46. Kaiseki Dining

May 14, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther

Welcome to the Art Life Faith podcast, coming to you live from Tokyo. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what it has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

Well, last week we had a team retreat in the mountains of Karuizawa, about a two-hour drive northwest of Tokyo. It really was a great time to get together before all the busyness of the coming months. As a whole team of artists, we're always trying to figure out what it means to be team as we live in three different cities, work at different churches, send our kids to different schools, and make different kinds of art. In fact, two people at the retreat had never even met each other in person. So we spent a lot of time just listening to each other, praying for one another, and continuing this process of how best to encourage one another.

At the retreat, we also saw my pastor, Rev. Fukuda. I haven't said too much about this in the podcast so far, but Fukuda-san, who planted the church that I work at, stepped down from Grace City Church just last month. There's a lot of reasons he left. His term with the church was over. He was grieving the death of his oldest son. He had some health problems. But probably the most hurtful was some ongoing opposition from just a few very vocal critics asking him to step down. It's been really hard, not just for the Fukudas, but also for me and my family who've been with them planting this church since the very beginning and are good friends with them. I share all this with you because it's a pretty common story in the mission field and one that's not easy for missionaries to navigate wisely.

Anyway, he and his wife, Michiru, happened to be in Karuizawa, so we asked them to lead our team in a devotional time. It was so good and encouraging for all of us. He really is a great leader and teacher, and we're going to continue to miss him dearly.

Now, back in the mountains of Karuizawa, it reminded me of an experience I want to share with you. There's this restaurant my wife and I were treated to in our very first year of language school in those mountains. Last week when we were there for the retreat, I tried to drive by the restaurant just to see if it was still there. Unfortunately, though, it had closed down. This was 18 years ago after all. It's too bad, though, because that one night we spent there has haunted me all these years later. It was a restaurant for kaiseki dining, perhaps the most representative of all traditional Japanese meals, but also probably one of the least known to foreigners.

Let me share a scripture verse, and then I'll share this story with you.

“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isaiah 25:6)

Deep in the shadows of the mountains and autumn leaves, red paper lantern faintly illuminated the entrance to a traditional Japanese restaurant. The roar of a river filled our ears as it plummeted down the cliff next to the road. The air was moist and cold, as was typical for that time of the year.

Entering the restaurant, my young sons ran to the side of a small wooden tank full of large fish. It was placed alongside two small waterfalls and a large stone cistern full of water and a ladle for washing hands. The kimono-clad hostess motioned for us to take off our shoes and leave them by the entrance. And then she led us back to our Japanese “father” and “mother,” an older couple we met during our first year at language school. They had often invited us to enjoy the best of Japanese culture. And this time we were being treated to the heart of Japanese dining known as kaiseki.

We took our seats on zabuton cushions on the floor and pushed our knees just under the edge of the table. There was no menu to look at because today's selection would be omakase, left to the discretion of the chef. The first dish was sashimi, bite-sized pieces of raw fish, perhaps from one of the fish we saw earlier swimming in the entrance. The sashimi was beautifully arranged on a long slender plate with salmon eggs, edible flowers, and a leaf. The restaurant was not large with few other customers, so I worried what they would do with the rest of the fish, but that also made the experience that much more special.

Plates continued to come out one after another: soup, a different kind of sashimi, a small grilled fish, simmered vegetables, lightly fried tempura, chawan mushi (an egg custard with vegetables, not like the sweet custards I'm used to), rice, tsukemono pickles, miso soup, and a seasonal dessert. We also enjoyed a locally made plum wine.

I wanted to ask about each dish, but I had not been in the country for even a year. My Japanese was simply not good enough. I did have the distinct feeling, though, that everything was chosen for a reason. The flowers, leaves, and mushrooms most likely came from the mountain forest surrounding us. Everything seemed to reflect that fall season.

Dishes came out slowly and in small portions so I could focus on the beauty of each one. There was so much diversity and so many flavors. I learned later that exactly five elements were built into that meal, and each of those was divided into exactly five parts. Let me list them for you. There were five colors: red, yellow, green, black (or purple), and white. There were five flavors: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy. There were five ways to prepare the meal: raw, simmered, grilled, fried, and steamed. There were five key ingredients: sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, and miso. And lastly, all five of the senses were engaged: taste, texture, sight, sound, and smell.

I've often seen sci-fi films showing people swallowing pills for all their nutritional needs, but I can't imagine that ever happening. Can you? It's true, food could all be served the same way—same colors, same taste, same textures—but how boring would that be? Our world is filled with an abundance of different kinds of foods and an infinite number of ways to prepare and serve them. And through this limitless variety of food, we get a taste of the limitless abundance of God.

This abundance of food on earth is just a dim reflection of the abundance that we find in heaven. There may be four seasons in most regions of the world, but there are twelve in heaven, for the tree of life bears “twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month” (Revelation 22:2). We will enjoy each crop in turn, wondering at its beauty. And each time we taste that delicious food, we'll be satisfied, assured of the goodness of God.

The meal my family enjoyed with our Japanese friends was not just delicious, it was glorious. Everything felt good and right with the world.

I was so engaged in the food and the conversation, I didn’t think about anything else, until my wife asked, “Where's our child?”

“Isn't he over there . . .” I said, turning to the corner where he had been quietly looking at a book, but he was gone. “I'll go find him,” I hurriedly continued. I guessed he had gone back to the entrance to look at the fish.

Well, I found him all right, with ladle in hand and an intense look of concentration on his face. You'll never believe what he was doing. He was carefully pouring water into each of the shoes of the customers by the entrance. And by the look of things, he'd been at it for quite some time.

“Eastin!” I cried a little too loudly, then glanced around to see if anyone was watching. I turned a couple of the shoes over to see if any of the water would come out, but it was too late. The shoe had already soaked all of it up. Not knowing what else to do, I quickly scooped up the little troublemaker, placed the ladle back on top of the stone cistern, and headed back to our table.

“Oh, good. You found him,” my wife said when we returned.

I paused, not sure how best to explain to my Japanese friends the predicament we were in. Finally, I said in English, “He found the stone cistern . . . and the ladle . . . and the shoes. . .”

“What?!” she exclaimed.

Apologizing profusely, I then tried to explain in Japanese, while gesturing with my hands. But rather than responding with shock or anger, my Japanese father and mother burst out laughing. Even if we returned home with feet a lot wetter than when we started, nothing, it seemed, could ruin the mood of that evening.


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