My priority was always to discover the traditional kaiseki restaurants before anything creative, which is why it took some time for me to visit this restaurant. Although the restaurant is described as “creative cuisine,” I think “modern and playful Japanese cuisine” is more appropriate. Actually, the words on Den’s website from Zaiyu Hasegawa say it best: “Homemade food is food prepared while thinking about others being happy.”
Den serves delicious, fun and unpretentious quality food. Den is extraordinary. But it is more powerful than that. It made me wonder: why aren’t all restaurants like this? In a way, Den should be a normal restaurant, it should be how most restaurants are. Simple, delicious, fun, unpretentious and quality food made and delivered from the heart. Marco Pierre White, the youngest at the time to have received three stars, said about Michelin: “One day, I had one thought: that I am being judged by people who have less knowledge than me. So, what is it all worth? Very little.”
We were all amazed not only by the quality of the English service by Emi, Zaiyu-san’s wife, but also by the sincere and welcoming atmosphere. More than the puns, Emi's smile or the Dentucky chicken, I had a feeling I did not expect. Like Ishikawa, the food and hospitality at Den are truly sincere. I can never forget this powerful feeling of sincerity.
Reservations: Den accepts reservations exactly two months before the day of your visit (for example December 14 for a reservation on February 14). They speak excellent English.
Because I am interested in kaiseki, the high-end multi-course meal, I wanted to learn more about its origins in cha-kaiseki, the tea ceremony preceded by a very rudimentary small meal. One day, I found a posting for such an experience at a very low price with no reviews, and I thought that I would take a chance. I was rewarded with something extraordinary.
I went to a traditional house near Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto. I was greeted by the owner, Dairik-san, an architect who studied in the United States for a long time and whose English is native, and who became interested in the tea ceremony and simply wants to share his experience with his friends. The house was beautiful, with a tasteful calligraphy. Around the new year, the items in the tokonoma were charcoal, paper, and a type of fern that stays green for two weeks after being cut.
I was served sake that we shared. I was then served one dried sardine (from the sea) and two grilled shitake mushrooms (from the mountains) with salt. Then, the host started the preparations to make the tea, and made the matcha tea which I drank, and then I left.
But this series of event only tells part of the story. Over two hours, Dairik-san who is around my age shared with me the mechanics and the philosophy of the tea ceremony. I could tell that he was attracted by the same elements that were now attracting me.
The tea ceremony is like a moving meditation. The matcha tea is the end product, but not the central focus. For the host, the most important thing is to be totally present in the moment, during each step. In fact, the tea ceremony started before I entered the house. Dairik-san had gone to a shrine to get and bring back some of their water (he sometimes goes to a temple, but they make him do work like cleaning their garden, which takes more time). Being present at every moment, physically carrying the water once a week, is more difficult than it would seem.
In zazen (sitting) meditation, you are told to focus on a point in front of you. In the tea ceremony, the point is moving. Dairik-san showed me where the points were in the objects, and how the points and the objects were aligned on the tatami floor. While the host is making tea, he or she focuses their attention on the points that they are moving around them. When you become good, the movements become second-nature and you can totally focus your mind on the points. It is like a moving meditation.
I asked about his rock garden, and Dairik-san told me that he got most of his rocks from the Kamo river in Kyoto, transporting them one by one, experiencing the process of choosing and taking something, feeling its weight, only taking what you need.
I was touched by Dairik-san’s incredible and undeserved hospitality. I was also grateful that he answered my questions about Zen Buddhism. I could tell that he had similar questions to mine years ago. His tea ceremony teacher used to be a Buddhist monk and I found his outlook incredibly attractive. Zen Buddhism allows different abbots to reach different conclusions and employ different methods, it does not preach a particular answer or try to convert people to its religion, nor is it particularly commercialized. It is introspective and challenging. It has many teachings, but it emphasizes that you have to discover them yourself through experience and intuition, not logic or reason. This is why, for example, they use koans.
Reservations: I do not know if Dairik-san will accept to make a tea ceremony for you, but you can ask him. This is his website.
The first time I saw funazushi, it was when Karl Pilkington tried it. He is known to be an average British person and he did not like it, and looking at it, I thought, it is possible that it does not taste good. Then, I saw this great and instructive video about funazushi. The host still seemed to say that it tasted strong and very sour, and that maybe you needed sake with it. I thought that perhaps it is similar to Hongeo-hoe (홍어회). I was a little bit afraid, especially because funazushi is not really available in the big cities, and you would think that if it was good, it would be more well-known and available.
I took the JR train from Kyoto station and door to door, less than 40 minutes later, I was at Shiseian, the funazushi shop in Otsu that was featured in the "Only in Japan" video. It was faster than going to many temples within Kyoto. They also have a small restaurant (called Koshu) just next door where you can sit down and order it with sake with an English menu. A dish of funazushi, white crucian carp caught in Lake Biwa (Biwa-ko) fermented for one year in rice, only costs 1,080 JPY.
So how was it? Funazushi was totally delicious. Not just delicious, but even addictive! Was it strong? Not at all. If you bring it under your nose and try to discern its smell, it reminds of the smell of blue cheese. As for the taste and texture, it is delicious, rich, and satisfying, but not stronger than blue cheese.
