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mixed rice of the mountains

mixed rice of the mountains

Discover the unique experience of walking the ancient pilgrimage trail in Shikoku, Japan, and enjoying a delightful dinner at a traditional ryokan. The dinner features delicious mixed rice, traditional inns, and the heartwarming stories of remarkable pilgrims.

Train your eye to the top right hand corner of this amazing dinner. Overlook the thick slices of super fresh hamachi. Skip past the delicious udon noodles with oysters and fish cake. Forget the kiriboshi daikon, air-dried strips of daikon. Focus on the mixed rice -- we'll get to it in a minute.

This meal was my girlfriend and my reward after a tough day's trek through the mountains of rugged Shikoku, the smallest and least populated of Japan's four main islands. We spent a week there last week. But we weren't just hiking through the woods: We were following an ancient pilgrimage trail that snakes for 1,300 kilometers to 88 Buddhist temples along the perimeter of the island.

For a thousand years Japanese henro (pilgrims) have undertaken this arduous journey by foot to pray at the temples. Today many henro make this pilgrimage by car or bus. But my girlfriend and I wanted to experience it the old-fashioned way, so we walked for 80 kilometers over four days, visiting the first 16 temples of the route.

It was a moving experience that gave me an insight into Japanese culture that I never had before. We also met remarkable pilgrims, mostly solitary men making the long trek to all 88 temples in the bleakness of winter. One just retired from his career as a "salaryman" and was walking to mark his new life; another told us, poignantly, how losing his wife and only son to cancer led him to become o-henro. He was making his sixth walking journey, an experience that brought him peace.

Ryokan, traditional inns, cluster near the temples, offering a hearty dinner, steaming bath and, finally, a comfortable futon to pass the night. Which brings me back to the mixed rice and the meal pictured above. We enjoyed this dinner at the Sakuraya Ryokan, at the end of our most difficult day, a six hour climb to the 12th temple, dramatically perched atop a forested mountain. That takikomi gohan, mixed rice, was so fragrant and delicious I asked the okami-san, the proprietress, how the prepare it.

"You're just hungry from walking, that's why you like it," she protested with a laugh. "There's better food in Japan."

Hmm. Utterly simple home-cooked rice, prepared in a traditional donabe that gives it a caramelized crust? That's about as good as it gets for me. The okami-san graciously explained how to make it:

Prepare an iriko dashi (stock from small dried fish) and dilute with 10% soy sauce. Rinse rice and measure the usual ratio of rice to liquid. Add sliced burdock, carrots, shiitake and chicken. Give it a small splash of sake. Cook the rice. That's it. Basic and delicious.

The okami-san kindly offered me a second pot of the mixed rice to go along with my dinner. (Did I look that ravenous?) My girlfriend cleverly rolled the contents into onigiri, rice balls, for the next day's lunch.

(To learn more about the Shikoku henro trail click here and here. I highly recommend experiencing at least a part of this journey.)