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I know it sounds bizarre, but some of my first impressions of Japan are of vegetables.
There’s a scene in Hiyao Miyazaki’s animated classic My Neighbor Totoro in which two little girls, having recently moved out to the country, explore a neighbouring granny’s garden in the early summertime. They chill fresh-picked tomatoes and cucumbers in a running stream, then crunch into them with an enthusiasm that seemed incredibly foreign, almost alien – elementary school children snarfing down vegetables without the benefit of ranch dressing, salt and pepper, anything? Years later in Kyoto, I saw a thigh-sized daikon radish, white and without blemish, offered to the gods during the Festival of the ages, with equal reverence. In a June as verdant as Miyazaki’s, the garden sheltered by the rambling, tile-roofed country house of my Tottori homestay glittered with sleek purple eggplants, hid downy edamame and okra, swayed with great elephant-eared taro. My hosts prepared a simple dish of that same daikon radish (a food I’d tasted only a few times before, and hated), impaled with dried chilli pepper and grated to a rosy mush. Two ingredients only, grown within thirty feet, alive on the tongue. When I moved to a little island in the Seto Inland Sea to teach English, neighbours welcomed me with little pyramids of cucumbers and bags of dirt-dusted onions. They made me feel secure, sheltered. Home.
Cuisine, from high to low, is one of Japan’s cultural treasures. Ask anyone who’s visited before – or, especially, ask a Japanese person – and you’ll find that what they’re most looking forward to on their next trip has nothing to do with vermilion temples, geisha, or Mt Fuji. They are going there to eat. And they will have a list. A Japanese friend of mine announced her upcoming trip to Japan with a list of 13 specific foods – and not a word about travelling, dates, or Japan. Everyone knew exactly what she meant.
Once you arrive, though, food can also be a source of anxiety: what does this restaurant serve — and are we sure it’s even a restaurant? Do they actually want me to eat raw eggs/pregnant fish/raw horse/cow intestine?? Things can be even more fraught when dietary restrictions come into play; as a vegetarian, I’m used to squinting at the back of packages and trying to remember if a particular kanji character combo means “seaweed” or “sea urchin.” Japan has endless options for any diet or palate, but it’s a matter of finding them (and, for me, of picking ham flecks out of my potato salad and trying to explain that I, personally, do not consider fish cake to be a vegetable). Sometimes, the alleys of mysterious restaurants and the aisles of unfamiliar groceries become wearisome, and you just want some good home cooking – want to feel unhurried, and connected, and welcome.
This desire to connect and belong through food has been characteristic of Japan since long before the first Western visitors set foot on its shores. Buddhism arrived in Japan during the first century A.D. and flowed together with native Shintoism, with relative ease. Just as both philosophies recognized and respected all life, the lean, plant-heavy cuisines of the Japanese isles blended well with various Chinese strains of monastic vegetarianism. By the Kamakura Era (1185-1333), the new hybridized Buddhism had spread throughout Japan, carrying with it the evolving roots of shojin-ryori cuisine.
The term shojin-ryori, written as 精進料理, translates literally as “devotion cuisine,” the cuisine of spiritual progression. Food that’s better for you as a person: food that makes you a better person. Today it remains popular and is available throughout the country, at Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurants and humble family-run temples alike. Wherever it’s found, shojin-ryori’s organizing principles are the same: to connect to the seasons; to the people and places that produced the ingredients; to the chefs; to your fellow diners. The mystically significant fives of Buddhism abound: each meal should include five colours (green, yellow, red, black, and white), five flavours (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), and five preparations (raw and usually vinegared, fried, boiled, roasted, and steamed), but should exclude the five passion-inflaming foods that induce anger and lust (this rogues gallery varies by the temple, but usually forbids onion/garlic relatives).
Most important, though, are the mental attitudes that accompany preparing and eating temple cuisine: not just what you eat, but how. This concept is a triad rather than a quintet, recommending the virtues of daishin (maintaining a calm and open mind), roushin (treasuring each ingredient as an individual: as a parent treasures each child), and kishin (gratitude for the moment, food, and company). It requires that its chefs waste nothing, reshaping scraps into soups, dumplings, and sauces and aiming to make each element taste like its highest self by seasoning gently, highlighting natural flavors without extraneous ingredients.
For the diner, this attitude doesn’t manifest in a bunch of stuffy rules or a million different forks. You can avoid serious faux pas by 1) taking your shoes off where you’re told to after ensuring in advance that your socks are fit to be seen, and 2) not plunging your chopsticks upright into your rice like sticks of incense (the latter is associated with funeral ceremonies and is very bad luck; on the other hand, I’ve never in my life seen anyone spontaneously do it). Do eat each humble carrot (or whatever you’re served) completely and with respect, considering the sun that nurtured it, the farmer that planted and protected it, and the moment in time that has brought it before you, sliced into the shape of a cherry blossom purely for an instant of enjoyment before you dig in.