Although the high-end sushi and kaiseki restaurants of today are probably the best food that ever existed on earth, given the access to fresh produce from everywhere in Japan that was not previously possible, eating funazushi nevertheless made me think that perhaps 1,200 years ago, people were eating better food than we are today on a daily basis.
Actually, funazushi is really addictive. I immediately ordered another plate and I purchased 3 packages to go. Even the rice use to make the funazushi is delicious, more salty and tastes more like cheese than the fish, whose taste is more subtle. The yellow eggs inside are the most valuable part because they are from the females, the slices with the eggs are the most delicious. They are caught in early spring in lake Biwa.
Shiseian is not the only place to try funazushi in Otsu. Perhaps the most famous restaurant that serves it is Tokuyamazushi (I have not been because it is quite difficult to make a reservation and it is more difficult to access). I would recommend going to see Kanta Inoe-san, the 24 year-old that makes the funazushi at Shiseian. They were extremely happy and welcoming, he and his mother sat with me while I had their wonderful funazushi and delicious Shiga nihonshu. We spoke through Google Translate. I asked him what his dream is: "To share funazushi with the world".
Directions: https://goo.gl/maps/sgDqyGiuiSF2 (approx. 30 minutes from Kyoto station)
Address: 520-0861 Ishiyamadera 3-2-7 Otsu city Shiga pref. (if you follow the link above from Google maps it is very easy to find)
Phone: +81 77 537 0127
Shiseian (志じみめし 湖舟)
Open from 10am to 4pm
Someone once told me that you should not steal other people’s opportunities to learn by themselves. Perhaps there is no point in saying how I felt walking around at Saiho-ji temple in Kyoto, also called kokedera or moss temple. But it is unforgettable and I hope you will be able to experience it yourself. Looking at pictures would also most likely be counter productive, this is not an experience that can be translated into words or pictures.
The entire temple and process are of the highest quality. There is no explicit message, yet you leave feeling differently, a non-verbal experience typical of zen Buddhism. Signing the sutra (most people just listen) lasts 9 minutes. I asked how many people live at the temple and I was told that 5 people live there, and 4 people come from the outside to help. This was surprising given the size and wealth of this temple.
Three shodo calligraphy were on display at the entrance. Because it is not easy for non-Japanese speakers to know what they mean, I want to write here what they said. The first one was "本来無一物" (hon rai mu ichi motsu), meaning “All the things are originally nothing, so there’s nothing you have to be attached to in this world.” The second one was "雪月花" (snow, moon, flower) pronounced "setsugekka" and refers to the beauty of nature. I saw the same one at Ryoan-ji, where a note said "This prose is written and named 'true nature' by Dogen, the Zen Buddhist teacher. Dogen taught that only an empty mind which is free from all other thoughts can perceive the beauty in the nature, the true nature." The last calligraphy said: "日々是好日" which means "every day is a good day".
If you had a simple message, like "I only learn to be satisfied", what would be the best way to convey it? By explaining it in a book? By simply saying it over and over? Simple ideas are often not easy to receive, oftentimes because we are not ready. I think that delivering the most simple of messages is what Zen gardens are best able to do.
Reservation: Please ask your concierge two months in advance to send a return postcard (往復, ofuku hagaki) for you, especially in the summer or in autumn. This website can also make a reservation for a fee of 2,200円.
Entrance fee: 3,000円.
Daitoku-ji is a complex of 24 sub-temples in Kyoto. I visited in the morning of December 31 and it was wonderfully empty. The three sub-temples that were open that day were Ryogen-in, Zuiho-in, Daisin-in.
Daisen-in explicitly illustrates the story of life. There are gardens all around the central building and the story starts (although the entrance is not at the beginning of the story) with water. There are many rocks in this section, with a turtle signifying “disappointment” and a crane signifying “joy”. The journey continues on the river of life and one rock signals the existential questions that everyone asks themselves: “Who am I? What is life? How did the world come into being?”. Then, the river comes against a wall of doubt and one must accept the passage of time to pass under it. Hopefully you are climbing on to the treasure boat. One turtle is facing towards the current, and a sleeping cow is looking back at the past. You then carry on towards the “great sea”, the main garden. This great sea is a large area of sand with no large rocks, signifying heaven and the lack of physical obstacles. Two mounts of sand represent greed and desire, but they are pointless in this great sea. At the back of the garden in the right corner, there is a “sal tree” on an island of moss, a North Indian species that symbolizes how short lie is because of it carries flowers for a brief period in June, each of which lasts only one day. It is a bright, white flower that springs out in morning and falls off at night. Buddha also passed away under such a tree at the age of 80 as he was meditating. The name Daisen-in means “great hermit’s place”. Inside the building, there are calligraphy scrolls made by the current abbot of Daisen-in. One of them says “ichi go ichi e” (this meeting, once in a lifetime). My favorite says: “Your way must be long, your heart round (or kind), don’t get angry (the kanji for stomach is placed on its side, as if you are angry your stomach is standing up), let other people be great, keep yourself small.” Another one says: "Even the sharpest swords needs to be polished". I had water in my eyes looking at the wide expanse of sand, the two mountains for greed and desire, and the trees whose flowers blossom for only one day, once a year.
Ryogen-in has four gardens. The smallest one in Japan, “Totekiko”, is meant to show the importance of one single drop. One drop becomes bigger as the circles grow, become a river, and eventually the ocean. There are also big rocks that have no wave around them. It made me think that the ocean is made of drops. The biggest things in the world are made of the smallest ones.
