Saturday, August 9, 2008


Day nineteen: Suika / 西瓜

Ryuin-an Temple, Engakuji, Kamakura

Because one possible pronunciation of the number 33 can also mean “disastrous” or “terrible”, many Japanese expect the 33rd year of a woman’s life to be fraught with particular danger (for men it’s 42); those afflicted can turn to shrines for help in balancing out their luck. Since today was the last day of my own year of honyaku (“great calamity”), I figured a shrine visit couldn’t hurt. I decided to head for Kamakura, an ancient capital city where temples and shrines are as thick on the ground as convenience stores are in Tokyo.

The day started none too well. Having forgotten to get cash yesterday, I headed out with water, a baggie of nuts and dried fruit, and a pocketful of change. I got off at Kita-Kamakura station (cheaper than going all the way into town), and decided to splurge on entry into the sprawling Enkaguji temple complex, which includes numerous gardens and temples dotted throughout a steep-sided hollow.

Intending to get my money’s worth by visiting every building in the place, I turned left from the exit and headed up the hill to an off-the-tourist-track temple, where a crowd was gathering for a major annual ceremony. When a fatherly-looking Japanese man approached and asked if I was a tourist, I didn’t know what to say. What was the right answer? And would the wrong one get me kicked out?

I needn’t have worried. Isao and I got to chatting and when he suggested that I try one of the temple’s bento boxes, I excused myself, mindful of my budget, saying that I was more interested in Japanese sweets and would save my appetite for an afternoon raid on the downtown shops. My new acquaintance looked very surprised, then said, ”Oh, then there is someone I must introduce you to!” And off we hustled, down one hill and up the next to another of Engakuji’s out-of-the-way temples.

Ryuin-an consists of a group of small wooden buildings that sit on a narrow ledge overlooking the rest of the valley. We climbed up into a tearoom through the open sliding doors and sat on cushions at a low table, looking out at the view. Within minutes, whipped matcha and mizuyokan appeared, along with the temple abbot, Ōta Shūbun. Ōta-san turned out to be both a tea master and the author of a paperback guide to all things “tea”, including shops specializing in chagashi, tea sweets. He very kindly presented me with a copy, thus doubling the number of shops on my “must visit” list.

When Isao needed to leave, Ōta-san invited his friend (since kindergarten!), Keiko, to come over. With Keiko translating, we discussed Japanese sweets until, as if by magic, lunch-laden trays appeared. This was my first real experience of shōjin ryōri, cuisine developed in Buddhist temples, and I’d say it’s worth becoming a monk just to eat like this. There were silky somen noodles in a shiitake/konbu broth with diced shiso on top, sakura-shaped fishcakes, and a huge selection of pickles.

The meal ended with the best suika (watermelon) I’ve ever tasted—sweet, seedless, and a perfect match for the red lacquer bowls. It was also a timely reminder to me that seasonality is more than just a matter of using a sakura cookie cutter in the spring and a maple leaf in the fall. Most Japanese foodstuffs are considered to have a shun, a time of year when they are at their peak; it’s a concept that can easily lead to fussbudget connoisseurship, but it makes a lot more sense than crunching on white-fleshed strawberries in January. If today wasn’t that suika’s shun, it couldn’t have been far off.

Later in the day I did make it to the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, but it seemed a little perfunctory. I was already feeling very, very lucky.

1 comment:

Elisa said...

okay - these are REALLY good and well written Julia. I wish I had more time to read them, but I am off to the gym. Seems like you are well. I really hope these sketches turn into something. S. K. and the rest don't know what they missed out on!