As soon as I saw photos of Fukudaya, I felt at ease, I knew I had to visit. I could feel Fukudaya calling, crying out to me to hear her stories and see her history, to ascertain how some of the more modern design aspects have been interwoven into the fabric of the building. I yearned to hear how they take advantage of their proximity to the life source that is Lake Biwa, how they work with local farmers to harvest the best organic produce, or forage the mountains for wild vegetables, which I was to learn, culminates in a rapturous ode to seasonality, served up simply but artistically, as a bespoke menu tailored to you. A glorious celebration of the seemingly limitless sustenance of the surrounding landscape.
During our visit, we enjoyed carp and rainbow trout and a number of fish endemic to Lake Biwa, including stone moroko, the latter of which was served fried with star anise and served in a wooden hassun box, a tray of tidbits from mountain and sea that we enjoyed with a flight of local sake. Accompanying the moroko was charcoal cooked tile fit (also from the lake), sweet potato -chipped and flavoured with Japanese sansho pepper - and funazushi, a fermented dish unique to the Lake Biwa region that takes tremendous effort to prepare. Pregnant crucian carp caught in the spring are pickled in salt, and in the summertime are pressed with rice and further pickled, this time for a total of three years. The intense umami and sour flavours were a shock to the palate, but a pleasant one, particularly with the local sake that was recommended on the side.
The chef was artful in his flavour combinations. A standout dish was hobayaki - local chicken wrapped in a dried magnolia leaf with shiitake, persimmon and miso and charcoal-grilled. The head of the house, trained in subtle questioning, even managed to coax from us a few of our favourite dishes and relay them back to the kitchen, producing an unexpected but irresistible extra course of karaage (Japanese fried chicken) at dinner, and agedashi tofu (deep fried tofu in stock made from bonito flakes) at breakfast. A care and attention to detail that did not go unnoticed.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Imazu, Shiga, the locale to which Fukudaya belongs, was a flourishing port town and a stopping point on the road connecting the Sea of Japan to Kyoto. The building has a 140 year history of welcoming weary travellers. Amongst them, poets and writers, who according to records, sought inspiration inside these wooden walls. Fukudaya closed when it could no longer ride the many tides of change that redefined mobility in the area, minimising the need for this trade route and its inns. Though luckily, the property has been revived once more, and after a six year stint of disassembly and repairs, is now once again welcoming guests. The interiors effortlessly capture the character that was once present, though with comfortable design updates like western-style beds, glass-walled windows for uninterrupted viewing of the lake, and underfloor heating.
Past the lobby area, to the rear of the building, are the living quarters, which offer complete seclusion, the entire property hosts only one group of up to six people at a time. There’s a lightness to the rooms thanks to the clever separation by translucent shoji (sliding screen doors made from paper) that retain a traditional Japanese aesthetic and a connection to the past that resonates with me during my stay. At Fukudaya, there was a will to bring the outdoors in, inviting guests to enjoy the peace-inducing nature and changing hues of aquamarine skies from the deck, or open the glass doors in the dining area to welcome in a sweet, freshwater breeze with breakfast.
Fukudaya’s narrative of celebrating the local area and its produce is continued in its constituent materials, furniture, and fittings, all of which have been rethought and reconfigured to find a balance between preservation and regeneration, romance and recreation. The subtle colour scheme lends itself to this mission, mirroring the natural beauty of the surroundings. Fukudaya blissfully captures the relationship between individual and community, human and nature. It is an idyll, a coalescence of nature, relaxation, and gastronomy.
Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies