An eating tour of Japan's timeless Kyoto, where the spirit of Zen Buddhism permeates everything from the architecture to the food.Get free recipes every week! Click here to sign up for The Dish—our weekly e-mail newsletter.
If Tokyo is Japan's Pokémon-crazed cyber-city of the future, Kyoto is its Rome, a city of ancient temples and shrines that offers a window into the past. Here you can contemplate a temple garden unchanged for centuries, stroll through a shogun's palace, order a paper lamp from a man whose great-great-great-grandfather made lamps for the Imperial household. But you'd better visit soon. Spared by American bombers during World War II (on orders from high up in the State Department, it's rumored), Kyoto hasn't been spared by the wrecker's ball, which is flattening the city's fragile wood-and-paper houses and shops to make way for high-rises.
The spiritual nature of the city, however, remains largely unaffected. Buddhism, which came to Japan (via China and Korea) in the sixth century, flourished in Kyoto. The aesthetic principles of Buddhism, particularly its Zen branch, gave birth to uniquely Japanese art forms. The dry sand-and-stone garden was originally intended as an aid to meditation. So was tea: Monks used it to stay awake during their long hours of meditating. Eventually its preparation was ritualized into the tea ceremony.
The Zen appreciation for the natural world and for the transitory nature of life (the brief burst of cherry blossoms, the melancholy beauty of falling autumn leaves) infused all the arts, including the culinary. Today in Kyoto you can sample authentic shojin ryori, the cuisine that grew out of the temple monks' vegetarian diet, and the multicourse kaiseki, the elaborate banquet that evolved from the food served to tea-ceremony guests.
A Meal Fit For A Monk
The vast temple complexes that once dominated Kyoto were like small cities; sometimes monks from feuding temples even fought pitched battles. Though most of these complexes have disappeared (fire being the main culprit: Kyoto is a city of wood), a few are still around. My favorite one in Kyoto is the sprawling Daitokuji. Walking down the cobbled paths, through ancient groves of pine and bamboo, I can imagine myself in a Kyoto of centuries past—until a monk putters by on a motor scooter.
Just outside Daitokuji's main gate stands the modest-looking restaurant Ikkyu, which a single family has run continuously for 500 years. It's one of a handful of Kyoto restaurants that serve traditional shojin ryori; it once catered exclusively to Daitokuji's monks. During a recent visit, I had lunch there with a Japanese friend.
In Japan the decor is as seasonal as the menu—the Japanese would no more display a spring painting in the fall than Americans would wear a down jacket in the summer. Our private room at Ikkyu was decorated with a scroll painting of autumn chestnuts and an arrangement of wildflowers but was otherwise unadorned. After removing our shoes, we seated ourselves on cushions and ordered the bento box, a sampling of Ikkyu's multicourse dinner.
Our meal began with matcha, the traditional green tea of the tea ceremony. The powder is spooned into a ceramic bowl, hot water added and the mixture whisked to a frothy jade. Here, it was served with a sweet bean pastry and natto, a mouth-puckeringly salty nugget of fermented soybean. The three flavors—sweet, salty and bitter (the tea)—were meant to stimulate our appetites, explained Tatao Tsuda, the 91-year-old self-described "boss, chef and head of everything," who plunked himself down cross-legged beside us on the woven tatami mat, his long undergarments peeking from his trouser legs. (Since our visit, Tsuda has died and his son has taken over the business.)
As I loudly slurped the last of my tea (it's considered polite here), our lunches were placed at our feet, a small treasure in each compartment of the lacquered boxes. One of the perverse pleasures of Japanese food is that it's often unidentifiable, even to the Japanese. The chefs are masters at transformation, and they love to surprise customers. I stared down, stumped by the giseidofu—tofu that is mashed up and then fried—which I mistook for meat.
"Not meat. Shojin ryori is strictly vegetarian," Tsuda corrected me. "No fish, no elephants, no cats, no dogs." Not only is the restaurant vegetarian, but it uses only traditional Japanese produce; cabbage and potatoes, for example, which weren't introduced into the country until the late nineteenth century, are excluded.
"But who really knows what a Japanese vegetable is?" I challenged Tsuda. "After all, didn't everything come from somewhere else at one time or another?"
