Strawberries: false fruit with many secrets that will enrapture your senses

There are more than 600 varieties of strawberries and they are botanically not berries at all, while eggplants, tomatoes and avocados are berries, gotcha! The sheer diversity popping around me from Denmark though France, Germany, Israel, California, Switzerland, as far as to Japan rose my curiosity. My studious research yielded quite shocking revelations of our communally shared ignorance. The fibre-rich, multiple fruit according to the Carnegie Science Center researchers reveals: “The brownish or whitish specks, which are commonly considered seeds, are the true fruits, called achenes, and each of them surrounds a tiny seed.” Since the seeds are placed outside, it cannot be classified a berry as a blueberry is for example. Each strawberry has about 200 fruits on it. And this is only the start, I gasped at my further findings.

Japanese wagashi

Human creativity meets natural selection though questions

What you probably did not know about strawberries beyond their Wimbledon fame, whipped cream pairing, milkshake and frozen treats, is that it is not just where they are grown or on which farm but as with apples, there are many different taste profiles and colours to show. While it is unlikely that you will ever taste all the hybrids and cultivars (Wikipedia incompletely lists only the US&UK), each tastes slightly different.

Tinted by sun exposure or the lack of it from off-white, through Valentino red, to inky violet. I tried the rainbow of this jolly pseudo-fruit (allow me to refer to it a ‘berry’ further on as per familiar, while incorrect linguistic labelling) except for the almost blackish Chinese breed (China unsurprisingly also produces the largest quantity of 草莓 read: Cǎoméi).The so called black strawberry is actually of a very deep dark violet hue. It is remarkable that no genetic modifications were used in creating this breed. The ochre, yellowish variants I had in Munich (imported from Belgium) and Stockholm (imported from Netherlands) called “pineberry” is actually a light-hued, red seeded strawberry found recently in South Africa that tastes like pineapple. Dutch farmers saved this breed, which was on the brink of extinction.

Heart-shaped (is human heart indeed two joined mirroring question marks??), but also conical, oval or indefinably shaped like the most recent claimer of the Guinness World record for heaviest strawberry Ilan (named charmingly after the farmer’s son) at 289 grams!! (an average strawberry weighs 15 grams) grown in Israel in February 2022.

white strawberry

Rainbow of strawberries celebrated around the world

My globe-spanning travels include countless strawberry stories. From picking them in the wild anywhere from the Swiss Alps (German: Erdbeeren) and Zurich hills (again this morning on my way from yoga), French gas stations (fraises), sampling the previously world’s heaviest ‘King of Strawberry’ and the priciest white in Japan (苺 read: ichigo) to the world’s best chefs’ creative recipes at the fine tables.

This time of the year I would be driving through the Mediterranean Eze village, seduced to stop my car for a giant basketful of sexy red Naiad strawberries driven from Provence fresh daily by the roadside vendor. Buy a kilo or go to a supermarket. This large quantity would stir creativity once one was overfed by the pure fruit. The assembled deliciousness at home from countless cookbooks, as I did once with a giant white truffle, I would add them into anything (best recipe suggestions further down).

While the Italian fragola can sing a libretto according to the Pinocchios of that well-heeled land, the strawberries in Italy as well as from Spain have not impressed me so far. Even from the Southernmost Sicily, they do not taste as complex as those grown in France or further North. No matter how South the berry was grown, the Italians could not measure up to the Provencal specimens when in season.

In Denmark I tasted Favori, the first harvest of the year mid May (Danish jordbær). Chef Christian Baumann now at the superb Koan Copenhagen, where local bounty meets Nordic and Korean culinary heritage, worked as a teenager on a berry farm each summer learning about the subtle differences between strawberries and serves others like Rumba as the season progresses.

June strawberry

Always seasonal superfood

Forget June, there is always peak ripeness somewhere in the world. Heralds of early spring sunshine in the Middle East, later in Europe and Northern America, strawberries sweeten the year with juicy Vitamin C brightness, yet in some places it is the winter when they are at their best and cooler weather also favours more intense flavour. Mountain berries taste the most concentrated.

Plus, a bowlful has more fibre than a slice whole grain bread, so do not hesitate to eat plenty, sans gluten. More, the not always red juicy rascal turned out a relative with rose hanging out botanically in the same Rosaceae family.

These are the first ripe fruits rouges, to use the deceitful French term for all berries including black, blue, purple, yellow, beige, white, opal, or whatever colour a surface acquires as the sunshine warms its pigmented skin, ripe in the mild climate of four-seasons variability.

Burgundy strawberries

Made in France, literally

These edible roses grew from only a few original wild strawberry species into many breeds. The garden strawberries were first bred in Brittany, France in the 1750s from fragaria virginiana (American wild strawberry) hybridized with Chilean Fragaria chiloensis. This became the Fragaria ananassa species (there are about 20 now) resistant to diseases that ripens earlier and is the most used variety in commercial strawberry production. Hundreds of other crossbred species are available around the world throughout the year.

wild strawberrieswild strawberries

It is also the French who honour the distinctions of these not always red berries most beyond the garden shops also on the food marketplace. I love the bloody juicy and bright Anaïs from the Loire valley, sweet Burgundy-deep Cirafine from Brittany, reliable Cléry from Ille de France, and while the Provençal Dream candy, marmalade processed sugar flavour is not for me, Joly and Murano — both  straightforward bursts of sunshine in your mouth are delightful. Most distinguished in Provence are strawberries from Carpentras, Pertruis and Vaucluse. The Gariguette are perhaps most farmed in France and they are reliably sweet.

At Septime in Paris we ended a birthday meal with brick pale, juicy and balanced sweet Diamante. Most French Michelin chefs favour the cross of Mara des Bois for their wild forest fragrance resembling Alpine strawberries (fraises des bois in French).

Their bright acidity qualitatively sets apart Mara de Bois, with an intense, instantly recognisable strawberry perfume. It is more like an 80 percent dark chocolate in terms of sweetness and the pure taste of the place it grows. I can smell and taste the leaves, the bushes on the sun-warmed hedges where they like to grow. It is a luxury product of savvy breeding. These are one of my favourites, but it really depends on the day or how I want to eat them. The former chef to the designer Kenzo, Nakayama Toyomitsu serves mara de bois with caviar or shaved feta cheese at his Michelin star counter in Paris. 

