The peaceful, slow-moving town of Tono lies in the rural heart of Iwate Prefecture, far removed from the more famous, well-visited tourist sites of Tohoku. Surrounded by forested mountains, Iwate is best known for its bucolic landscapes and colorful folkloric heritage — much less so for its hearty, rustic food culture.

And yet, over the past decade, this calm backwater has quietly established a reputation as a dining destination worthy of a special detour. A small but steady trickle of cognoscenti — chefs, restaurateurs, sake mavens and assorted gastronomes — have been making their way there. Their goal: Tonoya Yo, a boutique auberge-restaurant quite unlike any other in the country.

Set unobtrusively on a tranquil residential street, Tonoya Yo is housed in a former rice storehouse that once graced the property of a wealthy farmer in the prefectural hinterland. Transported, refurbished and fitted out in a seamless blend of traditional and contemporary craftsmanship, it makes an atmospheric accommodation that perfectly complements the inventive multicourse meals prepared by owner-chef Yotaro Sasaki.

Rice farming and doburoku brewing lie at the heart of his meals at his boutique auberge, Tonoya Yo. | NAOH INC.
Rice farming and doburoku brewing lie at the heart of his meals at his boutique auberge, Tonoya Yo. | NAOH INC.

Born into a family of innkeepers, he has hospitality in his DNA. Even before his great-grandfather registered the hostelry under the name Minshuku Tono in 1921, it had been providing accommodation and sustenance for visitors to the town for generations.

Sasaki learned the fundamentals of Kyoto cuisine from his father, who had trained in the old capital. Since branching off to set up Tonoya Yo 10 years ago, leaving the family inn in the hands of his brother, he has delved deeply into regional traditions while also borrowing influences from further afield, even outside Japan. In doing so, he has created a repertoire of impressive originality and left-field maverick magic.

This becomes obvious from the very outset of your meal. Before the first course is served, you will be poured a drink — not champagne or a cocktail, but a frothy, creamy-white liquor the consistency of eggnog. This is doburoku, the unfiltered, unrefined country cousin of modern-day sake.

Produced in farming communities across the country since ancient times — well before the sake we know today was developed — doburoku is often deprecated as “Japan’s moonshine.” At best, most doburoku is frisky; at worst it is undrinkably funky, but Sasaki’s is sensational, with an elegant balance of sweetness and acidity enhanced by a smooth, milky texture on the tongue.

As in other rural communities across Japan, the Tono area has long embraced the tradition of illicit farmhouse doburoku. Minshuku Tono used to brew it too, although under Sasaki’s father the practice was allowed to lapse. Long before he took up cooking, or even dreamed of running a hotel, reclaiming that birthright was Sasaki’s first project.

When still in his early 20s, he became the first person in the country to gain a doburoku brewing license. It took him a couple of years of intense study and bureaucratic maneuvering, followed by a decade of experimentation to finally produce a drink he was happy with.

Chawanmushi (egg custard) incorporating sake kasu (lees) and a chunk of fermented pork sausage. | NAOH INC.
Chawanmushi (egg custard) incorporating sake kasu (lees) and a chunk of fermented pork sausage. | NAOH INC.

Twenty years on, his craft has evolved into a thriving cottage industry, with a product list that also includes “Dobuqueur” (doburoku with added fruit juice), amazake and even “Dobusu” vinegar. Customers range from Tokyo’s essential Gem by Moto sake bar to the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country.

The not-so-secret ingredient in this success story is the quality of the rice Sasaki uses in the brewing process. He grows virtually all he needs in paddy fields rigorously tended according to organic principles. He says doburoku produced without agricultural chemicals develops quite different microorganisms and associated flavor components during the fermentation process.

He cultivates a strain of rice once widely grown in the area, but now mostly abandoned by other farmers in favor of modern hybrids. Called Tono Ichigo (“Tono #1”), it is both stronger and more resilient to pests and blight. More pertinently, it can be used both as a table rice and also for brewing.

For Sasaki, rice farming and doburoku brewing are not side projects. They lie at the heart of everything he does at Tonoya Yo. Ask him how he came up with the distinctive dishes he serves his guests, and the simple answer is “I developed them to match my doburoku.”

