Haute Cuisine

Kozumi and Hiro, Liz and Kathryn

We spent the early part of Monday talking to Christine and her friend, then shopped for gifts. In our travels, we visited the local version of the Dollar Store, which was playing the most obnoxious music, the Chipmunks with an Asian flavor. It was there that I discovered my friend Maria, who had visited Japan several times, was right. It isn’t that women don’t turn gray, she said, they all just dye their hair. One entire wall of the store was covered with bottles and packets and all the accoutrements. At least no one stared and patted my hair as they did with her silver bob.

A bit farther along, a craft fair in the square in front of the train station had a few items of interest – jewelry and textiles, but it couldn’t compare to the massive display of Houston Street in NYC that I encountered a couple of years ago.

Hiro was entertaining when we returned: the scroll maker and a dollmaker (wooden carvings of all sizes and shapes) from Kyoto who was the fourteenth generation of his family to carry on the tradition. It could be either liberating or oppressive to know that your path in life is set. His English was limited so I couldn’t ask if the entire family made dolls or only just a few select members of each generation. He issued an invitation to visit his studio, which we didn’t have a chance to do. But his works will be part of an exhibit at Boston University in two years. I will attend.

That night Hiro drove us thirty-five minutes to a restaurant, once more no idea of the name. We met his wife, Kozumi, who orchestrated the meal and kept us in the best Matcha I’ve ever tasted. Since the menu was also in Japanese only I can only guess at the dishes: various soy products, pickled Chinese cabbage, a small hotpot. Among my favorites was the lotus root. The world’s best miso soup arrived toward the end of the meal. Then a surprise, a small pot of molten cheese. This dispelled my idea that the Japanese never ate the stuff. Dessert was either soy ice cream with bean powder, which I did not try, or a small portion of bean paste. It was gelatinous and not as sweet as expected.

We visited the 1,300 year old palace and gate, which are under renovation but look magnificent under floodlights. Of all the structures we saw, the Chinese influence is most evident there.

Toyouke No Mori

Pizza anyone?

The universe is conspiring to break my concentration. All week it’s been storm drain replacement one street over, followed by the city’s giant leaf removal vacuum. Now Asplundh is chopping down a tree next door. Please excuse errors.

We rose early on Nov. 5 to beat the crowds to the Todaiji Temple, home of the Great Buddha. Thanks to Hiro, we entered first because he had given us tickets. The temple accomplishes its intent — to make humans, indeed all life – feel minuscule. The Buddha is indeed serene but not awe-inspiring in the way other of monuments, perhaps because the setting makes it difficult to see. The head of the Buddha sits encased in a dome that shadows the features.

After the Great Buddha, we climbed the hill and visited the Great Bell, which is supported by enormous beams. Just thinking about the size of the trees they had to cut to build the bell tower made my head ache. Higher up, there was a different but equally satisfying vista from our nighttime visit.

We accomplished all this by 10 a.m. A bit later, Hiro drove us to Toyouke no Mori. The journey there through ancient roads served as the ideal prelude to the quiet harmony and beauty of the farm. These mansions (by Japanese standards) nearly rivaled that of the salt-makers in Naoshima. Hiro explained that they had belonged to people who were the first in Japan to plant rice on a large scale.

Toyouke no Mori is an organic farm where residents grow and prepare their meals and live in the Buddhist tradition. Here’s the description:

Life at Toyouke no Mori is anchored in the Japanese tradition of a shared community, life based on simplicity, sustainability and harmony. We offer visitors an opportunity to experience life in a natural setting that celebrates the rich four seasons of Japan, and to cultivate an inner peace, being content with what you have, and rejoicing in the way things are.

It fulfills every word of that promise.

We toured the gardens, which lie on a steep hillside. Much of the produce had been harvested, but there were beans and persimmons still to be picked. In a sign of globalization, a pizza oven looking rather like a beehive amused me. The Buddha no doubt laughs, too. The bathing room, still under construction, will be a work of beauty and a joy forever when it is completed.

We met four beautiful and energetic young women who prepared a multi-course repast. We slurped up (yeah, that’s OK here) beet soup so dark it was almost purple with a fish base. Hiro said they use Kombu for vegan dishes. Then we dove into grilled Chinese cabbage, arugula with pear and tofu, two kinds of greens, one with sesame oil. Of course there was rice, more glutinous and with adzuki beans.

Before we ate we said a prayer from Thich Nhat Hanh:

This food is a gift from the entire universe

The land, the sky, the ocean and the work of many people

May I be the presence that deserves to receive this

May I learn the right way of eating

May I receive energy and be protected from illness

May I walk the path of wisdom and love

When I eat, may I not forget the people who are now suffering from hunger in the world.

Words to contemplate spoken at a place to visit again and again.

