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Walking the Roji
I celebrated my arrival in Kyoto with a dinner of grilled eel, a sublime delicacy in Japan. In the water the fish resembles a ferocious jagged-toothed snake. But when sizzled over hot charcoal it looks like a fillet of sole that has spent the winter in Palm Beach. The skin turns crisp and smoky and the fatty white flesh, basted with a sweet soy syrup, becomes deeply tanned and as succulent as foie gras.
The restaurant was located in a cheery yellow mall beneath Kyoto Station, home to the southern bus terminal, north-south subway line, and Japan Railroad Tokaido Main, one of the four major bullet train routes. Being coatless and having underestimated how cold it gets in Kyoto in early November after the sun goes down, I had ducked into the mall in search of warmth and something to eat.
The restaurant lay at the end of a long corridor lined with inexpensive clothing emporiums, elegant Japanese sweet shops, and trinket stores selling sandalwood fans, pottery tea bowls, and I Love Kyoto key chains. Like all the other eateries in the area, the eel restaurant displayed lifelike plastic models of the items on its menu in a brightly lit picture window. I chose a small wooden table for two in the back of the restaurant and sat down in the chair facing the kitchen. I was the only diner. The chef, sporting a clean, pressed, white cotton band around his forehead, came over to my table. He was apparently also the waiter.
"Are you kmrmshtka?" asked the chef.
"Hmmm?" My eyebrows shot up.
"What would you nsmsplka?"
I giggled nervously, then bit my lower lip. He gestured to the window and started walking. I followed him outside. "Unagiijxwbrp?" he asked. I began to tell him I wanted the tray holding the single, not double, fillet of grilled eel with rice, soup, and pickles, but he interrupted.
"No English," he said with a frown, shaking his head. I tapped my finger several times against the glass in front of the dinner I wanted, hoping he might make the connection.
"Ah, ah," he exclaimed, pointing at the glass, "Unagixpxwz." I squinted and leaned toward the window to read the plastic plaque marked with the meal's price in yen, then slowly wrote the price on my palm with my index finger and tapped the window again.
"Hai, hai." He beamed, nodding vigorously. "Kirin?" Now, that I understood.
"Yes," I said loudly, as if increasing the volume might lead to an increased understanding.
"Ladzkmttaka?" He opened his hands as if holding an invisible fire hydrant from top to bottom.
"Yes!" I boomed, not having the foggiest idea of what he had just asked.
The double-size beer arrived quickly, along with a glass. It wasn't one of those huge Henry the VIII steins like we get back home, but instead a teensy tumbler, similar to what budget hotels in America use for juice glasses at their complimentary breakfast buffets. I filled the glass and took a sip. The amber liquid tasted bitter and refreshing.
After about ten minutes, dinner came to the table looking identical to its plastic counterpart. Unfortunately, the eel's texture was similar too. But the accompanying steamed rice, pressed into the shape of a chrysanthemum, had a clean, delicate sweetness unlike any rice I had ever tasted. The tray also held a plastic bowl of miso soup, clear in parts and cloudy in others. I stirred the mixture with the tip of my chopsticks, then picked up the bowl and sipped the savory liquid enriched with diced tofu and emerald wisps of wakame seaweed.
In a shallow dish sat a small block of bean curd splashed with soy sauce and topped with pinkish curls of dried bonito that looked like pencil shavings. I cut into the silky white cube and tried to balance the craggy chunk on the slender pieces of wood. It tumbled off. After trying again, success was rewarded with the sweet taste of milky custard mingled with dark soy and smoky fish flakes. There were pickles too, crisp neon-yellow half-moons of sweet daikon radish and crunchy slices of eggplant. Although I had not expected culinary brilliance from a mall restaurant, dinner was exceeding expectations. The ingredients were plain, but exceptional in their purity and freshness.
