I ate a bear. Sorry. I didn't mean to. It was a weird case of what happens when: a) you're greedy; b) do not question three Michelin-starred Japanese chefs who tell you about a mind-blowing meal to be had in an obscure mountain location outside Kyoto; c) do not speak Japanese; d) mistake cute bear cartoons to mean that tea sessions can be organised with friendly neighbourhood grizzlies.
Our bizarre eating experience begins at Kyoto station, where a one-hour ride with the first unfriendly Japanese taxi-driver we've come across takes us on a slow route through bad traffic and the winding mountain roads of Shiga prefecture before we finally reach Kuzukawa valley, near the capital city of Otsu. In the middle of nowhere, he suddenly pulls up in front of a random, weather-beaten old wooden house, cleans us out of some 12,000 yen (it's usually around 7,000 yen), dismisses us with a jaunty Ja Ne (Bye) and speeds off, leaving us to our own devices.
"Hirasansou?" We hesitantly ask the lady who opens the door with a broad welcoming smile and reassuring Hai!Dozo!
We were already warned that the accomodation at Hirasansou ryokan would be basic. And it is. The rooms are spacious if spartan, and have no locks (but no one walks past anyway). There's one communal shower (scrupulously clean) and no central heating (it's May but the room is freezing and we don't know how to say "heater"). But we're bowled over by the consummate hospitality shown by the staff, who do all they can despite their near non-existent English to make us feel at home.
The simple countryside inn spans three generations, run currently by Ito Takeji - grandson of the original ryokan owner - and his wife Yukiko. Once you get your bearings right, you can see why the place is so well-patronised. It sits smack within a vast mountain range with lush vegetation and ample hiking trails - proof of that being the morning sight of local trekkers armed with backpacks and poles marching past below your window before you've even ventured downstairs for breakfast.
Pick of wild greens
Mountains. Rivers. Forests. With such rich flora and fauna in his backyard, Takeji-san literally has his pick of the best produce, so it's clear why the culinary elite head out to his neck of the woods, literally. Considering that Kyoto vegetables are the cream of the crop in Japan - even justifying its own label, kyo yasai - Hirasansou goes even further with its pick of wild greens.
Fish variety is one thing they don't have, since the region is surrounded by the large Lake Biwa, but in the spring, the waters are flush with fat ayu - sweet, succulent finger-length specimens with their trademark bitter stomach that is an acquired taste - and local carp.
You know that food is the star at Hirasansou because the best view is reserved for the dining room, which looks out into a postcard-perfect garden view - complete with koi pond - that could even rival that of three-starred Kitcho in Kyoto's Arashiyama. And - the room is heated. Do not expect a meal of haute kaiseki proportions, though. You're looking at pristine ingredients, minimally prepared to showcase the natural flavours.
We kick off with a plate of delicate tempura - airy, crisp batter surrounding wild vegetables - a chunky, meaty, asparagus-like stem as well as dainty, flower-shaped leaf clusters. Following up is an appetiser presentation of cold, cooked baby fish, shrimp and vegetables seasoned in varying degrees of soya sauce and vinegar.
A sashimi platter is composed of what's available locally - pale, curled boiled unagi, raw slices of carp with its distinctive freshwater flavour and minuscule bones and the surprise hit that is raw deer meat or shika. If you've been conned into eating horsemeat sashimi before and secretly liked it, this is similar - like very rich, marbled, meaty tuna with a silky bite. If you're a fan of ayu - it's hard to get anything better than these grilled morsels of delicate sweet flesh. The bitter innards, though, are a different matter.
When our server starts to assemble a charcoal stove at our table, a dim, distant memory suddenly clicks in our heads. A vague mention by our Tokyo chef friends about bear hotpot, a very rare delicacy that's really hard to find in Japan . . .
Takeji-san himself places the plate of immaculately sliced squares of glistening deep-red meat matched with an equal layer of pure white fat, looking like a luxurious display of top-quality jamon iberico bellota. The affable, almost bear-sized owner-chef motions to his chest to indicate the cut of meat - the best part.