cJapan does not slide open its shoji doors and give up its secrets easily. However, it invites the gaijin to enter and indulge in its culinary pleasures. While there, I set aside my pragmatic tastes (appetizer, main course, dessert), allowing myself to respond to the abstract ideals of nature, and exploring a different set of dining rituals. This experience enriches me, and gives me an intimate glimpse into a unique society.
The eighty year old Jitokuji Monastery stands on a hill. We climb the wooden stairs and a blue robed monk, Taizan Watanabe, meets us. Living there since he was six years old, he is a trained chef of Buddhist cuisine. Since the resident monks neither pay to live here nor do they receive regular funds from outside, the chef opened a restaurant: Ryuan. This restaurant serves as a way to earn money for Jitokuji. Also, each day he accepts only five people for lunch, the first five to call (four is a bad luck number, to be avoided). As a courtesy, we remove our shoes, don slippers, and follow him.
The Path to Enlightenment
“Simplicity and austerity is the road to enlightenment” -Taizan Watanabe
It is evident that anything showy or sensuous is avoided. Our private dining room is unadorned except for a scroll on the wall, two floor pillows and two red lacquer trays. My friend gracefully folds herself onto her pillow and takes two English/Japanese dictionaries from her bag, one for each of us. She prepares herself to eat and translate. I flail about like a newborn colt. Much to my chagrin, I simply cannot sit like this. Apparently, this awkwardness is not new to our host. He layers a half dozen pillows on the floor, and an equal number of trays. To make me feel less foolish, my friend points out that the best view of a Japanese garden is obtained from a kneeling position.
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A Strict Dining Etiquette
Watanabe-sensei does not turn his back to us. He also doesn’t stand while we’re seated. Entering and leaving, he humbly crawls through a small opening in the wall. I find this attitude slightly unsettling. Each course arrives on a red lacquer tray. A goblet of sweet plum wine is our aperitif, much appreciated on this chilly November day. The appetizer is a rice paste dumpling with a clear, savoury liquid centre. It comes wrapped in an edible green leaf. White miso soup follows, plump with a rice flour dumpling textured with pungent grated orange rind.
The simmered dish consists of delicate fronds of tiny sea grapes, fingers of okra and maple leaves stamped out of red carrots afloat in a clear vegetable broth. These foods also grow in the surrounding gardens and waters; they are entirely from Jitokuji. Like the food pairings in sophisticated city restaurants, their combinations are take inspiration from the appreciation of nature and the pursuit of simplicity.
Our admiration of each dish is an important aspect of the meal, and the socially imposed strict dining etiquette forces a novice like myself to pause and admire. Clearly, partaking of kaiseki requires a degree of emotional complicity from the diner. It is not proper to eat a kaiseki meal and simultaneously read a book, or watch the tv news. This is truly destination dining.
Understanding Japanese Cuisine
To really enjoy Japanese food, they say, you must first understand it and accept the different levels of meaning, origins and seasons. I think that thorough understanding, it is impossible for those of us outside the culture – we lack the language skills and have only a cursory grasp of the tradition. Yet, my enjoyment of kaiseki exceeds my degree of understanding. Through my experience of this cuisine, I learn that—whatever the regional or circumstantial differences there will always be visual harmony, simplicity and balance in everything from the design of the plates, to the cooking methods employed, to the aroma, flavour, colour, and texture of the courses themselves. Little conversation exists during a kaiseki dinner, but there is much appreciative silence.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.