Another garden, “Ryogintei”, has moss and several rocks. I found it more difficult to interpret this one. It said that the largest rock stands for something that we cannot measure, and that each of us have. It made me think of our dignity: it is something that has physical implications in our life, but it cannot be measured. It remains puzzling to me.
Another garden at Ryogen, “Kodatei”, is meant to show the inhalation and expiration, in particular its duality, like man and woman, ying and yang. My own interpretation is about perspective: the waves end without explanation on the side facing us, yet we do not first question our own perspective, which is also abruptly limited. We always try to question if the world makes sense, but we do not question our own perspective (I note that this is merely my interpretation). I thought about perspective because when you move on from this garden, you see that just behind you, you could not see the source of water that was right next to you.
The main garden at Ryogen is “Isshidan”. It has an oval moss island of immortality and wisdom, which shows an ideal world.
I highly recommend going to the shojin (Buddhist cuisine) restaurant within the grounds of Daitoku-ji temple called Izusen. It is quite hidden (do not follow Google maps), but if you enter from the main entrance, go left at the second opportunity and keep walking, you will eventually find it. Was it a metaphor?
I spent four hours at the three sub-temples and I had the same overwhelming feeling at Daitoku-ji as I first had at Ryoanji. Daitoku-ji is wonderfully empty in the morning. I had water in my eyes at Daisen-in, pondering the story of life and looking at this tree whose flowers bloom for one day, or looking at the ridiculous mountains of greed and desire. Daisen-in is different from Ryoanji, but it is equally perfect. A more instructive and less abstract garden, a non-verbal lesson in Zen philosophy that you can never forget.
Many people celebrate the new year in Kyoto at Yasaka shrine and Chion-in temple. I walked through Yasaka shrine but my experience was that it is extremely crowded and there are many food stands. Unless you like crowds or you are afflicted by the fear of missing out, I suggest that you venture out to smaller temples and shrines. I passed by Chion-in temple and followed the sounds of the temple bells I could hear from the north-east forest. I got lost in Nanzen-ji temple but continued onto Zenrin-ji temple.
Celebrating the new year at Eikan-dō, also known as Zenrin-ji, was magical. I followed the path of small lanterns and waited in line with the Japanese families and older couples. Buddhist monks were giving small cups of warm amazake. Waiting in line to the sound of some wood-stick noise, the chant of the monks, and the temple bell, was meditative and contemplative. At the top of the stairs, people were one by one climbing onto the platform, bowing, ringing the bell, and bowing again. On the way down from the platform, another monk was handing a small card and candy. Finally, I entered a small building where I sat on a small table and wrote with a brush and ink some characters, a prayer and my name, before giving the paper to a monk.
I imagine that there are many other temples where you can have a similar experience, but if you are unsure where to go, I suggest this one. Arrive around 11pm to ring the bell around 12pm. New Year at Zenrin-ji temple was magical and unforgettable (一期一会).
What do we mean by the “best” sushi? Do we mean the most delicious, or the most authentic?
A quality experience that my friend at Conciergest recommended, two stations away from Tokyo station, is the oldest sushi shop in the city. It is possible to eat it on site at one of their three tables (rice bowls are also served), or for take-away. The sushi comes individually wrapped in a bamboo leaf and are packaged in a wooden box.
With all the talk of Shinkansen bento boxes, the ones sold after the JR gates are quite disappointing. Sasamaki will definitely be your best Shinkansen bento box, especially since this is what is seems to be made for. The sushi lasts a long time due to the vinegar and the bamboo leaf.
It is delicious. It does taste of rice vinegar, both in the shari and neta, but to me it is truly a delicious taste. I found the balance between the amount of rice and fish to be different from regular sushi shops. There seemed to be more rice and less fish than usual. The fish selection is also unusual, including dried ebi, shirauo and tai.
I was surprised that the store was not busier and that I had not heard about it before. It should be on everyone’s list to try the most authentic sushi shop in Tokyo and enjoy a truly delicious bento. I had it three times within a week. Quality sushi that is out of the ordinary. May the shop last forever.
Sasamaki Kenuki Sushi (笹巻けぬきすし)
Chef Tetsuya Saotome of Mikawa Zezankyo has been making tempura for 55 years. He is a well-known master and embodies the spirit of the shokunin. For some reason, I do not feel compelled to seek out whether Mikawa has the best tempura. I think that his restaurant and his food leave a honest feeling, one that still inspired me even a year after my first visit. Saotome-san has much in common with Jiro in their approach, and you can see them eating at each other's restaurant in this video. The tempura is in the traditional Edo style, but the restaurant truly has a feeling of warmth and simplicity. It is quite unique, decorated more like a house than a restaurant. The exterior has murals and flowers and the interior has a large cowboy hat-shaped fan above his tempura fryer.
