A visit to the mushroom kingdom to see if 600,000 fans could possibly be wrong, and also to eat some amazing ramen.

Miso soup is pretty much the most archetypal element of Japanese cuisine. The only legitimate competition it has for that title is rice, which barely qualifies as cooking since it’s just a matter of boiling the raw ingredient.

So when someone boasts that they sell “the best-selling miso soup in all of Japan,” we, and our stomachs, take notice.

Located in the town of Otaki in Hokkaido, a little over an hour from Shin Chitose Airport, is Kinoko no Okoku. The name translates to “Mushroom Kingdom.” While some hard-core gamers might mistake it for a shrine to Nintendo’s Super Mario series, it’s actually an emporium of mushroom-focused foodstuffs, and even when we rolled up at 11 in the morning, the parking lot was already full of fungi fans’ cars.

▼ Note the giant miso soup bowls on either side of the entrance steps.

Quickly making our way through flurries of snow (this is the same prefecture where the Sapporo Snow Festival is held, after all), we saw crowds of hungry visitors lined up in front of the food stalls and souvenir shop registers.

First on our list, though, was our reason for making the trip to the mushroom kingdom: the mushroom miso soup (or kinoko misoshiru, if you’re ordering in Japanese). According to Kinoko no Okoku, this is Japan’s best-selling restaurant miso soup, with roughly 600,000 bowls served every year, despite the fact that Otaki only has a population of about 1,500 people.

With our wallets still hurting from our recent foray into buying the same ultra-luxurious toilet paper the emperor uses, we were happy to learn that despite its popularity, Kinoko no Okoku’s regular-size mushroom miso soup is just 108 yen (US$0.95), so we quickly ordered a bowl.

Taking a sip, the lingering chill from the cold weather melted away, and our taste buds were greeted by a deliciously strong miso flavor, enhanced by the rich notes of mushroom extract that had seeped into the broth.

Kinoko no Okoku’s mushroom miso soup uses at least three kinds of mushrooms, with the exact varieties depending on what’s most delicious at that time of year. On our visit, the stars were the currently-in-season nameko mushrooms, which were large and enticingly firm, with a texture like perfectly cooked shrimp.

Of course, as important as miso soup is to a traditional Japanese meal, it’s not going to fill you up all by itself. So we also decided to try the mixed mushroom tempura, which at just 390 yen is a bargain. The tempura coating is crisp and free of oiliness, while the mushrooms are juicy and flavorful. While it’s great with the dipping sauce that usually accompanies tempura, we’d recommend bypassing the broth and seasoning it with a pinch of salt instead, in order to let the taste of the mushrooms stand out all the more clearly.

If you’re craving something even more substantial, there’s mushroom miso ramen (880 yen), which takes Hokkaido’s favorite noodle broth base and adds in Kinoko no Okoku’s favorite ingredient.

While ramen ordered from anywhere other than a specialized ramen restaurant can sometimes be lacking in flavor, the ramen here is thoroughly tasty and high-quality, with the tender chashu pork and generous helping of mushrooms making it filling and satisfying.

Not in the mood for noodles? There’s also mushroom curry (780 yen). Rich and spicy, it’s a great opportunity to try the somewhat rare combination of mushrooms and Japanese-style roux.

And if you’d prefer your mushrooms to play more of a supporting role, the mushroom sausage (380 yen) lets the meat take center stage, with bits of diced mushroom providing an elegant yet subtle twist.

While Japanese foodies assert that mushrooms are at their most delicious in the fall, Konoko no Okoku is open year-round. With the weather set to start getting seriously cold in Hokkaido, we expect them to be selling plenty of their delicious miso soup, plus everything else we tried, throughout the winter.

Shop/restaurant information
Kinoko no Okoku (Otaki branch) / きのこ王国(大滝本店)
Address: Hokkaido, Date-shi, Otaki-ku, Sankaidaki-cho 637-1
Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Photos ©SoraNews24
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where the approaching cold of winter fills his heart with dread on a daily basis.

[ Read in Japanese ]