What to recommend people for a short trip to Japan? I first found it somehow difficult, as Japan is such a large and diverse country with so many unique places to visit, a rich culture and a cuisine to die for. On the other hand, since I experienced the Zen cuisine at Shigetsu at Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama, Kyoto, this would always be on the top of my list—a truly unique experience in a traditional and incredibly inspiring place.
I had been to the Tenryu-ji Temple before, but at that time I didn’t know about the lunch option. Actually I thought Shojin Ryori would only be served when staying at a temple over night, like at Koya-san; however, it was then Ben’s photo story that showed me the way to the Buddhist lunch at Tenryu-ji in Kyoto.
Shigetsu is nothing like I would usually imagine a restaurant. It’s a traditional Japanese style building on the grounds of Tenryu-ji temple, with several tatami rooms, all offering a wonderful view of the temple’s garden. There’s no furniture, no tables, no chairs—just the immaculate tatami floor, sliding doors, and us.
The flavors were extremely delicate. It’s all about enjoying the natural taste of seasonal and fresh vegetables.
We were a party of five and had a large room to ourselves. I guess we were lucky; it was during the week and the place didn’t seem to be fully booked. Anyway, having our private room was really cool. So we kneed down, curiously waiting for what should happen next.
The food arrived in several small bowls, all beautifully arranged on red lacquer trays. It looked great, but now, what about the taste? I knew Shojin Ryori combines the six basic flavors: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, mild and spicy; however, I couldn’t really imagine how that was going to work. Miraculously it did and it was absolutely mind-blowing. We couldn’t always figure out what kind of vegetable or plant we were eating—basically because they are unique to Japan and we didn't know them—, but I assure you that it was the most amazing taste experience I’ve ever had. More than once our eyes tricked us; especially when something that looked like a sweet caramel pudding turned out to be a so-called sesame tofu, made from sesame paste as opposed to soya milk. It was something we had never tasted before, in terms of texture and taste, but we all loved it.
The flavors were extremely delicate. It’s all about enjoying the natural taste of seasonal and fresh vegetables and therefore the menu changes accordingly.
There are 3 lunch sets to choose from, for 3,000 yen, 5,000 yen or 7,000 yen. We had the 3,000 yen set and the amount of food was just perfect—although I’m still a little curious about the additional dishes they would have served us with the larger sets.
Booking is essential and you need to decide on the lunch set at the time of the booking. There’s usually always someone who speaks English and booking won’t be a problem. I don’t remember if they accept credit cards though, make sure you have enough cash.
It is certainly a culinary adventure in a unique setting and definitely worth being put on the ‘must-do-while-in-Kyoto’ list.