When the reservation was made, the restaurant mentioned: “We are waiting for your visit from the bottom of our heart.” Although some people believe that the Japanese rely on empty politeness, I believe that Mikawa’s hospitality is particularly touching, even if he has a stern look while cooking. I read that he lives on the 4th floor of this house, something I did not know when I first went there, yet I had felt the feeling of entering his house. He is known as a master, but keeps his prices low. Even though he does not speak English, which I am certain must be uncomfortable for him, he allows customers to make a reservation through OpenTable, I assume as a sign that foreigners are truly welcome. While it is likely that they say this phrase to everyone that comes to their restaurant, in my opinion it does not diminish its purpose or impact. Oftentimes, you may notice that Japanese chefs wear the same tie every day, or they will serve the same dessert (yokan at Matsukawa, melon at Jiro). I think that this is a key difference between North Americans and Japanese people: the latter do not shy away from simply doing the same thing.
I find it so touching that someone who has made tempura for 55 years wants me to know that they are waiting for their visitors from the bottom of his heart. Of course, that is obvious to me as he already has other restaurants and does not need to keep working. The only logical explanation is that Saotome-san is happy to work and takes pleasure from making his customers happy. I have not been to Nanachome Kyoboshi but it is likely that it would be “better” than Mikawa, either with more expensive ingredients or a thinner batter. But it does not bother me at all. I feel extremely happy to think back to my time at Mikawa. Seeking the “best” is not where happiness comes from in life.
I wished to discuss the phrase “We are waiting for your visit from the bottom of our heart” that Mikawa asked my concierge to convey to me, or the “Please come back” that Ishikawa told me at my first visit. Whether or not they are said to all of their guests truly does not detract from their meaning. Instead, it reinforces it. This is the core spirit of the tea ceremony: the guest and the host are equals.
This equality is crucial to the dining experience. In North America, people often say that the customer is the most important, and it is from this mindset that we seek to understand the increased customer focus in Japan. However, it is the opposite. In Japan, the guest and the host are equals. What the host hopes to receive (in consideration for his anticipation of the guest’s needs) are the appreciation of what the host has planned and offered, as well as questions to better understand the meaning behind the experience, and perhaps a suggestion or criticism. Criticism is actually welcome, as long as it is subtle and polite. Because my Japanese is not good enough to ask many questions other than “kore wa nan desuka – what is this?”, I take it upon myself to create the equality by giving a box of macarons to each chef I visit, while saying “tsumaranai mono desu ga – this is nothing, but please accept it”. I would suggest you do the same, to show your appreciation not only of the chef’s effort, but also your understanding of the equality inherent in the experience inspired by the tea ceremony. Although you may think that this will add a significant cost or burden on you, and while you will not get any special treatment for doing so (every customer is already treated in a special way), I believe it will allow you to access a deeper understanding of Japanese hospitality and culture.
You can learn about the impact of the tea ceremony on kaiseki by reading this article: Yoshinobu Sato & Mark E. Parry, “The influence of the Japanese tea ceremony on Japanese restaurant hospitality”, Journal of Consumer Marketing (2015) volume 32 number 7, pp 520-529.
My favorite hotel is the Park Hotel Tokyo. Although some hotels are more luxurious, this hotel is reasonable in price, comfortable, centrally located, has top concierge services and unique rooms.
I appreciate that the hotel is offering a high quality and unique experience, notably with their floor of Artist rooms that are painted by different artists according to different themes, such as sakura, sumo, shodo, etc. which also include a free breakfast.
I wish to note that their sister hotel, the Shiba Park Hotel, also offers good concierge services and has a great workshop every day, where guests can either learn Japanese calligraphy or furoshiki (the Japanese art of wrapping gifts), as well as sake tasting. I loved learning furoshiki, as I am now able to impress people when giving gifts by wrapping their wine bottle with Japanese cloth. If you go at the right time and reserve in advance, a room at Shiba Park Annex could cost 12,000円 per night, and a room at the Park Hotel 15,000円. However, the Shiba Park hotel does not want to schedule reservation on your check-in day, which is unfortunate and not justified, therefore I would only recommend them for a longer stay. For some reason, it seems that the Park Hotel has disappeared from the Michelin guide in 2018, but it is not like the Michelin guide is very logical.
There are at least 3,000 hotels in Tokyo and I have stayed at less than 1% of them. Thus, I cannot say that the Park Hotel Tokyo is the best hotel in the city. However, it has been perfect for me. I am extremely grateful for the attention of their concierge staff. I have attached an example of a sheet they have prepared for each restaurant reservation I had, which is something that some of the most expensive hotels in Tokyo do not do.
Many readers asked me the following question: Who is the best concierge in Tokyo? In my experience, the best concierges are not the ones that have the most connections. Introduction-only restaurants do not accept you, no matter who your concierge is. Rather, they are those who are the most dedicated to their guests. The best concierge will inquire beforehand about when the restaurant will take reservations, they will keep calling to see if they have cancellations, will prepare information about how to get there, and they will communicate with you throughout the process.
Park Hotel Tokyo
1-7-1 Higashishinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo (near Shimbashi station)
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 my friend at Conciergest 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 while you are at the restaurant. If you do not, getting back into the system is almost impossible if you have only been once. I believe that they have a cancellation list, but only for valued regular customers. 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.
Powerful in its simplicity, refined in its aesthetic, Ryoan-ji (龍安寺) is a rock garden and temple in Kyoto. I spent three hours there over two days, and I wish I could go back several times every season. I had just visited Ginkaku-ji and Kinkaku-ji, which were very crowded, and I was on my way to the bus when I stumbled upon Ryoanji. At the entrance, a single and beautiful cherry tree, hunched over in a humble manner, a prolepsis of what is to come.