That has given rise to the other core pillar of Sasaki’s cuisine: fermentation. Animal and vegetable alike, he pickles and preserves, salts and dries, curdles and ages and transforms with molds.

This is no mere whim or nod to contemporary food fashion: He’s recreating, yet modernizing, the kind of diet that people in Tono ate by necessity, especially in the depths of winter, when they would be snowed in. Cut off from both the coast and the main population centers further inland, and with little in the way of fresh produce, their essential nutrition came from preserved foods.

In one winter dish, Sasaki uses scallops that have been salted and pickled in nuka (rice bran from his doburoku production) for several months. Tangy and salty, they act as a condiment when served with hot kuzukiri, light but filling transparent noodles made from arrowroot starch.

Another outstanding course is his drunken shrimp. Large prawns are steeped in sake, then seasoned with katsuo shutō, the lightly salted, fermented innards of skipjack tuna. Sipping and nibbling slowly, you are left with the lingering flavor of the seashore on your palate.

Homemade blocks of nama-fu are prepared from local Nanbu wheat, then pan-fried to give them the texture of polenta and draped with slivers of Tono prosciutto. | NAOH INC.
Homemade blocks of nama-fu are prepared from local Nanbu wheat, then pan-fried to give them the texture of polenta and draped with slivers of Tono prosciutto. | NAOH INC.

Taking inspiration from visits to Italy, Sasaki produces creditable prosciutto-style home-cured ham and a hard cheese not dissimilar to Parmesan. The ham features in an intriguing dish of homemade nama-fu — small blocks of soft gluten that he prepares from local Nanbu wheat — that are pan-fried to give them the texture of polenta, and then draped with slivers of his Tono prosciutto.

And then there is his version of a much-loved local dumpling dish known as hittsumi. He makes the dough extra wide, almost as if it were lasagna, then sprinkles it with homemade cheese and finishes it with preserved hoya (salted sea squirt), grated over the top much like karasumi (bottarga roe).

He also has a remarkable chawanmushi. Not only does he incorporate sake kasu (lees) into the steamed egg custard, he also includes a chunk of pork sausage that he has left to ferment until it develops a flavor almost as tangy as Thai sai krok sausage.

These are cold weather dishes, warming and nourishing, with all the bonus microorganisms from the fermentation chambers. But he has other signature creations that are less tied to one particular season.

He takes preserved sea urchin, forming it into tiny blocks that he covers with a layer of dried matsumo seaweed. Encased in this spiky, jade-green covering, they are presented on top of smooth rust-colored rocks, evoking the mysteries of the maritime environment.

Or he lightly cooks tender, lean sasami breast meat of wild pigeon in warayaki style, seared over flames made with the straw from his own paddies. The meat, firm but tender, and still full of juices, is paired with aka-kabu (small scarlet turnips) that have been packed and left for months in fermenting rice, a pungent style of pickle known as narezushi.

A meal at Tonoya Yo concludes with a simple bowl of Tono Ichigo rice and soup made with fermented rice bran. Sasaki grows this rice organically in his own tanbo (field). | NAOH INC.
A meal at Tonoya Yo concludes with a simple bowl of Tono Ichigo rice and soup made with fermented rice bran. Sasaki grows this rice organically in his own tanbo (field). | NAOH INC.

The progression of dishes, each as unusual as the last, culminates on a comforting note with a serving of Tono Ichigo rice. It comes with a simple bowl of soup you would swear is seasoned with miso, but is actually made from the rice bran in which the seafood has been pickled. Just another of the exceptional discoveries Sasaki has made in the course of his kitchen studies.

Currently, meals are only served to those who are booked in to stay in Sasaki’s stylish, comfortable guest rooms (accommodation available for a maximum of six). This ensures that each visit to Tonoya Yo remains an exclusive and highly prized experience.

The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurants selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.

Zaimokucho 2-17, Tono, Iwate 028-0521; 0198-62-7557; tonoya-yo.com; meals are served to overnight guests only, for full details and costs contact Tonoya Yo; nearest station Tono; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English not spoken

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