Kyoto (京都) is one of my favorite cities. A great walking city, a good scale of architecture, tension of modernity and allegiance to heritage. Fortunate indeed to be here for eight days immersed in work of culture (文化) involving preservation, Zen Buddhism, and effort to introduce old and new Japan to foreigners.
Yesterday had a visit to Kousein, a late 19th century property, beside a canal, near Ritz Carlton and Okura hotels. Extraordinarily beautiful gardens with old maples and oaks, a house of artifacts, and plans to create a place to stay for five or six guests. So difficult to maintain.
Light snow just started falling.
After a quick club sandwich in Okura, where nearby table of a family was singing, “Happy birthday,” in English to a child, a long drive to a temple in southern Kyoto. Different sect of Zen.
Father and son there instruct zazen, and also introduce Chinese-style vegetarian cuisine. The grandfather established the program.
Later still: Torito, one of my favorite yakitori places in Japan, for tsukune, kawa, negima, soft tofu with scallions, raw cucumbers, and kaarage. Draft beer, sake, mugi shochu.
Two temples today.
Yesterday the work began in earnest, and the months and years of reading about Zen helped to prepare for interviews. These began at 830 AM with an older Zen master who had studied Kant, and turned then to Zen Buddhism.
After a vegetarian breakfast beside a garden and pond of koi, we spoke about zazen, principles, applications, satori, letting go, acceptance.
He had a lively sense of humor, big ears, a long face, shaved head, thin smile, and still posture except for blinking eyes. A crane landed as we concluded, to eat koi, and then the monk gave me a book by a deceased friend of his who taught philosophy at Columbia University.
In the afternoon, I returned to a large temple compound in northern Kyoto, where I’d cycled to a few years ago with S, and met there a younger monk. As we spoke, chants, bells, drums, and cawing crows served as backdrop. We discussed the differences between mindfulness and zazen, how one is pathology driven and one is a way of life. Many other topics.
Noodles at Omen across the bridge from Gion with K and T. Seasonal udon with turnips and grated yam.
That night a sushi restaurant downtown. Eight seats. Unlike NYC and Tokyo, sushi in Kyoto is served grilled, fried, and steamed. Maybe best dish was fugu collar.
To reach here, I came by way of the Shinkansen Shin-Osaka with T. We had three sticks of yakitori and hot green tea on the train. Sticks of bonjiri, kawa, and tsukune.
Then an afternoon of meetings with K.
The quarters I am in has a large kitchen so K took me food shopping for breakfast items. Also to a remarkable German bakery nearby.
That night K met me back at these quarters, which are more like a villa, and introduced me to his wife and son. We had sashimi, grilled beef, grilled pork, salads and delicious, cold sake.
Today interviews begin at 730 A.M. with Zen monk who is in charge of the temple, closed to public, to which these quarters are attached.
Arrived late yesterday afternoon aboard JAL, only direct flight from Boston, the # of plane: 007. Of course.
Business Class: Meaning a flat bed, delicious and restaurant quality food, naps, the start of a new novel-memoir about Fukushima, and edits on my new book. Also, “Somebody,” a fascinating movie about Japanese in their twenties looking for work in Tokyo.
T met me at Imperial Hotel, and then we had a meeting with K and R. Good white wine, good sake, grilled chicken below Tokyo Station Hotel at fancy-pants place I’d been to before and like a lot. Ever try unborn chicken and fallopian tube?
Late, T and I hit the Old Imperial Bar, a place I love, it is like a movie set, and even though it was more foreigners than locals, the atmosphere was enervating. Yamazaki 12 for me, bourbon for T.
T wants me to understand the differences between Kyoto Zen and the Zen of Dogen. I’ve been studying this, and his knowledge as always added depth to what I have been reading. For T, it is a way of life.
Home away from home, not exactly, but I am often in Japan these days, and increasingly the challenges and atmosphere there, the solutions and conundrums, the different ways of thinking, add to the past and present of my life.
Hey, it’s like Keynes said: The future isn’t the problem, it’s holding onto past ways of doing things, despite their being inefficacious, that stymies progress.
So I am lucky to have new ways of being in the future.
The work this time focuses on a Japan-based consultancy that offers private Zen temple stays for foreign guests, a piece on exploring Kyoto, and work on a guide to dining.
I flew JAL Business/First Class in December, thanks to Relais & Chateaux work, and that experience was by far the best I had in the air. Quiet, a seat that became a bed, privacy, delicious food. As JAL notes:
- In JAL Business Class, the award-winning JAL SKY SUITE seat is designed to ensure privacy and comfort. For sleep, the airline also offers specially designed airweave mattress and pillows along with a comforter to ensure rest. For entertainment, customers can view the latest movies and other programming on the large 23-inch LCD monitor using the liquid-crystal touch-panel controller. A retractable privacy panel is also installed. And each seat has direct access to the aisle.