As I moved around my traysipping, plucking, and crunchingI thought of all I had seen that day. Exotic images flashed to mind, including the painted orange gates of Yasaka Shrine, shaped like giant croquet wickets. There were the streetlights, heralding safe crossings, which chirped "uh-oh" for north-south foot traffic and "wheesh-wheesh" for east-west. Ginkgo trees fluttered banana-yellow leaves shaped like tiny fans against the turquoise sky. Red and white vending machines, clustered near subway stations, glowed brightly with offerings of beer, batteries, and cans of hot sweet milk tea. In a tiny noodle shop near Tea Bowl Lane, where pottery shops flanked both sides of the street, I joined mothers, children, and old men to slurp thick starchy udon noodles from a bowl of savory fish broth. At Kiyomizu-dera (Clear Water Temple), a massive wooden structure looming over the city against a backdrop of vermilion maples, I stepped inside the main hall to see the female Buddha of Mercy and Compassion. Fabricated from gold, she stood on a pedestal waving her "thousand arms" in a dark room with slippery wooden floors and smoky air pungent with the musky sweet smell of incense. Afterward I drank cold clear water from an aluminum ladle at the Sound-of-Feathers Waterfall below the temple with a crowd of boisterous schoolchildren, then sampled a green tea butter cookie at a gift shop in the mall beneath Kyoto Station. Even the beer with dinner tasted new to me, cleaner, crisper, and less fizzy than what I was used to back home. It had been a day of pure exhilaration, an unexpected adrenaline rush in anticipation of the thrilling, unpredictable, hopeful promise of Kyotomy new home.
I first became enamored with Japan through my grandmother, whom we fondly called Gunga. She and my grandfather used to travel to this chain of islands that looks like a chopped chili pepper floating several hundred miles off the coast of Korea. Kyoto was my grandmother's favorite city "because of the gardens," she used to say. Kyoto is the place to see mossy miniature landscapes, groves of bamboo, and raked stone oceans circling jagged rock islands.
Every Christmas my grandparents would bring back gifts from their travels to "the Orient." One year it was a wooden boy in a blue-and-white-speckled coat holding a painted persimmon. Another year it was a red silk change purse. The Christmas I was ten, my mother, two sisters, and I received flowered Japanese happi coats. These were knee-length cotton wraps similar to kimonos that we would wear around the house as bathrobes. Mum's was peach, my older sister's was pink, Alexandra's, the baby of the family, was white, and mine was a rich robin's egg blue. I loved that little robe and used to hang it on a peg inside my closet door. When I opened my closet, the robe would swing out and remind me of this exotic place called "the Orient."
The discovery of my own Orient began in college when I took several East Asian studies courses, including "Contemporary Life in Japan," taught by a young Japanese woman. To accompany her lectures she showed slides of a recent trip to Kyoto. Unlike Tokyo, which had become a modern westernized metropolis, Kyoto had been spared from bombing during World War II, so it still had all its original temples and shrines. It represented the old Japan, and in the professor's slides people still wore kimonos. Red paper umbrellas stood outside teahouses, and the family's traditional old home where the professor had stayed epitomized the spare elegance I had always associated with Japan. Smooth honey-colored tatami (straw mats) covered the floors. Wood-paneled shoji screens separated the rooms. Kyoto seemed like a magical place to live.
And eat! The professor's slides also featured food stalls, restaurants, pastel-colored pastries, and gemlike sashimi. I would leave class aching to eat Japanese food and did so for the first time at Little Osaka in Cambridge. That first bite of fat-streaked tuna sushi was a culinary epiphany. It was as though I had been wearing a mitten on my tongue all those years and had suddenly taken it off. The velvety fish had a rare beeflike core surrounded by a creamy richness from the marbled fat. The lightly vinegared rice and earthy soy were like exclamation points at the end of a perfect sentence. The wasabi added a final unexpected prickle of heat that kindled my desire for more. That night I promised myself that one day I would eat sushi in Japan.
The day arrived nearly two years after I graduated from college. It was 1986 and I was barely making a living as an assistant account executive for a big Manhattan advertising agency. My co-worker was sleeping with my boss. I had received one skimpy raise in the two and a half years since I had started working. And I had been rotated on and off so many new accounts I couldn't remember whether I was selling business-to-business services for Promise Margarine or promoting a heart-healthy spread for AT&T. Homelessness, AIDS, and cheap cocaine pulsed through the city's veins like an infection. Stress poisoned the air. I was gasping for breath.
"You've become a monster," said my boyfriend, John, and he was right. My unhappiness had sharpened itself to such a point I was wounding those I loved. So I began exploring my options.
Which is how in the spring of 1986 I found myself gluing sesame seeds on hamburger buns, making fake ice cream from Crisco, and brushing raw sausages to a mock skillet brown with dishwashing liquid and soy sauce to learn about food styling through a course at what is now New School University. I looked into catering, talked with owners of gourmet food stores, and began interviewing with various Japanese organizations to investigate jobs in Asian-American cultural relations. Then two important things happened.
That June I read John Wharton's book Jobs in Japan, an inspiring collection of real-life stories about how to secure a teaching position in a Japanese school. He made the idea of living in Japan sound doable, actually, incredibly easy. Around the same time, my grandmother diedthe one who loved Kyoto. She had been suffering from emphysema, which made breathing "like sucking air through a squashed straw," she once whispered. I had flown up to Boston to visit her at the hospital when they took her off the respirator. Only my father got to see her laughing and eating orange sherbet in her johnny for the last time. When we went over to her house to pick out her burial clothes, my father gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I have ever received.
"The clock of life is wound just once," he said, turning to me. "If you want to go to Japan, now is the time." On November 4, 1986, I stepped off the bus in Kyoto.
"We are nanagwpkm shmplup," called the chef from the eel restaurant. "Do you chiwksha morplmraka?"
I held up my hand and fake scribbled on my palm, hoping the chef would know to bring the check. I drained my beer, then leaned back in my chair and sighed. All the hard edges had softened. I was no longer in flight. I had left my family, left my friends, left my boyfriend and my job in New York. There was nothing more to leave behind. In a way, I had walked the roji, the Zen term for "dewy path," which represents the transition from the outside burning world of dust and passions to the contemplative spiritual world of a Japanese teahouse.
The focus of my trip to Kyoto was the study of tea kaiseki. I first learned about this esoteric cuisine from the reference librarian at the Japan Society in New York. One summer afternoon on my lunch break from the ad agency, I had stopped by the reference desk to ask about cooking opportunities in Kyoto. The Japanese woman behind the desk mentioned chakaiseki (tea kaiseki), a highly ritualized cuisine that accompanies the formal tea ceremony.
Tea first came to Japan in the sixth century by way of Japanese Buddhist monks, scholars, warriors, and merchants who traveled to China and brought back tea pressed into bricks. It was not until 1191, during the Song dynasty, that the Japanese Buddhist priest Eisai (also known as Yosai) carried home from China fine-quality tea seeds and the method for making matcha (powdered green tea). The tea seeds were cultivated on the grounds of several Kyoto temples and later in such areas as the Uji district just south of Kyoto.
Following the Chinese traditional method, Japanese Zen monks would steam, dry, then grind the tiny green tea leaves into a fine powder and whip it with a bamboo whisk in boiling water to create a thick medicinal drink to stimulate the senses during long periods of meditation.
Over time, many of the monks became tea masters and started whipping green tea for the imperial court. By the early fourteenth century tea drinking had become a social event and the powdered green tea, which was quite costly, became a standard item on the imperial court's list of imported luxuries. Lavish tea gatherings featuring rare tea-making utensils from China, such as tea caddies, scoops, and tea bowls, regularly took place in the pavilions of the aristocracy.
When guests attend a formal tea ceremony they usually receive a kaiseki meal to prepare their stomachs for the tea, which can be quite caustic. The meal resembles a French degustation in that there are a set series of tiny exquisite dishes that change with the seasons. After these delicacies, the tea master serves each guest a bowl of thick tea, followed by a bowl of thin tea. Because the bowl of thick tea is usually shared, it encourages the guests to bond with one another and their host in a somewhat spiritual manner, almost like taking communion.
This emphasis on spirituality dates back to when Kyoto served as the imperial capital from 794 to 1868. Buddhism, imported from China, became an alternative to Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion based on deities ruling over all things natural, such as mountains, rivers, rocks, and animals, with the sun goddess Amaterasu being the most powerful. (To honor and preserve the goodwill of these deities, the Japanese still hold festivals throughout the year at various shrines, often accompanied by offerings of sake and special foods.)
Numerous arts also flourished in Kyoto, such as ikebana (formal flower arranging), Kabuki theater, and chanoyu, the Japanese term for the formal tea ceremony. Chanoyu literally means "tea's hot water" and became one of the most influential art forms in the history of Japan. It affected architecture, painting, calligraphy, and food. Kyoto was where it all started.