You can’t help but have fun when you visit here. Located along a busy mountain road about 17 kms west of Iwakuni, it pops out of nowhere. A jaw-dropping display of enormous koi carp flags, gigantic colorful billboard-size cutouts of traditional characters and literally hundreds of red and white lanterns will definitely catch your eye. The atmosphere is very similar to a Japanese festival. If you have yet to experience one, consider this a primer. With taiko drums to beat, photo popups to pose in, and attractions for kids, it’s fun for all ages.
The main attraction, however, is the food. There are three restaurants to choose from, but if the weather is fine we strongly recommend Irori Sanzoku.
There is some indoor seating, but outside the back there are covered seating areas and an open park-like area with clusters of red-fabric covered tables.
Set against a mountain and with a stream running through the center, it’s a very unique setting indeed. Pains have been taken to preserve the illusion of a bygone era, such as the discreet camouflaging of the beverage vending machines. Amazing details can be found everywhere.
There are three must-try items on this menu. The star of the show is the Sanzoku Chicken: large, juicy chicken thighs on bamboo skewers grilled slowly over charcoal and then dipped in a sweet soy and mirin sauce. The Sanzoku Onigiri (rice balls) are, like the chicken thighs, jumbo size, and where most onigiri have just the one filling, the Sanzoku Onigiri has three: salmon, sour plum, and konbu, all wrapped in nori seaweed. Combine one of these with a Sanzoku Chicken leg and you’ve got dinner!
But if you are still hungry, the third show-stopper is the Sanzoku Udon: soft udon noodles with slices of tender beef and wakame which slide down well. In the mood for a Japanese-style barbecue? Order a traditional “chirin” mini-charcoal barbecue, and then plates of meat to grill. Those with a sweet tooth will like the Sanzoku Yomogi-mochi (Japanese mugwort-flavored mochi filled with sweet bean paste); these have a very homemade taste and texture, and also make excellent souvenirs or take-away desserts. Ask for yours to be heated, they taste even better!
There are two more restaurants on the same lot. The first is Tourian, a solidly built wooden structure modeled after the traditional Japanese castle. In addition to the menu shared with the other two restaurants, they offer substantial set meals featuring premium Sumeragi Beef sourced from their own ranch. Next door is the third restaurant, Kamado. This place takes its moniker from the large kamado (traditional cooking stove) in the center of the two-storey building, and the walls are covered with an awesome collection of traditional rural Japanese decorations, from farming tools to a fraying shrine rope.
Naturally a unique and colorful spot such as this will have souvenirs to match, and Sanzoku does not disappoint. A dedicated shop displays original products, including their yummy and, once again, huge ohagi (sweet bean paste covered rice balls), as well as local, fresh produce, rice crackers, pickles and much more.
So is it worth the journey? The answer is a yes. Admittedly it’s in an area with few other places to visit, and it’s definitely a bit over the top, but the food is fresh, tasty, reasonably priced and served in generous portions. Shutterbugs will love it, and it’s an opportunity to experience the Japanese festival atmosphere without having to wait for a holiday to roll around. Irori Sanzoku is open until 3 am, six days a week, but try to avoid peak lunch and dinner hours as there can be long lines – a testament to the popularity of this entertaining yet impressive dining experience.
Irori Sanzoku Restaurant
Address: 1380-1 Kuga-machi, Iwakuni City
Open (Irori Sanzoku restaurant): 09:30 ~ 03:00 (L.O. 02:00), (Monday ~ 24:00, L.O. 23:00)
Words and Photography by Nick Szasz
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