I awoke to the feel of soft sheets, the pleasantly grassy smell of tatami, and the sound of… absolutely nothing apart from the rustle of leaves in the breeze. As my eyes grew accustomed to the half-light of sunrise, filtering in through traditional shoji screens, I reflected on why Jijinoie, a rural inn in Chiba prefecture where I was spending my third weekend in under a year, holds such a special place in my Japanese experience.
It occurred to me that I’m not alone in thinking that one of the challenges of life as a foreigner in Japan is deciding how best to spend my limited time here. With a whole new country to explore in just two short years, I experience a constant push-and-pull between wanting to revisit places I’ve enjoyed, and feeling compelled to discover something new. Countless times after visiting a great restaurant, my husband and I have said to ourselves, ”That was delicious… we should come here again sometime,” yet we somehow never return due to the lure of the unknown. But Jijinoie is different, repeatedly drawing me back with its serenity and its unerring ability to offer something new, always in harmony with the changing seasons.
Jijinoie is the brainchild of vegan chef and cookbook author Deco Nakajima and her art photographer husband Everett Kennedy Brown. Tired of life in Tokyo, Deco (which means forehead in Japanese, a nickname she was given as a college student due to her large forehead) and Everett moved with their five children to the Isumi area of Chiba in the late 1990s and set about creating a self-sufficient lifestyle that took inspiration from traditional Japanese agriculture and cuisine. They opened Jijinoie, an old farmhouse transformed into a stylish six-bedroom inn, in 2013. Literally translated as ”Grandpa’s House,” Jijinoie’s atmosphere is of a country retreat, a place where visitors can relax and experience the surrounding countryside while feasting on delicious food based around locally-grown, seasonal produce.
The “grandfather” to which the name refers was the original owner of the house who tended his garden with such loving care that it still delights its current owners with beautiful flowers every season. The name is also a play on words as “jiji” means “old man,” but the characters for “jiji” in jijinoie mean “to treat something with loving care.”
Having spent two nights there with my husband in steamy July, and a cosy weekend with my visiting parents in October, I was keen to see what it was like during the fresh spring weather, and took the opportunity to visit with a friend in May.
Jijinoie is located within easy reach of Tokyo. In the past we’ve travelled by train (about 70 minutes via the Wakashio and Sotobo lines to Chojamachi Station, plus a short taxi ride), but this time we decided to drive, in order to also investigate the surrounding countryside. On our arrival at Jijinoie, we were ushered in to the spacious reception and dining area to enjoy some fresh mint tea and small cookies before being shown to our room. As is typical of traditional Japanese accommodation, the living and sleeping space is flexible depending on the number and requirements of visitors; sliding doors partition the rooms and futons can be laid out in various configurations depending on a group’s needs. On this occasion, we slept on tatami (our particular room had the advantage of an ensuite toilet; other guests share separate facilities), but in the past we have also stayed in a Western-style room, which features a balcony with views over the gardens.
As we discovered on our first visit, it is well worth arriving at Jijinoie a couple of hours before dinner to allow time to enjoy the bath, hand-crafted from aromatic hiba wood by a venerable Japanese artisan. At 6pm, enjoying the feeling of pure cleanliness that only a Japanese-style bath can bestow, we sat down for an unusual aperitif of an exquisitely refined mirin. Dispelling my notion that mirin – a type of rice wine with a high sugar content – can only be used for cooking, Wataru-san, Jijinoie’s manager and host extraordinaire, explained that if it is of sufficiently high quality, mirin can be enjoyed as a drink, similar to a light sherry. After that, the real fun started, in the form of an eight-course dinner prepared by Matinee Nakajima, daughter of Deco and a superb cook in her own right. Matinee, whose father was an actor, was given her unusual name because she was born in the afternoon when he was performing in a matinee.
As is typical of kaiseki-style cuisine, the meal was made up of too many components to mention, but some of the highlights included a slice of yubeshi, a hard, sweet paste made by stuffing walnuts and home-made miso into a persimmon (in this case locally grown); shin-tamanegi, a whole, young onion cooked in a delicate broth which rendered it sweet while remarkably keeping its shape; and seasonal tempura featuring mountain vegetables and broad beans.
While Jijinoie can provide entirely vegan meals, for pescatarian visitors it also serves fresh fish and seafood caught off the nearby Chiba coastline. In an unusual twist on our last visit, our sashimi was served with a garnish of freshly-picked mulberries.
The next morning, after a delicious vegan breakfast also prepared by Matinee and served with caffeine-free sannen bancha (coffee is also available for those who struggle to feel the day has fully started without it), we set off to explore the local area, venturing to the fish market at nearby Ohara and a surfing competition at Ichinomiya, a strip of black-sand beach with a friendly, resort-like feel. We had time to squeeze in one more meal before driving home, so headed to the Rice Terrace Café at Brown’s Field, also owned by Deco and Everett, which is a 5-minute walk from Jijinoie. Brown’s Field is a multi-faceted site where visitors can stay, eat, and attend events centered around food, local agriculture and sustainable living, in the midst of a welcoming, slightly alternative vibe. It provides a casual counterpoint to Jijinoie’s more refined atmosphere and offers the perfect place to unwind on a hammock in summer or in a cosy chair in winter and while away a few relaxing hours with a book.
It’s hard to say what exactly about Jijinoie keeps me coming back. The food is memorably delicious, luxurious yet light, inventive but with no pretentions. As someone who sometimes struggles with the subtleties of kaiseki cuisine, this for me is traditional Japanese food at its best. The dishes always look delicious, but never look better than they taste. There’s also something about the atmosphere of the place that engenders a feeling of complete calm and protection from the outside world. So much of life at Brown’s Field and Jijinoie is self-sufficient that even though the real world is a mere minutes away, it seems somehow superfluous; within a few hours I almost forget that it exists at all.
Ultimately, the most delightful aspect of both locations is the warmth and kindness of the staff. At both Jijinoie and Brown’s Field, they’re always keen to share their knowledge and experience, describing how they go about producing the food they serve. The sharing can also be literal—on my first visit Matinee gave me some of her yoghurt culture and I have been cultivating my own soy yoghurt ever since. On this occasion she explained how to turn it into ice cream, a recent batch of which I duly sampled at Brown’s Field. Light and refreshing, it was the perfect accompaniment to a piece of wholesome-tasting cake which I enjoyed while admiring the view of startlingly green paddy fields and the assiduous lawn-munching of a handsome goat named Paul.
As the kind of person who likes the idea of natural living but is in no way cut out for prolonged close contact with nature, I find that Jijinoie sits on exactly the right side of rustic. Don’t expect ensuite bathrooms, formalities, a TV in your room, or particularly convenient transport links, but if you like your countryside retreats to have luxurious washing facilities, reliable wifi, superlative cuisine, fluent English speakers and the warmest welcome you could hope for, then I cannot recommend it highly enough. After only 24 hours I returned to Tokyo feeling nourished in both body and mind, my only regret being that I cannot visit more often.