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What to Eat When You’re in Shuzenji

One of the most fabled hot-springs resorts in Japan, Shuzenji is located in the hilly center of the Izu Peninsula and can easily be incorporated into a trip to Mt. Fuji or Hakone.

Long favored by famous novelists, including Natsume Soseki (author of “Botchan” and “I am a Cat,”), Shuzenji’s international name recognition soared when it was selected to host the cycling events in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. This peaceful mountain retreat is just two hours by train from Tokyo but feels like a world apart.

Most overnight guests to Shuzenji stay in one of its excellent onsen ryokan, the traditional style of inn where bathing in natural hot-spring mineral baths is included in the tariff, as is a sumptuous multi-course Japanese dinner and traditional breakfast the next morning. If this is your lodging choice, you’re set as far as fine dining goes: the kitchen will draw on the best of local and seasonal foods, curating two amazing makase repasts for you. You won’t go wrong leaving the decisions to the chef.

When you’re on your own, whether for lunch and snacks, or if you’re in town just for the day, this guide will help you make your own discoveries of the tastiest fare Shuzenji has on offer.

The Katsura River with its many rocks appears like a babbling brook in parts (like it does here). There is a quaint red bridge over the water and some of the deciduous trees lining the bank have turned red. Japanese-style houses can be seen through the trees along the street running parallel to the river..
The Katsura River runs right through the center of this fabled hot-spring town. Photo courtesy of the Shuzenji Onsen Ryokan Cooperative.

Shuzenji Eats: What to Try and What to Buy

We focus here on the old part of town which is centered around Shuzenji Temple and lines both banks of the Katsura River, connected by charming walking paths and little bridges. (The train- and bus-station is about three kilometers away, in a tidy open-air station complex with a convenience store, a gift shop with simple eats, and a very good tourist information center with friendly, English-speaking staff.)

While there are plenty of options for lunch, keep in mind that Shuzenji is quiet in the evening because most overnight visitors have their dinner in their inn. If you’re planning to stay in town for an evening meal, it’s a good idea to line up something in advance.

A good choice is Meshiya Mizu, reviewed below for their excellent bento lunch, which will re-open to serve an evening course (from 3,150 yen) if you make a reservation two days in advance. They can provide fully vegetarian meals for lunch or dinner, including using only plant-based ingredients for the dashi cooking broth, if given at least two-days’ notice.

The tree-lined walkway leading up to Shuzenji Temple, with the temple in the background. The photo has been taken in fall with the leaves a vivid red and orange, and many leaves already scattered on the ground, creating a very bright contrast with the temple and stone walkway.
Shuzenji has been an active center of Buddhism for over 1,200 years. Kobo Daishi, one of the most revered figures in Buddhism in Japan, trained here as a young man and founded Shuzenji Temple (pictured). Photo courtesy of the Shuzenji Onsen Ryokan Cooperative.

Wasabi

Shuzenji is located smack dab in the middle of one of Japan’s premiere wasabi growing areas. The pungent plant requires very specific growing conditions, including ample pure water running at consistently cool temperatures. You simply won’t get wasabi any better or any fresher anywhere else in the world.

If the only wasabi you’ve tasted came from a tube, you’re in for a real treat — in Shuzenji, wasabi comes freshly grated, often right before your eyes. The flavors and aroma of just-prepared wasabi are amazing, and the combinations on offer in local shops are surprising, to say the least. Don’t miss the opportunity to try freshly grated wasabi on ice cream!

To the left is an ice-filled styrofoam box with four wasabi rhizomes (thickened stems) standing up in it. To the right, a server is handing over a soft-serve ice cream cone with a spoon and a dollop of freshly-grated wasabi.
Wasabi is best enjoyed within minutes of grating. At Café Hirono, the server grates it while you wait to plop a generous dollop on soft-serve ice cream. Amazing, and not to be confused with the wasabi-flavored soft ice cream found elsewhere! © Alice Gordenker

Try it here: There’s a lot of pride about the local wasabi in Shuzenji, so just about every eating establishment in Shuzenji takes the trouble to prepare their wasabi fresh, whether for sashimi, soba noodles or other dishes. So have no fear, you’re likely to get the real deal wherever you go. But here are a few of our favorites.

Café Hirono (カフェ弘乃), a tiny shop in the center of town on the river near the historic Tokko-no-Yu outdoor bath, offers soft ice cream garnished with wasabi grated on the spot to order, with both take-out and eat-in options. There are free foot baths nearby where you can sit and warm your heels while you eat your treat — if someone can hold your cone while you get your shoes and socks off! Pack a hanky or small towel to dry off afterwards.

A view of the center of Shuzenji town with the Katsura River winding around the historic Tokko-no-Yu outdoor bath (no longer accessible to the public).
Shuzenji town with the historic Tokko-no-Yu outdoor bath in view by the river. While this one is no longer accessible to the public, there are a number of hot springs available to enjoy around town, including two nearby foot baths – ‘Kawara no Yu’ as well as ‘River Terrace Sugi-no-Yu’ on the other side of the river in Tokkonoyu Park. © Alice Gordenker

Meshi-ya Mizu: This charming little restaurant near Shuzenji Temple offers Japanese-style atmosphere and excellent lunch value in their “Hanaguruma bento” (花車弁当), a pretty presentation of many tidbits of local foods including fish and seasonal vegetables, accompanied by your choice of three different rices: regular hakumai white rice, kuromai (black rice), which is a cultivated variety of wild rice that is both delicious and high in nutritional value, or gokokumai, a blend of white rice, barley, beans and two kinds of millet. If you can’t decide, they’ll give you some of all three.

