For part 2 of the Soba Off the Beaten Path series, I’m going to introduce you to Kakesu (懸巣)—a soba shop/Japanese-style diner that really is off the beaten path. In fact, it’s pretty much in the middle of the mountains!
Kakesu is nestled in a narrow valley on the way to Utsukushigahara Highlands in the Tobira Hot Springs area. It sits right next the Hinokinoyu Hot Spring facility, so you can eat before or after you take a dip in the hot spring. After turning off the main road, the way turns into a slightly precarious, one-lane road through the forest in the mountain valley/gorge.
This shop isn’t an exclusive soba specialty restaurant, but rather a kind of Japanese-style family «diner» that serves soba and udon noodles is Kakesu’s main menu items along with other things. What makes it different from other noodle shops is that they use some unique ingredients, such as homemade sunkizuke pickles and local wild mushrooms. I imagine they’ll also have wild mountain herbs/plants in the spring and early summer, too.
By the way, sunkizuke pickles are quite a rare find, as they can only be made in cool climates. They are made with turnip greens that are lactic acid fermented without salt (the same kind of fermentation as sauerkraut, but sauerkraut uses salt). These pickles originate in the Kiso area, but apparently the conditions in Kakesu’s mountain valley are also suitable for making them!
The first time I went to Kakesu I tried their special sunkizuke soba noodle bowls: one included wild mushrooms and the other grated Japanese yam. The pickles have tart flavor due to the way they are fermented, which goes well with the soy sauce-based soup that the noodles are served in. If you are a mushroom fan, definitely give the wild mushroom version a try—the mushrooms are picked from the local forests and have a much deeper flavor than regular, store-bought ones.
I’m also a huge fan of tororo, or grated Japanese yam. It has a pleasantly gooey, slimy texture that coats the noodles as you slurp them down and gives the soup a thicker texture.
If you like tempura, then you’ll enjoy the kakiage soba topped with a big piece of kakiage tempura, which is made by frying various types of julienned vegetables together.
You can also get the above dishes with fat udon noodles instead of soba. Another dish I have my eyes set on are the hot udon noodles with wild mushrooms in a miso-based soup!
Besides, noodles, Kakesu has other kinds of daily specials and other menu items, including Japanese diner classics like oyakodon (chicken and egg rice bowls), tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), and grilled fish sets.
One delicious special was the mini hotpot with wild mushrooms and suiton (simple flour dumplings). It was packed with tender, yet pleasantly chewy dumplings and tons of vegetables along with the mushrooms!
I also recommend the hearty gyusuji (tender beef tendon) stew and butamotsu (pork offal) stew combo. The beef stuew practically melts in your mouth and the pork offal are very tender. It comes with a big serving of rice, soup, and some homemade pickles, too.
Kakesu has a very at-home feel, as the family that runs it often have their little kids in the shop with them and there are all sorts of random items around the shop like wooden trinkets, temari balls, and a big collection of manga (which you are free to browse through!). There is both table-and-chair seating as well as tatami seating.
The down side is that getting to Kakesu is not that easy unless you have a car (map). It is 14 kilometers from Matsumoto Station so you will need to take a taxi, rent/have a car, have a friend with a car, or very strong legs and a good bicycle. On the other hand, since the Hinokinoyu Hot Spring is right next to Kakesu you can make a day out of visiting the hot spring and then getting a nice, hot bowl delicious soba afterwards. (Hinokinoyu has an amazing outdoor bath with a view of the gorge, by the way, so it’s well worth checking out! And, it’s only 300 yen.) During the summer you can also go hiking in the area or visit the Utsukushigahara Highland.
Kakesu’s hours are 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Hinokinoyu Hot Spring’s hours are 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.