In this period of time where travel to Japan is no longer possible, due to the global pandemic, it has become necessary to search for other ways to travel. Reading would be one such way, allowing us to access other worlds. However, reading is, ultimately, only something for the mind. In contrast, food engages several senses, in addition to the mind.
Everyone probably knows of scotch whisky and may have an image of successful people drinking a dark coloured Macallan. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Given that everyone knows whisky, and the high prices that it can reach, it should be no surprise that there is something of quality there.
For me, scotch whisky has been the perfect way to travel without leaving home. The flavors, the diversity of smells and taste, but also the journey of discovering and learning about it. I am only at the start of this journey, and therefore all I can do is share my opinion and my learning experiences. Everyone approaches whisky at different stages and with different expectations, and so it is difficult to make any recommendations.
All I can recommend at this time is to learn from Ralfy on Youtube. You may consider starting with Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenkinchie, and/or a peated whisky.
My journey of extraordinary taste, smell, form and complexity has taken me to Clynelish 14, Springbank 15, etc. I also stumbled on now rare whiskies like St. Magdelene cask strenght. The journey is only beginning.
HEART Tokushima is an animal shelter in Tokushima that houses dogs, as well as cats. It was started 14 years ago by a Canadian woman, Susan Mercer, who first came to Japan to teach English. In 14 years, HEART has rescued and placed with a family more than 2,000 animals.
I went to the shelter to volunteer for two days. Usually, volunteers stay for longer that this. As a volunteer, the main task is simply to walk the dogs.
It is easy to see that Susan, and her husband, are sincere in their approach. From nothing, they have built a no-kill shelter that has placed thousands of animals with a family. The shelter does not look impressive. They have very little money and run the shelter on a shoestring budget. Although most of their dogs come from the Tokushima area, my understanding is that they get almost no support from the local community and instead rely on donors from elsewhere in Japan and overseas.
I had the chance to visit the local governmental facility for animal control. It was painful to see that they have extremely good facilities, dozens of staff and a large budget. In effect, they capture animals in Tokushima, keep them temporarily until they run out of space, at what point they will gas the animals with CO2 to make new space in their automated facilities. In comparison, Susan has perhaps 2% of their budget, no full time staff, and has been able to do so much.
HEART Tokushima would be a great place to volunteer, to discovery the countryside of Japan, play with dogs and cats, reconnect with a simple life, and get inspired by Susan’s sincerity and dedication, working 7 days a week on selflessly saving animals and educating the people of Japan regarding animal welfare and best practices.
Reservations: If you would like to adopt an animal or volunteer at the shelter to walk dogs, please contact the shelter by email. They have an apartment that they can provide to long term volunteers free of charge and Susan’s husband will transport you to and from the shelter. This is their website. You can also follow HEART on Facebook and Instagram.
If this blog has provided you with any value, I would encourage you to make a donation to HEART. Any amount will make a difference. The money will be spent in the most cost-effective way to save animals and make a change for the better in Japan.
On July 26, 2019, Nishi Kenichiro (西健一郎) passed away in his early eighties. I want to send my condolences to his family, and he will be dearly missed by his friends, customers, and staff.
Usually, old monks will leave Zen words before they die. In Zen Buddhism, they say the following:
“There are three stages in one’s understanding of the dharma: the first stage, seeing mountain as mountain and water as water; the second stage, seeing mountain not as mountain and water not as water; and the third stage, seeing mountain still as mountain and water still as water.”
Maybe it is difficult to believe, but Kyoaji is just a restaurant. It is a restaurant where about 10 people work to make food for about 10 customers.
The food was extraordinary. Right from the first soup, made with sake lees, a sweet taste and daikon, konnyaku and aji. A baby-sized nabe pot resting on charcoal, followed by potato stems (the cheapest and tasteless ingredient, they said) with incredible texture. Then, crab on an oribe-yaki plate. Then, a chawanmushi with shirako hidden inside, the two textures being almost the same yet the taste being different, a wonderful dish. Tempura of bitter vegetables and shirauo. Incredible fugu and tai (not kojubime) sashimi. And then, oh god, the nimono with crab-cake and dashi. The dashi of my dreams. Although I understand now that each chef’s dashi is different, I have to say that this one is the one. This dish remains the best food memory of my life. I hope so, but I don't think my amazement of tasting something to simple and common but made so powerful and extraordinary can ever be surpassed.
Grilled moroko fish, simmered takenoko (what a smell and sophisticated taste) with wakame and seasonal octopus (with a head that looks like rice). Then, they asked me if I wanted an extra dish. Of course. Duck meat in potato cake and dashi. Finally, sake belly and soft rice. They said they have three desserts, I got two of them, my favorite being the warabi-mochi.
I would say the food has a lot of taste, it is not meditative like Matsukawa, the kitchen has a lot more energy (many chefs are constantly cooking). Mizai, Matsukawa and Kyoaji really have nothing to do with each other, comparing them makes no sense. Each one is unique, comes from someone totally different, offers something that is uniquely Japanese. But if you learn more about Japan, you may discover that there is no such thing as one Japan. Japan has many identities. They are all different but they all represent the best of Japan.
Makiko-san, his eldest daughter who has been working at the restaurant for about 7 years, but who has lived abroad and travelled a lot, was happy to explain to me the dishes and answer my questions. Nevertheless, because I could not speak Japanese with the chef unlike the other guests, I felt that he must be uncomfortable to make eye contact with me. I felt sad that he never looked at me the whole meal, which surprised me. I thought, perhaps he was disappointed that he invited me.
After the meal, Makiko asked me if I have any plans after, and invited me to have tea in their private dining room for half an hour to chat with her and the chef. The chef gave me his book from 2009, called “12 Months at Kyoaji” (「京味」の十二か月, ISBN 9784163718903). I could not believe that they would do this for me, a regular person that they do not know.
I asked the chef if it bothers him when people take pictures. He said that it bothers him when people take pictures from the wrong perspective or post them on their blog, because it distorts the experience he wants to create. He doesn’t mind if they people take pictures for them to remember.
I asked him if he thinks about new recipes. He said that he thinks about it every day, but that it is not because something is new that it is good. Japanese cuisine has to focus on the seasons and the ingredients of each season and how they change throughout the season.
I asked him if he ever gets bored making the same food and he said that he doesn’t, because the people (for whom he makes the food) change and because the ingredients change (even within a season).
He said that anyone can buy expensive ingredients, but that the role of a chef is to make something extraordinary out of ordinary ingredients, like potato stems, taro, salmon.
During the meal, Makiko told me: “you know a lot about Japanese food”, and I said: “No, no, I really don’t”. She said “I think you do.” Later, the chef said that sometimes, it bothers him when people think they understand everything about Japanese food.
I asked Makiko what her father was like at home, she said that he never complained about what her mom cooked, even if it wasn’t good. She said that he never bothers anyone and he never complained about anything.
Makiko told me that they don’t like the French restaurant style of explanation where they explain exactly everything, where each ingredient comes from, because clearly the customer will not be going out and buying it or cooking it at home.
I asked him if sometimes he feels tired and he doesn’t feel like going to the restaurant. He said that as long as customers are coming, he wants to be there and supervise everything. He said the reason why he is always at the restaurant is that he wants to make sure he provides the experience he wants to provide. He is 81. If I understood correctly, he said that when he dies, the restaurant will close. When I left, he asked when I would come back. I said, I think I can come back in one year. He said, I will die soon, please do not wait too long. I since had the chance to go a second time, without knowing it would be the last.
I reproduce a translation of the recipe from his book about meimo, one of his classic dish:
"Meimo is the white and long stem of taro potatoes which grows without exposing to direct sunlight. Peel the Meimo’s skin and cut them short, add vinegar and boil them to get rid of harshness. We use small dried sardines (which head and the intestines were taken away) to make Happo Dashi. Season the Meimo with the Dashi, sugar, salt, and light soy sauce. Lastly, add kudzu [arrowroot] powder to thicken the sauce and this part is what makes the Nimono Yoshino-style. To keep it crispy and fresh, it is important not to boil the Meimo too long."
When I tried his dashi, I just could not believe it. I was totally overcome by the depth and perfection. I immediately asked them what their secret is, because I just could not believe it could be like this. Of course, there is no secret they said. I really felt like there must be one. Now, I realize that Nishi-san had already told me his secret: The way to make outstanding food which has depth is to spend time and effort.
