Underrated dining destinations in Japan you probably haven't visited
Whether you seek off-the-beaten paths to brag about your travels or want to escape the tourist trail, that satisfying feeling when you realise you're the only foreigner in a small town is like no other. While most visitors look back longingly at their virgin Japan experience recounting alternative Harajuku characters, mystifying bamboo forests and Sakura trails, they'll also recall jostling with hordes of other tourists. If you've covered most of the ground in cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, what's next?
We never thought a massive hotel chain would have the answer to the roads less travelled, but that's what Marriott has done. In partnership with Japanese corporation Mori Trust, Marriott Hotels have opened up five properties in small towns across Japan in 2017, offering a convenient buffer between local know-how and international hospitality standards. On a recent visit just shy of winter, we visited Izu Marriott Shuzeji and Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel, introducing us to underrated dining destinations long adored by locals, but still relatively unheard of by your average 'Japan-o-phile'. The former surrounds itself in a mountainous region characterised by natural hot springs, bamboo-lined streams and historic temples, while the latter sits across Japan's largest freshwater lake. Quiet is the new loud indeed.
As snow from Mount Fuji melts into water and filters through the grand dame, it flows out to become Mishima's prized spring water. Located on the foothills of Mount Fuji in the Izu Peninsula, the quiet town is where locals flock to for unagi don. Fleshy, freshwater eels are steamed and then grilled, placed atop a bowl of rice. Because of the water's particular purity, each mouthful is a cleaner bite as compound on the eel's skin has been removed naturally. Dine on tatami mats in Daikan Yashiki restaurant, which also specialises in soba noodles. The road leading up to their driveway makes for a postcard-perfect capture with Fuji-san's imposing stature as a backdrop.
Even though you've been to Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market, it'll be foolish to visit the Izu Peninsula and give the harbour town of Numazu a miss. Cradling Suruga Bay, its fish market sees up to 200 species of fish daily, with the best catch transported to Tsukiji afterwards — so it's first dibs for you, really. The other draw? The lack of tourists at the market and restaurant complex, affectionately named Ino after the goddess of the ocean. Get there by 5.30am to witness the auctions, where a battle of senses sees wholesalers making their intentions heard extremely loudly. For the kaisen don of your dreams, Uogashi Maruten is a 10-minute walk from the market that generously dishes out the area's specialty: Fresh whitebait and sakura shrimp.
A castle town with historic ryokans, shop fronts, moats and ancient bridges, Hikone transports you back in time. Specifically, the Edo period, when the Hikone castle was built — one of four Japanese national heritage castles that still stands today. East of Lake Biwa, the Yume Kyobashi Castle Road is adjacent to the castle, lined with little town houses, restaurants and shops and that sell Japanese paper, porcelain and ceramic crafts. Beef lovers shouldn't leave the area without a meal at Sen-nari-tei Kyari, where omi beef reigns supreme. It's one of Japan's top three brands of beef alongside Kobe and Matsusaka, and is best enjoyed in a pot. If you're up for it, dip a fatty, melt-in-your-mouth slice into a raw yolk for a rich taste.