Food for the soul

It’s easy enough to forget that Mount Takao is
technically part of Tokyo. The higher up you go, ascending into the trees and the distinctly fresher air, the more the tension of big city life becomes an afterthought. From certain vantage points you can distinguish Shinjuku or even Yokohama in the smoggy distance.
Of course, visitors come for more than just the tranquillity and the stunning view. Perched atop the mountain is Yakuoin, a Buddhist temple with a history dating as far back as 744. Here, with reservations a couple of days in advance, you can sample the traditional cooking style of Buddhism known as shojin ryori.
It’s the ultimate vegetarian cuisine, anda lot of people come here just to experience it, comments Isao Ogata as he leads the way down a corridor. Ogata manages the food services at Yakuoin.
Shojin ryori is indeed a culinary adventure. Many visitors who eat at Yakuoin are not vegetarians and Ogata believes their desire to try this food stems from the human pursuit of the unique and exotic. They might also be craving the ever-elusiveslow food.
“People used to take time for their food, says Ogata.Nowadays, with society moving so fast and with so much technology, people don”t have time to cook and eat slowly anymore.
“When I bring customers to the room, I want them to relax and enjoy the food. I hope Yakuoin can be their entrance to the world of shojin ryori that this food can be their first step toward understanding what it”s really about.
When the meal is ready, assistant chef Kazumi Sakamoto takes a brief moment to sit with his creations spread out on the tatami floor. His posture is solid like a tree trunk, and to simply say that the 31-year-old is reserved would be misleading. He”s friendly but restrained, with a powerful energy brewing just below the surface.
“Our followers offer us foods from all over the country and we try to come up with ideas to make the best of it, Sakamoto says.Our menu changes depending on the season.
On this day in autumn, the lunch features a soup made from shiitake and kelp steeped overnight to form the broth, which is then boiled with five kinds of mushrooms. Subtly sweet, it goes down your throat gently.
Other selections include sesame tofu, simmered vegetables andfive-grain rice of black beans, red beans, soybeans, white kidney beans and whole rice. There”s also tempura of maitake mushroom, sweet potato, pumpkin and parsley. The tastes don”t jump out at you they linger and blend together as you swallow each small bite.
A healthy dose of creativity is required to prepare such a variety of enjoyable recipes using whatever ingredients happen to be on hand. Yet before the days of imports and greenhouses, people had to make do with whatever crops were in season. While it may be tiring and time consuming, using what is naturally available provides a sense of comfort and satisfaction too. At Yakuoin, they say that creating food in this way allows for the earth”s energy to flow into our bodies.
And so for Sakamoto, preparing this spiritual cuisine is not merely.

The Essence of Shojin Ryori

Zen Buddhism traditionally prohibits the killing of living creatures and the consumption of animal flesh. However, there is much more to the concept of shojin ryori than simple vegetarianism.
When the 11th-century Japanese monk Dogen Zenji travelled to China to study, he was shocked to discover their philosophies went far beyond meditation. Everything in life, he learned, is practice on the road toward enlightenment. Naturally such practice included cooking that which provides the sustenance needed to survive and Dogen”s later writings entitled Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Cook) would have a potent influence on shojin ryori in Japan.
Using the kanji forspirit, the term shojin refers to effort, especially effort towards asceticism (the practice of self-discipline and abstention from indulgence) and purification. Produce such as garlic, chives, leeks, shallots and onions are generally prohibited because they are said to ignite the senses and create desire. Alcohol is avoided because of its effect on the mind.
Ideally, a meal will incorporate six tastes spicy, sour, bitter, sweet, salty and finallypale, which represents the natural flavor of the vegetables lest they be overwhelmed by extravagant sauces and seasonings.
What I always try to remember, says Sakamoto,is to avoid waste. Chefs go to great lengths to use all edible ingredients and to keep each dish small. And while dining can be expensive, shojin ryori is not about luxury. It”s about providing the nutrition necessary for well-being, both physically and mentally.

A Collaboration of Spirits

On a chilly Saturday morning in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, steam wafts from the kitchen of Toshio Tanahashi”s Gesshinkyo restaurant even before the daily throngs of fashion conscious youths appear on the streets. Nestled behind the trendy Omotesando Hills in a wooden house amidst a sea of concrete, a visit to the specialized shojin ryori restaurant feels a lot like travelling back in time.
Born in 1960, Tanahashi is not a monk but is just as disciplined, having trained for three years at the Gesshin Temple in Shiga prefecture. He begins and finishes each day by cleaning his restaurant top to bottom because, he says, it”s important to balance labor (cleaning) with fun (cooking). In his tiny establishment he has created a simple and stylish atmosphere that works in perfect harmony with the earthy cuisine. With precious few seats, reservations are a must.
It’s a collaboration of the spirits of the ingredients and the spirit of a human being, he says from behind the kitchen counter, his voice gentle but his eyes intensely piercing.
It’s not shojin ryori because you cook only with vegetables or because you eat at temples, continues Tanahashi as though about to tell a secret.That”s not enough. You have to put time and energy into it, to think about each cell in the body, to try to cook something that will make all those cells happy. That attitude and consciousness are the important things.
Perhaps therein lies another aspect that makes shojin ryori so exceptional. How often do we consider the cells in our body when choosing our food? It”s true that nowadays people are increasingly conscious of their own health. Nevertheless, it is human nature to fall for the temptation to make our taste buds happy while worrying about little else. Shojin ryori is partly the resistance to that impulse.
“I do not cook because I want to hear people say it”s good, Tanahashi says.When kids say they don”t want to eat carrots, their parents still make them eat carrots, right? I cook food that reaches body parts of which people are rarely conscious.
This involves not only the use of ingredients with positive effects Gesshinkyo”s menu changes monthly, with variations on 30-40 seasonal vegetables but also the avoidance of those with negative consequences. Tanahashi believes it”s fine to eat meat once in a while, but not nearly as often as average people consume it.
“The bowels of Asian people are longer than those of Western people, he explains.When meat stays in our body too long, it becomes like poison. So when Japanese people eat too much meat, it”s extremely unhealthy.
Rather than aiming to attract mere compliments, Tanahashi is doing his part to look out for the future of each customer with a fatherly sincerity.I always tell my customers when they leave, ヤplease look forward to tomorrow”.

Story by Kayo Yamawaki and Jim Hand-Cukierman
From J SELECT Magazine, February 2007