French strawberry

The success of any strawberry plant is about location. In the US different varieties dominate than in Europe or Asia. In America, the hard worker Honeoye, forerunner Earliglow, giant Allstar and the pretty red Jewel, not to be confused with the rare Japanese white Jewel. It is getting rather confusing in the strawberry world, doesn’t it?

While the low-yielding breed white Jewel strawberries in the Saga prefecture of Japan are very difficult to find, the most expensive there are the Kokota breed, priced at around $22 for just a single berry this is indeed a jewel, not your regular milkshake friend. The giants in Japan may look suspiciously oversized, but far from a watered down inferiority. The Amaou strawberries from Fukuoka Prefecture are widely considered to be the best, and so called the King of Strawberries. Grown inside temperature-controlled vinyl greenhouses from December to May, the first picks are generally considered the sweetest.

rare strawberries

How to savvily buy strawberries

Often imported from earlier ripening warm lands like Spain (fresas), Morocco (friz – the peak seasons are between December and January), Portugal (morangos), California to our impatient Northern palates  before the local, often very short growing season kicks off.

Farmy, my Swiss delivery platform focusing on more sustainable, local produce even dares to claim that the Swiss strawberries are more sweet than from other countries because of their slower ripening. Well, with global warming we get the red garden berries from late May as other parts of Europe, yet if you compare with the imported produce to Switzerland, often inferior to what I eat in France, Oregon and the Nordic countries, locally farmed Erdbeeren indeed tend to be sweeter since they can be picked perfectly ripe.

Like all berries, they are fragile to handle so they are often gathered, transported and even sold in punnets, a small, usually paper or wooden box. Best, pluck your own and eat them the same day. Not just their antioxidant potency is diminished, but their flavour is muted by refrigeration, and since they are susceptible to moisture, mold easily develops so eat that punnet rapidly.

While strawberries are included in the dirty dozen list having often the highest residues of pesticides, here organic does not mean necessarily better taste. Eating a few samples I got around the markets in Paris next to the conventional varietal ones, I was struck how inferior the “bio” tasted. Too often, the flavour is watery, diluted, bland, sour, rarely you get to know the exact variety. Most organic shops around Europe stock them from the vast plantations in Spain.

perfect strawberry bodySwiss strawberries

Wild joy of the colour red in nature

Searching through strawberry photos in my library, yielded unexpected discoveries. The quirkiest were my favourite strawberry bikini travelling with me from Italy through Asia in my early 20s. While I am working on getting that strawberry body back, my fascination with strawberries has grown. Well, if I subsided on a diet of strawberries only for a month, I would probably get there with a flash of those ripped abs, but anything too much is just not fun.

Driving through France last July, I spotted plentiful red sparks in the grassland and picked a box-full of wild joy around a gas station set in the countryside. Cycling in my native Czechia (Jahoda in my native Czech even graces some families with the strawberry namesake, greetings to all of the Mr and Mrs Jahoda!) often seduces me into the roadside hedges and hiking in the Alps each summer often turns into slow strolling as my face and fingers turn red with all that juicy bounty. Have you wondered which variety is the sweetest? It seems that the tiny Alpine Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is one of the sweetest fruits you can grow.

Usually the first crop is best. High in the mountains, the wild Alpine variety ripens later, I usually pick them mid to late August, while down in altitude around Zurich I can forage around early in July, our backyard beset by usually haloes the ripening season.

wild strawberriesstrawberry recipes

How to eat the not-berries and some palate-opening recipes

Chefs keep the admired fruit going as well on their bold menus including lobster, black pepper (in Copenhagen) and other savoury ingredients in their strawberry recipes. In Vienna at Tian, I had them dressed with verbena leaves, poppy seed crackers, topped by their sorbet. Alain Ducasse marinated fraises de bois in sweet juice and in Monaco served them simply (even a three star restaurant can do things in uncomplicated way, bravo!) with vanilla ice cream. Just this weekend in Zurich at Maison Manesse, they pureed unripe Swiss green strawberries into a refreshing desert with cucumber, pistachios and sorrel sorbet. Superbly light for an unusually hot first June Saturday!

I would also add strawberries into a chilled gazpacho. Blend them in with the sweet n’sour tomatoes, bell peppers, even a cucumber, season well with spicy sauce and white pepper. In Europe usually crossing path with the tail of asparagus season, mixing them together in a salad is not a bad idea, add feta cheese or some string beans. Sage surprisingly pairs well. Herbs like basil or mint, heating spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, and chili also enhance the flavour of the pure fruit. A ripe strawberry does not need any sugar in my opinion. Once a sweetener is added, the breadth of the taste is diminished.

traditional strawberry recipes

Honestly, I love them mostly bare, not in cakes, perhaps with a drizzle of olive oil and fleur du sel or aged Modena balsamic vinegar. 

My grandmother used to make me a milkshake in June, she had no blenders or electric equipment back then. Just ripe strawberries picked from her garden minutes before were mashed with a spoon, easily (not with a fork as that would break the flesh chasing the texture) adding the icing sugar powder to it ground it a bit, then little by little she would pour some whole milk from her dairy cow into it. This tastes like no milkshake I have ever had anywhere ever since.

The most famous strawberry recipes include a Pavlova, pies, jams and marmalade in the West, Far East Fukuoka’s most famous wagashi ichigo daifuku, a strawberry enveloped in azuki red bean paste, mochi (sticky rice cake) and rolled into a ball is a must.

In Amsterdam, strawberries (aardbeien in Dutch) are marinated in rose sirup to be served alongside verbena ice cream and fresh almonds (also in season with the strawberries). At the Restaurant de Kas the chef Gert Jan Hageman profits from his organic greenhouses dating back to 1926.

At Brae in Australia’s countryside the pairing with green fresh almonds finds refreshing rendering with fig leaf oil and yogurt whey in a broth of broad (fava) beans. The chef Dan Hunter prefers the sweet Japanese specimens and the wild and rather rare white “fraises des bois”.

In cocktails, especially frozen or blended smooth beyond daiquiris (cask-aged rum), they work well with gin, neutral vodka, sparkling wine (as in Hugo), in France there is even a liquor made with the wild fraises de bois with countless blending options (in French). My local Swiss farm also makes a strawberry liquor from their superset crop. You can of course make a mocktail or that indulgent frozen strawberry daiquiri.

