Snow, snow and more snow. Why is it that this weather drives me into my imagination??? What better way to indulge an inner dreamscape than to watch Leonardo diCaprio in Inception. One of the brilliant things about the movie was the use of an architect’s dreamscape -- the film’s Designer Guy Dyas had lived in Japan and made a 60’ architecture scroll for the director (referencing Wright and Mackintosh among others) to provide the setting for an ex-architect’s dream construct… wonky but right. Let’s not forget, dreams can lead to creative breakthroughs in the real world – the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, had been dreaming of Inception since he was 12!
Inception’s homage to the golden rooms at Kyoto’s 17th century Ninomaru Palace set me off in a reverie about the palace and Nijo castle … a place I had visited a million years ago.
I have such a clear memory of those golden rooms and the smell of ancient cedar, but also of the "nightingale floors" (uguisubari) … and the delicate sound of a thousand chirping wooden flutes that came with each step in the corridors surrounding the Tokugawa’s rooms. To warn against assassins, intruders or even to ward off being surprised while sporting with a mistress or wife, the sounds were the gentlest alarms imaginable.
I am not alone in getting pleasure from this kind of reflection -- escaping into lost pasts and places has been done forever. Six hundred years before Ninomaru Palace was even built, Lady Sarashina (born 1008CE) wrote Sarashina Nikki, one of the most famous books of Japan's golden Heian period (794-1185). I discovered that her guilty pleasure came from reading tales and dreaming of living a romantic life like those in The Tale of Genji (finished by 1021). She went so far as to posit that she could have been more spiritually fulfilled (a deeper sense of mono-no-aware – meaning poignant feelings and awareness of things) had she spent less time with her fantasies. Strange, since it was those fantasies and her travel diary, Sarashina Nikki, that made her immortal and set her in the pantheon of great women writers of the glorious Heian age in Japan (Heian means peace and tranquility in Japanese).
That their work has been celebrated while the writing of the men of the period disappeared came in a lucky twist of fate. “The Japanese writing system began to incorporate its own phonetic alphabets. Hiragana and katakana replaced the use of Chinese characters to represent some spoken words for which no kanji, Chinese character, existed. Women of aristocratic families began to use the new writing system, as they were not trained in Chinese like their male counterparts. As a result much of the literature written in Chinese by male writers of the Heian has been forgotten, while the writings of the supposedly less educated women, who could only write in their native script, have become some of the most famous works of literature in the world today.”
The golden Heian Period was also the height of the Fujiwara Age. The Fujiwaras were a powerful family of regents who ruled for the emperor, leaving the nobility free to pursue a rarified aesthetic life. “So secure and beautiful was their world that they could not conceive of Paradise as being much different.” Can you imagine? But even these powerful regents had the souls of poets, Fujiwara no Michinaga wrote of his formidable position (albeit reflecting his relationship to the moon and not the sun--- a relationship reserved for the emperors) in his diary in 1018 AD:
This world, I think,
Is indeed my world.
Like the full moon I shine,
Uncovered by any cloud.
For women it was something of a paradise… they were educated, their voices were heard and their ideal man wrote poetry every day (and the ideal man quickly sent a "next morning letter" to the woman he romanced the night before reflecting their glorious time together) as we see in a passage from Tale of Genji:
“Being of an adventurous nature, he has still not married, and now at dawn he returns to his bachelor quarters, having spent the night in some amorous adventure. Though he still looks sleepy, he immediately draws his inkstone to him and, after having carefully rubbed some ink on it, starts to write his next-morning letter. He does not let his brush run down the paper in a careless scrawl, but puts himself heart and soul into the calligraphy. What a charming figure he makes as he sits there by himself in an easy posture, with his robe falling slightly open! It is a plain unlined robe of pure white, and over it he wears a cloak of yellow rose or crimson. As he finishes his letter, he notices that the white robe is still damp from the dew, and for a while he gazes at it fondly”
It is also during this period that Sei Shōnagon wrote the famous Pillow Book -- a journal of the comings and goings at court and full of brilliant insights as well as humor and a good deal of cattiness. It is a diary that anyone today can relate to.
