Amasake Chaya, Hakone’s Last Edo Period Teahouse

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img_4193Tradition. History. Culture. Food. Drink. Nature. Tale of the Faithful 47 Ronin: Check, Check, Check, Check, Check, Check, and Check! They come together in this 400 year-old thatch-roofed countryside teahouse set amidst the lush mountains of Hakone.

To facilitate travel, the town of Hakone— famous for its year-round stunning natural scenery, hot springs, and expansive options for recreation— has yielded to modern developments. Here, you will be able to easily navigate a mountain through paved roads and cable cars, the stunning Lake Ashi through pirate cruise ships, and the wider space gaps through trains. But a gem of a 9-kilometer stretch of the Old Tokaido Highway has been preserved as a hiking trail.

Its cobblestone road was the most direct path from the shogun’s capital at Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to the imperial capital in Kyoto. Officials or samurai on horseback as well as everyday folk on foot traversed this tediously long passageway.  Teahouses along the road played an important role to refresh, comfort, and feed travelers. Among all the Edo Period’s teahouses on Tokaido Highway, one remains standing today—Amasake-chaya.

img_4204Dim lighting evokes a sepia-toned heritage past with a soothing, calming ambience within the teahouse.  Massive slabs of cedar wood are used as rustic tables that have stood witness to many a conversation through four centuries! Smaller pieces of wood are used for seating and decor.  You have the choice to squat on a low table the traditional Japanese way, or sit on a stool.

img_4223I asked a beautiful and kind Japanese lady to recommend what to order from the menu, hoping that she understood my English. [I have very limited Japanese language skills and forgot to pull out my SmartTranslator app.] When she courteously replied, she spoke in straight American English! In all my travels to Japan, she is the first Japanese person I heard speaking like this that I blurted out, “You speak such good English.” She explained that she went to University in Washington state for four years and had to learn how to speak English there. She introduced herself as Koto.

Koto-san recommended the Amasake and Mochi.  The title-bearing Amasake is a non-alcoholic, sweet drink made from fermented rice. The sweetness comes not from white sugar but as a result of the process to make this drink. The menu describes this as “rich of nourishment, good for baby food.” On a cold day, it can be taken hot with ginger and on a hot day, it can be taken cold.

img_4232The Amasake was very pleasant and lightly sweet, with little bits of soft solids at the bottom.

img_4226The chikara-mochi is a trio of mochi topped with soy sauce flavor (isobe); sweet , young soy bean powder (uguisu); and uguiso mixed with black sesame (kurogoma).

img_4227I liked the Kurogoma the best. I wrongly expected a sweet food from the typical use of the word “mochi” in the Philippines but Aso Barbie liked all the mochi and I think if I didn’t expect sweetness, I would like it, too.

img_4230When I asked Koto-san more questions about the place, we realized that she is the descendant of the original owners of Amasake-Chaya. (Although most literature and websites refer to this teahouse as Amazake-Chaya with a Z, Koto-san wrote it with an S to match the name of their specialty drink). Koto-san does not refer to herself as the owner though. She points to her brother, Satoshi Yamamoto, who is officially 13th generation owner of this historic teahouse. From young, Satoshi-san knew that one day, he would manage Amasake-Chaya. He studied about Japanese cooking in Kyoto.

The brother and sister were very warm and welcoming. Koto-san casually mentioned that Satoshi-san is a good singer. Though at first he was shy, when I said, “Please?” he acquiesced and sang us the tune that would be sung by men holding up a dignitary on a kago basket carriage,  [such as the one below]… to the beat of the horse’s clapping hooves.

img_4216Please click the PLAY button below to hear Satoshi-san singing a traditional song plus a little backgrounder on how one of the forty-seven_rōnin came to Amasake- Chaya.  Forty-seven_rōnin is a historical account of a band of leaderless samurai who avenged their master’s death, a story which has become highly-esteemed in Japanese culture for demonstrating the values of loyalty, honor, persistence, and sacrifice. Koto-san said, “The story of the 47 Ronin has come down to us as heroic triumph of the Samurai ideals” [The story became the basis for the fantasy version Hollywood film, 47 Ronin, with Keanu Reeves.]