Raw or smoked fish like salmon pair well and so do vegetables like fennel. Mix in other fruits like mango in a spicy fresh salsa:

  • 3/4 cup diced strawberries
  • 3/4 cup diced mango
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
  • 2 tablespoons diced red onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 teaspoons honey, or more to taste
  • Juice of 1 lime

June fruitsFrench strawberriesNew Nordic cuisineJapanese strawberry

I like them as they are, like a kaiseki restaurant would serve these treats plain at the end of a long meal. I enjoy the Chinese and Japanese tradition of enjoying the highest quality fruit plain, showing their natural perfection, without adornments, dough, cream and other desserty companions we like in the West. My Japanese friend says: “I had them with some herbs like mint and shiso, white chocolate injected and so on, but  still like them most as they are.” Anyway creativity knows no borders and the Western influence on either culinary culture infiltrated the Far-Eastern markets with layered sponge cakes, trifles, chocolate fountains, waffles and other sugary accompaniments to strawberries.

Some no brainers, so obvious generalisations of our seasonal experience just automatically escape our closer examination. Yet, when one pays attention to details, and in spring reads the labels above or bellow the “fraises” at markets in France. While being one of the most popular western spring heralds of ripeness, strawberries are one of the most qualitatively stretched fruits I know. The greatest of these berries stand alone strong!


Sakurai Tokyo: Japanese Tea Experience with the finest wagashi

You will see everything what there is to earn about Japanese tea at Sakurai Tea Experience in Tokyo. The newest addition into the Simplicity design group in Japan preceded its owner’s expansion abroad to Paris (Ogata in the Marais). While Sakurai has just a small tea bar, a hojicha roasting corner and a kitchen counter, it offers the best connection between tradition and the contemporary Japanese culture. All in one tiny room hidden inside the smart contemporary Spiral Tower shopping mall in the fashionable Omotesando.

Sakurai TokyoGreen tea

At the comfortable counter seats a simple seasonal bento lunch is served. Water chestnuts with rice, pickles and grilled fish in April, pumpkin in the fall. Extra treats like miso-aged camembert and seasoned nuts (seaweed, ume plum, sesame) are also offered upon order.

Most tea connoisseurs come here for the extraordinary wagashi and a chosen tea set. There is always a seasonal tea, often infused with fresh vegetables, herbs or ripe fruit. You will find the usual array of sencha, gyokuro and matcha, but more intriguing are the off-the-beaten-path floral Japanese oolong, the roasted and aged teas. In summer, green teas as well as houji-cha could be cold-brewed and served on ice.

With the seasonal lunch different teas will be paired. Starting with cold brewed gyokuro (shaded, high umami steamed tea) as an aperitif, your choice from some unusual with bacteria or mould inoculated teas (an acquired taste I warn you!) and other more purist Japanese teas, to end with a bowl of perfectly smoothly whisked frothy matcha. Alcoholic cocktails with tea can also tempt you later in the day or just a tipple after work.

Japanese tea time in TokyoJapanese food

Japanese vegetables

Sakurai goes further in the level of tea service professionally than most tea rooms you know. This is not a tourist attraction to observe serious tea ceremony, but a perfect match for connoisseur’s tea time. Having your hojicha roasted just prior to the service brews the most nutty, straw-deep clay pot of tea. It is a must at Sakurai.

Japanese roasted tea

Next to the most famous, traditional Japanese sweets boutiques, the finest wagashi in Tokyo is served at Sakurai in the most perfect freshness. Like the designer behind the Simplicity concept, Shinichiro Ogata, the blend of tradition with contemporary aesthetics and taste resonates with most younger locals as well visitors. Often when I sipped my cha, there was some tea professional from abroad (mostly from tea rooms I already knew and visited), awed at the mastery.

If you are interesting in trying some other great tea rooms in Tokyo, read my selection of the best I have edited over the years of my annual trips.

 港区Minamiaoyama, 5 Chome−6−23 スパイラルビル5F, Shibuia, Tokyo
 +81 03 6451 1539


Gastronomic ceramics in Japan

In Japanese traditional tasting menu gastronomic ceramics have always played a supportive role to the chefs’ seasonal food presentation. The choice of the bowls, cups and plates is rarely limited to one artisan, but rather displays the seasonal connection with nature through the design painted on the vessels. Bamboo in spring, mushrooms in the fall decorate the Japan-made crafts. Kaiseki is not for everyone, especially in its ultra traditional use of controversial ingredients such as turtle, fugu fish and other to Westerners not excitingly edible curiosities. The contemporary adjustments are rather more palatable for the less adventurous diners.

Japanese ceramicsKyoto kaiseki art in gastronomic ceramics

In Kyoto, at Lurra, cheffed by California-born, Japan-raised chef who worked at Noma the choice of tableware is informed by contemporary sensibility in Japanese ceramics. Also in the ancient capital, the three Michelin starred Kichisen uses extraordinary Japanese tableware made locally. Each course proudly sits on a delightful earthenware or a delicate porcelain cushion. Lucky me again on my birthday, I was given a much admired with gold inlaid bamboo brushed rice bowl by the always accommodating masterchef (pictured above left).

Picking rather traditional Japanese ceramics bought at antique stores, the Nishikawa kaiseki course reveals something different at each meal. It is almost like an exhibition, so I am always curious not just about the food to be served, but as much about what it will be served in this next time.

potteryJapanese tuna

The roughly-textured and unconventionally-shaped Japanese ceramics naturally contrast with the perfection of lacquerware or crystal serving bowls and plates used in the tasting menus. Some sushi chefs also take the effort to handpick artisan tableware personally. Intriguing gastronomic ceramics are used at the three Michelin starred omakase tasting of Sushi Yoshitake in Tokyo.

