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May212011

« japan report: pizza up a tree »

[The following report — Pizzacentric's first guest-written piece — was submitted by Monty DiPietro, a Canadian-born writer/editor who has been living in Japan for several years.  His initial contact described a Japanese man who studied pizza-making in a city, moved to an arts community in the country, built a pizza oven on a mountain, put his dining room up a tree (transporting his pies upward by dumbwaiter!), and grows his own organic veggies.  What a perfect story for Pizzacentric!]

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At the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago, just beyond Koga Mountain in Okinawa's Nakijin district, a one lane dirt road forks off Route 72. Follow it for five miles, serpentining through the dense forest, rising higher and higher up the mountainside, and you'll find a little piece of pizza heaven on earth.

The brainchild of Keisuke Haketa, Beach Rock Pizzeria is a simple wooden hut, built around a brick pizza oven and emblazoned with inspirational phrases such as "a weak fire reveals a weak spirit," and "a poorly-formed pizza reveals a poorly-formed mind." Some 20 feet up a ladder on the adjacent pine tree and you're in the open-air dining room, which seats 12.

The improbable restaurant stands beside a Mongolian tent bar and a row of rental teepees in the quirky Beach Rock Village camping retreat. Think hippies, without weed.  (Rollover above photo to see Haketa's pizza team.)

Beach Rock's signature pizza is built on a hand-tossed spring water crust that is thin and crispy in the center and chewy on the perimeter. It features a tangy tomato sauce topped with fresh green peppers and eggplant (vegetables grown organically on-site) and topped with a serviceable Swiss mozzarella.

Yes, Japan has pizza. Plenty of it. But a glance at Pizza Hut's Japanese website suggests the American chain's Asian offspring has little in common with its parent. Pies resemble abstract paintings, piled with squid and corn and latticed with mayonnaise. Not good, and not cheap -- even Domino's basic pepperoni, sausage and mushroom pizza costs about US$38.

The son of a Yokohama fisherman, Haketa, 24, knew there was more to pizza than what the chains were offering. Haketa came to Okinawa in 2010 to study pie-making with his sensei, Tsuyoshi Ozaki, whom Haketa describes as "a man who can do anything, especially make pizza."

For six months Haketa trained, in the style of a Zen Buddhist, waking at dawn to gather wood, lighting the fire ceremoniously, rolling the dough and tending his garden while chanting with his kitchen staff. The results are impressive.

"A good pizza is made with simple and pure ingredients," says Haketa. "It's not so difficult to make a good pizza. But to make a great pizza, it takes passion. That's the difference!"

This summer, Haketa leaves Beach Rock Pizzeria in the hands of student Yumi Sakata, to go off and pursue his dream -- working in an orphanage, teaching the children how to be pizza chefs.

Beach Rock's pizzas are priced from US$12-16. Sorry, no mayonnaise. The Village offers accommodation in yurt or teepee, or guests can bring their own tent.

Beach Rock Village, Nakijin, Okinawa, Japan. Tel: 0980-56-1126

Map Beach Rock Village.  Beach Rock Village website (click "CAFÉ & BAR" for restaurant info) (It's in Japanese).

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