THE ROAD TO MYOJINKAN
I’d been coming to Japan and performing regularly since 1980, and had never, ever been outside the big cities. In my eternal quest for hot water and fantastic cuisine, I somehow never was able to realize the particular dream of organizing a trip to a Japanese mountain hot spring and staying in a traditional ryokan, or Japanese inn. These ryokan seem to be imbued with the spirit and culture of Japan, a culture that to me, has so many levels of sophistication and so much that is admirable. My first few trips to Japan were filled with all kinds of explorations of the varied types of cuisine available : sushi of course,including the kaiten-zushi conveyor belt, yakitori, soba-yas and udon houses, curry and ramen, eel restaurants,shabu-shabu, tempura, okonomiyaki, kushi-age, Japanese pub food, and the great street food in different cities, like the octopus balls (tako-yaki) made in Osaka stalls. There was one cuisine though, that I was thoroughly intrigued with from the start, and that was kaiseki. It seemed,from my readings, to be the most exalted, the most spiritual,and the most wildly expensive of all the Japanese cuisines. What I already knew about it, is that it is a seasonal cuisine,in accordance with nature and what is fresh. In a way, it is the precursor to the whole “local food/sustainable agriculture” movement that is so wildly popular now.(another example of everything old is new again.) My only experiences were when our promoter’s son, finally weary of my constant entreaties to try kaiseki cuisine, took me for a lunch in Tokyo. Once or twice in Kyoto, I also had the pleasure of a kaiseki tofu lunch. These experiences pale in comparison to what happened at Tobira Resort and Spa Myojinkan.
The Rabbi, in his ancient and inifinite wisdom, found this hidden treasure,built in 1930, nestled in the hills above Matsumoto City, a 2 1/2 hour train ride from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. We were met in Matsumoto by a gentleman in an old fashioned coachman’s outfit,complete with flowing cape and soft fedora. ( “To the Castle…to see Dr. Frankenstein -fly like the wind and mountain roads be damned!”) Comfortably settled into our seats and excitement slowly mounting, we started the 40 minute climb up the mountain, following a river as it wound up the valley from the city. We passed farms where the inn grows its own organic fruits and vegetables, before entering forests of silver birch, oak,cedar and chestnut. We would see these snow blanketed forests from every pool and from every room we entered at the ryokan.
Tobira= the door
Finally we arrive…and are greeted with elegant hospitality as we wait in the lobby for the key to our traditional Japanese bedroom.We will walk on tatami mats, sleep on futons and wear yukata and haori.
We will not see our shoes again till we leave the inn. Good riddance, I say. And, as an added bonus,we will also be naked for most of the visit, as we sit and poach ourselves in the hot water. Can life get any better?
FIRST KAISEKI DINNER
Yes….yes it can.The Rabbi and I are led to our private tatami room by our own Girl Friday, Miss Natsuki Taguchi, who meets us at the elevator armed with her very own Japanese/English electronic translator device. Full of questions, always, we start by asking how the name for this cuisine came to be. Natsuki-san explains that the meaning comes from the story that Buddhist priests,in accordance with their tradition, used to keep a hot stone (seki) in their pockets,(kai) close to their chests in order to make their fasting more bearable. “More likely it caused severe second degree burns,” I think quietly. Anyway, Miss Taguchi continues to tell us that original kaiseki cuisine was associated with the tea ceremony and was born in Kyoto more than 500 years ago. At this time, cold sake appears in its own frosty bowl of crushed ice, garnished with fresh flowers. Following closely on its heels, is the first dish of the meal,appearing like the opening pitch of the World Series. Our breath is appropriately taken away at the appearance of a delicately leaf patterned bowl .Within its confines, is a small block of homemade warm peanut tofu, topped with thin slivers of bright yellow, citrusy yuzu peel. By its side, on a red lacquered tray, is a small dish of Japanese baby string beans in a tahini-like sauce, crowned by a small branch of plum blossoms. I know this is just the beginning to the parade of courses. We take a icy sip of cold rice wine from our sake boxes of hinoki wood, say “Kanpai,”….and dig in.
The courses then arrive in perfect succession-the timing is perfectly attuned to our pace of first gazing admirably at our dish- the beauty and color of the pottery, the lacquered trays, the aromas of tiny blossoms, the silky texture of a raw fish slice. Then, we search for meaning in the different dishes…it’s clear that the chef is sending a message. Taste is important certainly, but not the most important thing…there are other resonances.
