Food, Travel and Engawa: A Japanese Experience

Paul Wood find that in Japan, the concept of engawa is as much an architectural design element as it is a way of life, making its way into the worlds of food, travel and leisure.

A way to bring the outside in, engawa is traditionally an in-between vestibule that wraps around a building, functioning as either an indoor gathering space or an outdoor area thanks to a clever use of screens. Engawa maintains connections, allowing a building to fade into nature by framing and harmonising interiors with exterior landscapes. The concept now informs a contemporary way of life influencing design, travel and food.

The Aman Tokyo is one of the city’s newest and most luxurious addresses. A monument to the modern Japanese capital, a place where urban dynamism is tempered with serenity. While such a grandiose hotel in the centre of the world’s busiest metropolis might seem as far away from nature as you would expect, the interior of this resort has been meticulously designed to make you feel a world away. Traditional elements of stone, timber and washi paper are used to create a dramatic sanctuary in the hotel lobby and restaurant, bars and spaces for relaxation and conversation wrap around the exterior — their very own engawa.

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Imperial palace building in Tokyo

The hotel occupies the top six floors of the 38-storey Otemachi Tower, and through panoramic 33rd floor lobby windows, uninterrupted views of the lush grounds of the Imperial Palace gardens at the centre of Tokyo complete the picture. The feeling of serenity is all-consuming us as we enter our 37th floor suite. The interior is elegant and simplistic. Windows stretching the length of the room offer more of those views and washi paper screens the main room from the wet areas, which includes everything from a stone bath to views of Tokyo Tower.

As if exploring the Aman isn’t exciting enough, our adventure really begins at dinner.

Narisawa is currently the 18th best restaurant in the world according to The World’s 50 Best. Simplicity is a word that is overused in the culinary world but at Narisawa each dish epitomises simplicity. Ultimately, this is food prepared in a way that nature intended. Take ‘essence of the forest’. Presented as scenery, a hewn timber board showcases ingredients fresh from the forest floor. Next, a broth of sea snake from Okinawa washes around tender diced clam and sea bream bites. A single virgin oyster with baby peas has the impact of a half-dozen and is bettered only by baby sweet fish from the seas of Kanagawa, lightly tempura in style and served in a pool of its own pink roe.

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Narisawa’s Essence of the Forest dish

At its core, Narisawa strives to offer guests a style of cuisine and dining experience not easily replicated. The cities are surrounded by the sea and forests, the Japanese believe that people live in unison with nature, taking only the most necessary from the earth to support their lives. Narisawa succeeds in bringing the outdoors to the table as you are somehow transported to the ocean or the forest floor with each mouthful.

Awaking to a fresh new day, breakfast at the Aman Tokyo is something to behold – the ultimate AM bento box. The meal is presented like geometric artwork placed meticulously on the table. Out of the restaurant window distant views of Mount Fuji evoke excitement of the adventure that waits for rest of our luxury sojourn. After soaking in all that the Aman has to offer, we head off in search of the nearest Shinkansen station and before we know it are bulleting at 300 kilometres an hour towards the world’s most iconic snow-capped mountain.

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View of Mount Fuji from Kawaguchiko Train Station

HOSHINOYA Fuji is not your everyday holiday resort, designed with the busy Japanese family in mind it offers short stay nature and culinary adventures with all the modern conveniences.

An interpretation of engawa, Hoshino seems to bring more of the inside out and is designed to allow guests to live according to nature’s rhythms. The ‘campsite’ is set over a series of platforms with giant fire bowls at the centre of each. Fire-side lounges come complete with cushions and blankets and attentive staff serve tea and drinks while we watch others prepare the afternoon feast of waffles, sweet cakes, marshmallows and chocolate.

Rugged up in supplied goose-down knee length coats, we check into our tents (which are luxurious eco-pods). Starkly contrasting the surrounding forest on the outside, and simply designed inside to make the most of the views facing Mount Fuji. We see a sneaky peak over low clouds on arrival, but the majestic mountain stays hidden for the rest of the day. Only one in five guests actually gets to see the top of Mount Fuji according to local legend. “She only comes out once a week if you’re lucky,” chuckles our friendly porter.

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Outdoor leisure area at the HOSHINOYA Fuji resort

But back to those delicious waffles… or more importantly, flame-grilled deer and local beer served in the HOSHINOYA Fuji kitchen later in the night. Alongside every condiment imaginable, and a cast iron dish of chargrilled vegetables and roots, the venison stands in a pool of gravy that uses Japanese whisky as a main ingredient while a local beef cut is cooked in a jus of Sake, and I can’t think of a better combination. This is not a regular mountainside camping trip, and even the word ‘glamping’ seems to undersell the experience.

Mount Fuji towers above when we wake in our cosy little pod the next morning. She appears twice a week if you’re really lucky, it seems.

This article is drawn from the 2017 edition of LUXURY. Click here to read the full edition of LUXURY online.

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