Inside his book, he wrote for me: 「食する幸せ 料理する幸せ 」 (“The happiness of eating, the happiness of cooking”)
Reservations: I had decided that I would not write about Kyoaji until the chef passed away because I know that he would not want me to write about what an amazing person he was. Maybe Nishi-san was the type of person who does good deeds in private. But I want to share how I got a reservation at Kyoaji, despite being one of the most exclusive invitation-only restaurant. I had reached out to the restaurant expressing my interest in his food and that I would be in Japan during a certain period. One day, I receive an email in perfect English inviting me to their restaurant and giving me a large choice of dates. I could not believe how welcoming they were. A genuine ambassador for Japan, he invited someone he did know anything about with no references to dine at his restaurant alongside his precious guests. Not only a master and philosopher of Japanese cooking, Nishi-san was an extraordinary person. I will forever be indebted and grateful to have seen first hand what a person of extraordinary character, thoughtfulness, commitment and generosity looks like. Thank you Nishi-san.
Takaaki Sugita, like the other highest ranked chefs in Japan, is an overnight success that was decades in the making. Sugita-san started to work at a sushi restaurant in or around the time he was in high school. He chose to join Miyakozushi, in Tokyo, which was not the most famous restaurant he could have joined. He thought this their sushi was “fatally delicious”. Sugita-san trained there for 12 years, and described his master as diligent, conscientious, kind and patient. He describes his early years as follows:
"In such kind of restaurant, at first you wouldn’t be given a chance to cook easily. So all I could do was sushi delivery. I didn’t hold even a knife in the first year. Though it was a little bit frustrating, I always said to myself “I want to get the first prize by delivering sushi delivery now. I know all about this town!” I thought that way in the first year of my training life. I wanted to be the one who knows everywhere of the street, and could deliver things to the accurate place without using even maps."
He also describes the difficult times at the opening of his restaurant:
"Since 2004 when it just opened, for almost 3 years, there were nearly no customer coming. But since there were many fabric shops gathering together, in the daytime there were many people coming and going. So, people came for lunch. We provided Chirashizushi (colorfully scattered sushi) at an affordable price, 900 yen. On the other hand, the number of customers decreased at night, so there were nearly none to come."
At the time of my visit (August 2019), Sugita was ranked the best restaurant of any type in all of Japan on Tabelog. I only saw the chef at the beginning and end of the meal, but enough to get a sense of his character. Sugita-san represents the best of Japan, with his humble personality and his welcoming attitude.
I was at the side counter (3-4 people) where sushi is brought. The sushi at Sugita is consistently outstanding. None of it failed to live up to the reputation. I am told by a regular that Sugita is the most consistent sushi chef. In short, I would say that the depth of taste is deeper than Saito, and represents the best that sushi can offer. In contrast, Saito would be easier to like for international guests and requires less experience to appreciate. Saito appears more sophisticated, but in my opinion, for those who know where to look, Sugita has the depth of taste that the truly sophisticated Japanese food can offer.
Reservations: Like Saito, it used to be that the only way to get a reservation, other than being invited by a regular customer, is through Arry. A yearly membership to Arry costs 円60,000 and a meal at Sugita will cost approximately 円40,000. However, starting November 2019, Sugita is now on Tableall. Sugita remains an extremely difficult reservation to make.
"Sento" refers to public bath, while “onsen” refers to the use of natural water. For example, onsen will usually be within a hotel in a destination with naturally heated water, such as Hakone or Arima onsen.
What is the best sento in Tokyo? In my opinion, the best one is the one near your house. People in Tokyo spend enough time commuting to work, so I would recommend a visit at any local sento. However, if you are not sure where to go, I can recommend the following:
“Minami Aoyama Shimizu-yu” near Omotesando station is well-located and they have slightly larger than usual baths. They are closed on Friday. This is their website. It is a slightly nicer version of the typical sento.
If you would like to experience special and natural water in Tokyo, you can try “Take no yu” near Azabu-Juban station. Their water is naturally black and leaves a soft feeling! They are closed on Monday and Friday. This is their website.
If you have tattoos, most public baths will not allow you inside because in Japan, tattoos are linked to organized crime. I would suggest “Bunka Yokusen” one station away from Shibuya (Ikejiri-Ohashi station). They are open every day until 1 am, as well as Sunday morning for "asa furo" (morning bath). This is their website.
Although it may take some getting used to, I recommend spending one hour at the sento. I would take my time to clean myself thoroughly using a bath towel and soap, perhaps brush my teeth, and then alternate between the hot and cold bath (it is not very cold and actually more relaxing than the hot bath in my opinion). Using the sauna requires an extra fee that can be between 300 and 500円. You can rent a towel and buy shampoo and bath soap.
