Follow Me Japan organized a special itinerary for our vacation in Kyushu last winter, which took us to all the major points of Japan's south-westernmost island. Since all tours with them deliver a consistently high standard of food and accommodation in particular, when we found that they had planned a stay at KAI Aso (界 阿蘇) as one of the highlights of our trip, we knew it was going to be something extraordinary.
Kyushu is an island full of spectacular vistas, from rolling hills to lush valleys. The most stunning lies in the Kumamoto Region: Mt. Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. Scant weeks before our arrival, the Nakadake crater had spewed out plumes of volcanic smoke and ash, which still covered the ground when we went to visit the Aso Volcano Museum. In this land of fire, the danger of a volcanic activity provides a heady undercurrent of danger, but nature is also at its most enchanting. KAI Aso is a luxurious resort located within a thick forest, and boasts stunning views of the five peaks of Mt. Aso.
When you think of accommodation in Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is their ryokan (旅館), which no matter how simple or opulent, tend to possess many similar features. Where KAI Aso differs, is by blending traditional concepts of omotenashi (おもてなし - the uniquely Japanese approach to hospitality) with elements of luxury travel living not commonly seen in Japan. All 12 of KAI Aso's 'rooms' are in fact private villas, half of which are furnished with Western-style bedrooms, and the rest with Japanese Tatami layouts. We were taken by buggy from the spacious common area, where all of us had been warming our fingers by a roaring but sleekly enclosed fireplace, to our individual villas. M and I shared one adjacent to the villa occupied by D & BB, but standing on the terrace and looking out, it was all too easy to imagine we were alone in the woods.
The villas were utterly lavish. D and BB tested the beds, and fell right asleep, which just goes to show how divine they were. The sitting area was spacious, and M and I had a leisurely pot of tea while we basked in our surrounds. But my favourite part of the villa was the private outdoor hot spring baths, supplied with an endless flow of natural mineral-rich water from the springs of Mt. Aso itself. There's no better winter-time activity than taking a soothing open-air bath. Being able to relax and commune with nature out in the middle of a forest was a real treat (No bears were spotted, but there were a few interesting looking birds), and having a tub all to myself was heavenly.
I opted to go for dinner clad in the rather modern yukata KAI Aso had provided. M felt more comfortable in her winter gear, so when I couldn't choose between the red or blue silken obi that came with the gown, I was able to cinch both tightly around my waist. I realized the depth of my folly as our kaiseiki dinner went on.
The cuisine served by KAI Aso is deeply rooted in the kinds of fresh produce that can be found grown in the fertile lands around Mt. Aso, and in the rich waters of Kyushu. Only the freshest seasonal ingredients are served, and everything is superbly cooked then exquisitely presented. We were served our sake in metal cups to keep it chilled, which I'd never tried before. The tang of the metal imparted flavours I'm not entirely certain I can appreciate in sake, but it was definitely an interesting experience all the same.
KAI Aso took the time to prepare a menu in English for us, which made our dining experience a lot smoother, rather than an exercise in guessing the mystery flavours. Our appetizer course consisted of two small plates, and we tackled the one placed closest to us first. My first bite was of slivers of Akaushi Beef (赤牛) from the Mt. Aso region, preserved in miso paste. I had expected it to have the consistency of jerky, but was pleasantly surprised to find it softly textured. The horse meat served tartare style with a soft-boiled quail egg, hailed from Kumamoto province, where horse is styled sakura nikku, or cherry blossom meat for its delicate flavour. It definitely lived up to its reputation. The trio was rounded off with some home-made fresh cottage cheese, served with plump cherry tomato wedges and a crispy baked basil leaf.
The series of intricate appetizers continued with a crabmeat and kinuta roll, held together by a paper-thin strip of daikon. The tall glass contained the insides of a deep fried eggplant, remarkably smooth, topped with tonburi seeds, or mountain caviar, and flying fish roe. In the black cup was refreshing mustard spinach, and a slice of boiled soy-flavoured shiitake mushroom, which reminded me of the surrounding forests. The yellow petal-shaped bowl held a creamy soy-milk tofu, served with shungiku, or bitter spinach miso, which tasted very fresh. It being winter in Japan, duck was featured on the menu, here served smoked, and wrapped around a piece of stewed yet firm apple. The dried yam stems were prepared tosa-style, basically pickled in soy sauce and bonito flakes. Simple, but surprisingly good. I gave my salmon rice cracker coated with almonds to BB, who didn't know how to appreciate most of the other appetizers, but certainly derived great joy from this one item. I enjoyed the dried persimmon ball stuffed with foie gras best. The rest of the table largely agreed, and we all marvelled at the effort that went into engineering it.
Our soup course was a distinctly Japanese iteration of pumpkin soup, containing a deep fried daikon radish cake, seafood sticks, and blades of sliced snow peas. I'm used to heavier, creamier pumpkin soups, but this was delightful as well, with a very robust and sweet pumpkin flavour shining through.
Our sashimi course was a great deal of fun. Instead of the usual platter to be dipped into the same bowl of soy sauce, the chefs had devised individual sauces to accompany each type of raw food. The natto soy sauce that went with the mackerel thankfully didn't have too strong of a natto flavour. The red snapper was served simply with flakes of salt and a lime, while the scallop was paired with a similarly citrusy yuzu sauce, which I thought was excellent. The red yuzu that came with the cuttle fish had a bit of a kick to it, which was soothed by a drizzle of avocado oil. I'm still not quite sure what shuto soy sauce is exactly, but it was thick, slightly sweet, and went well with the amberjack. The most interesting pieces of sashimi were grouped together on a separate platter: sweet botan ebi shrimp served with a dollop of thick egg yolk soy sauce, Aso horse meat served with a pulpy blend of local leek and plum, and whelk, which came buried under diaphanous flakes of kelp yam and wasabi salt kelp.
The tempura course likewise veered away from the strictly traditional, with a deep fried shrimp dumpling taking pride of place among pieces of seasonal vegetable tempura, and refreshingly served with matcha salt and lemon.
Our main course was shabu-shabu of not only beef, but red grouper as well. All of us were wowed by the quality of the beef - just look at that marbling and the wonderful colour of the meat - but it was the red grouper that stole the show.
Cooked, the grouper took on an iridescent sheen, and had a wonderful texture just perfect for satisfying chewing. We'd never tried shabu-shabu with fish prior to this, and it blew my mind with how good it was.
Before the meal began, we had to choose from one of five desserts, and throughout dinner I was worried that I'd made the wrong choice. Why did I order the cheese souffle with raspberry sauce, when I could have gone for the plum wine jelly, or the stewed apples? In the end though, my choice was vindicated as the best dessert.
One thing special about the KAI Aso ryokan in the autumn and winter months, is their Yaki-Imo Lounge, an area where local sweet golden yams are roasted. As we exited from the dining area, we were each given a small gift of a freshly-cooked foil wrapped yam, snugly tucked into a bamboo basket. We were too full to eat it, but soon discovered that the yam made an excellent hand-warmer when we ventured out towards the unlit main road to gaze up at the starry, starry night. Up on the hill and with the sky free of clouds, I could make out the Pleiades.
The yams were cool by the time we made our way back to the villa, but were still so good, and served as a moreish midnight snack. KAI Aso was a magical getaway, and a fitting highlight for a wonderful holiday.