Radka Beach, editor at La Muse BlueRed sea perch

I interviewed the Japanese designer Shinichiro Ogata of Simplicity studio in Tokyo. There his group of design-driven restaurants includes a tea room, tea bar, a counter restaurant, wagashi boutiques and an exclusive private dining club Yakumo Saryo. The latest project includes a restaurant and tea room in Paris, but his home- and tableware can be found as far as in California. The sublime three Michelin restaurant Single Thread included some of his minimalist pieces in their extraordinary kaiseki menu. Beyond ceramics, his copperware, award-winning signature paper-ware and laquer are more about design than manual work. Yet, it’s their simple perfection that is so appealing. Very Japanese. Metal meets perfectly polished clay or bamboo in some of his trays and tea pots.

gastronomic ceramics in Japan

seasonal kaiseki starters

In my Gastronomic ceramics series, check further out what talent the great French chefs support, how wild the Best Restaurant in the World goes in working with designers in Spain, or who in America employed an architect of his building to insert some vessels into the restaurant’s repertoire.


Cafe Salon Naka-Oku: feminine home cooking on Naoshima

When visiting Naoshima, the abundant artscape on this small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan calls for a break. If you long for wholesome, feminine home cooking then Cafe Salon Naka-Oku is the perfect casual restaurant in Naoshima town to recharge your legs for more art miles.

The Cafe Naka-Oku is hard to find. Despite being a few minutes from the townhouse, your western phone map won’t show the tiny path cutting through the vegetable patches of the residential edge on Naoshima. Just follow the tiny sign and you will shortly arrive at the wooden cottage surrounded by green flora. People lining outside spark the light bulb in your brain. Arriving 15 minutes before the opening on a sunny day like ours, we did not mind the naturist wait. Once you miss the first seating however, you are set to linger and gaze into the forest behind the restaurant until the first round of diners finishes their meals. Beware, spiders are all over Japan, and Naoshima’s trees and bushes are wired through spider nets.

best lunch on NaoshimaJapanese food on Naoshima

Set like a masters painting in nature, the wooden house of Cafe Salon Naka-Oku seduces visually with beautiful Japanese retro meets antique interior. Despite being quite small, there are a few distinct dining areas to eat. The designer was playful. Ceramic bowls planted with leafy greens hang on wires from the ceiling. Behind the bar, an exhibition-worthy display of China blue glazed cups with matching saucers pulls curiosity in. Even the rectangular window, ideal for singles on a digital detox, frames in a contemplative vista. The pomegranate tree bulging with plush red fruit in November, like the wild persimmon trees dotted around the island, provide more outdoor seasonal cues. Inside, raw, untreated meets polished wood, hanging lamps, dinging clock, hand-woven baskets, all combined somewhat slow down time. The long bar veiled away from the kitchen is also set perfectly for the solo diners more typical in Japan than elsewhere.

best food on Naoshimaslow time

When invited in take off your shoes, wear the provided uwabaki over your socks and slip them into the box at the entrance (called genkan), and be ushered to your seat. Here, even your bag will be pampered in a straw box under your seat.

Cafe Salon Naka-Oku is a canvas for homely provisions including the warm service of the ladies who work here. On a windy autumn afternoon, walking inside embraces you with a cocooning welcome.

The beverage offering is humble yet intriguing. I went for a warm persimmon leaf brew, which I usually miss outside of Japan. Organic seasonal juices, local Shodoshima olives cider and a wide selection of coffee beverages, shoju and cocktails surely recharge you more. I was amused by the warning on the beverage menu: “Please note that alcohol is not available for those driving a car”. On a car-free island, where only special public buses operated by the Benesse foundation transport visitors and local workers, one must smile.

lunch on NaoshimaJapanese curry rice

In our lunch set A (¥380, 580 with dessert) a drink or glass of Japanese draft beer was included.

To start we got a small Potato salad. Simple, whipped with yolk-bright corn kernels, this was a refreshing cold snack opened our appetites for the wholesome dishes to follow. You get quite large portions for Japan. As our steaming platefuls arrived, each of us gasped at the comforting fragrance of the food. This is what you want to eat on a breezy, cool day. My husband ordered Japanese curry rice with a rich curry sauce, a spice-balancing splash of coconut cream and neon-bright edamame beans. He was all over the moon. As a rice lover, the steamed yellow curry flavoured Japanese-grown rice was very much to his liking. His spoon got lost in my own portion rice once.

I liked his curry, but my meal was the real deal. You must love eggs, for the frisbee of an omelette covered my entire rice, my protein load was generously filling. Watch and you will crave some eggy pleasure, guaranteed! Spooning into the hot hill of moist eggy pleasure revealed the molehill of steamed rice underneath. Italian organic tomatoes were used for the juicy sauce refreshingly completing the rich dish.

Seasonal locally-caught seafood, seaweed and homemade cakes such as in Japan popular baked cheese and chiffon cakes are other temptations worth considering, but full enough we kindly emptied our seats for the waiting customers outside. The generous portions set Cafe Salon Naka-Oku apart from the miniature Tokyo office lifestyle portions and bring it closer in size to the foodie Osaka. The later about two hours journey on a combo of a ferry and car from Naoshima. The train nearby is not a shinkansen, so it is slower.

Queue up early enough for this is one of the best (the favourite of ours and the foodie couple we turn to for Japan tips) places to eat on the art island.

Open for Lunch 11:30-15h & Dinner 17:30-21h. Closed on Tuesdays and public holidays.


Naoshima and Lee Ufan: expressive interconnection “exalting the self and the other”

Lee Ufan nudges you to see what you normally do not see. As in meditation, his work is not about ideas but rather transcendence of the self. The philosophical artworks express a momentous, site-specific relationship between the observer and the reality. Although he created sculptural interactions in the Kensington Gardens, in Versailles or at the Guggenheim in New York, nowhere his works resonate in evolving their wholeness as at the Lee Ufan Museum on the Naoshima island in Japan.

Naoshima, Lee UfanNaoshima, Lee Ufan

Beyond seeing, more feeling

The Art of Encounter in light and space — as much as in anything when art serves as the intermediary connecting the observer with the outside world — is the focus of Mr Lee. The artist may suggest, as he did at his personal museum, yet it is up to the viewer (my photo above) how she engages with and interprets the artwork. At the specific point of the day I saw more connection with nature of the Relatum sculpture with the sunlight and the tree, while the artists work included a broader scope of vision including giant concrete and steel poles.

