Tradition is fading quickly in the city of Tokyo with Starbucks and other Americanized chains dotting the city landscape. In the past it is generally recognized that a person with sensitivity to the changing season is one that possesses understanding.
It reminds me many moons ago, I was introduced to Miyamaso in the Kyoto hillside, one hour and a half from the city center. At the time Miyamaso was a family run business of Nakahigashi, with one brother in the kitchen, and the other brother responsible for the inn and cultural-community relations and contact with the locals monks. I can say that it was one of those very special settings, although its been twenty years since I last visited.
It was there, I was introduced to the essence of shojin ryori a (meat and fish free) cuisine based on appreciating simple foods using various root vegetables and mountain ingredients. This cuisine is simply elegant, delightful and close attention is always paid to seasonal local ‘kilometre zero’ ingredients. The ingredients there were foraged from the surrounding forest, and while not strictly vegetarian, their cuisine possesses the spirit of nature, elegance, and harmony.
Kaiseki and Shojin Ryori cuisine is simply defined by small dishes served in multiple courses, each possessing the same historical background. At Daigo in Tokyo, you feel as if you are in the center of Seisho-ji temple, an important temple tucked away in the centre of Tokyo. The first time I tried Daigo was 15 years ago when they opened. It hasn’t changed very much and the same traditional styled service and cuisine remains the same.
“Hassun” the second course, pictured below which sets the seasonal theme. Served on a tray it typically contains types of food representing “mountain” and “sea” that depict and celebrate the current season. The food is arranged to create contrast of color, shape, texture, and help define the season.
The organization is very well defined and there is a process and structure to the order of the courses. While shojin ryori shies away from really strong tastes such as onions, the basic precepts of Buddhism are “thou shalt not kill”, so the killing of any animal, fish or insects for food is not permitted, as is the use of animal products such as eggs or milk.
Essentially the cuisine consists of grains, vegetables, soya beans or soya based products such as tofu, as well as sea vegetables. The use of any pungent flavours such as garlic, or any strong flavours is frowned upon. Although this may make shojin ryori seem limited, it is in fact a complex cuisine and it embraces the essence of every ingredient it includes.
The bowl of nameko zousui, a rice porridge made from dashi and nameko and enoki mushrooms. The concentrated flavour of mushrooms was deeply appreciated and the lingering flavour of Japanese soul food.
Buddhist cuisine at this two-Michelin starred restaurant will be one of the highlights if you adore the spirit of mountains cuisine.