Tadayoshi Matsukawa is working in silence and without any hubris, serving both a three-hour lunch and dinner. Few restaurants serve the same menu for lunch and dinner, perhaps because it requires so much time and effort.
I was told by a friend that chef Tadayoshi Matsukawa trained for 17 years at Shofukuro, becoming the head chef of the Tokyo branch, before working at Shimon, Seisoka and Kimoto. I have been to both Seisoka and Kimoto, and Matsukawa has taken the best lessons and dishes from both and brought them to an entirely new level, from a kaiseki restaurant to a spiritual experience.
Matsukawa had an unusually long apprenticeship, whereas most chefs seem to open their own restaurants after 10 years. I was later told that Matsukawa is not the sole owner of this restaurant. After all this hard work and proven success, how can he not have the luxury to work for himself? How incredible, I thought. Truly the devotion and humility of a monk.
The physical setting of Matsukawa is overwhelmingly powerful in its simplicity. What struck me first was the darker color of the walls, in contrast to a lighter tones that usually gives a clean and modern look to restaurants. It reminds me of the pictures I saw of a small teahouse called Taian, where the walls are even darker. The color of the walls seemed so perfect in its humility, like the wall at Ryoanji. Even the name (松川) Matsu (pine tree) and Kawa (river) signals harmony with and within nature.
The tokonoma alcove had an ikebana flower arrangement and a round metallic piece of Buddhist art, fitting as Matsukawa really is a temple. I have seen pictures of other ikebana and objects in the alcove and I find Matsukawa’s taste unparalleled. The Buddhist artwork, like enso, has an attractive shine that brings you deep into its mystery.
On the right of the hinoki counter, a small white teapot called suiteki (a water dispenser for Japanese shodo calligraphy) was placed over a dark knot in the wood. It was the first time I saw such a dark spot on a counter. I understand that chef Matsukawa had not initially noticed, but as they polished it over time, it appeared. How perfect that fate would make Matsukawa so wabi sabi, even by accident.
The first dish was presented in a small glass bowl, the first soup was cloudy and the sea cucumber ovary seemed to float over a piece of ice, after which came the taste of Spring through seasonal ingredients, culminating in the large bamboo shoot, before one final look at the Winter we have conquered. Using ingredients from a season that just ended is known as nagori, as opposed to shun (currently in season) and hashiri (soon to be in season). Then came the awabi and wakame shabu shabu, the rice dish and the yokan.
It is paradoxical that it is all about the food, and it is also not about the food at all. Simplicity, good taste in its choices and presentation, I felt like Matsukawa makes things work that may not work elsewhere. The soba was served on a carved ice block, something I have seen in pictures at Tempura Matsu in Kyoto. When I first saw this picture, which always impresses people, I did not like what I thought was a gimmick. Yet, at Matsukawa in early Spring, I found it was an impression of having overcome Winter and being able to enjoy it. It was a reflection on the season that ended that left a happy feeling. There was a feeling of quiet abundance, with large quantities of hanasancho (花山椒) and a large charcoaled bamboo shoot shared among the guests.
It always brings me happiness to look at my picture with chef Matsukawa. It takes a long time to be an overnight success.
Reservations: Sadly, it is next to impossible to eat at Matsukawa. You need to be invited by a current and regular guest. Even if you have been to Matsukawa before, it will not be possible for you to reserve through the phone. You must reserve your next visit after your meal while you are at the restaurant, approximately 10 months in advance. If you do not, getting back into the system is almost impossible if you have only been once. Finally, they do not accept reservations for only 1 person. In other words, going to Matsukawa would be years in the making. If you do not live in Tokyo and do not have close friends who are regular customers and who have a reservation for you almost one year in advance, this will be mission impossible.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Matsukawa (revisited), Learning Japanese, Advanced Japanese Manners, Hakone, home cooking.
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