Tale of Genji, calligraphy
You've probably figured by now that the most famous writing of the day came from Murisaki Shikibu’s Tales of Genji. Various contemporary (as in turn of the second millennium) diaries are full of excitement about reading Tales of Genji… it was a real scroll-turner. It is considered the first novel and was written about the same time as the English Beowulf. Needless to say it is incredibly sophisticated by comparison and reads like a modern romance full of love, sex (the hero did sleep with his stepmother who bore his son and passed him off as the Emperor’s own) and rousing adventure with the hero, prince Genji -- described as the most handsome man in the world and nicknamed "The Shining Prince". Her own diary, Murasaki Shikibu Nikki is much like The Pillow Book, full of court gossip, sniping (she did not like the author of The Pillow Book at all) and intrigue and much talk of what was worn (good and bad- she was hyper-critical).
The Rozanji Temple (built 978) was moved to her family’s estate and a tile from her original house (that was destroyed) is at the temple. She is still much admired and emulated in Japan. A thousand years after she wrote Tales of Genji people flock here to pay homage to her.
So, you all are wondering, how did they eat????
Naomichi Ishige, in his book, The History and Culture of Japanese Food said that chopsticks came to Japan with rice in the 5th century. By the Heian period, food was eaten with hands, chopsticks and spoons on individual lacquered-legged tables called zen in high society. During large meals more than one table would be deployed per person for different courses.
“The 10th and 11th centuries marked a level of refinement of cooking and etiquette found in the culture of the Heian nobility…. Court banquets were common and lavish; garb for nobility during these events remained in the Chinese style which differentiated them from the plain clothes of commoners.”
Some fashions were odd by today’s standards. Woman dyed their teeth black, shaved their eyebrows and softly re-painted them an inch higher, wore their hair straight and a yard or more long and had lips painted like red flower buds. They also wore 12 layers of clothing (the naked human form was considered very ugly) with colors and patterns that changed with the seasons… they were very beautiful robes by any standard. A sumptuary law in 1074 reduced the layers to 5! A froth of fall silks must have looked like a celestial forest of fall leaves with its layers and patterns.
Men often shaved their eyebrows and repainted them as well. Although they sometimes did wear tiny moustaches and beards, they shaved the rest of their faces and wore their hair up.
What did they eat? Emperor Temmu (631-686) in A.D. 675 banned meat eating and so it remained in the Heian period. The diet consisted mostly of fish, grains and vegetables and very little fat was used. In fact most oil was considered distasteful save for very expensive sesame oil that was used sparingly.
Ishige also wrote, “Documents from the Heian nobility note that fish and wild fowl were common on the table along with vegetables. Their banquet settings consisted of a bowl of rice and soup, along with chopsticks, a spoon, and three seasonings which were salt, vinegar and hishio, which was a fermentation of soybeans, rice, wheat, sake and salt. A fourth plate was present for mixing the seasonings to desired flavor for dipping the food. The four types of food present at a banquet consisted of dried foods (himono), fresh foods (namamono), fermented or dressed food (kubotsuki), and desserts (kashi). Dried fish and fowl were thinly sliced (e.g. salted salmon, pheasant, steamed and dried abalone, dried and grilled octopus), while fresh fish, shellfish and fowl were sliced raw in vinegar sauce or grilled (e.g. carp, sea bream, salmon, trout, pheasant). Kubotsuki consisted of small balls of fermented sea squirt, fish or giblets along with jellyfish and aemono. Desserts would have included Chinese cakes, and a variety of fruits and nuts including pine nuts, dried chestnuts, acorns, jujube, pomegranate, peach, apricot, persimmon and citrus. The meal would be ended with sake.”
In The Book of Miso, William Shurtleff, Akiko Aoyagi reported, "In the epics of the Heian period, such as the Tale of Genji and Konjaku Monogatari, are found descriptions of all-night parties held by the court nobility in the Imperial palace. A typical dinner consisted of seven courses, each served consecutively on separate trays. Popular foods included abalone miso and red-snapper hishio, uri melons and eggplants picked in miso, and red snapper, carp or other sea foods lightly marinated with miso sauces. Both hishio and miso were also apparently widely used as table seasonings. Among the palace women, miso was known as ko meaning "fragrance or incense" or higurashi meaning " a clear-toned summer cicada" whose song is said to be able to penetrate even the hardest stone. Likewise the rich fragrance and fine flavor of miso were said to penetrate and season other foods. For this reason, in the Kyoto area miso is still occasionally called mushi or bamushi meaning " insect or honorable insect".
