The Gardens of Kanazawa

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Japanese gardens are landscapes in miniature.

Rocks symbolise mountains, streams represent rivers and ponds stand in for seas; water cascades from one pond to another in allusion to mountain waterfalls. Every stone is carefully chosen for colour, shape and size, and placed with precision in clusters.

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Just as much thought goes into to the placement of suteishi (‘discarded’) stones, which are meant to seem random and express spontaneity, for even the spontaneous is meticulously planned in Japan.

On the backstreets of Kanazawa, there are old Samurai houses with gardens no bigger than you would find behind a modest house in the English suburbs. Yet, without seeming cramped, they incorporate streams filled with koi carp, lanterns, pagodas, mini-boulders, arched bridges, cedars and firs.

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They are not gardens in which you could kick a football about or set up a barbecue and have friends round for burgers and beers on a hot summer’s evening, but the idea would assuredly horrify in Japan, in any case. They are gardens to gaze at, gardens to cheer the soul.

Kenroku-en is just a few blocks away but on a wholly different scale. It is a public garden – once part of the grounds of Kanazawa Castle – which undulates over 114,000 Sq m and is reckoned one of the three most beautiful in Japan. The name means something on the lines of Garden with Six Attributes, a reference to an ancient book which posited that the ideal garden would have the six attributes of “spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas”.

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At the highest point, there is a view through the cherry blossom across the city and the hills to the mountains; fish eagles soar overhead. Nearby is the pond known as Kasumiga-ike, which stretches over 5,800 Sq m. An old wooden tea house sits over the pond on  pillars.

The path spirals down the hill, named Sazae-yama – or Turban Shell Hill – after the pattern on the shell of a type of sea snail which is a popular local delicacy. The ground either side is carpeted in moss and dotted with fallen blossom.

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It leads down to another pond, Hisago-ike, fed by a six-metre-high cascade from Kasumiga-ike which tumbles down through the trees and rocks with a soothing hiss. Mallards glide across the surface, smearing the reflection of the deep green fir trees and soft pink cherry blossoms. Herons take to the air with a little jump from a rock. Koi carp teem at the edges. Bees buzz the blossom.

The path meanders through the gardens, ushering you into secret spaces, opening out into vistas (spaciousness & seclusion), past fir trees with their roots exposed, and wooden props under the branches of the oldest and biggest to stop them breaking in heavy snow, and cherry and plum blossoms and Japanese maples and stone lanterns and pagodas thickly coated with moss, which is welcomed for the impression it gives of great age (artifice & antiquity) over humped-back bridges across streams lined with iris and azaleas, offering glimpses again of the mountains (water-courses & panoramas).

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Every rock, every tree, every lantern seems so perfectly positioned that to move any one would ruin the harmony of the whole garden. It is a profoundly peaceful place: a place where anxieties melt away and you feel a rare lightness of spirit.

© Richard Senior 2016

Kaiseki Cuisine on a Miserable Night

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The rain hammered down and smudged the neon which fizzed from 20-foot boards on the buildings either side of the road. Black-suited salarymen scurried along with their umbrellas tilted like lances. Girls clattered down the pavement in inappropriate heels. Eerie green lights emerged from the gloom as taxis shushed down the street, contemptuously splashing the people who had chosen to walk.

My 7-11 umbrella had collapsed on one side and I needed to get out of the rain. I ducked through the door of the first restaurant I came to, which happened to be a kaiseki place. It could just as easily have been McDonalds.

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Kaiseki cuisine, at a glance, is the Japanese equivalent of a dégustation at a Western fine-dining restaurant: a set menu of small dishes to showcase the skill of the chef. But it is deeper than that. There is a philosophy underlying it, a spiritual dimension, more layers of symbolism than a gaijan* like me could hope to understand.

At its heart is the idea of creating a meal the customer can enjoy with all five senses. The emphasis is on balance: of tastes, of textures, of colours, of techniques. Uncooked dishes are juxtaposed with cooked; grilled with boiled, fried with steamed. The presentation is artful, yet simple, with none of the smears, foams, emulsions and jellies which are the stock-in-trade of Michelin-starred chefs in the West.

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My appetiser – more appetising than it might sound – was thinly sliced pickled sea cucumber, served in a scallop-shaped dish lined with a pair of shisho leaves. A lot of thought goes into the choice of tableware.

