Let’s break for just a minute to talk about food. Though this is ostensibly a trip about architecture and gardens, I think this is also the foodie’s trip. As Mimi said, this was a trip about the sacred, and to her, that includes food.
Meals were another place for Mimi to shine. She would walk us through the meal and let us know exactly what was in each little dish and tiny covered box. She did not have a menu from the restaurants, so she was doing this by sight and taste. Sounds easy? It’s not. It’s hard to tell what this devil’s tongue root has been stewed in, or how this burdock has been prepared; or exactly what is in the miso soup today that gives it that kindof nutty flavor. But Mimi could. She’s smart! She’s funny! She has Test Kitchen-quality taste buds!
By the way, what is devil’s tongue root or burdock, anyway? I’m still not sure—they’re plants of some sort—but I think they’re both delicious. Also, I like yuba (that’s the skin that forms when you cook soymilk—kindof like pudding skin only intentional), and shizo leaves, and salad for breakfast, and tofu that has undergone a magical transformation and become the Japanese version of burrata cheese.
Our most memorable meals were kaiseki, which is a special-occasion meal served with many, many small dishes of a stunning variety. I’ll walk you through just one (this was a breakfast. I usually have oatmeal, so I am kindof proud of my stomach for being willing to branch out.): grilled red snapper; broiled oyster; grilled sea snail; hijiki seaweed salad; wheat-gluten-in-the-shape-of-a-leaf; a blob of jam-like stuff; a small piece of tofu on a shizo leaf; whitebait fish salad, umeboshi, which are pickled plums; miso soup; rice; green tea. Then they brought out the personal hibachi grills so that you could fry up your own fish-on-a-stick. Then they brought out the cooked red snapper heads so that we could eat their eyes. (They’re pretty good, and full of collagen to help you keep your youthful glow.)
Since I’m an inland-dwelling person, my fish consumption is usually limited to Utah trout when my fisherman brother-in-law chooses to share, and salmon burgers from Costco. Not so on this trip. We ate fish every day, usually at every meal. Grilled fish, raw fish, boiled fish, fried fish, pickled fish, fish salad, fish soup, fish Spam, fish skin, fish tails, fish eggs, big fish, tiny fish, fish-on-a-stick. I’ve never seen such variety. And it was all so good! I didn’t know I could like fish so much.
And then there’s the Thing-on-a-Stick category of food. Squid-on-a-stick. Cucumber-on-a-stick. Chicken-tail-on-a-stick. Fish-on-a-stick. Eel-on-a-stick. Tomato-on-a-stick. I think the only thing we didn’t find on a stick was a raw egg.
And THEN there’s the aisu kurimu (say it out loud and you’ll know what it is). I was worried about having to spend two whole weeks without my daily ice cream, but I was pleasantly surprised to have ice cream every day (sometimes twice). The most popular flavor is green tea (and the really good places dust macha over the top), but there’s also black sesame, and mango, and pumpkin, and cranberry, and the absolute best was hojicha, which is roasted tea. Delicious!
The aisu kurimu was awesome, but perhaps more refreshing was kakigori, which is shaved ice, only way better. Growing up, shaved ice was a sad pile of ice crystals with sickly sweet syrup dumped on it. In Japan, shaved ice is an art form. An absolutely crystal clear block of ice is shaved down, and then home-made fruit syrup is applied in layers to the ice, so you get a flavorful, aromatic, almost whipped-cream-esque confection that keeps its flavor throughout.
Aside from the variety, and the presentation, and the elegance of Japanese food, I think what I enjoyed most is that food in Japan is made fresh. Even airport food is made while you wait. Packaged gas station snacks are made of food, not of something that was engineered in a lab and designed to never expire. It makes you think about what we eat in the states. We turn up our noses at fish eyes, but happily down partially hydrogenated chlorine particulates, or whatever it is that makes Cheetos so crunchy. Perhaps we need to evaluate these things.
Anyway, if you go to Japan my advice is to eat everything and anything that comes your way. You may not like it all, but it will definitely be an experience to taste it.