We track down a famously exquisite but elusive restaurant in rural Japan.

Our roaming reporter Masanuki Sunakoma was driving to the outskirts of Oita City and nearing the neighboring resort town of Yufu, famous for its gorgeous mountains filled with hot springs. His destination was a restaurant called Haru Uma, well loved by locals and even endorsed by the 2018 Michelin Guide in the Kumamoto/Oita section of Japanese eateries.

Although it’s possible to find on maps, Masanuki highly recommends you heed his directions, because even with its location known, you might not recognize it as a restaurant right away.

“It’s about 30 minutes from Oita Station by car. Turn left at the Dojiribashisaki intersection on National Highway 210 and drive up the mountain road of Prefectural Highway 618. Then, you will see a public hall on your right. That is your goal. The important thing to remember is the Yatobu Kominkan. If you can find that then you are there.”

▼ Yatobu Kominkan (“Yatobu Community Hall”)

Masanuki stresses that anyone heading to Haru Uma heed his directions, because there are no signs marking its location at all. Walking up to the very rustic looking structure, he wondered how the Michelin people ever found this place to begin with.

▼ Google Street View is a little outdated and not much help either

Walking around to the entrance, shrouded in greenery, Masanuki peered inside. Luckily, because it was just after noon on a weekday, it wasn’t busy. He had heard that on weekends it’s not uncommon to have to wait an hour for a seat.

He changed into a pair of slippers and was seated at a counter that wrapped around a hearth and offered a nice view of the autumn foliage of the mountains outside.

Since it was a slow time, there was only one man working, a burly looking fellow suited for this rocky terrain. Masanuki ordered the recommended Haru Uma Don Set for 1,150 yen (US$10.50). The mountain man in a gentle yet majestically strong voice apologetically replied, “That will take a little time…”

About 20 minutes later, that same firm but warm voice called out, “Sorry to keep you waiting…” and carried in Masanuki’s order. The main dish was a ball of rice wrapped in thin layers of slow-cooked beef coated in garlic butter and the restaurant’s own specialty Haru Uma Sauce. It came with a bowl of miso soup and brightly colored pickled vegetables.

Masanuki expected a delicious meal and was not disappointed. The rich flavor of the red meat spread through his mouth. The speed at which the taste reached our reporter’s brain was firm but gentle, not unlike his suave server’s voice.

The individual pieces of meat were sliced thinly, but they congealed together into an excellent texture with the sauces.

The location, though hard to find, added to the dining experience immensely. It was as if he could see the deliciousness of his food in all the pure nature around him.

He had been given some extra Haru Uma Sauce on the side, but he felt the chef had put on just the right amount. Even though the size of his beef and rice looked small, it was dense and surprisingly filling, leaving Masanuki feeling quite satisfied.

Walking out of Haru Uma with a pleasantly full belly, he spotted a vending machine outside that sold 350-millilitre bottles of Haru Uma Sauce for 800 yen (US$7.30). So even if people come at a bad or busy time, they can still take home a piece of this respected dining experience.

So, if you happen to be enjoying the hot springs of Yufu or other nearby places in Oita Prefecture, you really ought to set aside some time for this out-of-the-way delight.

Restaurant information
Kominka Shokudo Haru Uma / 古民家食堂春馬
Oita-ken, Yufu-shi, Hasamamachitani 224
Open: 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. (last order is at 2 p.m.)
Holidays: Every Thursday, 1st and 3rd Wednesday of every month

Photos ©SoraNews24
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[ Read in Japanese ]