Lee Ufan shared his hope that “artistic expression will lead to reflection and leaps of imagination” by creating “painting and sculpture that transcends the age of deconstruction and reinterpretation“. Around the world, his artistic discourse mediating the experience between an idea and reality, has engaged not only the visitors of leading galleries and contemporary museums, but also the passersby in London’s Kensington Gardens, where his rendering of another Relatum sculpture stopped your gaze fronting the Serpentine Gallery.

Perhaps for the artists’s accent on engagement and sensations of the viewer, the exhibition at his Naoshima museum concludes with a meditation room – a space with a white front wall painted with unframed “Dialogue” to expand the visitors’ experience through reflection and recollection of what they encountered in the artworks.

Site-specific art

At Naoshima, Lee Ufan Museum opened in 2010 to display more permanently the site-specific accent that the artist is keen to mediate. It is a unique experience felt distinctly with the changing seasons, so I recommend to any sensitive being to come and feel it on his/her own.

Architected, like the Chichu Art Museum and the Benesse House nearby, by his friend, the minimalist with a naturist eye Tadao Ando. The octogenarian is a leading creative figure transcending his native Japan into France (Museum at Château La Coste) and other countries. In fact, it was Mr Ando who brought Lee Ufan to Naoshima in 2007, suggesting the exact site of Kuraura for his first museum.

A painter, poet, sculptor but also a philosopher (graduated from Nihon University, Tokyo), his ideas and cultivated skills set Lee Ufan apart from most of the 20th century artists. Now in his 80s (born in 1936), he is pursuing his legacy not only through his teaching, but also in holistic spaces dedicated to his work as he intended it. His traditional, Confucian education, including calligraphy, he received in when growing up in Korea, then occupied by Japan, has formed his spiritual approach to art.

Lee Ufan Museum on Naoshima takes you on a sensory journey. You are not supposed to take photos, but in order for this experience to last in my failing memory I had to snatch a few snaps when nobody was looking. I am sorry, dear artist, but as a creative person yourself you must understand the fleeting nature of inspiration, and the works by Lee Ufan are one of those special things I connect with personally, so I need to see them through my lens, not in exhibition books and leaflets.

The Art of Encounter, a wonderful book about the artist’s fascinating philosophy, was published in collaboration with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery.

Displaying his prowess in light and space – the angle you take when engaging with his art such as in this image I captured first with the sunlight allowed into my frame, and seconds after with a lowered vision – changes the mood of his work. This was a few seconds moment in one’s life, but seen differently. As with an attitude, you can choose what you want to see. Relatum are series of spacial works spurred by Japan’s Mono-ha (‘School of Things’) movement, he was part of. The natural space relates with the material he uses creating a sensation of openness.

Naoshima, Lee UfanNaoshima, Lee Ufan

Titles as a small hint, service to the viewer

The time of the day also halos the here and now between you and the reality in front of you. I cannot more agree with Mr Lee’s about his outdoor works: “The landscape seems to be always changing. You can expect various experiences in relation to nature”. These photos of the sculpture (below) that was originally conceived at Versailles, titled “Porte vers l’infini”, taken only an hour apart, absolutely changed my perception of each moment. The first at 15:20 upon my arrival at Naoshima, contains more human noise and feels so sharp, while before the early sunset of late November at 16:30 the warmth of the moment embraces you with its natural calm.

The artist confessed in the Serpentine exhibition related book The Art of Encounter: “I often feel burdened about titling my works because a title tends to restrain the viewer’s interpretation of the artwork… There is a distance between the title and the actual work and the title is static while the artwork is a living thing that can be viewed differently anytime. So the title is perceived as a freeze-frame.” So as you walk through this rainbow gate, you glimpse the instance of infinity and its expansiveness. Whether facing the sea or passing back seeing the mountains, the sky unites all into an expanse of space. Infinity fascinates the artist, and he wants to open the source of your own imagination.

Naoshima, Lee UfanNaoshima, Lee Ufan

A dialogue, relationship and openness

His sculptures (3-D) open our awareness of space, while his paintings (2-D) interact with time. Starting with the Pole Place in front of the museum, moving to the Correspondence Place after the ticket office, exploring the Encounter Room, Void, Silence Room, Shadow Room, and ending in the Meditation Room, you are in for powerful and engaging experiences.

Inside the Lee Ufan Museum, the From Line, From Point, With Winds paintings express the magic of minimalism. In his hands, little says more than complex, purposefully visual reality reinterpreting paintings. In an interview published in The Art of Encounter he asserts: “In general, flatness of a painting represents individuality and ideality; the cubic quality of a sculpture represents generality and reality… For this, I attempt to mix 2-D and 3-D in my own way so the action of seeing can be considered as more multi-layered and dynamic.” This is why you need to see Lee Ufan’s works in their context like in the Encounter Room, not as inserts between other, unrelated works in packed museums. Unless, you witness the pure interaction between his sculpture set in nature. Then you can glimpse into the openness of the universe that he carefully unlocks for you. Clarity through the viewers’s experience is his goal.

Naoshima, Lee Ufan Naoshima, Lee Ufan

Spaces, places in Lee Ufan’s work: Japan, Korea, France

The artwork is not the same depending on how and where it is displayed“, Lee Ufan grasps the subtle energy of context that is particularly felt in his artworks embracing yohaku, emptiness or resonant space. Since his path to art is about the imagination and outer reality, not attempt for reproduction, he finds it important “to limit the parts of the work I make, accept the parts I do not make, and create a dynamic relationship in which these aspects both interpenetrate or repel each other.” Personally, I was immersed in his works, but could not explain what it was. As in my poetry, the sensation cannot be intellectualised, but when one’s awareness is opened, it can be felt. With me, the artist achieved what he hopes for: “the opening up of a poetic, critical, and transcendent space“, but for that a high level spirituality is required.

Ri Ūfan Bijutsukan was born in South Korea, but for most of his life created in Japan and later he partially moved to Paris. “At the intersection of three cultures, Lee Ufan’s work is universal and immediate in intent. Immediate in the sense that language is not a requirement: Ufan often describes how he made his first works while planning to study literature and philosophy in Japan, but failed to master the language. He opted for visual communication instead,” wrote Jean-Marie Gallais, the curator of the recent 2019 exhibition Inhabiting Time at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. Many sculptures found around Naoshima today are site-specific, engaging with the space they were installed on. Over a quarter century ago, The Benesse Art Foundation pioneered what is more common in today’s art world – showing works as unique intersections with reality at a specific location.

