Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Shojin Ryori Meal on Koyasan

--Susan, every other Sunday

Last week I spent two lovely (if rainy) days on Koyasan, one of Japan's most famous peaks and the setting of my newest Hiro Hattori novel, Trial on Mount Koya, which released last week.

The trip served several functions: first and foremost, I climbed to the summit of Bentendake - one of Koya's peaks that sits along the historical "women's pilgrim trail" - the only part of Koyasan that women could enter until the 19th century.

The Shinto shrine on the summit of Bentendake

This was the fifteenth of my hundred summits, and since I climbed it on release day it also served as a "happy birthday" to the new book. In a twist of poetic justice (and irony), I arrived on Mount Koya directly ahead of a thunderstorm--just as Hiro and Father Mateo do in the novel--and found myself racing the clouds to the top of the mountain, hoping as they did that the storm would hold off long enough for me to reach my goal.

A section of the women's pilgrimage trail.

Spoiler alert: I made it.
On the summit of Bentendake

As it turned out, the rain held off long enough for me to pay an extended visit to Koyasan's holy temples and Japan's largest cemetery, Okunoin. After finishing a lovely hike, I headed to Ekoin, the thousand year-old temple where I like to stay on Koyasan. My room was ready:

Koyasan guest room.

And shortly thereafter, a priest arrived with my dinner trays.

"The Main and the Second Tray" - a typical evening meal.

(At Ekoin, as at many temple lodgings on Koyasan, the evening meal is served in your room, allowing you to partake at leisure and meditate on the colors, textures, and flavors of your meal.)

Ekoin and other shukubo (temple lodgings) throughout Japan prepare meals in the shojin ryori style. "Shojin Ryori" means temple cuisine--a sophisticated, vegan style of cooking developed over centuries by and in Buddhist temples.

Mountain greens with grated daikon (radish).

Although these meals incorporate no animal products, the cooking style has many rules designed to ensure that the food inspires thought and meditation, and helps to balance the diner's body, mind, and spirit.

Gomadofu - tofu made entirely from sesame seeds instead of soy.

A meal cooked in shojin ryori style adheres to the "rule of five" - meaning it contains five flavors (salty, bitter, sour, sweet, and umami) and five colors (red, yellow, green, black, and white), all of which are derived exclusively from preparation of natural, seasonal ingredients.

Vegetarian "sashimi" - with the taste of bell pepper, mountain greens,  and ginger
The meals also strive to offer a variety of cooking techniques and textures, including a soup:

Dashi (broth) made from roasted soybeans with vegetables and tofu

A fried element (or two):

Vegetarian spring roll filled with mushrooms and tofu.
As well as steamed and baked components.

Root vegetables (potato, carrot, taro, and lotus) with tofu.
Tsukemono (pickles), rice, and tea are also a standard part of every meal.

Pickled daikon (the yellow slices) and shibazuke - eggplant and cucumber pickled in red miso (hence the purple color) 

No two shojin ryori meals will ever be the same - I spent two nights at Ekoin this trip, and my dinner trays were almost entirely different on each night.

Vegetarian noodles with mountain vegetables

The dishes you see here were from my first night's dinner. (I'll blog about the second night at my own website later on this year.)

Tempura: lotus root, sweet potato, baby corn, mushroom, kubocha squash - with matcha (green tea) salt for dipping.

Dishware for shojin ryori offerings is also carefully chosen to complement the colors, shapes, and textures of the food.

Grapefruit and watermelon.

Diners can - and are expected to - move back and forth between the offerings, experiencing a range of colors, tastes, and textures throughout the meal. While some of the dishes may look odd, or seem unusual to Western palates, I assure you every bite of every plate is absolutely delicious - a wonderful way to celebrate a book release and my fifteenth mountain climb.

And the view from the room was nothing to sneeze at, either...

Guest room view, Ekoin, Koyasan

Eventually the storm arrived (though fortunately without the killings that accompanied the one in my novel...) but I didn't mind. If you've got to be stuck on a mountain in a storm, Koyasan is a lovely and peaceful place to spend the day.


  1. How long have you been going to Japan to Know all of this? I cannot fathom how I could get comfortable. The food, the temples are all so foreign. Do you speak the language? I really admire your courage.

  2. What a fascinating primer on a cuisine I thought I knew from way too many nights at a sushi bar during my time served as a lawyer. Bravo, maestro Susan, and congratulations again on the release of TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA!!

  3. Another wonderful experience. Thanks so much for sharing it. And happy birthday fro the new book!

  4. Sadly, Blogger isn't letting me reply to individual comments - I'm working on trying to get that fixed! (I suspect it has to do with Safari and Japan).

    Carol - I've been coming to Japan for quite a while, and having an undergraduate degree in Asian studies (Chinese and Japanese history, language, and culture) helped a lot. However, it's actually fairly easy to get around Japan - in the major cities at least - with no Japanese language skills at all. The people of Japan love sharing their history, food, and culture with visitors, and are happy to help!

    Annamaria - it is indeed a feast for the eyes as well as the palate!

    Jeff, thank you for the good release wishes - and Japanese cuisine is endlessly fascinating. Even I have barely scratched the surface, but I hope to do far more than that in the time I'm here!

    Michael, thank you for the book birthday wishes - and I'm glad you liked the post!