Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Ebisu

Professor Kurosawa and I lunch at Lever son Verre, the French restaurant on campus, 1,000 yen, US$10, for the setto menu. A salad, or rather a piece of lettuce, two inches by one, and the main course arrives: a square inch of cod on a bed of vegetables, or rather a slice of aubergine and a slice of carrot. Of course, beautifully laid out, as befits a Japanese French restaurant. I ask for more bread. Two thin slices come. Lever son Verre is packed. It has been on TV. Ladies come from all over Tokyo. Pleasant surroundings. Visit the campus.

Meanwhile, in the soba, don and ramen bars all over Tokyo, their husbands, anxious to get back to the office, are slurping their bowls of noodle in three minutes flat. Making noise when downing food is good form, at least in noodle bars.

We leave Lever son Dejeuner with our bellies rumbling. Is there a sadder experience in life?

I decide to follow fifteen-year-old schoolboys to the cheap cafes where they eat, for surely they have an insatiable hunger, and land in an okonomiyaki canteen, where a heavy floury pancake omlette is made on a grid in front of you.

The stodge fills me up for the next two hours, but I am hungry again. Biscuits and chocolate at one of the ubiquitous convenience stores must be the solution. I am pleased to see my favourite McVities Chocolate Digestives. But there are no jumbo-sized packs in Japan. A small elegant box, in which I find four small packs of cellophane each containing four downsized Chocolate Digestives. Then I buy a pack of Mini Milk Chocolate Biscuits to keep me going till later.


In a moderately priced restaurant in Shimokitazawa the sashimi and sushi is beautifully laid out on a bed of finely cut vegetables, placed on a flat rectangular dish with slightly curling corners, emblazoned with kanji. We admire the design, ask after the porcelain, discuss the layout, and might even pick at a couple of slices. But the waitress is actually surprised when I ask for a big bowl of rice to accompany the sushi and sashimi.

Restaurant going in Japan is primarily an aesthetic experience in which one pays 50, 60 dollars or more for a private show of ephemeral art to be discussed over wine or sake. Any idea of actually filling up your stomach is secondary. Better to have something at home before going out.


The art of designing confectionery, Wagashi, is, like Origami and Kingyo, the breeding of beautiful goldfish, one of those peculiarly Japanese arts. At the Atre Food Hall in upmarket Ebisu I buy a box of six bean-paste sweets. The grey-blue frosty wrapping paper is in itself too beautiful even to open. Then I find a polystyrene bamboo-like box containing the six sweets.

Number one is a ball of strips of the green of summer on one side and the brown of the soil on the other. Summer becomes autumn, and the brown is sprinkled with the winter snow. Number two is a snow like sphere, an igloo in winter, but with a gap at the top, a volcano, for Nature can never be completely dominated. Number three is a pink spring flower whose petals are about open while the yellow pistil at the centre welcomes pollinating bees.

We are in full summer in number four as the yellow chrysanthemum is beginning to bloom. But nature must be worked and produce, and number five is square of fertile black soil, with strips of green, fertility, harmony, late summer once again.But winter is again not far behind. Number six is pear-like, but with indented sides. It is a lush autumn brown, but covered with the hoary frost of winter.

Inside this small box
The four seasons of the year.
How can I eat them?

Rice and rice wine, sake, have semi-religious qualities in Japan. They are considered symbols of the Japanese nation and are eaten and drunk as part of formal ceremonies, during which the Emperor and dignitaries will formaly drink cups of sake and eat bowls of rice. At a shrine one early morning I saw a priest passing the cups of sake round to executives whose company was being blessed.

Of course wine at mass represents the blood of Christ, but such ceremonies would be more akin to Queen Elizabeth having the obligation of downing a pint of bitter and a bowl of boiled potatoes or Lula a goblet of cachaca on formal state occasions!


Tucked away in the corner of the Komaba campus is the tea house. I spy students going through the excruciating torture of sitting on their heels for hours on end and smell the matcha tea, the foul-tasting purgative green brew. And of course tea drinking is not just drinking tea but Zen: cultivating an inner field of consciousness and calm by sitting in a simple thatched hut with a beautiful view, listening to the iron kettle boil while the wind rustles through the dead leaves. A gentle incense should burn, and the cups are handmade and simple. A soft gentle light comes in through the shoji paper windows. Decoration is minimal: a calligraphy scroll in the alcove and a single spray of flowers.

Says Lotung, a Chinese poet: “The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third searches by barren entrail but to find there some 500 volumes of ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration – all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup – oh, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither.”

The top teamasters are highly-paid celebrities in Japan. Access to the elite circles of connoisseurs is difficult and costly. The greatest of them all was Sen-no-Rikyu(1521-1591), employed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), who unified Japan. Hideyoshi suspected Rikyu of intrigue and ordered him to die by his own hand, an honour for a samurai. Rikyu invited his friends to his last tea ceremony. After sipping their tea, the chief guest praised the beauty of the equipment. Rikyu presented the cups to those present. Except his own: “Never again shall this cup, polluted by misfortune, be used by me”, and he smashed the vessel.

The guests except one painfully take their leave. Rikyu takes off his tea gown and carefully folds it up, disclosing his white death robe. Tenderly he gazes on the shining dagger:
Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
Through Buddha
And through Dharma alike
Thou hast cloven thy way.

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