As I pull out of the Kyoto station I reflect on my last days here in this city with 1600 temples and shrines. I took the weekend to visit some of them and eat my way, as best I could, through the markets, noodle houses, and department stores. When I embarked on this trip I thought I would be changed somehow. Little did I realize my appreciation for the Japanese art of food would be so heightened and my senses transformed, hungrily. This Island nation is rich in food culture, exotic tastes, and sensual savories heretofore unrealized by my western palette.
On the morning of my first free day I was taken to the Buddhist Temple of Unryū-in I was lead through the tranquilly green garden and ushered into the shrine. I learned firsthand from the presiding head monk about the taming of the samurai in days gone by. They were tamed with a form of meditation or calligraphy, copying the sutras over and over again. Even though they didn’t know their meaning the act of writing helped to sooth their warrior souls. I was given a brush and set about copying one character and offering it up as a wish. I then was seated on a mat and a young woman whisked up a bowl of fine green matcha tea which I ceremoniously drank in three hearty gulps. The tea revived my senses and made me reflect on the beautiful garden at my feet. Would that life was always this simple and peaceful, but alas it was time to go, I walk past alters of incense and laughing Buddha’s for my next flavor of Kyoto.
This city was one of the few that escaped the bombings of WWll so much still stands as it did hundreds of years ago. The classic tiled roofs arch gracefully against the outline of the green hills. Woman come here donning kimonos and study for five years to become geisha, serving tea, arranging flowers, and making music; an ancient entertainment system still preserved. Bamboo forests sing with the wind.
After my third temple, this one covered in gold, the stirrings of my eternal hunger rise like a dragon. We eat at a simple noodle house founded in 1462. Cold ramen noodles, pickled vegetables, and soy dipping sauce are slurped while my guide expertly folds an origami crane. The remains of hot water in which the noodles were cooked is brought forth to be added to the last of the soya sauce and imbibed as a hearty final soup course. Green tea finishes the meal. A peasant’s meal, not too filling, and we are off to the Nishiki market in the center of town.
This is a five block covered market resplendent with every kind of pickle, fish, sushi, nut, spice, meat, and bakery item. My head is spinning with the aromas and color. My senses tell me to begin eating immediately so I amble up to the first stall of pickled vegetables and begin sampling. Kyoto seems to be the fermentation capitol of Japan and proving everything that grows can be pickled! Brined eggplant, radish, tomato, melon, radish, and plums sit in huge wooden vats representing an ancient way to preserve summer’s bounty. My choices are wrapped ceremoniously in tiny gift bags for future fermented fervor.
Rows of skewered fish from all schools greet with eyes shining back saying eat me! Chicken, pork, and tofu are also speared and skewered over open flames with sesame, soy sauces laden with fresh ginger. Home spun dishes of lotus root, eggplant, and adzuki beans overflow under glass. Sweet mochi candies made from sweet rice and beans are transformed into works of art. I buy too much of everything and it’s time to visit one more temple.
The Shinto shrine called Fushimi-Inari-Taisha is nothing like the tranquility of its Buddhist cousins. Instead a riot of bright orange greets me with massive pillars and laughing foxes. The Shinto religion coexists happily with Buddhism but is older and more pagan. It refers to the divinity, or sacred essence, that manifests in multiple forms; rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places, and even people can be said to possess this nature. People and nature are not separate; they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.
Organic agriculture represents a belief that all things are interconnected. How we nourish our soils and what we spray on our crops affects the land, water, people, and animals. Call it a divine way of growing food. I believe the ancient Japanese people understood this connection.
My time in Japan has been delicious and also edifying. Going back to a more balanced approach to agriculture is a modern way to return to our ancient roots. Japan has shown me that way organically.