 

Exploring Nara

Sumi ink by Christine Flint Sato. WordPress forced cropping of the exquisite scroll.

The temple bell that rings at 6 a.m. awakened me. Otherwise there was quiet, blessed quiet.

Some hours later, we ventured out into a pedestrian mall filled with tiny shops selling clothing, leather goods, pastries, groceries, and other wares. One shop on the main street offered just tabi socks. Kathryn explored and reported that some pairs of socks sold for $250! Instead, we bought chestnut-filled pastries since it’s the season. One had an outer crust the texture of phyllo and was not sweet – a good thing.

We passed a mob of people surrounding this one stand that had two entrances. The people in the back worked furiously as the woman in front kept shoving people toward the street. Hiro explained that they were waiting for another variety of chestnut-filled pastries, only available at this time of year and apparently an exception to the rule against eating while standing and or walking. We did not try to fight the crowds.

A stroll through the park where the sacred deer roam meant battling mobs of people. It doesn’t seem possible that these narrow little streets can fit the gigantic tour buses that disgorge the teeming masses.

As soon as I saw the deer – small things, about the size of a large dog – all I could think was TICKS! After all I live near ground zero for Lyme disease. It was as hard to dodge them as it was the people. I did not feed them or otherwise interact with them but did experience a great deal of amusement watching them eat their “cookies” and butt people who didn’t feed them quick enough.

Upon returning to the studio, we met the calligrapher Christine Flint Sato whose work is on display and the very retiring gentleman who built the scrolls for her sumi ink paintings.

Following a delightful couple of hours, Hiro took us to lunch at a traditional soba restaurant. The noodles had a delicate quality, much thinner than what I’ve had before.

Along with the soba in flavorsome broth, we had servings of mini-tempura: one enormous shrimp, pumpkin, seaweed, ginger, and carrot. Surprisingly filling.

Upon our return, we chatted more with Christine. The three scrolls in the living room are circle, square, and triangle, a motif that a great many artists use. The circle is my favorite of all her works.

After tea we explored further, passing Yamata-Cha from which a heavenly scent wafted as the owner roasted tea.

A short walk brought us to Nara Craft Museum. There we saw a woman making calligraphy brushes. She tamped the bottom edge of the bristles to even them, then took a blade, pulling and cutting a few bristles at a time. Her hands moved almost too fast to see clearly. She had eight or so brushes awaiting handles – at least I think that would be the next step.

The brush maker was sitting out in the open. A room off to the side was filled with looms where people were taking a break from weaving placemats (?) and other small objects. The fibers looked similar to the cloth in the suits of the women on the Ohara bus, so textile exploration might be in order.

Elsewhere cases and cases of pottery of all sizes sat on display. Many of them had a glass of water tucked into the corner, a simple way to humidify the air.

To Nara

Ukimido Pavilion

We jumped into the onsen immediately on arising because it closed at 9 a.m. for cleaning. Felt just as good in the a.m. as it did in the evening. After a breakfast of fish, rice, miso, and pickles we waited for the 11 a.m. shuttle to the bus that would take us back to Kyoto.

We had to clutch our bags between our knees because there was no room to store anything. The bus grew crowded in the middle of the trip, but was otherwise uneventful. Most of the passengers were elderly but there were two women in what looked like coarse-woven linen (flax?), one a gorgeous dark blue print, the other wheat colored, short jackets with full gaucho pants, which are replacing skinny pants throughout the land among the fashionable.

At the Ogawa coffee shop in the train station we sat next to a delightful couple. She was born in Japan but had lived many years in the States. He was pure California. They live in Paso Robles and had been traveling in Japan for three weeks. They recommended Nara above all other locales.

Two polite gentlemen gave us seats on the train to Nara. We munched on little delicacies – seaweed wrapper that I wrapped around a bean paste filling. Excellent combination of taste, texture, etc.

The Nara train station proved smaller and thus easier to navigate than others. As we looked for the rendezvous spot to meet our host, we passed a woman sporting a long brown skirt, scarlet jacket, and two-tone patent leather shoes with gold buckles She seemed over dressed, even for the fashion conscious grande dames of Japan. Then we saw her table of literature – Jehovah’s Witness! I guess from our expressions she figured she couldn’t make a sale. She convened with another woman and two men, all bandbox neat. I’m wondering how successful they are in this world where Buddhism and Shinto are baked into the culture even with people who are not necessarily overtly devout.

Our host, Hiro Minato, who is an architect, designer, and calligrapher, showed up a few minutes later and took us to his studio, down a narrow side street just steps from the famous deer park.

Design Works Studio has exhibit and office space downstairs and an apartment with one bedroom, living and dining areas, full bath, and kitchen upstairs. The building it occupies is one hundred years old, and Hiro renovated it himself.