As I walked in, I knew that this would change my life. Not only the garden, but the entire temple is absolute perfection, a wabi-sabi aesthetic of such taste. How could something so apparently simple be so perfect, so powerful, so complex? A sight of true beauty, with a single cherry tree in full blossom, a wall marked by time.
How perfect the color of this wall, a color that Matsukawa reminded me of later that week. The earthen wall abura-dobei is unique to Ryoanji, as it is made of clay into which rapeseed oil is mixed. The subtle asymmetry in the height of the wall inclined slightly downward to the southeast corner (the left corner at the back of the garden when viewed from the hojo). The color and texture of the wooden gallery, the simplicity of it all was overwhelming. I always thought that few sights truly needed to be experienced in person now that we have Youtube, and that food, in contrast, was something one could only experience in person. However, nothing would do justice to the experience of spending time at Ryoanji.
At this quiet garden, the drama of life unfolds on the gallery. Successive groups of school children are asked by their teachers to count how many rocks are in the garden. Inevitably, they count 14 whereas. There are 15 rocks but they cannot all be seen at the same time. It is said that in Buddhism, the number 15 denotes "completeness" or "enlightenment". Of course, I did also do this at first. But after the excitement of finding one area where one can partially see all 15, I understood how magical this garden is.
The excitement and curiosity about the number of rocks inevitably amuses all visitors, but it also dissipates quickly. There is also no lasting pleasure in finding the way to see all 15 rocks, it is only a false success. The playfulness, the cleverness, the curiosity is inevitable in life, but it also inevitably quickly disappears.
What is left is a garden of rocks. I started to be mesmerized by the visual effect of the gravel, blending into each other with an incredible texture which makes it easy to lose your focus. The patterns in the sand are straight lines (chokusen-mon) and a stream pattern. The power of empty space is difficult to explain. Then, I looked at the big rocks, their shape. There are various explanations, such as islands coming out of the water. The garden has also been called “tiger cubs crossing the river” I wondered how the garden is maintained, how often and by who. I thought it is meant to look like something, but like many abstract art, it really is abstract.
Inside the hojo, empty space and fusuma painted walls. I walked to the back of the temple, where a tsukubai water basin (蹲踞) meant to purify oneself reads: “I learn only to be content” (吾唯足知, Ware tada taru koto wo shiru). This sentence struck me, as it seemed unclear from the English translation whether it means “I learn to only and always be content”, or whether it means “the only thing I learn is to be contented”. To me, they are different. The former seems to emphasize that you can become completely contented, whereas the latter emphasizes that it is something you can learn, in fact the only true learning one can do. Furthermore, if this is the only thing that we learn, what about all of the other "knowledge" and "experience" that we learn, through life and at work? I found the ambiguity so fit for this garden. I wonder if the original clarifies the meaning or if it is equally ambiguous. How profound, only with four characters.
This inscription puzzled me and I had water in my eyes reflecting upon it. Some of the people I admire always push themselves to become better, and tell themselves never to be contented. It seems very Japanese for farmers or artisans to say that they can always do better. Oftentimes, on Trails to Tsukiji or similar programs, a master artisan recognized as the best will say that they hope one day to do a really good one, or that they have never made a perfect one, when everyone else thinks it is perfect. How to balance the quest of improvement with the learning of only being contented? I struggle to see the balance.
I walked back to the rock garden, where more people were counting the rocks with curiosity and amusement. This garden seems simple to understand, it is easy to describe. But what is there to understand? Is it not the mystery of life that the more you understand about its origins, where love comes from or what you are doing here, the less satisfied this understanding leaves you? Making discoveries about atoms takes away none of their mystery.
Perhaps, we are like rocks, at one with rocks, the material and the immaterial blending into one. There is no meaning, yet we find so much meaning.
After walking back and forth several times between the rock garden and the tsukubai, I finally left and stumbled upon my first Kyoto yodofu restaurant on-site, another wonderful experience in its simplicity.
This garden always changes through the seasons, in the snow, in the rain, and it also has not changed in hundreds of years, eternally immobile. I later discovered that there are two cherry trees next to each other at Ryoanji, but they must bloom at slightly different times as there was only one when I was there. I wanted to take a good picture, because we want things to last, but no picture can do justice to this experience. How surprising that the most material and static garden of all is the one that is so fleeting. Material things do not last forever. Does it mean that they do not matter, or that we should cherish them?
I will forever remember and be grateful for seeing Ryoanji. How overwhelmingly powerful was this expression of ultimate simplicity, at the intersection of what we see and what we do not see with our eyes.
Kwonsooksoo is the restaurant that most appealed to me from the Michelin guide in Seoul. Guests eat from a “dok-sang”, a small “single table” on top of the conventional table or counter, a tradition from the Korean high-class dining culture. A small card on your table reads: “Kwonsooksoo presents modern Korean cuisine with valuable ingredients from all around the country and house-made Jang (Korean paste), Kimchi, Jeot-gal and Jang-a-chi (Korean Pickle)”.
I want to eat at restaurants that have integrity, offer quality food presented in an understated manner, and are not relying on gimmicks such as dry ice. This two-star restaurant fit my criteria. Michelin says: “The name of the restaurant is derived from an archaic Korean word 'sooksoo' which means "professional cook." Chef Kwon Woo Joong interprets traditional Korean cuisine with a decidedly modern flair, using both rare and readily-available seasonal ingredients to create unconventional flavors.”