After Japan, Space Lee Ufan at Busan Museum of Art opened in 2015, and a new Fondation Lee Ufan Arles, currently scheduled to open in 2022 in the 17th century Hôtel Vernon, is being redesigned by [who else than] his Japanese architect friend Tadao Ando. “This Roman city, rich in history, was a catalyst for new ideas and thinking. I was inspired by the [potential for] dialogue between my work and the city’s fragmented ruins”, he writes on his foundation website. Arles has been reinventing itself as the new blood for artistic expression in the South of France. Far from the spoiled glitz of the Riviera and St Tropez and the commercial distraction of the major art selling cities (New York, London, Paris, LA, Tokyo, Beijing). I love visiting Arles beyond its summer photographic show, when the heat blurs my vision and clouds my mind. Next to the contemporary Luma museum, the Lee Ufan Foundation will draw more spirit-seekers into this beautiful Provençal relic.


Photo essay: Autumnal beauty and poetry of Kyoto

The autumnal beauty of Kyoto stirs the inner naturalist in any one of us. It is poetic and by far my favourite season to be in the former imperial capital of Japan, where the manmade meets its organic setting in a rising awe. My awareness of nature’s changing patterns increases in the fall. In winter one may be nostalgic for the sun’s rays, yet fall sparks with a renewal, hope.

In Kyoto, the no-mind zen meets artisanship of the shokunins and the manicured perfectionism reflected in the Japanese gardens. Wabi-sabi, seeing the beauty in imperfection is deeply imprinted in the Japanese aesthetic psyche, and the temple gardens as well as the widely admired crooked trees mirror this sensibility. Beyond the treasures of coloured fall poetry of Kyoto, the city is surrounded by wild lush hills. Particularly in the North, away from the tourist crowds, the leaf show unleashes a fine display late each November and early in December.

Ginkgo tree

I have been visiting the UNESCO heritage beauty for years. In summer − too hot, in winter too damp and grey sad, while spring brings an abundance of sensai (wild mountain vegetables) to the plates in the local kaiseki restaurants, plus all nature blooms. Still, Kyoto is not the ideal spot for the cherry blossom watching. Tokyo and other regions are known to be better for the golden gingko (hence its nickname the Gingko City) and the pink-white ruffles of cherry petals. Fall sparks a rainbow of natural hues on the entire island country, but the ancient capital offers more of a blend of history and nature worth a special trip.

Kyoto PalaceKyoto leaves

The sprawling city is easy to navigate on foot, by bicycle, bus, subway, train or car. The trains are particularly helpful in reaching the leafy suburbs. Beyond the buddhist and shinto temples gardens, the Imperial Palace and the Northern wilderness, the UNESCO heritage Arashiyama forest in the Northwest unleashes the poetry of Kyoto and casts an unforgettable photographic show. The crowds flood in thousands everyday right after the sunrise. The earlier you arrive the better, so you can savour the magic in tranquility. Ideally, stay in the area so can flop off your hotel before the sunrise and beat the ravenous visitors as we did.

Inspired by the poetry of Kyoto, I composed

One sees more with the magnifier of awareness

 

Such beauty accessible to all

Heightens the awareness

Elevates the mundane to celestial awe —

— the leaf turning crimson, painted gold, marvellous!

 

Change, ageing, all that we call fall

The cycle is hope

The wind’s fan rains the leaves down

I see magic, the metasensual

In this ephemeral experience of my own

 

The rested mind floats into the whole —

— zen nothingness captures happiness

Offering hand to the lost or lonely

Understand, and be one within all.

Practical tips for visiting Kyoto during the autumn leaves season

Climate change has been pushing the locally celebrated autumnal leaves changing season later into the year as warm weather signals to the trees to wait a bit longer before shedding their annual weight. Read more about the mysterious behaviour of trees in my review of Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees.

Since this is the high tourist season in Kyoto, you need to be savvy about which sights in which part of the day or night you visit.

The smaller or off-centre temples with marvellous gardens that have been so far to a great extend shielded from the human influx are Anraku-ji, Reikan-ji, Myokaku-ji and the Rinkyun-ji. A very limited access to the must ahead book Shugaku-in Imperial Villa also guarantees a less crowded experience. Avoid the Ruriko-in near the sacred Mount Hiei, Nanzen-ji and the surrounding temples on the eastern hillsides of Central Kyoto. The gated Kyoto Imperial Palace park is accessible from early morning so beat the ticket holders visiting the buildings by arriving before the palace opening.

Kyoto leaves

The garden view at Myokaku-ji

The trickiest side of the trip is to snap rooms well ahead and to be lucky to strike the heart of the leaves bright display. Hotels and ryokans are the most expensive in this period, the cancellation periods strict and inflexible (typically Japanese), so you can only pray. In particular the Hoshinoya Kyoto ryokan can be heroic to book. After years of trying, we took the rare opportunity to stay for a night in this historic property located at the leafy bank of the Hozu river in the heart of the Arashiyama valley.

Hoshinoya KyotoJapanese tea

Further, I was lucky enough to visit Kyoto multiple times during the fall season as it coincides with my annual Asia trip. At times, it was damp, grey and the leaves past their peak, looking as if they were caught in the open without an umbrella, their trunks and branches soaked by rain with the leaves withering on the floor. Luckily, the endless supply of temples, museums and very long kaiseki meals saved the trip. This fall, was blessed with scheduling the best week, so if you won’t make it, console yourself with my poem and the photo essay above. The poetry of Kyoto is in its pure existence.


Kichisen: refreshing the taste and style of traditional Kyoto-style kaiseki

My photo below tells it all: the focused gaze of the Kichisen’s master chef Yoshimi Tanigawa shows how much focus goes into his food and how much he cares to ennoble each customer’s delight from it. Tanigawa’s studies of traditional Japanese cultural arts such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement (ikebana), incense ceremony, calligraphy and poetry (beyond Bashō) widened his perspective on Japanese traditional gastronomy as he incorporates these cultural elements at Kichisen in Kyoto.
The chef focusing on his guest's impressions

Kaiseki highlights nature: keeping it grounded at Kichisen

The skilled chef participated in 1999 in a TV program ‘Ryori-no-tetsujin‘ (Iron Chef) defeating another Japanese master chef Masaharu Morimoto (now based in New York), yet his culinary star has not shone over his focus on his multi-Michelin star restaurant.

