Eating Zen in Kamakura
In Japan, before each meal we say Itadakimasu. Meaning “I receive,” it is an expression of gratitude for the lives we take when we eat. This spirit of gratitude is one of the cornerstones of shojin ryori or “ascetic cooking,” a vegetarian cuisine that is an integral part of the practice of Zen Buddhism. Food is prepared with gratitude toward the life given, and gratitude toward those who will receive the food, and it is eaten with gratitude toward the chef. In Kamakura, shojin ryori has developed alongside Zen Buddhism since its introduction from China over 1,000 years ago.
Zen & Shojin Ryori in Kamakura
Located about an hour south of Tokyo, the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture is famous for its natural setting, with mountains on three sides and the ocean on the other. These natural borders made the city particularly easy to defend, leading to Japan’s first military samurai government being founded here in the 12th Century. The samurai embraced Zen Buddhism which flourished in the hills of Kamakura. Its emphasis on simplicity, self-reliance, and ascetic practice resonated with samurai culture. Noted for its frugality and moral discipline, the Hojo clan was a big patron of Zen Buddhism and were responsible for building many of the temples that dot the hills to the north of Kamakura (Kita-Kamakura). Among these, Engaku-ji temple and Kencho-ji temple are the two head temples of the Rinzai Zen sect in Kamakura. Kencho-ji, founded in 1253 is the oldest Zen monastery in Japan.
At Zen monasteries like Kencho-ji temple and Engaku-ji temple, unsui (trainee monks) live together to train and, if they’re lucky, attain enlightenment. In his talk at the Japan Society “Kamakura Zen: a Samurai Legacy”, the Rev. Asahina, who trained at Engaku-ji temple, said “we did nothing special. We followed a daily routine: sit zazen, clean, prepare food, eat, do daily chores (farm, chop firewood, etc.) and repeat. It was in the course of doing these duties that we would sometimes discover something important. Every moment of our daily life itself was training.” The procedures of preparing and eating shojin ryori grew from these every-day ascetic practices of Zen Buddhism.
A Philosophy of Food
In line with the moral precepts of Buddhism, shojin ryori refrains from taking the life of any living creature. The use of meat and fish is prohibited in the preparation of meals. Even when preparing vegetables, monks show their appreciation by eating thoroughly and minimizing waste. Every ingredient is used fully, including peeled vegetable skins, and kelp used for making stock. Rev. Asahina mentions that yakuseki (dinner) at the monastery was usually porridge with leftovers from lunch. Showing gratitude for what we receive by taking the most out of it, abstaining from pungent flavors like garlic or onion to avoid interrupting meditation—these Buddhist philosophies became the fundamentals of shojin ryori.
Zen master Dogen (1200 –1253), a founder of the Soto Zen sect, wrote rules and manners for preparing and eating shojin ryori, emphasizing the importance of maintaining three minds, or attitudes, when preparing food. Kishin, the joyful mind, means being thankful for ingredients and those who eat the food. Roushin is the caring mind, the spirit of hospitality. Daishin is the contented mind, satisfied with what already is, and unswayed by prejudices and preferences. In his essay, Fushuku Hanpo, he states five rules of eating to be recited as short sutras before each meal, to express, among other things, gratitude for the life being taken, those preparing meals, and to be mindful to eat with contentment and humbleness. At the meal, monks are not supposed to make any noise so that they can show their gratitude with every bite by focusing on its taste.
Kenchin-jiru, a savory vegan soup made with tofu and various root vegetables, is the perfect example of the mind of shojin ryori. The name means “soup of Kencho-ji Temple,” and it is believed that the temple’s founder, Zen master Rankei Doryu, brought the recipe from China and used it as a way to consume leftover vegetables from other meals. An anecdote tells the story that master Doryu even once picked up, rinsed, and used some tofu which a trainee monk had accidentally dropped on the floor. In Kenchin-jiru, you can see Zen spirit of showing respect and gratitude for what you are taking in (food). It is indeed an epitome of Zen spirit in food form.
Hachinoki, the prestigious shojin ryori and kaiseki restaurant in Kita-Kamakura started their business right in front of Kencho-ji temple. Hachinoki gets its name from a Noh play featuring a story about Hojo Tokiyori, the founder and patron of Kencho-ji temple. The story of Hachinoki teaches the importance of heartfelt hospitality, which continues to be the restaurant’s motto. Hachinoki is loved by locals as well as tourists for their hospitality and high-quality meals for over 50 years, including serving meals for Buddhist services at the temples.
When the pandemic came to Japan in early 2020, Hachinoki acted quickly to serve bento boxes for local kids instead of serving regular meals at the restaurant. The proprietor, Mr. George Fujikawa said, “When the state of emergency was announced, I wondered what we could do for our community. We had food in the kitchen, and we had cooks. It did not take too much time to start serving a simple bento box for local kids who had to stay home when schools were closed.” Helping others comes naturally to Mr. Fujikawa, and is part of one of the minds of shojin ryori: Roushin, caring for others. “Hachinoki would like to serve as a big kitchen for locals as much as for the tourists,” he said.
