Ohisashiburi desu ne. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It feels good to be back, though in some sense I’m not really back but rather away. Pieces of this post were written some time ago, but as usual I let them languish in some dusty corner of my computer for weeks. Then in October I left Japan and embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, and now, France. (Next: Iceland.) Rest assured, though: I expect to resume a more normal posting schedule once I return to the States at the end of this month. Until then, here are some snapshots and musings from a very memorable meal.
Back in early October, in an unusual fit of extravagance, Steven and I made a dinner reservation at Hikariya Higashi, one of Matsumoto’s best restaurants for kaiseki ryōri, Japanese cuisine’s most elegant iteration. Kaiseki traces its roots to Kyōto’s tea ceremony, but today distinct regional iterations can be found across Japan. Regardless of location, however, the principles of rigorous seasonality, pristine ingredients, and exquisite presentation are at the heart of any kaiseki meal.
Hikariya Higashi’s chef, Miyano Hiroaki, originally hails from Kyōto, and his food reflects that city’s refined and vegetable-centric style of cooking. The ingredients he uses, however, are pure Nagano: mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts, Shinshū miso, mountain vegetables, fresh wasabi, and grapes are just a few of the regional, seasonal specialties that appeared in our meal.
After removing our shoes in the restaurant’s entrance, we were led into a serene private dining room and took out seats a low, black table. Soft tatami mats muffled the sounds of servers shuffling between rooms, and a lantern placed on the floor cast subtle shadows across a painted wooden screen. We settled into our seats and gazed at the landscaped garden outside, sipping glasses of an umeshu-like liqueur made from local prune plums.
We were first presented with a small lacquer tray that contained three dishes: the first, our server explained, was a type of slightly bitter mountain vegetable cooked with miso. The first taste was strangely sweet – a distinct vegetal flavor amplified by mirin and sugar – but this soon faded to a mild bitterness that lingered at the back of our palates. I suspect it was fukinotō miso, a common way of preserving one of spring’s first wild vegetables.
Next, we savored kinoko oshitashi (literally, soaked mushrooms), plucking tiny shimeji mushrooms from a cup of cold dashi. Hidden among the mushrooms were bits of emerald spinach leaves and bright yellow chrysanthemum, both of which were imbued with the broth’s delicate, ethereal flavor.
The crowning jewel of this trio was a tiny glass of what looked like ice studded with pomegranate seeds. We spooned up the soupy mixture and were surprised to discover that the “ice” was in fact daikon oroshi (finely grated daikon radish) mixed with skinless segments of muscat and concord grapes, more mushrooms, and pomegranate, all brightened by the gentle tanginess of rice vinegar. It was one of the most astonishingly delicious combinations I have ever tasted, yet it only lasted two bites.
Sashimi, while somewhat out of place in a meal of mountain vegetables, was presented in a shallow, pale pink ceramic bowl. It seemed to be a blooming flower, or perhaps a shell opening to reveal pearls within. Indeed, we were told this dish was intended to evoke an origin or a beginning, the start of life. A snow-white piece of daikon had been carved into an elaborate sculpture to support the fish, which itself had been cut with equal precision. Fresh Nagano wasabi, tiny broccoli sprouts, and a chrysanthemum blossom added pops of visual contrast to an otherwise subdued palate of pinks and whites. The whole dish was highly suggestive, even outright sexual, which seems somehow fitting for a dish of raw, unadorned flesh.
Next were two simmered dishes. The first was buta no kakuni, a small cube of pork belly simmered in a sweet-salty mix of shōyu, sake, and sugar. Surrounding the meat were a single floret of broccoli, a silky soft piece of negi (Japanese leek), and a shriveled cherry tomato, all simmered in the same sauce. The meat itself was deep red, almost the color of beef, and so tender that it could easily be pulled apart with chopsticks. Barely a trace of fat remained between the layers, yet the sauce itself was not overly oily. I pondered this for a while, wondering how the chefs had accomplished such a feat of flavor and texture. It was almost as if the fat had been directly injected into and trapped within the meat, unable to leach out into the sauce. Sous vide cooking seemed a likely explanation, but I didn’t bother to ask: sometimes, food is simply better when enjoyed and not analyzed.
Second was half a baby kabocha, scooped clean of its seeds and fibers, swimming in a thick, golden dashi-based sauce. Nestled in the squash’s cavity were taro root, Romano beans, and a crosshatched morsel of scallop, all of which had been simmered in the same manner. The squash gave way to gentle pressure from our chopsticks, its dry, sweet flesh melding with the viscous sauce.
Next, an assortment of foods in autumnal shades of gold, flax, and brown was placed before us. On the left, a pile of walnuts bound by crystallized honey, and a tiny satsumaimo chakin (pureed sweet potato shaped to resemble a chestnut), studded with a single toasted pine nut. To the right, a dish of deeply savory simmered konnyaku dusted with katsuobushi. These were arranged along a rustic ceramic tray adorned with a deep green cedar branch. The only other color came from a white and pink pickled ginger stem, which lay angled across a piece of miso-marinated grilled fish. Viewed abstractly, the plate evoked a patch of wild mushrooms sprouting from a felled tree on the forest floor.
In a traditional kaiseki meal, grilled foods are traditionally followed by agemono, or fried foods. However, we had selected a smaller seven-course meal that included neither a fried dish nor a soup course. So, our grilled fish was followed by a cold, texturally challenging sunomono, or vinegared dish. A dish emblazoned with Hokusai’s famous woodblock print of Mount Fuji was filled with mozuku, a stringy and somewhat slimy seaweed. A piece of crunchy, briny kazunoko, flanked by pickled cucumber and a blob of slippery grated nagaimo (mountain yam) rounded out the dish. Even though this dish was not entirely satisfying, its careful composition and play of textures certainly reflected kaiseki’s cerebral side.
To finish, the holy trio of Japanese cuisine: rice, pickles, and soup. Shiny, perfectly cooked koshihikari rice was presented alongside a dish of sanshō chirimenjako (dried baby fish with Sichuan peppercorns), which we liberally sprinkled over the rice. Slightly spicy pickled fuki (a type of mountain vegetable) and an inky miso soup adorned with curls of freeze-dried tofu and spinach provided the requisite punches of umami goodness between each bite.
Finally, we sipped palate-cleansing sencha and nibbled on higashi (molded dried sweets in the shape of momiji, Japanese maple leaves) and konpeitō (tiny hard candies), which softened the tea’s tannic edge. Had it not been for this brief caffeine jolt, we likely would have languished in our seats for another hour, recalling each dish in vivid detail.
After our meal, walking home along Matsumoto’s deserted streets, we stopped at a small shrine by the side of the road. Suddenly, a flock of ravens took flight, their lustrous feathers flashing in the moonlight against an inky, starry sky. As they cawed and crowed, a light breeze passed through, rustling the white paper shide strung overhead for a Shintō festival. At that moment, the presence of something – something not human, not animal, but other – made itself known. There was no mistaking the sensation that we were not alone. Perhaps it was simply autumn’s chill seeping through our sweaters, but to offer such an explanation would be missing the point.
At that moment, we both felt a connection to another Japan, long past, that is still palpable in the vibrant, percussive music of summer festivals; the annual planting, tending, and harvesting of rice paddies; the continual rebuilding of shrines; the mountains that keep watch over Matsumoto year after year. We understood, in other words, what our meal had conveyed so elegantly: life begets life, but so too does death. And so just as the present must become past, the past makes sense of the present. For every summer there is a fall, for every winter a spring, and for every season there is a way to eat that respects life – both our own, and those that came before us.