The first time I went to a sento, I remember feeling annoyed that I had to wash myself before taking a bath on a small chair that was not comfortable. However, this feeling goes away quickly and taking your time to wash yourself while comfortably sitting is an enjoyable part of life in Japan after a long day at work.
I expected that Kimura would be different, since it specializes in aged sushi. I did not expect it would be so delicious, uncontrollably so.
Already with the otsumami, I started laughing because I could not control myself. Neither could the man next to me, we looked at each other and our look just said it all. The woman next to him was smiling warmly, in a way that seemed to indicate she knew something I didn’t. I asked her if it was her first time, and she made a round shape with her hands in front of her face. She was Kimura-san’s sister, and she comes often. Everyone started laughing, the chef also showing the round shape of his head with his hands.
The chef’s story is genuinely inspiring, as told by Tableall:
“The idea for ageing fish came to him as he lamented discarding whole blocks of his beloved white fish that had gone bad while waiting for customers. Despite having carefully chosen these pricey pieces at the market, he had to toss them in the garbage. But he grew curious about their flavor. Digging into the center flesh, which still had beautiful color, one taste revealed a sweetness he had never experienced in white fish. It dawned on him that the flesh becomes deliciously sweet just before it spoils. The only problem was the smell. Experimentation began: a new fridge, variable temperature settings, and constant assessment of how the fish and innards evolve to find the ultimate in aged sushi, sometimes with not great results for Kimura’s own stomach. But with advice from the tempura master to push the boundaries and be left with no regrets, he persevered. The discoveries he made through tireless research are now the key to his success.”
Luxeat also has a great post on Kimura:
“Kimura-san believes one can never love a restaurant from the bottom of his/her heart unless it’s his/her own. For example, when he cleans the toilet he doesn’t mind using bare hands. He doesn’t think you can be this committed if the restaurant is not yours. He believes if he employed someone, he would have to do everything all over again himself. Also, working hours at his restaurant would be very long, maybe about 22 hours per day. It would be against the law, so he cannot employ anyone. (…) I asked how is it possible to do such work with only 3 hours of sleep and Kimura-san said that it is possible, but he thinks he would die young. He said he has no stress and loves working on his own. He is a happy man when he is holding his knife, but in order to do everything himself, he has to cut his sleeping hours. This is less stressful than employing someone. If he finds some other method that makes this aging process easier, maybe he could work for less hours.”
One of the most inspiring, special, pleasurable, unforgettable and delicious meal of my life, where every dish was better than the last one. Thank you, Koji Kimura-sama. This was the first time where I could feel how sushi comes from a chef’s heart.
Reservations: Some years ago, it would have been possible to get a reservation through a concierge, but now it is not possible. The chef basically takes reservation from his friends through social media. I would suggest Tableall as the best way.
Spending time at this Zen temple in Kyoto changed my life, by allowing me to see and to feel that less is more. A futon. Simple bathrooms without heating. An old, rustic tokonoma with tulips, arranged in nageire style of naturalistic ikebana. A heated table with a jar of hot water, a small container of green tea, one cup, and a sweet. A small mirror. At first, you think that it is rustic and charming, and that the view on the garden is the luxury.
After living there for some time, after spending time in the cold, you see that this simple lifestyle is not charming: it is luxurious. Walking back to the temple at night through Myoshin-ji was beautiful and calming.
There is nothing, yet there is everything. Taking a warm bath feels like a luxury. The green tea and dried persimmon left a satisfying feeling. The quietness of the temple seemed otherworldly.
The breakfast, made by the temple and eaten with the other guests, is simple. I am not sure why it felt so luxurious to be waken up by the temple at 7:30 and told that the breakfast was ready. This breakfast was made with the guests in mind, the miso soup was delicious. Checking-in by simply saying your name and being shown to your room, as this family living here was waiting for you, no key, no passport, no deposit, no credit card. The ultimate simplicity and luxury.
The temple business is somewhat mysterious, with some criticism that they do not pay any taxes. Yet, Daishin-in was not about money at all. Even though I stayed 5 nights, they only asked me to pay for 4 nights. They do not speak English and they take reservations by phone, and then confirmed by postcards, which means that most guests are Japanese.
Most sub-temples are closed to the public and very few offer a shukubo (宿坊) temple stay experience. I felt extremely lucky to be welcomed there.