One of the forty-seven, Kanzaki Yogorou, had come through Amasake-Chaya before the group proceeded with their revenge.

Here’s a Butterflyinthespring chat with Koto-san:

How does today’s Amasake-chaya compare to the original one?  We don’t have sufficient historic record about original one but it allegedly had a shed-like structure as compared to the current building.  Apparently, there were a few other teahouses around the area. 

We don’t know the exact point at which they started serving "Amasake甘酒.”
However, we hear that Amasake was quite subtle in flavor because of an insufficiency of rice crop.  

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Amasake-Chaya and Tokaido main street last 19th century

Why did you choose dim lights? I guess we have a natural tendency to stick with reminiscence of ancient times when there were no such things as LED nor fluorescent.

Is your teahouse open during all seasons of the year, all days of the week? We are open everyday from 7:00 am to 5:30 pm seven days a week.  Autumn is the best and busiest season of the year!  Japanese people like to go see foliage turning their color. 

Do you have traditional Japanese tea ceremony available there? No, sorry, we don’t.

Is the name of the drink “Amasake” derived from “sake”? “Amasake” is a two-character compound word of Amai甘い」means “sweet” and 「Sake」literally is “Sake”.  When hearing “Chaya”,  most of us Japanese in general would picture “old Japanese style establishment” where you get rest, cozy with refreshments.  Above all “Amasake-chaya” is considered as a resting place of Tokaido road that treats mainly Amasake served for travellers.
 
Is there a museum beside the teahouse?  The building next to the teahouse was once a museum, but it does not open as museum anymore.

Where does the preserved cobblestone Tokaido Highway connect to the teahouse?  The authentic cobblestone path heading to Motohakone is 800m away from the teahouse. There is a hiking trail behind the teahouse, which leads up to the entrance of cobblestone.

The song Satoshi-san sang, was it usually to make the long journey on the highway less boring?  The song is called “Hakone Magouta”,  folk labor song for horsemen carrying a carriage and singing in a rythmic pace. Required conditions for being good  horseman were:  ❶good strength  ❷good singer.

What is the Japanese word for the carriage and who gets to ride it?
The carriage is called “Kago 籠”.  The one hanging in the teahouse is “Yamakago” or “Mountain spec carriage,” actually used until late 19th century.  

Feudal lords had their own palanquin specially designed for them.  The lord’s palanquin had doors to shield them from the public eye in order to defend themselves from attack. “Kago-kaki” or “the palanquin-bearer” holds the carriage. For civilian use, only affluent class of people like wealthy merchant or business tycoon could afford to ride in a carriage.

What is the most memorable quote(s) you have from your parents or grandparents?  “Gratefulness, humility, decency, and integrity.”  

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Satoshi-san and Koto-san’s Grandma of 11th generation

How would you like guests to remember your teahouse? We’d like guests to remember retrospective time hopefully they could spend in the simple and tranquil. We hope our guests will have an experience with drinking the same secret recipe of Amasake甘酒” passed down from father to son for nearly 400 years on continuous thirteen generations. 

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Though Japan is known for its modernity with its diversity of options, tradition is still prized.  The Yamamoto Family has chosen to honour their heritage while promoting Japanese culture in Amasake-Chaya… still refreshing, comforting, and feeding travelers. In a way, they also demonstrate the values of the Ronin in loyalty, honor, persistence, and sacrifice.  Their warmth and welcome are a gift to all.

A visit to Amasake- Chaya brings you back four hundred years and allows you to partake of the time-honored beverage of tea as well as the Japanese specialty drink, Amasake.  It’s not just about the excitement of tasting the same secret recipe of Amasake-Chaya as enjoyed by one of the forty-seven ronin in his day, but also being part of a community that has shared this journey of travel: young, old, local, foreign, dignitary,  common, pilgrim, elite, peasant, — travelers all but each with a story to tell.  Each story is like the individual ingredients of the Amasake taken together that produces something sweet. Come in through these doors for rest and refreshment, go out with a little Hakone history.

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