OK, sure, you might be thinking…nice idea, but…well…is it actually any good? Especially with that “clean your plate” philosophy, and particularly if you’ve thrown down a few hundred dollars per person for a high-end experience, I’d say a little bit of concern is understandable! To me (and those I’ve dragged along), though, the answer is an only-slightly-qualified “yes.” As with the little girls in My Neighbor Totoro munching away on naked tomatoes, the vegetables you’ll be served were loved. Even if you don’t much care for something at home, you might enjoy it here. Your slice of hand-reared summer melon from Shizuoka Prefecture at the foot of Mt Fuji (famous for melons, as every square inch of Japan is famous for some specific food product) is about as far from a watery grocery store Honeydew as possible. You might even meet something new that you adore; my favourite goma dofu, creamy, panna-cotta-textured pudding with a mild sweetness set off by soy sauce and freshly grated wasabi, was introduced to me at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. You’ll try wild mountain vegetables you’ve never heard of, that have no common name in English, and fruits you didn’t know existed. Plus you’ll find that a lot of sweet-salty, umami-rich dishes (smoky tofu broiled with sticky sesame miso, snappy gingered pickles, crispy-sweet tempura lotus root) that taste suspiciously like they might have wandered over from a hip American gastropub. Most shojin-ryori restaurants also serve beer and sake…just saying.
As you can see above, in the spirit of kishin and staying in the moment I’ve never gotten any particularly attractive pictures while treating myself to a meal of this sort, but I like to think this means I was doing something right. If you’d like to try for yourself when you visit Japan, I can personally recommend lunch at the well-known but excellent Shigetsu, located within the World Heritage gardens of Teryu-ji Temple in Kyoto’s leafy riverside suburb of Arashiyama. Near the famous bamboo forest and surrounded by moss gardens more and less well-known, it’s a calm oasis from the tourist frenzy of modern Kyoto. Choose your poetically-named Snow, Moon, or Flower course, and you’ll be seated in a cool tatami room to enjoy a selection of seasonal Zen specialties; my smallest-sized summer Snow course (containing enough food for an army of ascetic monks) included cooling cucumbers, meaty yuba tofu skin with tart, lime-like sudachi citrus, and delicate baby green beans, completely unadorned and exquisitely fresh. In Tokyo, I also adore Shibuya Tofuya Ukai, which serves a vegetable-forward kaiseki cuisine with strong shojin-ryori roots; their set courses can be vegetarian or vegan upon request, and there’s nothing quite watching the koi swim to and fro in a pond reflecting Tokyo Tower’s orange spire to cultivate an appreciative frame of mind – and that’s before the fresh corn tempura and iced tomato/okra salad even arrive. If you’re lucky your Japanese journey might even include a temple stay and a memorable shojin-ryori dinner as evening mists fall on a sacred mountaintop like Koya-san or Haguro-san or a hill overlooking Nagano city and the encircling green arms of the Japanese Alps.
For the time being, while we’re all limited to rather indoorish travel daydreams and our favorite farm-to-table restaurants are hibernating, it’s nice to consider that the ideals of shojin-ryori cuisine are accessible anywhere. As spring produce makes a welcome appearance even on somewhat-denuded shelves, it’s worth taking a moment of time to consider your rosy spring radishes: the warm California soil, the sun on spicy greens, the human hands that picked and cleaned and ferried and stocked, the plate and salt and the people who gather around the table with you – or who you wish were able to. Maybe you can plan to steam the greens and dress them with sesame, in order to waste nothing. Perhaps turn off the television, put down the book or phone, and look out the window (or at least give a friendly glance to your least death-prone succulent). No special investment of time or money is required to experience this very particular but accessible Japanese mindset, and the real thing will be waiting with great patience, and gratitude, and joy, for you to arrive and experience shojin-ryori for yourself. A green tomato swells on the vine, even now, dreaming of ripening summers to come.
Simple Shojin-ryori Recipe to try at home: Radish Greens with Sesame (Goma Ae)
20 min; serves 4 as a side dish
Radish greens, 2 bunches, or any kind or amount of green vegetables you have on hand; broccoli and spinach are nice as well
4 Tbsp raw sesame seeds (black or white)
1-2 Tbsp soy sauce/tamari, or to taste
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp mirin or sake, if you have it on hand
Lightly blanch greens for 30-45 seconds in boiling, lightly salted water; plunge immediately into ice bath. Toast sesame seeds in small skillet over medium heat until deep golden and toasty-smelling. Grind to a paste in mortar and pestle, small food processor, or coffee grinder; paste should release some oils and start to become homogeneous, but not become evenly creamy like peanut butter (chunks are fine). Whisk sesame paste with soy sauce, sugar, mirin/sake if using, and perhaps a pinch of salt or dash of shichimi togarashi seasoning, depending how salty your soy sauce is; taste for balance. Drain and squeeze greens to remove all water. While squeezing, compress greens together into one thick tube then cut into even lengths; place a roughly cylindrical pile of greens on four pretty dishes to make individual servings, top with a quarter of your sesame dressing, decorate with a fresh half radish, and serve.