We all know that less is more. But we don’t see it, we don’t feel it, and we don’t believe it. Staying for five days at Daishin-in temple, I saw, I felt, and believed.
Reservations: You will need a Japanese friend to make this reservation for you. A night with breakfast costs around 5,000 yen. You must be within the temple at 9pm when the door closes. Lights out at 10pm. Please do not make any noise. I had access to wifi in my room. If you do not speak any Japanese, it may be uncomfortable for you and for the temple and you may want to stay instead at Shunko-in, where you can learn in English about meditation and the life of the temple.
My favorite lunch in Tokyo is a 1,200円 oyakodon (chicken and egg over rice) at Manwu. This price includes a miso soup and dessert, usually warabi mochi. They also serve 1,400円 gyudon (beef).
I want to discuss Manwu because I believe I am guilty of misrepresenting Japanese food on my blog. Yes, expensive Japanese restaurants are some of the best in the world and they embody Japanese culture. However, most Japanese people have never been. The average amount of money that a Japanese man has to spend per month (okozukai) is 400$, including his cellphone bill. Having Manwu’s oyakodon for lunch is itself a luxury. These expensive and exclusive restaurants are only a small part of Japanese culinary culture. You would be missing most of Japanese food by not venturing beyond the award-winning dining establishments. Do you know some famous home cooking food like oyakodon, nimono, buri daikon, takenoko gohan, and saba no misoni?
Oyakodon is a seemingly simple dish, but simple is often the most difficult. I brought Japanese friends to this restaurant and they all agreed that it was the best oyakodon they ever had. It is just delicious and leaves a good feeling in your body. Only in Tokyo can you enjoy a masterpiece oyakodon in an expensive office tower, with kimono-clad staff, made by a chef that trained for decades, for a fraction of the price it is worth. The amount of effort, for no financial gain other than to give please customers and hope that some of them will come back to eat oden for dinner, is inspiring.
I asked the chef if his secret was the high-quality dashi. He said it also requires constant attention not to overcook it. The way it is cooked is beautiful: the bottom is cooked, ensuring that the rice does not become soggy, but the top remains soft and raw. I asked him why he does not use chicken with skin (as some other restaurants do), he said that he prefers not to have the fatty aftertaste. He also said that skin would overpower the taste of the dashi.
I think it can be difficult to remain motivated, especially if you are not one of the most recognized restaurant. The chef told me about his 2-hour commute every day, being open 7 days a week, and the high cost of ingredients. Chef Toshihiro Yoshida puts extraordinary effort into his food and he speaks fluent English, Japanese, and even some French.
The luxury of eating sushi at Saito is obvious, but in my opinion, it is a Western idea of luxury. Japanese people are sensitive to the real luxury of life. They may think, for example, about enjoying time outside under the cherry trees. Having Manwu’s oyakodon and meeting the chef is without a doubt a true luxury I am grateful for, just like sleeping at Dashin-in.
Actually, Manwu is not an oyakodon restaurant. At night, they serve “oden”.
Chef Yoshida spent 20 years at the main branch of this restaurant in Osaka learning how to make oden, and he is most proud of his whale oden (in particular the tongue). You can read an interview with the chef from his time in Osaka (link).
If you are interested in oden, this restaurant would provide a great experience because the chef speaks fluent English. Incredible effort goes into each piece, from custom-made tofu to special dashi. This is the real Japan: hard work with little recognition, little financial gain, and the only joy being the happy customers. You should consider going to try a couple of pieces à la carte, including the konnyaku, whale tongue and another piece with one glass of sake, it should not cost too much. They also offer an omakase menu.
Reservations: Not necessary at lunch, they accept cash only at lunch (11am-1:15pm). For dinner, try calling yourself as the chef speaks English. The restaurant is on the third floor of Tokyo Garden Terrace Kioicho. Link to Tabelog.
For most of our history, we Japanese have not found beauty in jewelry. What is it that stimulated us and that still moves us to this day? It is the "passing of time".
Japanese people were touched when they saw beautiful moments that could not be kept. They attempted to share such a moment with their lover, which is why so many masterpieces of Japanese poetry mention the passing of time and the changing seasons.
