A GLIMPSE OF SHIRAKAWA-GO
Shirakawa-go lies in the mountains of the north western part of Gifu Prefecture, central Japan, that takes one hour from Takayama city. Ogimachi Village, the largest village in Shirakawa-go, is known for the thatched roof farmhouses resembling a Buddhist monk hand in prayer called gassho-zukuri. Since 1995, Shirakawa-go has been listed in UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once secluded and unknown among foreigners, Shirakawa-go has become one of the most popular attractions in Japan. The gassho-zukuri farmhouses, mostly built in 1800, are not only nice to see from the outside, but also function as souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, and even guesthouses. However, Shirakawa-go is still a residential area, since other farmhouses remain a place to stay for local people. Therefore, it is very necessary for visitors to respect the tranquility of the area and no trespassing in private houses.
WHAT’S IN A LOVELY FARMHOUSE WITH CUCUMBER VINES
There are over 25 restaurants and cafes listed on the map of Shirakawa-go if you have enough patience to find which one suits your taste. How I chose Ochudo Cafe Restaurant, that I only found out its name in the end of my visit, as a place to eat was truly by coincidence.
I spotted another gassho style farmhouse that got my attention because of the lovely terrace and hanging cucumber vines on the thatched roof like a necklace on someone’s neck. I really thought that it’s a private resident until I saw a tourist sitting on the long chair in front of the house.
Moreover, there were frames placed under the roof mentioning “Coffee”, “Tea”, the menu written in both Japanese and English, an “Open” wall hanging wooden sign and some Japanese inscriptions I couldn’t read.
To be honest, it didn’t offer many choices of meal I expected, most probably because the main concept is a cafe rather than a restaurant. It offers coffee, tea, cafe latte, citron juice, orange juice, toast bread, curry rice and sweet red bean soup or zenzai. Wait! Curry rice sounded like a great choice. I’ve tried Japanese curry before, yet I hadn’t tasted it in Japan during my visit, so why not?
Entering the farmhouse, I noticed that it has experienced some modifications. The shoe rack spot is replaced by stairs to go down to the main dining room, so there’s no need to take off your shoes to enter the restaurant. I was happy that I didn’t have to untie my shoes to get in.
The traditional sunken hearth kitchen or an open fireplace called irori is transformed into a table, surrounded by benches instead of sitting on the flat pillows on the floor, where customers still can witness the traditional way of boiling water and cooking food in more comfortable way.
I looked up to the ceiling and it’s surprisingly see-through, inner side of the construction was visible, including that of the thatched roof.
The pantry is dominated by collections of (English style) tea cups and their matching saucers kept neatly arranged in the shelves, where the rest of the cups were hung on the wooden lease of the pantry together with the lanterns. What’s so cool about the hanging cups is that customers who order tea and coffee can choose one of them for their drinks. Creating a memorable customer experience doesn’t have to be complicated.
Another thing I like about the interior is how they use leftover spaces and personal belongings to deliver homey atmosphere inside a commercial place by displaying children’s drawings, family pictures, a table lamp, toys and again, tea cups. Functioning unused chairs into tables by placing tablecloths on the seats is also a great idea.
Was I entering my relative’s home or a restaurant? Good question.
SERVICE EXCELLENCE: WHEN SPEED, QUALITY AND HOSPITALITY MERGE HARMONIOUSLY
Accommodating about 20 to 30 people maximum, the dining area is not that big. No wonder why it quickly became full, especially at lunch time. Only 20 minutes later did I get my seat after two Caucasian ladies left their spot. But it doesn’t mean that it was not busy any longer.
A couple in their 50’s ran all the operational activities, that I assume the owners (let’s call them uncle and auntie), who kept going back and forth serving customers, from taking orders until bringing food and drinks to them. I was curious whether there was any chef helping them in the kitchen, but I didn’t see anyone appearing from there. Honestly, I admit that the uncle and auntie had a quick response, amazing speed and agility for their age.
The uncle greeted me, passing me the artsy handmade menu on the table. Having a shape like a palette paint made of thick cardboard, it was covered with pumpkin orange colour recycled paper and the menu list was written by hand on both sides. Lovely!
I instantly ordered curry with rice (¥ 900 or about $ 8), but not the set menu that comes with sweet red bean soup (¥ 1300 or about $ 12) because red bean is not really my favorite, although it’s one of the best sellers in Ochudo.
My curry rice came with a sliced pumpkin and some beans, red ginger as a side dish and a glass of water, that usually served for free in any restaurants in Japan. I previously thought that I would get a chicken curry rice, therefore I didn’t expect that it would be a vegetarian dish, but that’s okay.
Even though I’m more a fan of Indian and Thai curry, I also like a Japanese version of curry with a tendency of sweet taste rather than emphasizing strong spices. Compared to the one I once had in a big restaurant chain, my sense of taste could tell that the curry sauce at Ochudo was purely home cooking with fresher ingredients, so it was just tasted better and nothing fabricated. Or perhaps I was just I carried away with the homey surroundings inside the heritage house.
What makes it more special was the rice, gosh I loved it lots! Instead of using regular steamed rice, the curry was served with zakkokumai, rice with mixed seeds and grains, giving purplish colour on the rice. It had al dente texture, subtle sweetness with earthy taste, that completely blended well with the curry. The only thing I didn’t touch was the red ginger, simply because I don’t like ginger at all.
The uncle started a small talk with me when he cleared up my table, asking how the food was. I frankly said it was great and really liked the rice. I wanted to know what he put in the rice besides azuki or red bean, but he only said, “It’s made with many beans.” Most probably because either he didn’t have much time to explain or his English was too limited to elaborate the answer.
I said to myself that it could have been better if there was more content in the curry sauce itself. But it wasn’t a big deal at all.
“Where do you come from?” He asked me again.
I replied, “Indonesia.”
“Oww… Indonesia. They also come from Indonesia.” He pointed a group of six sitting across my table, who originally came from Surabaya, East Java.
Knowing that I was travelling alone, he passed me a book to read about Shirakawa-go to accompany me. On top right of the book, I saw hand-written Japanese characters with Latin letters right below it mentioning, “Ochudo.” It was the moment I realized that the cafe restaurant name was Ochudo since I didn’t look at the map at all.
I was touched by the uncle’s hospitality and sensitivity despite language barrier and limited time in peak hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to communicate with the auntie since she was at the pantry all the time, but I believe she was a nice woman, too.
Overall, I had a great time and great meal, giving me more energy to continue strolling around the village. Anytime you visit Shirakawa-go, make sure you take your time dining at Ochudo Cafe Restaurant when hunger strike.
Ochudo Cafe Restaurant
792 Ogimachi, Shirakawa, Ono District, Gifu Prefecture, Japan
Phone: +81 90-5458-0418
Opening hours: 10 am to 5 pm