The area around the five lakes at the foot of Mt Fuji, collectively known as Fujigoko, boasts some of the most breathtaking scenery in Japan. On a clear, calm day or early evening, the majestic mountain’s reflection on the lakes’ crystal surface produces a mirror effect, which is affectionately referred to as “sakasa-Fuji”, or “upside-down Fuji.”
The spring water that trickles down from Mt Fuji is so fresh and thirst-quenching that many visitors come equipped with empty plastic bottles to cart a few liters back home.
Although increasingly popular among tourists since Mt Fuji was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2013, the small towns at the foot of the mountain, such as Kawaguchiko and Yamanakako, are not as crowded as other resorts within easy access of Tokyo, such as Hakone or the upscale Karuizawa.
But for those who regularly visit the Fujigoko area, the one thing this convenient weekend hideaway lacks is a wide choice of high-quality restaurants.
So, on a recent visit, we were delighted to discover Kappo Sasaichi, a Japanese restaurant that serves shabu-shabu and kaiseki cuisine, in Fujiyoshida, the city that acts as gateway to Mt Fuji and the five lakes area. Kaiseki is essentially Japanese haute cuisine that follows traditional techniques and a formula of multiple, seasonal dishes. Shabu-shabu is a hot-pot meal of finely sliced beef and vegetables.
Housed in a spacious building, which was purpose-built a decade ago to resemble a traditional Japanese house, Sasaichi has its roots in the eponymous local sake brewery, from where it sources its highly acclaimed sake selection.
The restaurant, which dates back to 1934, used to be owned by the brewery, but became independent in 1957. The owners of the two establishments are cousins and they still have close business ties, with the restaurant acting as an unofficial tasting ground for the sake made by the brewery.
We chose the Y5,000 kaiseki course, charmingly named “Hanaikada”, or “Flower Raft.” The “Yamaboshi,” or “Japanese strawberry tree” course is Y3,650 and the most expensive “Fujizakura” course, named after the cherry blossoms native to the Fuji area, is Y7,000.
The course began with one of my favorite dishes – goma-dofu, or a tofu-like custard made with ground sesame seeds. Sasaichi’s chef gave this popular dish a special seasonal twist by mixing fuki-no-to, which is the edible flower bud of the fuki plant, into the sesame paste. This gave it the distinctive bitter flavor of fuki-no-to, a seasonal delicacy available only in the spring.
The appetizer plate, which followed, featured another seasonal specialty – hotaru ika, or firefly squid, which was fresh and soft on the palate.
The sashimi course featured several types of fish among which the hirame, or flounder, was particularly finely textured and flavorful.
My favorite dish was the renkon, or lotus root, dumpling, which encased a succulent shrimp. Its sharp wasabi topping accentuated the soft texture of the dumpling to delicious effect.
I am not a sake connoisseur, but finding myself in a restaurant affiliated with a highly acclaimed sake brewery, I could not resist ordering a flask of the local specialty – a jyunmai daiginjyo named Dan. Jyunmai daiginjyo is top quality sake made from rice grains milled to 50% of their weight or less.
In the past several years, amid the growing popularity of the region, the Fujigoko area has seen a rush of new hotels catering mainly to the packaged tour crowd.
Some restaurants have even changed their menus in an apparent bid to appeal to the many tour groups which pass through the area.
So it is a relief that Sasaichi has been able to maintain its high standards in the peaceful and sophisticated yet unstuffy atmosphere that marks it out from many restaurants in the area.
For those who prefer not to have to venture out at night and would rather dine in the comfort of their hotel, Yumedono, in Kawaguchi-ko, offers elegant accommodations in a traditional Japanese setting that takes guests back to a bygone era.
Alas, the great views from Yumedono of Mt Fuji have now been obstructed by the construction of a hotel nearby. Still, guests will enjoy sumptuous meals at dinner and breakfast, and relaxing hot spring baths in serene surroundings.
The five lakes area at the foot of Mt Fuji cannot boast Michelin-starred restaurants or super-luxurious hotels. But few sights can compete with the beauty of a mountain as imposing as Fuji-san soaring over the tranquil waters of the five lakes. As long as Mt Fuji and the five lakes endure, the Fujigoko area will no doubt continue to attract admirers from all over Japan and beyond.
Address : 3-16-15 Shib-Nishihara, Fujiyoshida-shi, Yamanashi
Phone : 0555-20-0331
Website : www.sasaichi.jp
Hours : 17:00-22:30
Closed : Wednesdays, year-end and New Year’s holidays
Dinner courses : kaiseki courses -Y7,000, Y5,000, Y3,650
shabu-shabu courses – Y4,500, Y3,500
Address : 6677 Funatsu, Fujikawaguchiko Yamanashi
Phone : 0555-72-6111