You won’t get robbed or taken hostage, but you might not ever want to leave.

On one of our recent trips across Japan, we ate at Sanzoku, which is one of the coolest and most unique restaurants you’ll find anywhere in the country. Except…we’re not entirely sure if calling Sanzoku just a “restaurant” fully conveys what the place is.

First off, let’s cover what we can say with absolute certainty. Sanzoku is located in the town of Iwakuni (which also knows a thing or two about delicious sake and ice cream) in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The word sanzoku translates as “mountain bandits,” and so Sanzoku is appropriately tucked into the mountains that rise as you move inland from the Iwakuni coastline. After getting off the Sanyo Expressway at the Kuga exit, you’ll pass through a series of tunnels, and eventually come upon this.

While that might look like the set of a samurai TV drama or the front gate of an amusement park, it’s actually the entrance to Sanzoku. The decorations rotate by the season, but are always bold and colorful.

▼ On our visit, streamers for the Tanabata star festival, which takes place on July 7, were greeting customers.

Sanzoku has a unique ordering system, as even though it’s not a fast food place, you place your initial order and pay before taking a seat. There are pictures of select items on display at the order counter, and also a partially translated English menu, since Sanzoku is a huge hit not just with Japanese locals, but also with Iwakuni’s expat community.

While there are numerous grilled beef and noodle options, the two items you absolutely shouldn’t miss at Sanzoku are the Sanzokuyaki grilled chicken leg (789 yen [US$7.30]) and the jumbo-sized musubi rice ball (519 yen). We put in an order for each, then went to find a seat, walking past the open-air kitchen where Sanzokuyaki were cooking over an open flame.

▼ The rustic “bandit-grilled chicken” is cooked on (and eaten off of) thick bamboo skewers.

The sprawling Sanzoku complex has three separate seating structures. There’s “Irori” (the main building), “Kamado” (a traditional longhouse), and “Torian” (basically a miniature castle).

But those in the know will skip all three and continue walking back behind the kitchen, until the ground drops away into a beautiful valley with waterfalls, Buddhist statues, a bridge stretching over a soothing stream, and open-air tables lit by the glow of lanterns at night.

If there’s a drawback to Sanzoku, it’s that the service isn’t particularly speedy, especially when the place gets crowed (which it regularly does). On the plus side, rather than walk back to the counter or flag down waitperson if you get thirsty, there are drink vending machines here and there throughout the valley, serving both soft drinks and ice-cold cans of Ebisu beer, to keep you hydrated and/or buzzed while you wait for your food.

And the wait is worth it. As mentioned above, you eat the Sanzokuyaki grilled chicken by gripping the bamboo skewer and biting into the bird, which glistens with a sweet/salty glaze. The flame-grilling imparts a faint crispness to the outside edge of the meat, but the inside remains juicy and flavorful.

As for the rice ball, it’s gigantic. As a matter of fact, it’s so big that there’s room for three different kinds of filling: salmon, kombu seaweed, and plum.

▼ There’s no special technique to eating the rice ball. Just grab it in your fist and dig in!

There’s also a souvenir stand selling Sanzoku-related foodstuffs and merchandise, located to the left of the order counter before you make your way down into the valley.

▼ Oh, and don’t forget to stop by the koi pond that’s next to the souvenir stand to feed the fish.

So as you can see, calling Sanzoku just a restaurant doesn’t really do the place justice, and so we’re not sure whether or not we should call it “one of the coolest restaurants in Japan.” But one of the coolest places in Japan, regardless of category?


Restaurant information
Irori Sanzoku (Kuga branch) / いろり山賊 玖珂店
Address: Yamaguchi-ken, Iwakuni-shi, Kuga-machi 1380-1
Open 10 a.m.-midnight
Closed December 30, 31

Photos ©SoraNews24
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where eating at Sanzoku as a teenager literally changed his life.

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