I’m flying JAL again this time. It is the only direct flight from Boston to Narita. As JAL notes:
- JAL will begin JFK-Haneda service starting April 1, 2017, using the JAL SKY SUITE 777 (Boeing 777-300ER).
What I like a lot about JAL is how you are immediately in Japan before you actually get there. Omotenashi or hospitality in the air. And flying direct is there only way to go.
Back in the day, telegenic individuals who preached a religion of food didn’t make a peep about much else.
Julia Child, for example, never said a word about sustainability, how crops are grown, who harvests the crops, who’s working in restaurant kitchens, how slaughterhouses are organized, or who gets to sit at a lunch counter and who doesn’t.
Implicitly, her show was about the largesse of who she was, how she was brought up, and where she lived. So that when in her Cambridge, Massachusetts neighborhood a proposal was put forward to establish a daycare center that allowed in kids who needed financial help, she was one of the signers who said: No, not here.
Too much traffic was the argument.
Too much melanin was the reason.
These days, things are much better. You have Chefs Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali speaking out against the regime of #54. You have editors and food writers like Adam Sachs, Mitchell Davis, and J. Kenji López-Alt writing about matters that contextualize food.
The chickens have come to roost.
Tastes change throughout our lives based on many factors, memories, impressions, and so on. In my twenties, I ate lots of pork and beef, and as I got older, the quantities stayed big until recently. Along the way, I lost interest in meat.
My freezer has a couple of steaks in it from about six months ago.
Pork here comes in the form of a sausage pizza about once a month, bacon when it snows, and about a 1/2 pound of cured meats from Batali’s father’s salumeria in Seattle per month during the cold months.
Lamb is about two meals a year with the good Icelandic product available only in October.
And portions are smaller and smaller. It’s one reason, among many, that I stopped eating in all but two Boston restaurant: Pabu and Night Market. These two places offer small plates with many vegetable choices. At Pabu, some fish is flown in from Japan.
It just doesn’t taste good, all that meat, and the portions kept small means there is a chance of coaxing deep flavors. And it’s possible, too, to concentrate on what I’m eating. Each bite has what’s needed, I don’t need a lot of bites of the same thing.
I’ll stick to pasta, fish, vegetables, and poultry.
I mean, seriously? Who am I to ask? What I know? Where do I go?
But then again maybe my personal ways are part of a broader trend, maybe others are kind of doing things similarly.
I’m getting all my fruits and vegetables from Tropical Foods in Roxbury and H+H in Cambridge and Shaw’s supermarkets around town. Tropical is just about the best fruits and vegetables store in the city, and the vibe is so pleasant. H+H has a number of products as good as what you find in Japan.
I’m going to EATALY, which opened in late November, weekly. The pasta section is a great deal. For $12, I get enough pasta for three dinners for two or three adults. Their fish section, manned by Vinny, has stellar fish and shellfish and if you buy thoughtfully, it’s doable. The vegetable section sports baby this and baby that and it’s all crazy fresh. Wonderful breads, better than any bakery in the city. Then, too, cheeses and cured meats! The whole experience is like being in Italy.
Where I’ve stopped going is Whole Foods and the best known food stores in town: Overpriced, products that are so-so. Time for a change.
It was the fluffiest bed I’ve ever slept in, pillows plump and eiderdown feathery, air temperature ideal, not too cold and not too hot, the carpet thick beneath my bare feet.
The maid brings in a small, round gold tray, starts to bow, and then decides to curtsy. I wonder: Was that calculated? Did she plan to bow and then curtsy? Or was she improvising?
I know enough not to ask.
There’s a tall glass of watermelon juice, sweeter than honey, and a solid gold cover that, when she lifts it, reveals a porcelain dish of poached eggs and crispy bacon. Baked beans on the side, a basket of rye toast.
A pot of delicious, hot coffee.
Being a guest of The Leader is a boon.
Well, that was a good one, wasn’t it? 2016, The Fun House in which you couldn’t find the exit.
We left the year with plate after plate of small bites: Castelfranco radicchio with red walnuts and Stone House olive oil and balsamic. Baerii caviar from Russ & Daughters with crackers and one scrambled egg. Black truffle agnolotti from EATALY and chives; a small Florida grouper filet with tiny, purple Brussels sprouts; and, linguine with a white Alba truffle (Urbani). 2000 Ormes du Pez, Roederer.
I mean, let’s kiss 2016 goodbye. Bye! Bye, bye!
Mind you, just to be clear, at this time next year?
We’ll be looking back at 2016 with longing and nostalgia. 2017 is going to be a truly unbelievable.