He served us slices of persimmons, which were much drier and less sweet than the varieties in the States. Our beverage was hojicha, which is among my favorite varieties, because it is roasted and has more body than traditional green tea.

By this time it was dark, but we were still able to appreciate the magnificence of Nara. I cried again when we stood at the Ukimido pavilion with its four sides that frame a view for each season. The moon approaching full cast its shimmering reflection across the water. A few maple branches waved gently on one side. I truly felt I’d come home. The scene reached something deep inside me that I didn’t know was there. The ability to stand in contemplation of nature, in silence – ineffable.

We climbed on a long drive with tighter and tighter switchbacks. It rivaled the dizzying heights along the Gorges du Verdon except with guardrails. We parked and walked up a slope. Nara lay draped at our feet, an enormous jeweled blanket, sparkling in the night with the shadow of mountains behind it.

We met a great many people coming and going and hanging out. Hiro said the South Koreans go up to film ads. We did see what looked like a bridal party descending and a rather military looking group ascending.

Upon our return, Hiro fixed us a meal of rice noodles with fresh shiitake and ginger in delicious broth. He served it with mackerel and salmon wrapped in persimmon leaves, a specialty of Nara, which has spoiled me for any sushi the U.S. has to offer.

Fascinating observation: Hiro said that of all westerners, the French  understand Japanese culture the best. They get the concept of “wha” (spelling?) of beauty that just is. He couldn’t explain why. Perhaps the two places share a delicacy of sensibility? Or maybe it’s  suffering of a particular sort?

To Ohara Onsen

November 2 proved chaotic as I couldn’t figure out how to get to the Air B&B that would put us near Kurama, the place where Mikao Usui Sensei founded the practice of Reiki. We had reversed steps from Naoshima to Kyoto.

Though it proved restorative, the experience at the Oohara No Sato (note the extra “o”) did not compensate for missing out on my one goal for the trip.

The accommodating people at tourist information in the Kyoto train station handed over a bus schedule. Having read that traveling by local bus with luggage was problematical, I opted for a taxi – expensive but worth it because we would otherwise have arrived in the dark.

The ride through congested streets revealed women dressed as geisha and a few old buildings. The driver spoke no English but put on an English-language radio station playing such ancient classics as “Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.”

Within twenty minutes or so we climbed out of the city into the mountains. The scenery transformed into a miniature version of the northern California coast. Tall spindly pine trees with trunks bare up to twelve or fourteen feet perched on rock ledges. The sun filtered in patches at the beginning. Before the end of the trip it had sunk behind the ridge. Dusk here lacks that “gloaming” quality of more northern latitudes.

Our ride wound up and up through narrower, steeper roads. We passed a few people with bicycles, some riding, a few walking. The locals here seem even smaller and more stooped than the people in Naoshima.

After more than an hour, we began to see big, hefty looking westerners garbed in sensible down. One man was setting up an enormous Nikon on a tripod. The view revealed a gorge that stretched miles and framed by higher peaks.

The road narrowed to a single lane as we at last pulled into a small compound with a minibus and a few cars in the parking lot. The driver retrieved our bags and handed them to a young man who hoisted both at the same time like they were feathers, then carried them inside and up two flights of stairs after we checked in.

It is not at all clear how Oohara onsen counts as an Air B&B since it is a hotel with a full-service restaurant.

Our room was again larger than I expected, and a pot of tea awaited. We disrobed into yukata and headed for the onsen, which consisted of three baths, one inside, one under an overhang, and a tiny one in the open air that could hold four smallish people.

Progressing from one to the next restored my body and mind from the tension of travel. The frigid air just served to make the bath that much more enjoyable. Again, the few Japanese women present were brushing their teeth and otherwise doing thorough personal hygiene. Maybe this is the custom.

In the pool with overhang, we met Victoria, a young woman who lives in Greenpoint, born in Ohio. She had come to Japan by herself to celebrate her thirty-third birthday. She apologized for the tattoo on her shoulder, which she said she was supposed to cover when in the presence of Japanese. I didn’t see her do it, nor did I ever figure out the reason.

We changed back into our clothes for dinner, though others dined in their yukata.

Each room had a separate table with a brazier topped by a huge pot of boiling water. We added a pile of veggies the size of a small mountain: tree ears, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots. Sides were three types of pickles – eggplant, cucumber, and mushrooms. Of course rice, plus a treat of three types of miso made on the premises — white, garlic and aged (three years). My favorite was the last as it had an intense almost smoky flavor. The staff brought me a piece of excellent smoked mackerel because I couldn’t eat the chicken in the hot pot.

I tried the hot sake, which no more resembles what we have in the States than champagne resembles Welch’s. Don’t think I’d ever drink it regularly but would enjoy the real version as an occasional treat.

