© Justin Noble

Having lunch on sacred grounds.

May 16, 2017

I am at Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan and I am lost—and hungry. I have wandered around the famous Sogenchi Pond, with its reflective turquoise-gray waters and pebble-raked shores. I have explored the handsome, well-preened paths of the maple forest. I have rested on a bench aside the great Meditation Hall and pondered my route.

But I’m here for lunch, and it’s not until the subtle smell of soy wafts through a grove of trees that I find the path to my destination: Shigetsu, a restaurant on the sacred grounds of this 700-year-old temple.

Inside the great wooden doors of Shigetsu, the atmosphere is as calm and peaceful as the placid waters of the Sogenchi Pond. A server in a brown uniform tiptoes me into a long white room bordered by strips of red carpet, like miniature Hollywood runways. In front of them are rows of tiny black tables. I am to sit on the red carpet and dine at one of the black tables. The meal, which is a set lunch and comes quickly, is a procession of elegant miniature dishes.

 © Justin Noble

There is a soy milk hot pot and a tiny dish of minced red radish and green onions to flavor it. There is a pair of snow pea pods alongside simmered lily root and mushrooms in a rich, salty broth. There is the softest and most exquisite little trembling block of tofu you ever saw, dabbed with a squiggle of wasabi. There are eight dishes in total, and they subtly see-saw between salty, sweet, bitter and sour. The meal is like an edible version of a Zen garden, and one of the finest examples of "temple cuisine" you can find in Japan.

Temple cuisine, sometimes referred to as shojin ryori, is a spruce, nourishing and often aesthetically beautiful type of vegetarian fare that is served at dozens of Japanese Zen Buddhist temples. The cuisine originated in Tibet and China and arrived in Japan about 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, traveling through South Korea, which also still has a strong tradition of temple cuisine. Among its modern-day adherents is the chef Eric Ripert.

A Buddhist monk chef who cooks this food (known as a tenzo) abstains not just from meat and fish, but also strong-smelling vegetables such as leeks, scallions, garlic and onions, which are believed to promote sexual energy. "That may sound remarkably bland," wrote NPR's Ari Shapiro, who sampled temple cuisine at the famous Jinkwansa Temple, located in the mountains outside of Seoul, South Korea. "But the dishes are pungent, fiery, funky or puckeringly tart."

"Temple cuisine uses seasonal ingredients"in the belief that following the flow of nature is best for the body," writes Mari Fujii in her popular book about temple cuisine, The Enlightened Kitchen: Fresh Vegetable Dishes from the Temples of Japan. One of its core principles is that each season produces specific foods  that nourish particular surpluses or deficits associated with that time of year. "The slight bitterness of spring buds and shoots," writes Fujii, "is said to remove fat the body accumulates during winter." And "summer vegetables from the melon family, such as tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers, have a cooling effect on the body." Fall is filled with "yams, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, chestnuts and fruit, which revive tired bodies after the heat of summer."

 © Justin Noble

The cuisine also includes dried ingredients (said to promote longevity) like yuba and koyadofu, both types of dried tofu skin high in protein, and dried seaweed, which is rich in fiber and calcium.Salt, soy sauce, mirin (rice wine) and miso are the basic flavorings. Fragrance comes from citrus, sesame oil and herbs like sansho, a type of Japanese pepper, and shiso, a type of mint.

Fujii came to  temple cuisine by way of her husband, Sotetsu, a Zen priest who spent a number of years as a tenzo in Buddhist temples across Japan. Sotetsu and Fujii presently live in Kamakura, a seaside town not far from Tokyo, where they teach a temple cuisine cooking class at a cooking school called Zenmi-kai. At Mount Koya, in Wakayama Prefecture and not far from Osaka, Japan's second largest city, there are more than 100 Buddhist temples. Many of them offer the opportunity to spend the night and experience the lifestyle of the monks.

There is a certain temple cuisine etiquette, Mari Fujii told me via email, but "for visitors, it is enough to feel thanks and join palms together before eating." However, she said, Zen priests such as her husband "have many rules for eating." When I asked her to explain some of them to me, she sent back a sort of temple cuisine haiku that some monks recite before eating:

Where has this food come from?

Virtue are so few that I am hardly worthy to receive it

I'll take it as medicine to get rid of greed in my mind

And to maintain my physical being

In order to achieve enlightenment.

Fujii lays out a less poetic version of this type of etiquette in her book. "Perhaps the key to fully appreciating temple cuisine is to select and prepare ingredients with care, and to eat with relaxed enjoyment," she writes. "People often say that they feel that a weight has lifted from their shoulders after eating temple food."

And I indeed felt fine after my lunch at Shigetsu. My meal even contained an artful desert: A little yam ball in a broth of tiny fermented mushrooms, and a small plate containing a pair of orange slices and an intensely sweet strawberry. I left feeling enlightened—and full.