He sighed the indulgent sigh of a man whose family has been doing the same thing in the same way—the Japanese way—for half a millennium, and fixed his clear eyes on me. "Why ask questions? Just accept that this is the way things are. That's what I think." End of discussion.
A Room At The Inn
Kaiseki, Japan's haute cuisine, began as a series of small dishes to accompany the tea ceremony. Over the centuries, it evolved into the banquet it is today, an opportunity not only for the chef to display his skills but for the proprietor to show off his finest tableware and artwork. The best place to experience kaiseki is in your room at a Japanese inn, just after a soak in a hot bath; without the restaurant hubbub, you can focus completely on the meal. And if the inn happens to be Tawaraya, the most revered in Kyoto—and thus, by extension, in Japan—you are very fortunate.
Don't expect to find an Internet connection in your room: A Japanese inn is a respite from the real world. The rooms, where guests both sleep and eat, are small and simply furnished. Even the most expensive inns often have communal baths and toilets, though Tawaraya, which has been owned by the same family for more than 300 years, has private cedar baths in its rooms.
In kaiseki, ingredients are chosen for color and shape as well as taste; the variety of cooking methods—grilling, steaming, simmering—is also an important factor. The courses arrive one by one, tiny by Western standards, each served on a dish—porcelain, ceramic, woven reed—chosen to best display the food. The matching china of the West seems shamefully unimaginative by comparison.
Our meal began with creamy sesame tofu followed by a contrapuntal offering of sliced duck, ginkgo nuts and raw sea urchin—the courses were perfectly paced, allowing for leisurely conversation and building anticipation. Red-snapper broth was followed by red-snapper sashimi arranged on shiso flowers and leaves. Finally, bowls of rice and miso soup arrived, signaling the meal's end: A deceptively simple finale, for the soup was served in black lacquer bowls accented with muted gold and silver, the wood grain visible through the lacquer. Stunning objects, obviously very old and valuable, and there, like every other detail of our meal, to be admired.
Step Up To The Counter
Other Kyoto inns serve exceptional kaiseki meals, but Japan also has a far less formal dining tradition: eating at a restaurant counter. Sitting where I can chat with the chef as he prepares my food and delivers it to me is, I think, the best possible place to be. Adapting kaiseki to this casual arrangement is a terrific idea, particularly when the chef is as exuberant as Takeo Suzuki, the owner of En, a wonderful "counter kaiseki" restaurant a friend took me to on my last evening in Kyoto.
"I own it, I do the cooking, and I entertain," laughed Suzuki, a stout, affable man with a graying goatee and clipped hair, as he motioned us to high-backed chairs at the long counter and poured us glasses of chilled dry sake. The room is simple but smart—plain stucco walls, a few flower arrangements—and so was our first course, sea urchin lightly grilled and sprinkled with lime. With kaiseki, you never order; you just choose one of three or four fixed prices when making your reservation. The surprise is half the fun.
After the sea urchin, we had a tiny dish of persimmon, cucumber and shiitake mushrooms bathed in a sesame sauce. Then came sashimi, accompanied by a lighter sake. We offered Suzuki a glass with each round, as our half-dozen fellow diners had been doing with their beer and wine. As the evening progressed, his face grew redder and his manner more expansive, yet his technique remained sure. A single fu (wheat gluten) dumpling, colored pink by chrysanthemum petals and floating in broth, contained a hidden gift: a chunk of grilled foie gras.
"I can't possibly eat any more," I protested.
"You should keep eating after you're already full," Suzuki admonished me. "You have to get full first to really understand the taste."
I wasn't sure whether this assertion was based on sound gastronomic theory or on sake, but I plowed on. And when our final course arrived, I was rewarded for my perseverance with sticky rice topped with a generous dollop of golden-orange salmon eggs that burst in my mouth.
Suzuki calls his unorthodox version of this traditional meal "kuzushi kaiseki"—casual kaiseki. "It's a disclaimer," he joked. "It means I can do anything I want to."
Whatever he does is fine by me, though I couldn't help wondering what Tatao Tsuda of Ikkyu would have thought of the foie gras. I left Kyoto the next morning convinced that while much of the city's traditional architecture, sadly, will almost surely disappear, its inventive and endlessly adaptable cuisine is in very safe hands.
Alan Brown is the author of the novel Audrey Hepburn's Neck.