Since I knew very little about Korean food, every new ingredient felt like a challenge, something unknown, and you cannot avoid feeling out of your depth, faced with a new world of flavors and ingredients. Many of the restaurants featured on Chef’s Table aim to represent the ingredients of their country and give a sense of discovery for the diners, among others D.O.M. (Brazil) and Central (Lima).
I am generally suspicious of blindly seeking the discovery of new flavours and ingredients. The range of fruits, vegetables and animals in this world is endless. In fact, many remain undiscovered by mankind. Seeking novelty for its own sake is misguided. Jiro said something that I did not understand at first, since it seems so simple: Innovation is good, but only if it improves the taste.
At Kwonsooksoo, I had the chance to encounter a new sensibility, a different palate and sense of culinary pleasure. The 4 Korean liquors that came with the meal were much stronger than nihonshu, tasting clearly of alcohol and having a stronger aroma, with one exception.
In the end, I felt that the experience of discovering a new palate – the modern Korean palate – was interesting, but did not compare to the shock I experienced having my first kaiseki meal. Perhaps that is too high a standard. The presentation was understated and the dishes were delicious, interesting and of high quality. The dishes were subtle and sophisticated, with reminders of the ruggedness of Korea.
There are many quality things to do in Seoul and I know that there must be a lot that is hidden. I enjoyed walking in Gyeongbokgung Palace. In particular, Leeum Samsung Museum was of the highest quality, with one half devoted to traditional Korean arts (Celadon, Buncheong wares and white porcelain, painting, metal) and one half for international and Korean modern art. The Olafur Eliasson installation “Gravity Stairs” about our solar system was great: the ceiling is made of mirrors and the illusion is perfectly done. The planets and the sun appear differently when moving around. What was most striking for me was the illusion of the mirrors, which raises the question of whether what we see in life and the universe is actually reality, or an illusion, or both. If what we see is an illusion, is there a reality that we do not see? Do we enjoy seeing the illusion and do we want to avoid thinking about the fact that it is simply a mirror? The sun seems perfectly spherical. The planets, on the other hand, never fully reveal themselves, as part of their light is always hidden no matter where you stand. Famous for his “Weather Project”, Olafur Eliasson’s installation about our solar system was speaks highly of this quality museum.
Looking back months after my visit, there is much that I did not know about Korean food, such as siwonhan-mat (시원한 맛), which refers to a feeling of deliciousness felt by the body that emanates from fermented foods and broth-based soups. I believe it also has something to do with curing hangovers. I hope to go back, experience siwonhan-mat and discover what is hidden within and outside Seoul, behind the superficial.
Kwon Sook Soo: 2F, 27 Eonju-ro 170-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art: 60-16, Itaewon-ro, 55-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
*Although I do not like to post pictures, because there is a lack of posts about this restaurant, I thought that pictures would add value in this case.
The first time I discovered authentic Chinese food was when a local Sichuan friend took me for my first mapo tofu. I fell in love with that dish and later had more Sichuan dishes, including frog, which is juicier than chicken but – Westerners beware – also has a lot of bones. I was hoping that one day I would discover another Chinese dish that I could fall in love with.
One day, a local in Hong Kong brought me to a very small restaurant in Central, near Lan Kwai Fong, called Yau Yuen Siu Tsui. The person was native from Xi’an and wanted me to experience Shaanxi cuisine, Xi’an being the capital of Shaanxi province in China. You may know it for the Terra-cotta warriors. (I note that Shaanxi is West of Shanxi, and that they are different provinces).
We were sat on a communal table, crammed in a corner next to a family with a baby and a couple. There are 26 seats crammed into a very small space and the restaurant could not be less pretentious. It had only one review on OpenRice. It felt very small, no-name, yet the menu was well translated and had nice pictures. I had a good feeling so we ordered as many dishes a possible, but I did not know that this is the second location of a restaurant with a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin guide.
The taste of Xi’an biang biang noodles and those spices gave me the same feeling as when I had mapo tofu for the first time. I thought: “What an incredible flavor, and the texture too!” The spices (油泼辣子 / yóu pō là zi) are quite addictive and different from what I had previously experienced. The other dishes you should try are the glutinous rice wine dumpling dessert, the pork pita bread, the buckwheat noodles (different than Japanese soba), and for appetizers perhaps the gluten, the cucumbers or the shaanxi thick rice noodles. Ice Peak is the usual orange soda drink in Xi'an (very sweet for my taste), but you should still order it as it sets the tone for an unpretentious cuisine.
It’s not that mapo tofu or biang biang noodles are the best dishes ever or deserve awards. Xi’an cuisine is seemingly simple and unpretentious. Locals would eat these dishes on the street. All I can say is that from my limited experience, Xi’an food is really enjoyable. I had dim sum at the usual suspects in Hong Kong, such as Lin Hueng Lau, but I was very disappointed. Sichuan and Shanghainese cuisine are good, but I became quite addicted to Xi’an cuisine after this meal. I think that you would like it too. The character for biang (which may refer to the noise the noodles make when hit on the table as they are stretched) is one of the most complex in Chinese, fitting for something simple yet special.