Art Houses

Ishibashi

The morning sun came into our Seven Beaches room as if through glass block (it wasn’t) but diffuse enough to add to the serenity of our surroundings. Island serenity remained throughout the day.

After breakfast of muesli and yogurt we evaded the Chinese folks racing from the ferry. Following a short bus ride, we made our way to  to buy tickets for the Art House Project. The directions pointed us in the wrong direction, but we eventually the gift shop/ticket booth.

Art House is a work-in-progress that is preserving centuries-old residences and converting them into galleries or art installations, each with a different theme and featuring the work of different artists.

We started with Minamidera, the design of architect Tadao Ando and featuring artwork by James Turrell. It is by far the most dramatic, as visitors enter in total darkness where we had to feel our way along a wall until we came to benches. The docents repeat warnings to put away phones etc. Dropping an object means losing it. And they were serious.

I had just achieved a meditative state when a woman started talking and then a gentle light begin to appear. They could have extended the silence and darkness for maximum effect.

One of the charms of the project was encountering local residents going about their business as we looked for and at the exhibits. An elderly gentleman who had set up his folding chair on a corner pointed us in the direction of a house we had missed. He no doubt had days’ worth of entertainment.

Many exhibits/installations had effects that played with light and dark. Go’o Shrine incorporated steps covered in plexiglass into an ancient shrine. One entered a tunnel at the base with a flashlight. On leaving glimpses appeared of bright blue sky and the sparkling Inland Sea, framed by trees. The view of nature replicated the size and shape as the entrance to the tunnel.

I found Hiroshi Senju’s Ishibashi the most impressive. The enormous house (four hundred years old) had belonged to a wealthy famiy that made salt. The mansion sat at the end of a long alley that took us past a shop selling vintage clothing. The gracious open spaces with gleaming floors held a wall of stone rubbings in various shapes and sizes. Outside, enormous stones had been formed into a bench in one case, and an arch in another.

We took the bus back to the port and ate lunch at Cinna-mon – rice with modestly spicy curried veggies and excellent salad with sesame oil dressing.

In the early evening we ventured to 7-Eleven, which appears to serve as the grocery store for a good portion of the island.

Thereafter we repaired to Naoshima Bath, which had been closed the day before. The guests on the female side were equally divided between westerners and locals. The latter not only bathed but shampooed hair and brushed teeth. It occurred to me afterward that some of the smaller more modest houses on the island might lack full bathing facilities.

The water in the bath was hot, hot, hot – so hot that one of the westerners had to get out. I stayed in until the skin on my fingers shriveled to almost nothing.

Slept the best since I arrived.

The Mystery Café

A note on the Japan Rail benefits: We rarely had to obtain a ticket, and when we did no one collected or checked it. Most of the time, we just showed our passes and took our reserved seats.

On leaving the Benesse Museum, we had a cold, dark wait for the bus. It  was supposed to arrive in 20 minutes, which stretched to 40 and then extended another 20 when the driver took a coffee break. During the wait and on the ride back to the port, we met Katerina, a dentist from Switzerland, and a couple from Shanghai with a small boy in tow.

Katerina had a reservation at a restaurant near the port, made when she couldn’t dine at Benesse House, where she was staying, so we tagged along. The folks from Shanghai soon followed. Inside, we encountered the couple from New Jersey we’d seen on the ferry and another a family of four. We occupied every seat in the place except for a table for two by the door. It felt like we were eating in a private kitchen.

No one figured out the name of the place because all the signs were in Japanese.

Our waitress was seriously overweight, had pale skin and an almost vacant look, and moved ponderously, We realized the next day that she was severely disabled when we saw her motorized scooter outside. It took her forever to write down the order for the family, and that happened only after the father used his sketchpad of architectural drawings to illustrate that they wanted yakitori.

I envisioned the chef as a Jack Sprat type: tall, skinny, weather beaten face, missing a tooth, wearing a fedora and filthy gray Wellingtons. Minus the last, he could have soloed in a jazz band.

Chaos reigned, but eventually we ordered. Everything was flowing until it was announced that there was only one order of mackerel and would we like sashimi? I was surprised because I had seen the chef remove one piece from a packet of two and return the other to the refrigerator. With the green beans and other veggies, a couple of helpings of tofu, miso soup, and rice, I was more than full and thoroughly enjoyed every bite of the simple and hearty fare.

Plus I lost my appetite when our waitress fished a piece of seaweed from the side of a bowl and ate it.

Lingering over dinner was discouraged by the arrival of a friend of the chef and waitress who sat down with an enormous bottle of beer and lit a cigarette. She helped clear a bowl or two then downed another beer and lit a second cigarette.

The Shanghai family and Katerina were headed back to catch the bus so we accompanied them on a breezy walk.