Kyoto kaiseki art seasonal kaiseki Japanese traditional food
At Kichisen Japanese kaiseki is served in a multi-course procession of seasonal delights. This traditional Kyoto cuisine is a mix of imperial court cuisine (yūsoku-ryōri), samurai cuisine (honzen-ryōri), Buddhist temple cuisine (shōjin-ryōri), and tea ceremony cuisine (cha-kaiseki). Kaiseki was originally a set of small dishes served during the tea ceremony that was perfected in Kyoto by buddhist monks centuries ago.
Amouse bouche
It is quiet, almost monastic inside every room in the house. After a warm welcome you will be ushered in. Take off your shoes and slide into the offered slippers. Wear your socks if possible. You might sit down in small, with tatami mats covered room, in a larger Western high table room or alongside a wooden counter in the Kai-no-ma room. A special room for the tea ceremony (Suisho-an) has to be specifically booked ahead. Located in the vicinity of Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, a UNESCO site, and the millennia-old forest of Tadasu-no-mori enriches the natural traditional ambiance as you venture in and out.
The signature runny egg a la Kichisen
Kaiseki is an art form rather than just a simple meal to sate one’s appetite. Each course is unique in taste but also in presentation including the utensils. As is characteristic of Kyoto cuisine, seasonal ingredients stay in the forefront. Reverence of tradition, triumph of ingredients while striving for new forms of presentation set apart Kichisen’s spirit of ‘discovering new things by studying the past’.

Michelin KyotoJapanese wagashi

Nature unveils itself in front of you in the “sakizuke,” which serves as an appetiser before the meal. Seafood, pickled vegetables and mushrooms were laid out like a foraging bonanza in a straw basket decorated by colourful local autumn leafs.

fatty tunaSashimi course in kaiseki

Following clear soup called “o-wan” prepared our bellies for the protein fellows of the kaiseki procession. “Mukōzuke” a sashimi (raw fish) often changes daily according to best possible quality available and served with a wide variety of seasonal condiments. Served under a straw cage decorated with the autumnal palette of the washed leafs picked in the surrounding garden, natural beauty was brought to our lips. O-toro fatty tuna was served simply over nigiri rice with freshly grated wasabi and pickled daikon.
"Nemo" served at Kichisen
The soggy material in a gold-painted bowl may look weird, but this is one of the chef’s signature dishes – the runny (onsen-style) egg à la Kichisen. Sprinkled with diced seaweed, an airy foam and a morsel of freshly grated wasabi. Its particular gooey texture can be challenging.
Nakazara” (middle dish) was more simple but also simply delicious as the whole ‘nemo’ steamed fish stared at me from the plate. The white meat was infused with fragrant japanese condiments and softly dissolved in my mouth with a sip of saké.

kaiseki
Art on the plate
More art on the plate came in “hassun,” a mixed platter of tastes from both the mountains and the sea. The November sea catch of boiled crab legs was enveloped in a thin wooden wrap, while the mushrooms from the mountains were hiding inside the beautifully painted ceramic house. I bet that children would enjoy eating anything served in this fairy manner.
Pineapple, fish and mushroom tempura delight at Kichisen
A “nimono” (boiled) soup-like dish arrived with radish and wasabi topping, followed by a “yakimono” (grilled) dish, which was my absolute favourite. I am biased to anything pineapple so I need to confess here though. The grilled thin slice of pineapple was rather in the background though, underlining the delicate sweetness of the fish and balancing the oily nature of the mushroom tempura.

gohan in kaiseki Japanese ceramicskaiseki courses

Then came gohan, a rice dish. A giant claypot of steamed rice arrived with two beautiful bowls to be filled. Autumn mushrooms, egg and condiments accompanied the first serving of gohan. After came a more complex pairing of the rice with gingko nuts and seafood.
Chilled apple with sorbet
The palate cleanser ( “kuchi-naoshi”) in the form of chilled pumpkin soup was refreshing. Later we were presented the suite of deserts. Announced by an exquisite devil-red iced apple with its sorbet mashed inside and refreshing chilled tomatoes so light and crisp like an autumn breeze in the gardens of Kyoto. This is a signature palate cleanser at Kichisen, sometimes served on ice snow together with other sweets. Next miniature delicate sweets balanced by powdered green tea (matcha whisked skillfully by the chef) to help with digestion. Balance achieved! Seasonal fruit delights and Japanese greenhouse strawberries can also brighten the finale.

Kichisen

Japanese lacquerDessert and matcha tea at Kichisen
Drinks: The wine list is concise yet impressive with the giants of Lafite, La Tour, Petrus and Mouton Rothschild figuring on its pages next to the Domaine de la Romaine Conti’s Montrachet. All hideously expensive, so going for a bottle of saké is not only justifiable but advisable if you do not know what to do with your yens. We love the chef’s suggestions. Served in small carafe so you can taste more or in a bottle, like the superb sake we had on our second visit.
The pure and delicious sake is wonderfully presented in a crystal jar served on a mountain of soft ice to keep it cold. It works just perfectly with the kaiseki style of Kyoto food at Kichisen.
Bottle of sake at Kichisen
Glass of sakeJapanese sake

It’s been a treat to our senses, a creative discovery of Japanese ceramics and glass work, as well as always a perfectly balanced meal for our dinners at Kichisen. Surely, this is one of the rare Kyoto restaurants where tradition meets contemporary sensibility.

Visits: November 2o13 & 2019 (this article was updated after the fall 2019 meal)
Price: Very high (superb ingredients, mastery of cooking and private atmosphere). Lunch starts at ¥8,000, dinner at ¥14,000.

