Sunday, June 6, 2021

Amazake Chaya: Drinking in History on the Tokaido

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Last weekend, I hit the trail to re-walk a portion of the Hakone Old Road (parts of which were better known as the Hakone section of the Tōkaidō during the Edo Period (1603-1868), though much of the route predates the 16th century).

The entrance to the Hakone Old Road (Tokaido Section) near Lake Ashi

I had made the walk before--in 2016, while doing the initial research for Ghost of the Bamboo Road (Seventh Street, 2019), and again in 2018, when I hiked two different portions of the trail during my year in the mountains.

I even had the privilege of making one of those 2018 hikes with our own beloved Annamaria Alfieri, who bravely ascended three mountains with me in a single day while hiking the ancient Yusaka Michi travel road, which predates even the Tokaido by several hundred years.

With Annamaria atop Mt. Takanosu

That hike took us over trails much older than the one I hiked on Sunday, but the section of the Kyu Kaidō I hiked still dates to at least the 16th century, and while some portions have been reconstructed (mostly due to damage resulting from centuries' worth of earthquakes, landslides, and typhoons) other sections remain intact in their original form, down to the ishidatami (stone tatami) paving that lines the trail.

A reconstructed section of the Tokaido near Amazake Chaya

This section of the travel road runs between Lake Ashi and Hatajuku, a hamlet about halfway between the lake and the onsen town of Hakone-Yumoto.

A map showing several of the old travel roads, now preserved as hiking trails

And about halfway between Lake Ashi and Hatajuku stands a living monument to the history of the famous travel road: a teahouse known as Amazake Chaya.

Amazake Chaya, from the trail

The teahouse was established during the 16th century, and has been in continuous operation--and has been owned and operated by the same family--since that time. The current owner is the 13th generation proprietor of the teahouse (an amazing thought).

Visitors enjoying the weather and refreshments outside the teahouse

The building was last renovated in 2009, using the original plans, methods, and materials. The lintel inside the teahouse still bears the stickers, signatures, and marks of 16th century visitors, who stopped here while traveling the Tōkaidō.

Chikara mochi: grilled (lower) and grilled with kinako (sweet roasted soybean powder - upper)

Amazake Chaya still serves some of the classic treats available to 16th century visitors, too. Chikara mochi are grilled cakes of mochi (pounded glutinous rice flour, which has a lovely, chewy consistency); they've been eaten in Japan since long before the Edo period, and were a favorite with travelers because they pack a dense energy punch. They're also delicious. Last week, I had a set of two: one grilled with nori (seaweed) and soy sauce, and the other grilled and coated with kinako. On past visits, I've also had them topped with sweet black sesame powder, though that offering may not be available in the summer. 

The star of the show: Amazake (left)

The teahouse's most famous offering, however, is the one for which it's named: the house-made amazake. Amazake is a fermented rice-based beverage; traditionally (and as made at Amazake-chaya), it contains only Japanese short-grain rice and koji, a type of mold used in pickling and fermentation. (If you've ever eaten miso, or miso soup, you've eaten koji--it's used in the miso-making process too.)

Amazake is non-alcoholic, and can be served either hot or cold. Since my previous visits all took place in the autumn, I hadn't tried it cold before last weekend. Unsurprisingly, it's delicious that way too. 

Amazake has a fairly thick consistency--not unlike a milkshake in some ways, although it contains no milk or dairy products. It tastes quite sweet, despite the lack of sugar, but because the sweetness comes only from the rice, it isn't strong or cloying. In fact, it's remarkably refreshing after a sweaty hike.

Amazake-chaya, nestled in the mountains along the Tokaido

This time I ate outside, to enjoy the weather and the view, but in the autumn and winter, I love sitting inside near the traditional hearth, where a wood fire blazes to drive away the chill. 

Commemorative Stone

A commemorative stone and plaque near the teahouse describe the history of the teahouse and its importance--it's the last remaining original teahouse on this section of the Tōkaidō, and one of only a few original teahouses that remain along the entire length of the travel road. 

The fact that it's still here, and still operational, after 400 years is indeed worth celebrating. 

So tell me: have you tried Amazake, and would you, if you had the chance?


  1. What a joy it was for me to be there with you. That day you describe was a triple peak experience for me, in more ways than just getting to the tops of three mountains. The joy shows on our faces.

    I so wish there was a vaccination for my soy allergy!!!!

  2. I would certainly try it! How do you know if you like something or not unless you try it?

  3. Oh yes, I would try Amazake and everything else you mentioned at the teahouse. Great article.

  4. Since giving up alcohol for the sake of public order, I've been looking for a substitute "beverage" for saki, as I particularly miss saki's hot/cold versatility. The elements of its name alone suggest that this could be the one, dear Susan. Amazing + Saki = Amazaki. WHOOPPEE. Amazon here I come. Any recommended brands--not that I'll be able to read them.

  5. I like amazake, hot or cold. And I also have walked that walk. I didn't stop at the teahouse and I should have. That was the day the bus (shockingly) DID NOT COME, to the consternation of me and several Japanese people. However, a taxi tootled up in time, so all was well. I wish I'd had the amazake and the chikara mochi — of which I am quite fond! You make me want to revisit things I've done and try things that I haven't!

  6. Mochi and amazake! THat's power food for climbing!