After driving about two hours from Kochi Airport, coming off the expressway and cruising along the clear Shimantogawa river, you reach the former Towa village.
Located in the western part of Shimanto, Kochi Prefecture, about 90 percent of the area is covered in mountain forests, with farmland and private homes dotting the area along the renowned river.
Every Wednesday and on the last Sunday of the month, visitors to the Shimanto Towa "michi no eki" roadside station can enjoy a buffet lunch called "omotenashi baikingu" (hospitality buffet) prepared by women from local farming families.
About 10 dishes that incorporate the yuzu fruit, chestnuts, shiitake mushrooms, mountain vegetable and other local produce are offered on large platters.
The women are led by 70-year-old Nobuko Ichohara, president of Towa Okamisan-ichi, a company that sells vegetables and processed products. They began offering the buffet in 2007 when the roadside station was opened.
Today, more than 100 people from Kochi and other prefectures may turn up for local home cooking even on weekdays. Some seats offer a view of the river and the visitors get to try the local dishes in natural ambience.
This week Ichohara introduces sauteed "itadori" (Japanese knotweed) that is known as a spring green.
In her childhood, she competed with her friends over who could pick the largest amount of the plant’s young stems that grew naturally along the river. They brought their pickings home, removed the skin, salted them and kept them in the freezer. The sauteed plant would appear on the dinner table in a bowl.
Sauteed itadori is on the buffet menu almost throughout the year.
"The crux of itadori is the texture. The key is to stir-fry it quickly," says Ichohara.
Back when the buffet started, her neighbors would comment that its dishes are the same as what they eat for dinner. Ichohara also wondered if it is acceptable to offer everyday dishes. But visitors from other prefectures found the dishes made of local ingredients to be special. Even those living in the city of Kochi said, "We wanted to eat local dishes like these."
Ichohara and her team stuck to their motto that the dishes that they can offer with confidence are those featuring local ingredients. Those dishes spread through word of mouth, and people began to take notice.
"The visitors opened our eyes to the charm of the local area which we hadn’t noticed," says Ichohara.
The "omotenashi baikingu" buffet is offered from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and the last Sunday of each month at 1,000 yen (tax included) per adult and 500 yen for elementary school students and younger.
A special menu is offered until 3 p.m. on the last Sundays of July through September. On the last Sundays of August and September, the buffet is offered at a different price.
20 salted "itadori" (Japanese knotweed)
2 to 3 cloves garlic
Bit of roasted sesame ("iri-goma")
Cut itadori into 3-cm pieces. Immerse in water for about an hour to desalinate. Remove on sieve and squeeze out water.
Finely slice garlic. Heat some oil in frying pan over high heat and cook garlic. When aroma rises, add itadori and sautee quickly.
Add 1 Tbsp each of sugar and soy sauce, cook quickly while mixing so the seasoning coats all pieces. Add soy sauce if it feels short on flavor. Turn off heat while itadori still retains the crunchy texture.
Serve on plate, and sprinkle with roasted sesame.
Salted itadori may also be purchased online.
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From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column