in recent years, but one restaurant garnering plenty of attention is Makiyaki Kakehashi. So much so that people make the trip to Karuizawa to dine here. One of Japan’s premier resort areas, Karuizawa has been a luxury escape from the metropolis since the 19th century. It has been visited by countless foreign celebrities, including John Lennon, who spent every summer of the late 1970s here. Now accessible by bullet train just one hour from Tokyo Station, the region’s popularity has expanded exponentially. Alight the train, stretch your legs, make your way to Karuizawa Station’s north exit, and follow the town’s main street for a short walk to Makiyaki Kakehashi.
Owner/chef Daisuke Maruyama made frequent trips to Nagano in search of wild game, mountain vegetables, and mushrooms during his training days. On one such visit, the first of several eye-opening encounters planted the seed for his restaurant concept. Deep in the mountains with a hunter, the two broke down their hunted game, then filled an empty metal drum with timber scattered across the forest floor. With the fire lit, they woodfired the meat, and when Maruyama gripped the bone and sank his teeth into the flesh, he had a revelation: this is the origin of cuisine – a primitive, wild style in which you sit together, gazing at the flames, and share a food experience.
As such, the restaurant is designed for guests to focus on the fire. Nothing but the flame dazzles in a minimalist interior where the woodfired oven is the star. There is a heartwarming, organic feel to the natural elements, like the earthen walls. As bamboo is known for its rapid growth and rejuvenation, it was a purposeful, sustainable choice for the counter and cooking tools.
Infusing every dish of local produce with the magic of firewood.
Open for just one sitting each day at dinner time, Makiyaki Kakehashi walks you through a degustation course of ten to twelve dishes, starting with amuse and sashimi courses featuring fresh fish, then the signature “soba sushi”, the specialty of grilled soft-shell turtle, and a range of delectable dishes before the climactic main dish featuring mouthwatering local proteins, and dessert to finish. Woodfire features in at least one element of every dish: grilling for color and flavor or to remove excess oil; adding an extra layer of flavor with smoke; or infusing with the aroma of firewood, as with the Jersey milk ice cream served alongside the strawberry dessert.
Integral to the sumptuous flavors are Nagano’s apple trees. When a massive typhoon struck in 2019, the Nagano apple farmers suffered terribly. Maruyama was assisting with disaster recovery and staying in the Hoyasu area in the prefecture’s north when he met many local apple farmers and learned of their project to turn the damaged apple trees into firewood. It dawned on Maruyama that he could open a restaurant using applewood as his heat source. Known for its gentle aroma and soft texture, in addition to grilling, applewood can be used for smoking and as live charcoals, giving a chef a great range of expression.
Inspired by the theme of “going back to one’s roots”, Maruyama’s cuisine is designed to enjoy nature’s blessings in their most straightforward, natural form, appealing to our basic instincts. He is motivated by the challenge of taking locally sourced ingredients and seeing just how primitive his creations can be. He multiplies the wonders of the produce with the elements of fire, the process of which is part of the fun for guests. Hence the entire kitchen space unfolds under guests’ gaze within the counter. The gentle popping of boiling water and the sizzling as an ingredient caramelizes – all these sounds are essential to the sense of a live performance and provide the background to a delicious and memorable experience.
The chef’s soba sushi is an ingenious creation that brings together delicacies from the mountain and sea, specifically buckwheat and mackerel – soba and saba. Nagano has traditionally been one of the largest consumers of canned mackerel, and one local dish combines the fish with bamboo shoots. Instead, Maruyama uses yamaimo mountain yam, which he grates and kneads together with buckwheat flour and nibs. This mixture is fried to make the sushi base and topped with a slice of marinated mackerel smoked for a second over the applewood.
The only seasoning needed for Maruyama’s woodfired soft-shell turtle is salt because the turtles have a wonderful, clean flavor, having been treated with frigid spring water from Mt. Asama – the majestic mountain visible from everywhere in Karuizawa. The salt is extracted from Nagano’s natural hot springs. Because it contains significantly less magnesium than sea salt, it has a pure flavor – the perfect match for the clean, clear flavor of the turtle.
The main dish in winter features locally hunted gibier. Think wild boar, deer, bear, or duck. From spring to autumn, Maruyama woodfires Davos Farm Wagyu from Tankaku Japanese Shorthorn or Tankuro cattle, the latter a homebred cross of Japanese Shorthorn and Japanese Black, raised in the vast pastures of the Nagano highlands 1700m above sea level.
The first condition governing Maruyama’s produce selection is whether an item will benefit from wood-firing. From vegetables and meats to salt, soy sauce, and other condiments, almost everything that touches diner’s palates is from Nagano. The only exception is maritime produce, which is unsurprising given that Nagano has no coastline. Seafood is supplied from Toyosu Market in Tokyo and Kinosaki Market in northern Hyogo Prefecture, and it is brought in because the flavors of wood-fired seafood are simply wonderful. But Maruyama always pairs it with local Nagano ingredients; for example, steamed abalone is enveloped in the aroma of Nagano soy sauce dripped over applewood.
Maruyama was thrilled to find such excellent produce at his fingertips when he moved to Nagano. He can head into the mountains to forage for wild vegetables, find exquisite morels growing just behind the restaurant, and even secure rare ingredients like shiso flowers. He sings the praises of this place, saying it is the ideal environment for a chef. He loves feeling the shift of the seasons in daily life, like seeing butterbur shoots at the roadside heralding the start of spring.
Nagano-born drinks also feature at Kakehashi. The sake selection contains only local brands; the beer and whisky are all made in Nagano. Most of the wines are French – varieties with rich barrel aromas to match the woodfired cuisine – but the remainder are richly flavored local Japanese wines. Special mention must be made of the cocktail featuring local shirakaba white birch. A spirit made from sap from the trees in the Yachiho Highlands considered Japan’s most beautiful birch forest, is mixed with soda into a drink reminiscent of a highball. Maruyama recommends homemade ginger ale for those preferring a non-alcoholic option; available all year, the flavor changes with the season, with spring ginger shoots showing distinctive fruity flavors, for example.
To spend an evening at Kakehashi is to relish with all five senses the wonders of the apple tree. They are the cornerstone of the restaurant’s existence. While many restaurants may be introducing woodfired ovens, Maruyama is fairly certain he is the only one using applewood. The length and thickness of pieces vary greatly, and some are still green wood on delivery. This fresh, undried timber releases plenty of smoke on burning, so Maruyama uses it specifically for smoking ingredients.
You can produce a great range of flame intensity with firewood as fuel, so Maruyama feels it has far more diverse applications than charcoal. Kakehashi means “bridge”, and the passion behind Maruyama’s concept is one of connecting people to the origins of food and cuisine, finding ways to use seemingly unwanted things to build a better future, and serving as a bridge to guests in sharing a whole range of concepts. Now that all the damaged tree firewood – the original inspiration for the restaurant – has been used, Maruyama uses wood from apple trees that no longer bear fruit.
The applewood at Kakehashi even appears as tableware, as seen in the vessel for the chiayu young sweetfish dish. Created especially for Maruyama from an old apple tree by Moyuru Ando, the woodwork artist’s business is called Mori no Utsuwaya, and his creations are all made from Nagano timber arising from forest thinning.
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥8,000
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥8,000