An exclusive conversation with Mr. Tensho Goto, administrator of Kyoto's famed Zen temple Kodai-ji, and Mr. Norimasa Ueda, President of the Shojin-ryori Kyoto Vegetarian restaurant, Yaoji, by Nobu Kishi.
At a recent gathering, Nobel Prize laureates of the past fifty years from countries all over the world gathered at Kodai-ji Zen Temple in Kyoto, all with different nationalities and religious beliefs.
The organizers of this meeting were deeply concerned about what sort of food to serve as they knew from their own experience that there are often people who cannot finish their meal, or even take a bite of it to begin with, due to cultural or religious, differences.
To get beyond this problem, Kodai-ji Zen Temple’s administrator Mr. Tensyo Goto decided to serve vegan, vegetarian shōjin-ryori (traditional temple fare). It was, without doubt, fully enjoyed by all the participants regardless of their country of origin. “Shojin-ryori is a cuisine that is attractive to intellectuals and cultured travelers from all over the world”, says Mr. Goto.
The ever-evolving Shojin-ryori
Mr. Goto explains that the word shojin relates to a essential tenet of Buddhism, which is “do not do bad things, but good”. Shojin-ryori was introduced from India around 2000 years ago, but if one were to express the defining characteristic of shojin-ryori in simple terms, it would be that it has evolved dramatically over the years. For instance, it changed since its creation during the Heian period (8th~12th centuries) as an extremely simple cuisine. By the Edo era (17th~19th centuries) it included over 400 types of tofu dishes.
Shojin-ryori therefore is a cuisine that holds significant worldwide appeal. It is deeply related to the tenets of Buddhism.
We interviewed Mr. Ueda, president of the restaurant Yaoji, which has provideded vegan shojin-ryori to many famous Buddhist temples in Kyoto over many years. He explains how it is conceived and created by the chefs who are at the pinnacle of Buddhist food arts.
Mr. Tensyo Goto of Kodai-ji
What kind of food is shojin-ryori?
“Well, it is certainly unique. Even 800 years ago, shojin-ryori already forbade the used of meat and fish. It developed as the cuisine for ascetic monks and any ingredients that would disrupt their training are omitted. For example, vegetables such as nira garlic chives, negi Japanese leeks, niniku garlic, and onions that are known to strengthen passions are not used. Moreover, shojin-ryori does not use bulbous vegetables, eggs or dairy products. Even dashi soup stock can’t be made the conventional way using katsuo skipjack tuna) so the stock is made of kombu, soybean or shiitake mushrooms.”
Mr. Ueda says that shojin-ryori “values life and makes one learn about its importance through the cuisine”. Even the smallest details have significance. For example, shojin-ryori dishes are served with red plates, which represent the color of blood, the key element of life.
Mr. Norimasa Ueda of Yaoji
Preserving tradition, while also evolving: things to be changed and things to remain the same
“The food served during the Buddhist memorial service known as kaisanki the anniversary of the founder of a temple’s death, is intended to recall the preferences of the individual being memorialized, so the ingredients and menu do not change from the past”.
Conversely, on some occasions, for example, “If it’s a service for the rakkei-shiki a ceremony that celebrates the establishment of new temple or building, the menu would be arranged to something that suits the ceremony”.
There are thus two aspects: one, memorizing traditional shojin-ryori, and two, adopting new methods, techniques, and ingredients. The traditional aspect cannot be changed, but the mindset of adding a sense of playfulness and continuing to learn are firmly maintained to keep shojin-ryori attractive and interesting.
It is said that the awareness of conveying and inheriting old traditions is stronger in Japan than in China, which also used to be a Buddhist country. There is also an idiomatic expression in Japanese, onkochishin (developing new ideas based on learning from the past), that underscores this awareness. I felt a strong set of principles among craftsmen, who challenge not only traditional Buddhist cuisine but also endeavor to incorporate new things . Shojin-ryori is a cuisine that always keeps tackling new challenges in order to further develop. Experiencing shojin-ryori with some knowledge of its meaning and background will surely deepen and enrich international visitors’ enjoyment of the Japanese culinary experience."
Tensyo Goto, Kodai-ji Zen Temple
The former chief priest of Entoku-in Temple, where Kitano-mandokoro, often called Nene, the wife of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, lived in her last years. Mr. Goto is currently an administrator of Kodai-ji Zen Temple.
Mr. Goto started to work on attracting foreign tourists over 20 years ago and currently holds the posts of Visit Kyoto Ambassador and VISIT JAPAN Ambassador.
Mr. Goto has been striving to make the tenets of Buddhism more familiar to the public through lectures and sermons on the Internet. He has also been working enthusiastically to invite international visitors and adopt some unique methods of omotenashi hospitality, such as light shows at Entoku-in Temple and Kodai-ji Temple.
Norimasa Ueda, Yaoji Restaurant (catering only)
Yaoji was established in 1868 by a boy named Jisuke, who was trained at Yaoya (八百屋), a shojin-ryori catering restaurant near Kennin-ji temple in Kyoto. He came as an adopted child and delivered ingredients to various temples, who in turn asked him to serve food from his restaurant.
Mr. Norimasa Ueda of Yaoji
From the plates of the time, it can be inferred that the name of the restaurant was Yaoji (八百治) with different Chinese characters from those used today. The restaurant is in charge of preparing Buddhist memorial feasts at temples regardless of their respective sects. It is the purveyor of many closely-guarded traditional recipes and flavors, and serves up to several hundred meals a day during busy periods.
358 Horikawa-cho, Horikawa-Takatsuji, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto.