Welcome, most honorable guests, to Saturday’s stop on our free-wheeling, wide-ranging progressive blog feast. I know you have just arrived from a magical evening under the desert sky with Kirsten Monroe. My offerings today will be humble: vegetarian dishes from the Buddhist temples of Japan known at shojin ryori. I’ve taken the liberty of reserving a traditional Japanese inn for our modest banquet, and, naturally, arranged for your plane ticket to Kansai International Airport as well as ground transportation to the ancient city of Kyoto.
Ah, what’s this? We’ve already arrived! Don’t forget to take off your shoes as we step up into the entryway. Each party of guests will be escorted to their rooms by a kimonoed maid, who will offer tea and a local sweet before leaving you to change into the cotton kimono called yukata, which will be our lounging wear for the remainder of our stay. After you refresh yourselves and change, please meet us at the bath, which, because the entire inn has been set aside for our enjoyment alone, is open for mixed-sex bathing. (As an open-minded host, I’ll let you interpret the definition of “mixed-sex” as you will.)
Feel your muscles soften to taffy, breathe in the healing mists of the hot spring water. May I take the liberty of presenting some dainty snacks to whet your appetite? Here is a selection of rice crackers especially prepared for the new year. Some are flavored with plum-infused sugar, others with savory seaweed or roasted soybeans. All can be easily washed down with some Sakura Masamune sake, a personal favorite, although it comes from the Kobe area and the inn procured it for me as a courtesy. But I wanted to share this beverage with you because it was the very first fine sake I ever tasted. I’m sure will agree the complexity and depth of flavor on your palate is remarkable.
The pleasure of the drink is no doubt enhanced by the presentation in my special collection of antique Chinese erotic wine cups. Observe how the couple moves beneath the ripples of this gently bracing beverage. One might think they are enjoying themselves as much as we are.
As we bathe, our murmurs of gentle pleasure rise softly in the steamy air. Our feast thus far has involved much untrammeled merriment—and yet at this moment our gathering is rather subdued and serene. And yet, my honorable guests, a certain inward focus, not to say repression of our desires can ultimately lead to a most satisfying release. So argues the noted rope-mistress, Midori, in her shibari handbook for Westerners, The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage. And as writers, we do know that formal constraints often, ironically, liberate our creativity.
But such topics might best wait for our after-dinner chat. I’m told our evening’s entertainment has arrived. Let us don our robes and adjourn to our tatami banquet room, where we will enjoy a private concert by a geiko and apprentice maiko from the Pontocho geisha district. These accomplished dancers are performing for us thanks to an introduction by Liza Dalby, the only American to work as a geisha.
I will admit this is my first “traditional” dance concert as they were originally meant to be viewed—in intimate surroundings with a small party of friends. The elaborate cherry blossom dances open to the public are indeed gorgeous, but to have the honor of enjoying the talents of these artists in this way is exactly like inviting Weird Al Yankovic to sing a few favorite tunes in your living room. Well, not “exactly like,” but you get my drift.
May I pour you more sake? A good host sees that her guests’ erotic wine cups never go dry. I see our meal has arrived. Maids place individual lacquered tables before each of us in the formal style. To the left is a dish of Tofu with Mushroom Sauce. Those of you who’ve only tasted supermarket tofu, which is made to blend innocuously into a curry or stir-fry, will be amazed at the subtle, yet distinctively fresh soybean flavor of this “silken” tofu. I’ve asked that the sauce be lightened for our Western palates—less sugar and salt, the better to appreciate the subtle earthiness of the mushrooms, which may remind my earthier guests of certain portions of the male anatomy, but I digress.
To the right is a plate of Roasted Sesame Pumpkin with Peanut Sauce. Japanese pumpkin, or kabocha, has an edible green skin and was one of my great discoveries in Japan. I’d only known pumpkin as a stringy jack-o-lantern or a canned mush for Thanksgiving pies. But Japan’s version reminds me of good rice pudding—smooth, but with a toothsome resistance. During my first stay in Kyoto, I was taught an old saying that "real women" are fond of pumpkin. My continuing passion for the vegetable has reassured me of my femininity in times of doubt ever since, although "he-men" have been known to appreciate it as well.
As you see, the peanut sauce is a perfect blend of sweet and tart and the recipe might serve well for a crudite plate when we return to the States. The combination of tender pumpkin and protein-rich sauce is quite a happy marriage of textures and flavors.
(An aside—my apologies that I neglected to take photographs of my own miserable efforts with these dishes, but rest assured, the recipes have been tested for taste and ease of preparation.)
Although not strictly an entrée, the inn has provided small bowls of delicious steamed white rice and rustic miso soup. We eat slowly, meditatively, a nourishment for the spirit as well as the body, enjoying the “now” of each dainty mouthful. Light as it is, this food seems to have magical properties. Rather than “filling” our stomachs, it merely erases the animal growl of hunger as an inked brush might blot out the whiteness of paper. Just as easily, it seems to turn our blood to pulsing radiance. Our bodies float now--even without the buoyant water of the bath. We are easy in our skins, and our minds open out like a cherry blossom, boundaries and false dualities dissolving.
"The floating world," or ukiyo, is a Japanese term that embraces two meanings. The original sense of the word referred to the Buddhist concept of worldly illusion--the material world is rooted in nothingness--but by the seventeenth century it came to refer to the pleasure quarters and the fantasies one could only indulge in within its gated walls.
We’ve enjoyed so many pleasures over the past week of our progressive dinner—lips, hands, laughter, dance, skinny-dipping and slathering cherry-Pinot sauce on our naked flesh. I’d like now to honor yet another: the erotic potential of the airy and limitless realm of our imaginations. Which floating world shall we choose to enter this evening? Or need we choose at all?
The maids arrive to whisk away our trays, so I’ll take this opportunity to bring out some 18th century books of erotic prints by my favorite artist, Suzuki Harunobu. Harunobu has been the inspiration for a number of my stories. He also makes an appearance in my first novel as the favorite artist of one of my alter-egos, an older Japanese man who is at home in Japan’s after-hours world of sexual self-indulgence. I’m drawn to Harunobu’s work for numerous reasons—the wistful, intelligent faces, the relatively “realistic” depiction of the genitals, the stories that seem to hover above the page, whispering their secrets.
These shunga, or “spring pictures,” were of course used by their wealthy owners as a prelude to self-pleasuring. They were also purportedly used as sexual manuals and presented to rich men’s daughters as a form of education for their marital duties. Thus, perhaps it is appropriate to focus today’s discussion on sex manuals of every type—illustrated, wordy, retro or myth-shattering. Where and when did you encounter your first “how to do the deed” book? Do you have a favorite? Ones you find fitting for critique? Which sex manuals are on your bookshelf right now?
Isn’t it amusing to think that was once reserved for the wealthy is now available to ordinary folk such as ourselves? Then again, in spite of the lean times, hasn’t our feast shown us how very rich we are indeed?
Please linger awhile to chat, sip sake, and nibble on mandarin jelly, but feel free to retire alone, or better yet with a partner, whenever the spirit of Harunobu moves you. When you return to your room, you’ll find your maid has already laid out your futons--the two fluffy mattresses laid side by side and close enough for the fine cotton sheets to kiss--for your night’s rest. Once in private, there is no longer need for decorum or restraint, unless you choose to explore the latter territory with the help of the soft belt of your cotton robe and Midori's manual ;-). Do sleep well, for on Monday we will travel far yet again to enjoy the hospitality of the lovely Emerald, who will serve, most appropriately, a delectable salad.
The recipes for this portion of our feast were adapted and “lightened” from The Enlightened Kitchen: Fresh Vegetable Dishes from the Temples of Japan by Mari Fujii. If you like fresh, simple vegan food, I highly recommend this book—everything I’ve tried has been very uplifting and tasty.
Tofu with Mushroom Sauce (Serves 4)
1 14 oz. tofu, silken if available
1 3/4 oz. mushroom caps, two or three types such as shimeji, enoki, fresh shiitake or button
1 2/3 cups konbu stock (see below)
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons sake
2 Tablespoons mirin
1 1/4 oz. carrot, peeled and julienned
2 Tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 4 Tablespoons water
Strips of green beans, blanched, for garnish
Wrap the tofu in a paper towel or non-fluffy tea towel, sandwich between two plates and refrigerate for 30 minutes to remove excess moisture. Break the enoki or shimeji into bite-sized pieces and cut the other mushrooms into thin slices. In a frying pan combine the konbu stock, soy sauce, sake and mirin and bring to a boil. Add the mushrooms and carrot. Lower the heat to medium and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. Cut the tofu in half and place in the frying pan, taking care that the tofu halves do not overlap. Cook on low heat for 5 minutes. Add the dissolved cornstarch, and stir gently without breaking the tofu until the sauce thickens. Cut the tofu into four pieces and serve hot in individual bowls, topped with the mushroom sauce and garnished with a green bean strip.
Konbu (Seaweed) Stock
1 2/3 cups water
1 4-inch piece dried konbu seaweed
Place the water and konbu in a saucepan and leave to soak for 2 to 3 hours. Place the saucepan over medium heat. Just before the water boils, remove the konbu. Use the stock in recipe as directed.
Roasted Pumpkin with Peanut Sauce for Real Women and the Men Who Love Them (Serves 4)
2 Tablespoons roasted sesame oil
2 Tablespoons water
14 oz. Japanese pumpkin with seeds and stringy fibers removed and sliced into very thin slices
6 Tablespoons unsweetened natural peanut butter
2 teaspoons white miso or 1 teaspoon red miso
2 Tablespoons sake or white wine
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons mirin
Combine the oil and water in a flat-bottomed bowl. Dip the pumpkin slices to coat and place on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Bake at 400F for about 15 to 20 minutes or until browned, turning halfway. To make the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until smooth. Arrange the pumpkin artfully on individual serving plates and top with the peanut sauce.