Xi’an means “western peace” and I have the feeling that it may become for Westerners one of the most beloved and popular regional Chinese cuisine.
Kowloon: G/F, 36 Man Yuen Street, Jordan, Hong Kong +852 5300 2683 (cash only)
Central: Shop B, G/F, 14-15 Wo On Lane, Central, Hong Kong +852 5296 6630 (cash only)
I had never tried fugu and for my first time, I decided on Tomoe, a restaurant in Kyoto whose name means “filled with taste”. Michelin says that the owner-chef wants to capture as much of the taste of its wild tora fugu (tiger blowfish 虎河豚) as possible, which is aged for three days. Tomoe ages it one day longer than Yamadaya as they prefer larger fish. I asked the chef and one of his 4.5kg fish serves 8 people. Since blowfish is often described as tasteless, I thought that eating at a restaurant famous for a stronger flavor would be a great place to start my education.
About a handful of people die every year from fugu, most of them by attempting to make it at home. Although there is no antidote, doctors will put patients on life support until the toxin disappears from their body. In contrast, between 4,000 and 5,000 people die in car accidents every year in Japan. Texting causes 6,000 deaths in the United States. It seems to me more likely to die in the taxi on the way there than while eating it. I wasn’t worried at all.
Because I had big fugu dreams, I was disappointed by the setting of this one star restaurant, to the point where I was not sure if I had walked into the right restaurant. The restaurant looked simple, a little bit old and the disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) were the cheapest I have seen in a Michelin restaurant.
This put me on the path of understanding this restaurant. I thought that the chopsticks were so cheap, it had to be a clue as to how they see the experience they want to provide. Then I had fugu sashimi and things started to grow on me. The more you chew, the more the flavor will come out, the daughter said. They serve their sashimi with salt, in contrast to other restaurants. Tomoe is a family affair: a husband, a wife and a daughter. Michelin should have written this in their guide. It is fugu for your family, by another family, comfortable and familiar, to celebrate something with great food or have fun with friends. I had shirako served in a cheap aluminium paper and hire-sake, which tasted stronger than anticipated. All fins of the blowfish, except the tail, can be used for hiresake. I enjoyed my first fugu at Tomoe. As I would later understand, the secret of fugu is not discovered by seeking a stronger taste.
The color of the sashimi is fascinating and its taste is mysterious. The fish magically changes from a slightly bouncy texture, soft yet chewy sashimi, to very soft in a hot pot and juicy when fried. I liked the culture of fugu, the dedication of mastering the art of serving a single fish, the fact that it is best eaten only three months a year. It represents Japanese culture in several ways. It does make yourself realize that it is nice to survive for another day. People eat endangered species such as tuna without even thinking about it. In this sense, Fugu inspires gratitude more than any other food.
One week later, I had fugu again in Tokyo at Yamadaya. This time, fugu was not only enjoyable, it lived up to the legend. The entire experience was perfect. The sashimi was delicious, the deep-fried dish was juicy and tender, the hot pot showed the unique qualities of this fish, and the rice porridge was simply the best porridge I ever ate. Yamadaya satisfied not only my quest to understand fugu, but also put the bar high for any meal. I could not believe how good the porridge was, every bite was better than the last. Even the fried dish seemed to be cut in a way that made it easier to eat. The way the fish changes from raw to fried to boiled is fascinating. I cannot imagine that someone would not fall in love with fugu at this three-star restaurant.
Fugu makes winter seem too short. I wish there was a dish in my country that could celebrate winter so well and make you wish it lasted longer. Like tai, there is a lot to discover about fugu. Fugu and tai left a very similar impression on me. Some ingredients are magical and it is wise that the Japanese have chosen to celebrate them.
Finally, let me debunk the myth that the magic of fugu would be in the feeling from some poison that the chef would leave in the fish. This is not absolutely not true - the chefs at highly-ranked restaurants do not leave any poison and it would be illegal to do so. This is not at all where the magic of fugu lies.
Tomoe: Kitaoji-dori Senbon Higashi iru Kitagawa, Kita-ku, Kyoto (Dinner only)
Yamadaya: B1F, Fleg Nishi Azabu Vierge, 4-11-14 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo (Dinner only, closed Sunday)
Sukiyabashi Jiro, the misunderstood.
After watching the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, reading the book Jiro Gastronomy and doing all the research I could do about sushi (or so I thought), I went to Jiro in the summer of 2016 for lunch. I could not have been more ready. I wore a jacket, I had the money to pay in cash, I was there right on time, I visited the Tsukiji tuna auction early that morning and barely ate all day so that I would be hungry enough to eat sushi served at a very fast pace. I even had a box of Ladurée macarons for him as a gift.
And then, 12 minutes later, my 20 pieces of sushi were gone. I was the only guest at that particular moment, which further increased the speed. I did not think it would be this fast. Even though the sushi was impeccable, I felt disappointed. To this day, I can only remember a few of the pieces. The mantis shrimp, the chutoro, the kohada (so flavorful), the uni (so sweet), the tamago, and the melon (so juicy). Everything else is a blur.
I felt like my money had disappeared too fast. I did not admit it to those who asked about my experience, but I felt disappointed. I thought eating the sushi would make me cry.
