On Friday morning we embarked on our longest Shinkansen journey yet, returning from Hiroshima to Tokyo. We continued eating some of the snacks already opened, and in addition sampled these dried beans from the Nishiki Market. The stall holder had warned us in hesitant English that these contained wasabi, which was fine by us, though we did entertain the possibility that it might be a lot more wasabi than our non-Japanese taste buds were accustomed to. Actually, they were delicious - no hotter than the wasabi peas we've sampled in Australia, less sweet and just as addictive.
It was mid-afternoon before we found our way back to Matt's house. He'd left us a note, suggesting we take ourselves and our camera to the nearby bridge. We did just that on our way out to an early dinner booking.
My suspicions were confirmed as we approached the bridge - the cherry blossoms were finally in full bloom!
From there we travelled on to our much anticipated 6pm dinner reservation at Bon. This restaurant is best visited after making a phone reservation in Japanese, and Matt had helpfully enlisted one of his more fluent friends to make arrangements for us during the week.
We knew from the outset that our meal at Bon was likely to be a memorable one. The English menu that we were provided later explains:
Fucha Ryori is a distinctive tradition within Shojin Ryori, the vegetarian cuisine of Zen Buddhist monks in China and Japan. About 300 years ago it was introduced to Japan by cooks who came from China with the monk Ingen, the founder of the Chinese style temple Manpukuji, at Uji near Kyoto. This was the first temple of the Obakushu Zen sect in Japan, and since its establishment the authentic tradition of Fucha has been handed down by devotees of the sect.
The two characters used to write "Fucha" mean "drinking tea together with all people", but the word is also used to mean a meal eaten in Chinese style (each dish is served from a single large bowl) which begins and ends with tea, aiming to create friendship and peace among those eating together.
At Bon we have tried to develop a style of Fucha Ryori which, while suggesting aspects of Zen the basis of this tradition, also provides for the tastes of the general public. In particular, we aim to provide the fine dishes from the best obtainable seasonal ingredients.
The name of our restaurant, Bon, means "Buddhist believer" and was chosen as a sign of our respect for the origins of Fucha as a way of Buddhist practise.
We were welcomed by two middle-aged ladies in kimonos and led to our own private room, which was laid with tatami mats. (Michael was greatly relieved to discover that, in spite of the traditional setting, the low table concealed a deeper floor space where he could stretch out his long and inflexible legs.) Here we were left alone for some time to contemplate the table settings before us:
Of course we hadn't a clue what the paper said and after a few minutes of settling in, wondered if we should inspect the items before us. Michael set the paper aside and opened the box underneath it, revealing what appeared to be our first course. Like so many bento boxes before it, it looked almost too pretty to eat, and without some signal from the staff I was reluctant to start. But more minutes passed and Michael decided to dig in. I offered a weak protest ("They haven't offered us tea yet, don't you think they'd have poured us tea first if we were meant to eat yet?") before following his lead and ultimately being caught by one of the staff as she returned to invite us to a tea ceremony. Damn.
As if I wasn't flustered enough, I clumsily put one of my slippered feet on the entry boards to the tea room and squeaked "Sumimasen!" when I was corrected. Once inside, Michael struggled to fold his legs under him and I worried that I'd sat in the wrong place. The lady performing the ceremony - the one staff member who spoke a little English - smiled, gestured and said simply "Relax". I wanted to, and her good grace in the face of our cluelessness certainly helped.
The tea ceremony was short, though quite formal and conducted largely in silence. Our hostess gestured discreetly when it was our turn to eat or drink and at the end offered a few words of explanation, before returning us to our dining space.
Here we were finally asked for a drinks order, and provided with the 12-course menu in English. The boxes in front of us, listed after the tea ceremony (whoops!), were clearly Shao Ping, the appetiser, and now we were allowed to eat them. The hostess pointed out the green garnishes that weren't edible before leaving to fetch our drinks. Yes, it was clear that we'd need this kind of hand-holding for the remainder of our visit.
She returned with these tiny cups of plum liqueur with ice, which we hadn't specifically ordered but were very pleased to try. Apparently it's made at the restaurant and, boy, it really put the supermarket-sourced plum liqueur of our second night in Tokyo in its place. This was something else, fragrant and sophisticated.
The second hostess (who didn't speak English) came to retrieve our boxes and instructed me to eat the black thingies on the end of the inedible green garnish before she would take it. She made it clear that we were to eat the greenery served with our Shan Tsu course - a carrot soup with small and very dense slices of smoked tofu on the side.
Next came Shun Kan, a 'decorative presentation of cooked vegetables'. What a stunner, huh? I don't think I've ever seen food presentation more intricate than this. The first hostess explained that ingredients and preparations are chosen seasonally, with the current menu celebrating cherry blossom season. It's certainly evident here (and keep an eye out for the cherry blossom motif in the other dishes too!).
I must admit that not all of the flavours appealed to me. The little ceramic pot at the back was full of a seaweedy soup, which Michael enjoyed but I didn't like at all. I wasn't fond of the texture of the pink jelly on the right of the plate either. But the tiny croquette, crumbed with crushed nuts was lovely and inside the rolled leaf in the centre was honest-to-goodness MOCHI! Possibly my best mochi experience yet.
The Un Pen, 'a rich, traditional 17th Century Chinese soup', was another textural challenge for me. The vegetables were nice, weakly salty, but the thickened broth didn't appeal so much. I convinced Michael to help finish mine off - I was sure that I'd be struggling to fit everything in tonight.
The next several dishes all seemed to be part of the On Sai phase of 'water cooked vegetables of the season'. First was this basket of sashimi-inspired vegetables, all of them bright, fresh and crisp. The two accompanying flavoured jellies were almost off-putting in their staggering resemblance to seafood.
These croquettes were stuffed with mushrooms, I think, and carried on the cherry blossom look. I've no idea how they posed that zucchini-ish vegetable like that.
More amazing cherry blossom vegetables, this time with edible foil and a shell that wasn't for eating.
Ma Fu turned out to be chilled sesame tofu very much like the one we tried at Okutan in Kyoto, its denseness countered with a wasabi garnish. This one was also set in a vinegar broth that made a cleansing finish.
Although this was not the tempura we were expecting, it fit into the fried theme. The main feature was some very tasty, handmade faux-fish made with yuba.
We needn't have been concerned, though, as we still got tempura! (This was the Yu Ji course.)
Impeccable presentation yet again, I think this one deserves two angles to appreciate. The net of noodles was terrific, if difficult to eat politely.
By this time I was very, very, full and almost despairing at the four further courses predicted on the menu. Mercifully three of them arrived in one sitting - So Ju (miso soup), En Sai (pickles) and Han Tsu (white rice). Though they were lovely (the pickles were quite special), I was spent and could do little more than pick at them listlessly. When our hostess returned I was baffled to hear her offering more rice. More?! I'd barely made it through a quarter of my first bowl.
Naturally I perked up at the prospect of dessert. (Though I can assure you it was a barely perceptible 'perk' - I really was incredibly full.) It arrived on a dauntingly large platter but was appropriately light.
Cherry blossom icecream - dairy free and not too rich, it reminded me of the cashew-based icecreams I've made at home (though I don't think it was actually nut-based).
Fresh fruit! The one thing I still welcome at the end of a large meal. The apple slice had been poached in something delicious.
We declined our hostess' offer of further drinks and eased our way out. By this time it seemed almost natural to bow my thanks to the women. It had been an honour to be served such beautiful, beautiful food by such gracious people, even if we had paid (23000円 ~ $263 total) for it. It was a very special way to spend our last night in Japan.