Today, after a thousand years, we still appreciate the passing of time as the most luxurious thing to express the beauty of seasons. People have put their hearts to feeling and expressing the changing seasons. High-end restaurants in Japan serve seasonal special ingredients that can only be eaten in a particular season, or even in a short period of time within a season. Geisha women wear different kimono with different fibers and the patterns depend on seasons. Geisha and maiko dance in a traditional way to fully express seasonal scenes and emotions. For example, in winter, they show how much they miss her lover with the image of piling snow. Another example is that the traditional wooden house machiya has developed to get maximum comfort to live in Japanese climate which contains cold winter and hot summer with highly humid.
The spirit of the Japanese artists and creators is always to try to think about how they can express the seasons in a new way, instead of explaining with words. They want to express how beauty is the season in which we are together. For example, if someone falls in love, they might write about how beautiful is it in this spring in Kyoto. “The air is getting humid, there is more sunlight, cherry blossoms are just blooming in front of my atelier. And I really want to share this beauty with you.” I think this is an orthodox way to express love and sympathy for Japanese people.
What about the relationship between creators and guests? In most settings, they do not talk face-to-face. For example, in large restaurants, chefs and guests have no chance to see each other. When I arrange flowers in a restaurant, there is no chance for me to see the guests of the restaurant. How can those creators show their sympathy and hospitality to their guests? They add seasonal sense to their creations instead of telling their customers with words. Even when creator and guest can talk, the Japanese way is that creators should not explain by talking, as it would be bringing the mood down for creators to express their creativity in words.
Sen-no-Rikyū was a tea artist in medieval Japan. He is important in Japanese history as a man who established the foundation of the Japanese tea ceremony. He never belonged to any ikebana schools, but his philosophy has affected ikebana and all facets of Japanese culture. Let me tell you a bit about him with an anecdote.
"The story says that Hideyoshi (the most powerful general during that period), hearing of the beauty of blooming morning glories in the garden of Rikyū’s house, demands a visit. He arrives early in the morning, but no flowers are to be seen. Puzzled, he enters the tearoom and understands. Rikyū has arranged one flower for display, destroying the rest."
(Source: Handa Rumiko, "Sen no Rikyū and the Japanese Way of Tea: Ethics and Aesthetics of the Everyday" (2013)
There are many interpretations of this story. My understanding as an ikebana artist is the following.
About this story, the important thing is the background, not his creation – the arrangement of one morning glory. Everybody can arrange one morning flower. But not everyone would cut all the flowers in his garden just to welcome only one guest. This is why a picture of a painting of one morning flower cannot express this story. One flower can be beautiful, but there is an invisible message behind just one flower. Rikyū cut all flowers in his garden to emphasize just one flower. The flower was morning glory which lasts only a few hours. He arranged all of those for only one guest.
I say Japanese culture is a beautiful envelope with a shapeless letter. The message is love and sympathy and welcome. It goes beyond what you can see. Creators don't tell the message directly to their guests, they hide this message under their beautiful creations with seasonal sense. If the guest doesn't realize the message, the creation itself is still beautiful. For example, kaiseki food is beautiful, even if guests don't understand the history and don’t know any of its rules. But in each of the dishes, there is something to give guests small surprises to show the chef’s welcomeness.
Ikebana is one of those Japanese cultures. But there is an overwhelming difference between ikebana and others. All of Japanese cultures are an “expression of seasons”. Changing seasons is just a changing of day length and temperature from the Earth’s rotation. How do people feel those geographical changes? It is from flowers. Flowers bloom when we reach a specific day length and temperature, and out of blooms when it gets specific day length and temperature. It gives us a guidance that the season is moving, time is passing. Flower is the symbol of seasons which most strongly stimulate the hearts of Japanese people. That is why people arrange flowers at every important place, and why flower culture – ikebana – has been highly developed in this country.
If you have an interest in Japanese culture, I hope you will have the opportunity to try ikebana. You can try ikebana simply by choosing one flower and putting it inside a vase in the naturalistic style of nageire. Anyone can learn about ikebana and it may open a new understanding of the quaint way of thinking of the Japanese people.
This text was written by Ms Ryoko Nishimura, an ikebana flower artist in Kyoto. She has an atelier near Gion that you can visit. Her dream, one day, is to create a space, like a museum, where people can experience ikebana and its history. This is her website.
A once in a lifetime encounter with magic.
Mizai embodies the original spirit of kaiseki and exists in an alternate universe, in an another era. You are walking about 30 minutes from Gion through parks and temples to arrive at this restaurant, where the staff is waiting outside for you. Although dinner starts at 6pm, guests can arrive up to 30 minutes in advance.