Like many other restaurants, Hachinoki is facing a big challenge in this global pandemic. ”We can not go back to the good old days. But I’m looking forward. This year is a year of rebirth for us, starting with an update our current menu,” Mr. Fujikawa said with a smile. Having opened for business on the year of the first Tokyo Olympics, Hachinoki is facing another beginning this year, when the second Tokyo Olympics were to be held.
Mr. Fujikawa would like to go back to the basics. “I just would like to serve “good food” to people. Good food is food prepared and grown with gratitude toward the life given, and gratitude toward those who will receive the food, and it is eaten with gratitude toward the chef. This is how you create harmony.” Mr. Fujikawa’s heartfelt hospitality extends to his servers, suppliers, and food, and his vision for his role in the community goes beyond running a restaurant. “I’d like to connect suppliers and customers beyond our doors, maybe by setting up a farmer’s market right here in Kita-Kamakura.” If necessary, he’s willing to look outside the traditional borders of what’s considered shojin ryori in order to bring good food to good people, both local and visitors.
Once it gets easier to travel again, please visit Kamakura, the town where Zen Buddhism flourished. Mr. Fujikawa and Hachinoki will welcome you with top-level hospitality and thoughtful meals. To deepen your experience of Zen, Kamakura Mind also offers a private program of “Zazen and Shojin Ryori” at Jochi-ji temple. Sit zazen with the Rev. Asahina followed by a shojin ryori meal catered by Hachinoki. I am grateful to live in Kamakura, the cradle of Zen, and am eager to share all this town has to offer with you sometime soon. As we say Itadakimasu before eating a meal, when we finish, we say Gochisou-sama deshita, or “thank you for your hospitality.” I look forward to the day when we can say Gochisou-sama deshita together.
Recreate the Kanagawa Experience at home!
Now that you can not go out as freely as you could in pre-Covid times, why not try cooking kenchin-jiru at home? You may think shojin ryori is too exotic for you, but the basics are quite simple. Just remember its essence: to prepare the food with gratitude toward the life given, gratitude toward those who will receive the food, and gratitude toward the cook.
Here is a kenchin-jiru recipe from Hachinoki. Any of the ingredients you’re unable to find locally can be replaced with seasonal vegetables from your refrigerator. And how about sake brewed locally in Kanagawa to enhance your meal? According to Mr. John Gauntner, a Kamakura resident, and the first and only non-Japanese certified Sake Expert Assessor, a Tensei “Endless Summer,” brewed by Kanagawa brewer Kumazawa Shuzo, is an excellent pairing. Endless Summer has a subtle and soft flavor that won’t overpower the delicate tastes of shojin ryori. Make a toast using a sake cup made by Kamakura’s renowned ceramic artist, Kifumi Kawamura, to celebrate the new Reiwa era, and make your Kanagawa-themed dinner-at-home perfect.
Kenchin-jiru – Recipe by Hachinoki
½ sheet konnyaku
2 oz. burdock root
2 oz. lotus root
2 oz. carrot
3 oz. daikon radish
1.5 oz. dried shiitake mushroom
1.5 oz. taro (sato-imo) or potato
¼ cup sesame oil
2 cups shojin broth*
3 tbsp soy sauce
⅓ pack tofu
Finely chopped daikon leaves (one pinch per serving)
1. Cut vegetables into bite-size pieces.
2. Soak dried shiitake in the water until soft. Take out the stem, cut in quarters. Blanch daikon leaves.
3. Boil taro until softened.
4. Sauté the vegetables from step 1 with the sesame oil. Add the softened shiitake mushroom (step 2) and 8 cups of water and let it simmer on low heat for about 30 min. until ingredients are soft.
5. Add the shojin broth, soy sauce and the taro (step 3) until the taste has soaked in. Crumble in tofu with hands.
6. Pour the soup into a soup bowl, garnish with daikon leaves.
*Shojin Broth (Dashi)
Ingredients: 10 cm (4 inch) strip of kombu seaweed
2-3 pcs. dried shiitake mushrooms
1000 ml (4 cups) water
1. Cut kombu and shiitake to approx 1 inch pieces, and soak in water overnight in a refrigerator.
2. Simmer on low heat for about 30min. Do not let it boil to keep the broth clear. Skim the surface occasionally.
To store leftover stock, cool quickly by placing container in a bowl of ice water before refrigerating.
Dashi lasts about 2-3 days in the refrigerator or about ½ month in the freezer.
About the Author
Yukiyo Matsuzaki Smith spent her teenage years in New York where she studied piano at the Juilliard School. From 2007 to 2012, she lived in Vermont where she ran a country inn. Currently living in Kamakura, Japan, she started Kamakura Mind to bring more people into contact with Japanese culture, art, and nature in her hometown by the sea.
Get to Know Japan: Kanagawa
Get to Know Japan Series: Kanagawa is co-organized by Kanagawa Prefectural Government.
Talks+ Programs at Japan Society are generously sponsored by MUFG (Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group).