6 months later, I had the uncontrollable urge to go back. In the winter of 2017, I was back at Jiro, this time for dinner. By then, I had more Tokyo sushi experience behind my belt. Also, I had been to Jiro now. I knew what it was about. I did not have to go back if I did not want to. I could have chosen other restaurants, which is what most people do. Most food bloggers never go back to Jiro. They say that even though the sushi is great, the whole experience is not fun, turned off by the speed.
Sukiyabashi Jiro offers something truly unique. They claim that they replicate the old way of eating sushi, which was sold on the street and eaten quickly, on the go. Nevertheless, I believe that the speed has more to do with the true nature of what Jiro offers: a sushi orgasm. A constant, non-stop, short experience unlike anything else. This time, I had to accept that it would disappear instantly, that you can only be in the moment, and that once it is over, all you will remember… is that you remember it was incredible. And that you will want more.
I find it puzzling that the most famous sushi shop on earth is also the most misunderstood, both by tourists, locals and food bloggers alike. Tourists go there in the hope of having the world's best sushi, but of course, this is a matter of taste with no right answer. Therefore, they are mistaken about that. On the other hand, locals and food bloggers are suspicious of the Michelin publicity, documentary and tourists, thinking that it probably overrated. For example, it received only a bronze Tabelog award in 2017, which is ridiculous. In any case, I cannot emphasize enough that the best sushi is a question of taste. All of the high-end sushi shops have the best fish and integrity, what differentiates them is the vision that they offer, not quality in an absolute sense.
My second time at Jiro was everything I wanted it to be the first time. I am so glad I went back. I had the chance to be there for dinner and Jiro Ono was present. Perhaps it is because I looked for too long at his book Jiro Gastronomy, but I find Jiro’s sushi to be the most beautiful of all. Everything about his sushi, their size, the shape of the fish, their shine, the way they are cut, the look of their rice, is for me the gold standard against which to assess others in terms of aesthetics. Say what you want about the taste, I do not think any other sushi is more visually perfect.
It is meant for those who want a truly unique experience: sushi at the fastest pace. In fact, at my second visit, at times I was almost hoping it would be faster. I think that for some people who perhaps are a little more intense, this way of eating sushi is the only way. I had a sushi lunch in the same week and it felt so slow, so anti-climatic. The fast pace is not for everyone, but if it is for you, there is no other way to eat sushi.
In my opinion, first-time tourists would have a better time elsewhere, for example at Sushi Sho Masa. I am nevertheless glad to see that Sukiyabashi Jiro is currently ranked 4th best sushi in Tokyo on Tabelog by the locals.
I wish to rectify a misconception that Jiro serves his sushi in a rapid pace to be able to sit more customers and make more money. This is absolutely not true. When I first went to lunch, I was by myself at the counter for all of my meal. I believe the restaurant's alumni and the man himself when they say that Jiro is not trying to make money. Asked about what he learned from training at Jiro, chef Masuda said:
"It is a professionalism, whether on work or a way of life. Honestly, I think that anyone can cook sushi if trained as long as a year or so. However, Jiro always thinks about how to make customers eat his sushi better and how his sushi can become more delicious. Even now when he turned 92 (as of November 2017), I think his attitude is really amazing. It leads to the current reputation of Sukiyabashi Jiro. There are various kinds of chefs in the world, and I think some people are doing for money, but Jiro has no intention of making money. He just likes to work. He just wants to see the customers’ happy face. In short he is an old-fashioned “artisan”. I really wish to become an artisan like Jiro."
The chef of Torishiki shared a similar feeling in an interview: "I am willing to be grilling yakitori throughout my life. Just like Mr. Jiro Ono of Sukiyabashi Jiro, who still makes sushi at the age of 90. I highly respect his style."
I also wish to rectify another misconception, which is that Jiro's hospitality is poor. Although the lack of greetings and the somewhat rushed pace can feel like they are not hospitable, I do not believe so. This is part of the experience he chooses to offer, not who he is. He has an endearing laugh and after your meal is over, he is friendly. He serves his closest friends with the same stern look that he serves you, as you can see him serve the chef of Mikawa in this video.
I think that Jiro-san knows that those who were meant to go in the first place will come back. The whole experience is initially a shock, but months later, I understood, and I was ready to go again. Perhaps, like the experience I claim it replicates, the first time is not meant to be the best.
Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten: Exit C6 from Ginza Station
Reservations: There is no need to stay at a 5-star hotel to get good concierge services. I suggest the 4-star Park Hotel Tokyo. I also found a 3-star hotel that was able to get a reservation, the Shiba Park Hotel. The more days in Tokyo you have, the luckier you may be. I would say that actually Jiro is not a particularly difficult reservation to make, compared to restaurants such as Sugita (never mind the introduction-only restaurants). It is very welcoming of foreigners in my experience. Finally, it is likely that you will be given a lunch booking on your first visit, and it is likely that Jiro Ono will not be present at lunch. It is necessary for men to wear a shirt with a collar, as well as a jacket.
You can read about my third visit here.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Kyoaji, Sushi Kimura, Daishin-in, Shodo, home cooking restaurant.
Making Restaurant Reservations in Tokyo
Cafe de l'Ambre
Sushi Sho Masa
Bear Pond Espresso
Park Hotel Tokyo
New Year in Kyoto
Kwon Sook Soo
Yau Yuen Siu Tsui