An example of the Hanaguruma bento at Meshi-ya Mizu. In the front row, from left to right, is a side salad with vegetables, next is a small bowl of pickles and miso paste, followed by a bowl of miso soup with tofu. Behind it in the second row are two boxes that have been unstacked from one another - one has rice and pickles, and the other has the main of the day. To the left is a dessert with fruit.
An example of the Hanaguruma bento at Meshi-ya Mizu. The selection changes daily. Photograph: Michiko Kusama

Amago-jaya (also listed below for their river fish) uses only fresh wasabi. It’s served with just about everything on the menu, right down to drinks and dessert! We had fun grating our own wasabi at the table, and finished up our meal with vanilla ice cream topped with a big dollop of freshly grated wasabi. The restaurant also retails wasabi so you can buy some of the ungrated product to take home for later.

A glass of soda water with a long, black spoon standing up in it. In front of the glass is a Chinese-style spoon with freshly-grated wasabi on it and next to it is a plastic, disposable container of gum syrup with a peelable lid.
Freshly-grated wasabi to mix into soda water, at Amago-jaya. You can add gum syrup to taste for sweetness, but we liked it best without. © Alice Gordenker
To the left of frame is a chilled glass bowl of vanilla ice cream, and to the right is a wasabi rhizome (thickened stem) on top of a metal grater ready to be grated by the customer and enjoyed with the ice cream.
Fresh, whole wasabi ready to grate yourself as a topping on vanilla ice cream! At Amago-jaya. © Alice Gordenker

Buy it here: In the old part of town near Shuzenji temple, you can pick up fresh, whole wasabi at Kame-ya (亀屋), one of three gift shops in a small single-floor complex across from the historic Arai Ryokan, or from Daikoku-ya (大黒屋), a tofu shop located on the same street heading away from the temple. The Amago-jaya restaurant also sells whole wasabi to-go. If you’re heading out by train, stop at the gift shop inside the station, or stroll a minute out the south side of the station to the Iida Wasabi (飯田ワサビ) shop, which has all sorts of wasabi products.

Amago

Amago (Oncorhynchus masou macrostomus​) is one of Japan’s most prized fresh water fish, the red-spotted masu salmon. “Masu” means “trout” and, as the name suggests, the taste is something between salmon and trout.

Try it here: Amago-jaya (あまご茶屋) specializes in this tasty river fish, serving it up in all sorts of tempting ways, including shio-yaki (grilled with salt) and kabayaki, a method of preparation featuring a sweet-and-salty sauce that is more commonly made with unagi (eel). If you like sashimi, try the “Amago Zuke-don” with marinated slices of the raw fish served along with its roe atop rice.

One large amago fish and two smaller ones on a bed of leaves in a shallow basket next to a river. The fish have a silver underbelly, and red-brown and grey spots on top.
Amago is a highly-prized fresh water fish. Photo courtesy of Amago-jaya.
The Amago Zuke-don at Amago-jaya, featuring slices of raw amago fish marinated in a special sauce served atop rice along with the yellow roe.
The Amago Zuke-don features slices of the raw fish marinated in a special sauce served atop rice along with the yellow roe. It’s a variation of Japan’s ubiquitous oyako (“parent and child”) rice bowls, more commonly made with chicken and egg. Photo courtesy of Amago-jaya.

Honey

Buy it here: Hana-no-Michi (花の道)

China is a major exporter of honey to Japan, but discerning consumers go out of their way to find the much rarer domestically-produced product. The Hana-no-Michi store carries all sorts of bee products, including honeycomb, propolis and royal jelly, as well as gift items made with honey. There’s a window offering ice cream topped with honeycomb, take-out only.

Two hands can be seen holding a soft-serve ice cream in a cup made with 100% jersey milk and topped with Japanese honey still in the honeycomb in front of signs for the product at Hana-no-Michi, Shuzenji.
Quality soft ice cream made with 100% jersey milk and topped with Japanese honey still in the honeycomb. © Alice Gordenker

Sweets

If you haven’t sated your sweet tooth with all those ice cream offerings, check out the charmingly traditional teahouse Isseki-an (一石庵) for traditional Japanese confections. It’s located right on the river that runs through the center of town.

The 'anmitsu bowl' with adzuki bean paste and kuromitsu sauce at Isseki-an, Shuzenji.
Try traditional sweets such as this anmitsu bowl with adzuki bean paste and kuromitsu sauce at Isseki-an. © Alice Gordenker

Craft workshop Uchicchi (遊房 うちっち) doubles as a café and offers good coffee, simple lunches and a freshly baked sweet of the day.

Local Craft Beer

Try it here: Baird Taproom & Brewery Gardens Shuzenji 

American Bryan Baird runs a craft brewery in Shuzenji. There’s no restaurant on premises but light snacks are available, including deer jerky. Visitors are welcome to carry in their own food to enjoy with the fresh beers on tap.

Local sake

The Izu-Bandai sake brewery is located just outside of Shuzenji, and most inns and restaurants in the area carry a selection of their sakes. Try the relatively straightforward futsu-shu arabashiri (first-run sake) 普通酒 あらばしり or pay a bit more for their daiginjo “Wakitaya” 大吟醸 脇田屋.

Buy it here: To buy Izu-Bandai and other sakes by the bottle, check out the Yagawa (矢川酒店) or Matsuya (松屋商店) liquor shops in the old part of town. There are also some Izu-Bandai selections at the gift shop in the train station.

Find more information on Shuzenji on their Tourism Promotion website (machine translation into English, Korean and Chinese).

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