The main courses, then, began with sashimi: the simplest of dishes but arranged with understated perfection, three pink slices of tuna, a small square of brilliant white flounder, a silvery tranche of horse mackerel overlain with a jumbo shrimp, peeled but with the head and tail left on, all glistening under the lights and garnished with a small mound of wasabi and the green leaf and yellow flower of Kerria Japonica, mimicking the design of the plate.

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A sequence of cooked dishes followed that – the ying to the yang of the raw fish – in the established order: boiled, then grilled, then fried.

First, jumbo shrimp and white fish fillet gently braised with tofu, spinach, aubergine and enoki mushrooms and kept warm at the table on a fondue burner which looked like an artwork in itself.

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Then a section of pike with the skin nicely crisped on the grill, served on a pine leaf carefully aligned with the pattern on the plate.

After that, a tempura of courgette, squash, okra and another of the jumbo shrimp for which Kanazawa is famous – Kaiseki chefs obsess about using local, seasonal produce. A vibrant plate contrasted with the neutral colour of the tempura.

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Snow crab claws came with a fat slice of steamed courgette in a kidney-shaped bowl with a smaller round bowl of vinegar-based dressing.

Then there was a bamboo box with green tea soba noodles, coiled as neatly as the ropes on the royal yacht. (I messed up the presentation before I snapped the picture below.)

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Finally, then, to round out the meal, there was a light dessert of two strawberries with a dipping sauce.

It all seemed to work much better than tasting menus ever do at home. There, either each plate is gone in two mouthfuls, just as your palate has registered the flavour combination, or dinner becomes an endurance test after the third course and, at the end of it all, you struggle home feeling as if you might explode. Here, it all seemed to be weighted just right. I neither felt cheated nor stuffed.

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What is more, by the time I had finished and paid, it had stopped raining and I could abandon my crippled umbrella and walk back to the hotel without getting wet.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally “outside person” – someone who isn’t Japanese

Eating Sushi in London and Kanazawa

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I was part way through a run of long nights at the office. It was hours since the pinstriped crowd had made its way to the Tube, with its furled umbrellas and gym kits and Little Brown Bags. The City was silent then, without the murmur of innumerable phone conversations and the clatter of brogues and stilettos.  The pub on the corner had filled up with after-work drinkers, who got louder with every beer, then thinned out as they drifted off home. It was closed by the time I got out. Lights had been left on for show in the Gherkin; the Lloyd’s Building was uplit in blue. But the streets of the Square Mile were deserted then. Even the cleaners had been and gone. A gust of wind blew grit in my eye, and sent a dropped newspaper scuttling down the street.

It would have been too late for dinner by the time I got home, so I stopped at the sushi bar a little before it closed. The staff were cleaning up and winding down. Only a few plates were left on the conveyor. I watched them do their rounds, and daydreamed about sushi in Japan.

Three years on and I had given up being a lawyer and I was in Kanazawa in a sushi restaurant a few steps from the Omicho market, which bustles each morning with seafood vendors whose stalls are crowded with rows of spider crabs, piles of scallops, and ruby-fleshed tuna, silvery mackerel and bloated puffer fish. Some of the things on the menu were familiar enough. The sushi bar I used to call in after work had prawn nigiri and salmon roe norimaki. But not flounder fin, gizzard shad or horse mackerel; nor salted plum with cucumber makizushi.

The chef reached in the cabinet for a slab of tuna and sliced off a strip with an easy flick of the wrist. He wet his hand under the tap and, in the same movement, reached behind him into a barrel of rice and scooped up a handful which he had moulded into shape by the time he had brought it up to his board. He dipped his finger into a pot of wasabi and smeared it over the rice then glued on the strip of tuna, plated up and handed it over the counter to the customer. Then he was onto the next order, rolling raw sea urchin and vinegared rice into a square of seaweed; then lightly searing a flounder fin with a woof of flame from a blowtorch. He worked at speed but never noticeably hurried; his movements were fluid, almost balletic, each seemingly casual cut precise.

The sushi there was as different from the sushi I had eaten at home as freshly-made pesto is different from the stuff in jars. I ordered three pieces, then another three, and another three after that.

It seemed a lifetime ago that I was eating sushi because I would be home too late to make dinner.

© Richard Senior 2015