The second course is described to us as “a dish for the New Year’s Day” It is a stunning plate of various items artfully laid out. There is a single piece of Kyoto-style sushi made of kasuge, or sea-bream. Also on the plate…herring roe, kelp, carrots, some squid and a forked toothpick with a ginko nut and a sweet bean.
Next up, a beautiful small plate of mucilaginous, grated tororo, or mountain yam,with shiso leaf and braised radish followed by a clear soup with bamboo shoots and wakame seaweed floating topside. By the time the next course arrives and the next serving of sake, we are well on the way to feeling only the deepest admiration for the attention to detail in every aspect of the hospitality accorded us. It’s a staggering concept for the Western mind to grasp. Everything is designed in accordance with nature…every hot pool in the ryokan has a view of the mountains and the icy streams, every menu is thought out as to what expresses the particular season, every experience is elaborately choreographed and delicately nuanced. We sit in wonder as the next course appears before us. There is sashimi contrasted with wild vegetables,there is raw salmon wrapped in cooked lettuce, there are coiled fiddlehead ferns which taste vaguely like asparagus,but more bitter. Our Japanese ladies giggle in delight when I speak the English name for these ferns, explaining how they look like the tops of violins….and there are tiny shiso flowers which perfume our mouths with a basil spiciness.
There is no music playing at dinner, just the symphony in our mouths… Just conversation, translations, eating and drinking. The experience reminded me of a quote from the writer Saki (H.H. Munro),where he has one of his characters, Clovis, expound upon “the tragedy of music at mealtimes.” I’ve been in plenty of places where the music just does not complement anything going on food-wise and in fact is tremendously distracting. In the better restaurants Miss Eydie has had occasion to frequent, I’ve found that the better the restaurant, the less distraction there is from the food…the more bare the walls, the more subtle the colors,and the less sound distraction. I’ve actually been known to rip speakers out of the walls at restaurants. (well….once)
Now the courses are coming fast and furious. A beautiful earthenware pot discloses a white round of cooked radish floating in broth, and crowning it, a meaty portion of braised mackerel .The garnishes are a bit of winter leek and a shishito pepper. Following that, a gently sauteed sea bream perches atop pieces of taro root.
What happened next was heaven for a carnivore like me….the mackerel being just a foreshadowing of Japanese beef braised for 6 hrs and served in its own juices with a sprinkling of parsley on top. ..melt in your mouth, buttery, beefy ambrosia in a bowl.”Fingerlickin’ good,” as we used to say in south Brooklyn.
Each course comes to us as a poem….harmonious elements reflecting the season, each course a culinary echo of the other, rhyming with divine simplicity and guided by the singular aesthetic vision of the chef. By the time the third carafe of ice cold sake arrives, I am composing my own haiku in my mind, urged on by the spirit body of Basho…something like:
“Clinging to a shred of sobriety
After the beef, there is what is called the “breath” course. This seems to be the palate cleanser part of the program that you find in traditional French tasting menus- your champagne sorbet, if you will. Tonight, for this winter menu, it is grated yam with onions- a real eye opener for the taste buds. After this refresher, the courses start again. A winter soup arrives containing a wheat dumpling, turnip, chestnut, carrot, spinach and some spicy marigold greens. The broth is milky, with bits of fresh ,local eggs suspended in it. Closely following on the heels of this, comes a beautiful dish of cold river fish and seasonal pickled vegetables…including some interesting local plants that we have to ask the name of. “Butterbur”, a member of the daisy family, produces blooms in late winter and has enormous leaves. We also don’t recognize “honewort leaf,” but it’s fun to use the all purpose phrase “Kore wa nan des ka? (What is this?) and have our lady scramble through her Japanese/English electronic translator.
Next up, miso soup with preserved tofu. Naguchi-san tells us that this particular dried tofu has always been used in winter cooking especially by older people who couldn’t make fresh tofu during the cold months. The end of the meal approaches with the final bowl of rice with burdock root and hijiki seaweed. It’s been a good couple of hours and the leisurely, perfect progression of the meal has been a joy, a cultural education, and a sensual, aesthetic wonder. We will discover that during our stay at the ryokan, we will never see the same piece of pottery twice. I start to wonder what the pantry looks like and how they safely store all this gorgeous tableware and stemware.
The final course is a sweet stunner- a homemade black sesame ice cream with fresh strawberries. There are also pieces of macerated pear and fig studded within this simple,elegant dessert.
Black Sesame Ice cream w/ Strawberries
Miraculously, we are not stuffed. We sip our green tea and remark on this curious fact. My thoughts are that it has to do with the pacing of the courses, the size of the portions and the awareness with which we ate our meal.
Now that’s food for thought.
We’re off to the baths….more to come.