My years in Japan has been a constant love-and-hate relationship. Although I inherit the similar East Asian look and was raised by some same parts of its peculiar culture, it doesn’t necessarily make my life easier here. There are days I desperately struggle to make sense of its people’s behavior (example: when a Japanese friend invited me to her house but every time I asked “when”, she would always make sure it wouldn’t happen –turned out it was just another culture of Japanese ‘tatemae’; yup, she never meant it, duh!), and there are times when I wish I were surviving somewhere else, other place more effortlessly to comprehend. Yet life is mysteriously forgiving at some point. There are moments, out of nowhere, that it grants me a sweet reward, or better, an unexpected reminder, that I am such a lucky girl to be able to live in this country.
No, it’s not in a form of a grand trip with a 5-star ryokan stay, although I won’t refuse that if offered. To me, it always comes in a subtle glimpse of minutes, and often, it’s nowhere far or extravagant from my ordinary routine. This time, it came through the afternoon sunlight penetrating the wooden window – komorebi, the Japanese beautifully call it; and a nutritious meal served thoughtfully in front of me.
I slid the old wooden door and stepped carefully inside the kominka –traditional Japanese home, and soon one of the lady staffs warmly greeted me and Dragana. She asked if we were there for a lunch meal or just for an afternoon delight (they serve both). There are two types of meals we can order. A vegetarian sushi plate (they use fruits too as the toppings!) or a set of seasonal musubi (rice balls). We came too late that day and apparently they ran out of the sushi plate already, which also actually made in limited number, so we took the musubi set for lunch. She asked us to wait while the table was being prepared.
This place is actually a restored cultural house from the early Showa era. It was the ruins of the Iwami Ginzan silver mine more than 20 years ago, that they rebuilt, revived, and later placed it in western Tokyo suburb area of Nishi Ogikubo. I took the privilege of waiting for my table to admire every stroke and curve this place displayed. It was the determined hands of the Iwami carpenters who traveled all the way here to fix the broken and resurrect its buried beauty that had come back to life again.
She called my name gently and immediately guided us to our table. It was a counter table with an organized spread of rectangle framed broad windows that soon I realized, with the sun on its way setting and brimming its golden ray, it was just the perfect spot to devour in both the meal and the day. I sat down, and quickly my eyes couldn’t take off observing the space. Behind our seats was the area with unpolished dark gray walls and intense shadow. The only light was from the small opening of the kitchen and that broad windows at our counter table. It was something unforgiveable perhaps, if it was seen through the Western principle of radiant beauty. But precisely that contrast was what built the notion of Eastern beauty. Desolateness, hidden beauty, the ephemeral. It was whispered loudly in its interior that wasn’t decorated by any adds-on but the transience sunlight, framed in wooden lines and paper surface. In my admiration I examined this place with awe, overwhelmed by the richness of its simplicity, and humbled by the reconstituted history it contained.
She came back with a tray full of small plates and elements. I took a moment to stare at it. It was a course of two freshly-made brown rice musubi, a slice of grilled swordfish with mashed pumpkin, a cut of kuro goma konnyaku (black sesame jelly), raw Japanese shallots, a small portion of ratatouille, pickles, and a bowl of hot miso soup. It was also a display of the ceramic plates, the lacquer bowl, the wooden chopsticks, which all of their color and texture created together a harmony, a poetry of cuisine to be looked at. Junichiro Tanizaki even went further in his Praise of Shadow by stating that Japanese food is a cuisine to be meditated upon. “A kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquer ware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark”, as he described it. It wasn’t the light of a candle for me, it was even better I think. The komorebi danced its way through the window, drawing its shadow and beam upon my meal.
I clasped my hands together and murmured “itadakimasu” (I humbly receive). As I enjoyed my first bite of the warm musubi, I was thinking about those Iwami carpenters who built this place, restoring its hidden beauty; the ceramic and wood craftsmen of our tableware and those friendly ladies with their apron in the kitchen, serving us generously. I thought about their hands that sculpted all these pieces together, harmonizing the walls, the sunlight, the shadow, the chopsticks, the musubi. So much stories intertwined together, and presented in this mundane experience of eating. I understood it more then, why I should receive all of these humbly, and not uttering “itadakimasu” absentmindedly. It is an act of respect, appreciation and gratitude for this full life – a simple routine like eating, that involves so many stories and determined passion; and for those people who refuse to take it for granted, and decided to live it out mindfully and thoughtfully, so we could understand the beauty of living.
Tanizaki was right. What is there not to meditate upon? Nothing. Everything is worth the thought. Including the rare thought how lucky girl I am to live in this country.
Tokyo, Suginami-ku, Shoan 3-38-20
(5 minutes walk from Nishi Ogikubo station)
Vegetarian sushi plate 1,500 yen + tax
Musubi plate 1,500 yen + tax
Desserts & drinks from 400-800 yen
Mon-Fri 11:00-19:00, closed every Tuesday
Lunch from 11:00-14:30 (last order)
Tea & dessert from 11:00-18:00 (last order)
*They have a small zakka shop inside too, business hours following the aforementioned.