I arrived 20 minutes in advance and I was sat immediately in the middle of the counter. Candles were lit along the black wood counter in this slightly dark restaurant. Outside, a luscious garden with water vapour constantly falling from above, somewhere. A magical place like no other.
I was given some warm amazake with cooked rice in it, which I had never had together and created anticipation, created the feeling that I did not know what to expect. Eventually, after some time, the chef appeared through the kitchen door and bowed before he entered.
The entire meal unfolds over three hours. The meal starts with a very small bowl of rice and a small dish from the sea and land, in the cha-kaiseki tradition. The rice was very wet, yet had an incredible satisfying, chewy and al dente texture.
The 15 guests are served at the same time, the plates handed to each person, one after the other. The tableware exquisite. Not only high quality, but also tasteful, original, and also playful at times. For one dish, we were given a plate in the shape of an ema with a different painting on each of them, and the mukozuke (sashimi course) somehow mirrored for each guest the shape of the painting. The level of tasteful creativity and attention to detail was second to none.
Eating at Mizai is an event, something you are grateful for and that you anticipate for more than a year. Although Mizai is also slow and contemplative, there is a lot of excitement. The chef will explain for several minutes each dish, say where every ingredient is from. From your chair, you can see the chefs working, but you cannot see what they are preparing, exacerbating the feeling of anticipation. In my opinion, this anticipation and contemplative atmosphere is in the spirit of the tea ceremony.
The meal itself is absorbing all of your attention, you can get lost in the beautiful dishes and the taste of each ingredient. The dishes are original. For example, the rice dish was white and red rice, with a kind of salty water that was shared among the guests. The food is creative and flawless, but the experience goes beyond that.
After many, many dishes, the chef prepares matcha one by one. The staff gives each guest one by one their bowl, and bows. Two or three desserts follow, comprising a total of 49 fruits. One by one, guests go to a small counter that reminds me very much of the counter where you would buy a ticket to visit a Zen temple.
Then, one group of guests at a time, you are escorted out. I was the last guest to exit, and I believe they very rarely have foreigners, given how difficult it is to be invited. The chef shook my hand and we took a picture together inside his restaurant. He thanked me for the macarons I brought him, and he gave me incense and a type of candy called rakugan. I suspect it was only for me, because it was not in a bag branded with the restaurant's name.
When you exit, the staff escorts you down towards the entrance of the park, holding a lantern on a wood stick, to shed a soft light just in front of where you are walking. I can never forget the beautiful movement of the lantern at night.
From the smallest detail to the chef’s entire philosophy, Mizai embodies kaiseki in a way that could not be copied, never mind how Hitoshi Ishihara has been able to imagine and create this experience. After working for 31 years and becoming the general head chef of Kitcho Honten, he created in 2003 Mizai (未在), meaning "no limits" or "not there yet."
Not there yet – the destination itself.
Reservations: Although they say that they take reservations on the first of the month, one year in advance, this is one of those white lies typical of Japanese culture. In reality, Mizai is introduction-only. Even among those, it is one of the most impossible. When I was at the restaurant, at the end of the meal, they offered their regulars reservations 1 year and 4 months in advance. It would take years and years for you to arrange a regular customer to bring you to their reservation. Pictures are not allowed, and no one asked.
You may consider going to Miyasaka in Tokyo, whose chef Nobuhisa Miyasaka has trained for 10 years at Mizai. They accept reservations one month in advance.
Chef Yasuo Suetomi is a true master, a genius technician of Japanese food.
Suetomi offered technically perfect meals, a masterpiece of dedication. Coupled with the perfect execution, only the absolute best and popular (delicious) ingredients were served. For example, my meal was in the winter and Suetomi not only served Taiza crab, but the best crab I ever ate. To the point, honestly, where I could not believe it. How was it that this crab was better than Matsukawa’s and all other crabs? I was blown away. The nodoguro was grilled to a perfection I could never forget. The desserts were handmade by the chef. Tableall explains:
“Because the quality of the ingredients determines everything, a major part of Suetomi’s work is nurturing relationships with suppliers, constantly trying new ingredients, tasting and assessing. He may try one hundred purveyors before he finds one that meets his high standards. One supplier is a friend of Suetomi’s. Rather fortuitously, he is one of a small number of fisherman at Taiza port in Kyoto, famed for rich and rare Taiza-gani crabs. This relationship guarantees delicious product for Suetomi to work with, and a full crab course is highly recommended by the chef.”
Most chefs say that they care about relationships, but this was the first time I could feel the power of relationships. A lesson I can never forget. I felt a connection with him, because I believe we may have a similar personality. I really enjoyed eating there and I commend the chef for welcoming foreigners despite the language barrier.
When I went to Kasumicho Suetomi, the chef had told Tableall: “As for his vision for the future, he says he tosses around with different ideas. Chef Suetomi has this unpredictable element which makes you think that anything is possible.” I cannot wait to hear about what is next for him. Sadly, today on March 1st, the restaurant closed permanently. The chef said he was not sure what he will do next.
If I had to guess, I think that chef Suetomi will find a more beautiful space with a garden like Matsukawa, Ogata and Mizai, and I think this will propel him to the pinnacle of kaiseki in Japan.
Reservations: Kasumicho Suetomi closed permanently on March 1, 2018. It opened in 2006 in a space formerly owned by chef Hiromitsu Nozaki of Waketokuyama, where he trained for ten years. Suetomi had just received the Gold award.
A new restaurant has opened in the same space by the previous sous-chef. The new restaurant is called Kasumicho Yamagami (霞町山上), reservations on Tableall.
Yoramu is a sake bar in Kyoto whose mission is to show how varied and different nihonshu can be. The owner, Yoram, is fluent both in English and Japanese. He has a strong passion for quality, original, complex sake and for sharing his knowledge.
For example, the owner will start a tasting with unfiltered, rich and complex nihonshu. Then, he might served one with high acidity and high sugar, to explain how the acidity cancels the sugar. He might serve one that is slightly sparkling, because it was bottled directly out of the press. Each of his nihonshu has something unique. He ages sake himself and will serve different sake at different temperatures.
I have been twice and people invariably ask the same questions, and he provides the same answers every night. Yet, he maintains his passion and enthusiasm for explaining and sharing his experience. People will ask: “Where is this sake from?” and he will reply “It doesn’t matter where it is from, what matters is who made it.”
I asked him what are the biggest misconceptions about sake. He said:
1) “Nihonshu made from more polished rice is better.” Would you want to drink a wine that hardly contains any grapes?
2) Trying to explain nihonshu the way you explain wine (i.e. focused on the grape) is very simplistic, bordering on idiotic. It’s not just the rice, not just the water, not just the yeast, not just the koji, not just the “moto” (the starter mash) and not just the fermentation process. It’s all of these things and much more.
I also asked him what his favorite sake breweries are. He shared with me the following list:
Akishika Shuzo, Kidoizumi Shuzo, Kirei Shuzo, Moriki Shuzo, Mukai Shuzo, Mutemuka, Mioya Shuzo, Sugii Shuzo, Uehara Shuzo.
One time when I was there, he explained for 20 minutes non-stop the entire process of sake making. Yoramu sake bar was a memorable experience and it is worth going more than once, as he has too many sake for you to try all at once, and behind every single bottle, there is a unique sake and a unique story. Yoramu is not expensive, I believe each sake would cost on average less than 400円 each. I had 14 different ones at my latest visit.
I asked him if there is a brewery that we can visit, and he said: “The making of nihonshu is very, very interesting when you see it happen, but once the brewing is finished there is absolutely nothing to see. However, during the season where they make it, most places making quality sake are using all of their resources for making the brew, and as they are very short on manpower, an unscheduled visit is not possible. The little time they can afford for scheduled visits is reserved for professionals. Therefore, the problem is where you can visit you don’t want to and where you want to visit you can’t.” Like everything worth seeking, there are no easy answers. I recommend the movie "The Birth of Sake" if you would like to learn more.
Reservations: You can walk in, but he speaks perfect English so calling ahead is recommended because the small bar may be full. Link to his website.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Matsukawa (revisited), Art Museums in Tokyo, Advanced Japanese Manners, Hakone, home cooking.
Making Restaurant Reservations in Tokyo
Cafe de l'Ambre
Sushi Sho Masa
Bear Pond Espresso
Park Hotel Tokyo
New Year in Kyoto
Quotes from Chefs
Quotes from Farmers
Quote from Zen monks
Kwon Sook Soo
Yau Yuen Siu Tsui