I had breakfast with a monk! Well, technically I was the only one who ate (he had breakfast hours before) but still – what a stand-out memory of Japan. Sometimes it’s not just about the food you’re eating, but the experience itself that makes it truly memorable. If you’re ever in Kyoto, be sure to look out for opportunities to try Shojin-Ryori (traditional vegetarian Buddhist temple food).
On a sunny morning in Kyoto and I visited Taizo-in – a Zen Buddhist Temple that was built in 1404 and is situated on the grounds of the Myoshin-ji temple complex.
The temple has worship rooms, zen gardens, towering evergreen trees, lakes, water features and shrines, but the highlight for me was sitting inside the temple and having a vegetarian breakfast while looking out over the gardens defined by their striking red maples trees.
So what’s a traditional temple breakfast like?
There’s a staggering amount of preparation that goes into creating breakfast fit for a monk. I was told that the tofu takes at least three hours to prepare and some of the dishes take a whole day as there are important rituals that must be part of the cooking procedure. I learnt that patience is the most important thing when cooking Shojin-Ryori. The chef must be pure and mindful during the cooking process, being fully present and believing what he/she is preparing will purify the mind, body and soul. Balance is also very important – each meal must have five colours and five flavours to satisfy the five senses. The meal consists of seasonal vegetables that are good for your body at that particular time of year. In the winter (when I visited) there are lots of root vegetables as these provide warmth and sustenance for the body. In the summer, cucumbers and tomatoes are eaten as these have a cooling effect on the body.
My meal consisted of lotus root, tofu, bean dumplings, miso soup, gobo root, seaweed, pickled plums, potato and seasons greens. I must say – I enjoyed every morsel. The gobo root in particular was something I’ve never tried before, and has a smokey taste from being enriched by the nutrients in the soil. The potato had an unusual spongey texture and the lotus was crunchy and slightly sweetened.
It was the first spiritual eating experience I’ve had and definitely made me more conscious about what I was eating. Often, we rush through meals without thinking about what we’re putting into our bodies.
If you’re in Kyoto, be sure to also look out for Obanzai Ryori restaurants; which translates as Kyoto home-style cooking.
The restaurants mimic being in someone’s house, and it certainly felt that way for me. My favourite Obanzai Ryori restaurant was a small 60-year-old place called Renkonya. There’s only space for 15 people and the lady who cooks the food on a small two-burner hob is the third generation of her family that the restaurant has been passed down to.
Renkonya is named after a popular Kyoto dish – Renkon, which is fried lotus root. You’re given a Japanese menu with English translation and a Japanese pronunciation guide so you practise ordering in the native tongue (something I very much enjoyed!)
The food served at Obanzai restaurants are very simple dishes that have been passed down through generations and are what many of us might describe as ‘just like Grandma used to make’. Hearty, full-bodied stews, root vegetables and simple spices – two words sum it up ‘comfort food’.
I tried the fried lotus root with mustard, beef and potato stew with ginger which was surprisingly similar to a Western stew with a zesty topping and tender steamed aubergine.
With chain restaurants taking over, it’s really special to see these small family-run places still in existence. The recipes are ones you could never learn in recipe book, instead it’s something that’s passed down through generations. Make sure you show them your support if you go to Japan.
To see these unique food experiences – check out this Lonely Planet video I had the privilege of being part of in Japan.
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