Yusoku-ryori, an incredibly sophisticated seasonal cuisine that emphasizes all the senses is still practiced and is considered the haute cuisine of Japan… it was born in the Heian court and its strict rules come from that time. A meal at the famous Ryotei Kikunoi (you can see a meal presentation HERE) or 200 year old Mankamero will set you back hundreds of dollars but this style of restaurant is really where tasting menus were born and you'll get an idea of ancient Japanese cuisine when dining in these gorgeous places.
For me, the months I spent in Japan were revelatory. Sadly, I have lost my ‘travel diary’ so I can’t share names with you… it was a long time ago. The most extraordinary experience happened in Northern Japan where a journalist friend introduced me to a Living National treasure (人間国宝 Ningen Kokuhō) lacquer master. I believe it was around Wajima. His family had been making black and red lacquer for hundreds of years.
I toured his workrooms and saw an ancient artisan painting faceted bowls that were carved so thinly that one could bend them before they were lacquered. Ancient wooden plugs were inserted in the bottom after the top was painted so they could dry on racks that were hundreds of years old (you can see this process HERE). Then I was taken to a quiet, simply appointed room. Various pieces of lacquerware were placed on presentation tables and I was to choose what I wanted to take. My price range had been discussed with my friend so no money was mentioned. I choose 4 items and then was taken to lunch. The items were beautifully packed when we returned. And the lunch -- the lunch was sublime.
We drove to an inn that overlooked a rocky, mossy creek and sat on a table that the lacquer-master’s great-great grandfather had made. Some of the traditional lacquer dessert dishes had also been made by his great-great grandfather. Both the table and the dishes had been worn (in the hundred odd years since they had been made) in such a way that the red lacquer layer and white clay layer had worn through creating a masterful sedimentary pattern… like modern art. He shared an expression that has remained with me ever since… I cannot remember the Japanese for it but the English translation was “ time is the artist.”
The porcelain dishes used in the many courses were at least as old as the Meiji period (1868-1912) and they even used some Edo period (1602-1868) pieces. All were chosen to compliment the food on the plate. The most astonishing course was a Meiji dish with blue waves that had an edible roiling wave of white daikon ribbons, a violet sea of fish eggs and a shore of raw fish. It was insanely beautiful as was the kimono of the server that was worth a king’s ransom (my friend told me later—it would have been rude to mention it at table). She bent like a reed to serve with impeccable, impossible grace… I was astonished.
I thought I would share with you one of the dishes that I found so remarkable from that day and one that has been made in Japan for centuries… Chawan-Mushi (which means steamed in a tea cup). It is a simple, briny custard of such innocent beauty… well, a swoon-worthy first mouthful will show you what I mean. It is simple to make, and a comfort food to be sure. You will forgive me (ごめんなさい-gomennasai) for using an old Chinese stone bowl to make it… I don’t have the appropriate Japanese covered dish (you can’t steam lacquer)!! My recipe is from Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz. I have been using her Complete Book of Japanese Cooking for many years.
Chawan-Mushi, based on an Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz recipe serves 4
4 dried shitake or matsutake mushrooms (I got mine from Marx Foods)
pinch of sugar
8 small shrimp, split with shell
1 t sake
2 t light soy sauce
12-16 small spinach leaves
8 ginko nuts (optional)
2 cups dashi made from dashi granules (or stock/water flavored with Kombu seaweed -- it is the basis of umami!)
salt to taste
Soak mushrooms in warm water with sugar for 30 minutes. Remove tough stems if necessary.
Put shrimp in stock for a few moments, then mushrooms. Remove. Add the spinach for 1 minute and remove… keep them warm
Stir the eggs to blend… do not beat…. They must not be foamy.
Add to the stock with the soy and sake and combine gently.
Put a ginko nut at the bottom of each cup and pour the egg over them. Cover each dish with foil (or lids if you have them) and put in a steamer rack over moderately boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes or until set with the lid of the steamer slightly ajar. Check them as temperatures vary... it is better to have the custard just set and not overdone.
Remove the foil (or lid), arrange the reserved shrimp and vegetables on the top of each one and serve.
*you can change the ingredients as you will… I have used chicken, watercress and even steamed peas and shoots and it is always delicious.
Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday!
At least Petunia loves the snow!