Opening hours: Lunch: 12:00-2p; Dinner: 5-9pm
Address: 5 Tadasu-no-mori (Morimoto-cho), Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan.
Contact: + 81 075 711 6121


Nishikawa kaiseki Kyoto: sharing culinary tradition with an artist and host

On the same axis of the Kodai-ji Temple Nishikawa calibrates the balance of traditional ryotei cuisine with a casual and social ballast to the iconic, yet serious three Michelin star Kikunoi kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto. The pentagonal philosophy of traditional Japanese cuisine is adhered to with an unpretentious wink of the chef Masayoshi Nishikawa, who merrily engages in conversations, and above all, during the intimate encounter, he serves his selected sake and locally sourced food with a genuine happiness imprinted on his still youthful face. His – we-are-equals approach reminds of the Tokyo-based three Michelin kaiseki chef Kanda. The sense of humour did not evaporate from the kitchen, just look carefully at the photo bellow. 
kaiseki restaurant in KyotoNishikawa Kyoto
Entering the privacy of the ryotei through wooden sliding door, snaking along a narrow path, appreciate the minuscule Japanese garden. Then, perhaps wash your hands in the stone basin and contemplate the flower arrangements and art scrolls (a big bellied, bold-headed man with long ear lobes – must be sated, wise and long-living, I thought) while switching your shoes for the provided slippers in the waiting lounge. Clean and neat, your hostess Okami ushers you to your seat.
There are private rooms at Nishikawa, but since the chef-owner Nishikawa-san is very friendly and can speak some English, the more casual counter is best for the first-timers and foreign foodies. The low seats with hand rests provide enough comfort for the long meal. Here also, the counter dining is an open affair. An eye to eye contact with the chef directing his apprentices operating the grill assures delicious, not austere like at Hyotei, another Kyoto kaiseki, nor too contemporary Kichisen‘s style of food.
Nishikawa KyotoJapanese garden
Japanese scroll paintingJapanese sake
Behind the counter, chef’s single-edged knives (to glide through sashimi smoothly) proudly nest on a rack bellow two shelves displaying handmade Japanese pottery. The chef’s special sake, like a rare liquor gem pulls your curious eyes in to its container, an engraved crystal carafe with a sapphire blue bringing out an engraved snow flake. From the very broad selection of sake, this was my favourite, balanced and round, like the chef’s palate. First though, we were welcomed by a generous pouring of a yuzu sake stirring our taste buds in a fresh direction.
restaurant Kyoto
The most gustatory vibrant time to eat at Nishikawa is spring, when the crisp young bamboo shoots and sensai wild mountain vegetables such as fiddleheads and the slightly tingly kinome (young sansho pepper leaf) or kinako are used. Different colours, flavours, shapes, temperatures and textures are presented in a preset order of the kaiseki form. The Michelin Guide, awarding him two stars, says: Each dish is made memorable with playfulness and stimulates all five senses”, but there is more to Nishikawa’s cuisine than overthought culinary concepts, we tasted a locally curious soul in his delectable tasting menu.

Starting with a refreshing crab covered by a creamy and sweet saikyo miso sauce, green stem vegetables and leek-like white vegetables, to pair with the yuzu sake. Then moving springly to a katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes) broth with bamboo, sesame tofu, broccoli and tingly unopened wild buds of kinako served in an amber hued lacquer bowl, known as suimono, a clear broth, tuning our palates to the current season. A third course was mackerel sabazushi with spicy wasabi stems and pickled ginger. The marinated mackerel in its glittering fine scaled coat enveloped its sticky rice base tightly, so your fingers confidently flip the morsel into the mouth. A whiff of vinegar, the bite of the silver blue fish, like a waterfall flowing into a calm lake eases your palate in its mellowing stream of rice.

Followed an assortment of spring sashimi. White-fleshed fish is preferred in Kyoto cuisine, in April the sea bream is called after cherry blossom season sakura dai. A chewy red sea bream (madai) with umeboshi (sour Japanese apricots pickled in salt) vinegar and a duo of green bracken fern (warabi) shoots, a lobster with its intense sauce, and for the final bite escalating to a buttery rich Hokkaido uni. A comforting warm course was on call. The bowl of boiled, crunchy white asparagus shaved over with bottarga (dried and aged fish roe that Nishikawa-san adores) was superb. On the bottarga note a crystal-clear plate of Kekkon clam next to a wasabi topped rich clam liver of a fresh prawn texture and oyster taste looked unappealing but was delectable.

Grilled, yakimono fish course was reassuring the anago fans that Nishikawa shares his craft diligently with his cooks. The perfectly grilled sweet lake eel was served with an oily profiled nodoguro fish and Kyoto scallion (negi). An adorable, glazed earthen cup of hamaguri covered with a lid unveiled a boiled clam with green vegetables simmered in a broth (nimono). The clam felt like an oyster but less briny and more firm. Now, a plate for the adventurous – a fresh, crunchy and firm ark shell (akagai) with boiled octopus in mustard miso sauce and soramame broad beans with green pea zest – was great, worth the sea escapade. Great Japanese chefs know that akagai is at its best if eaten within minutes after removal from its shell, and so it was.

An awe on the plate continued. As if frozen in their death screams, two open-mouthed charcoal grilled ayu swam into our mouths. This freshwater fish is essentially eaten fresh. The crispy skin of the ayu had a firm bite. A bitter taste from the entrails calls for salt so the sweetness comes out on the palate, not for everyone though. A sea cucumber roe laid over the mini fishes was so intense, like uni, but more like a stinky cheese, required guts, yours, to swallow it with joy.

Welcoming then was a thick broth simmering in a smooth Honshu abalone with spring vegetables, herbs, a white fish tempura (agemono) that was just amazing! Multi-course meal is a blessing, sometimes.

Now a smooth, roasted houjicha tea was served with a gohan. Assorted on a tray (oshiki) of beef sukiyaki with raw egg yolk and daikon, Japanese cucumber and ume sunomono (vinegared), a miso soup with tofu and sticky rice that you mix with soy sauce and the egg – lusciously decadent, superb! The assistant inquires if you need more rice, reaching deep into his donabe pot of the steamy hot gohan. Sated, you must feel.

Still, light deserts end the kaiseki on a sweet note. Roasted and starchy warabi powder dusted a gooey mochi completing the spring tasting before a refreshing fanfare: Kyoto strawberries with sorbet and jelly served in a stunning crystal glass.

To drink, a beer, sake, green tea, water, but no wine, since that is not local. For sake, you pick a glass of your liking from the kimono-clad Okami. A rainbow of bottle labels stopped over at our seats, a veritable sake tasting requiring a considerable bravado to toast through with a clear mind. A Junmai Ginjo Karakara Beppin by Tojo Yamada Nishiki, a premium sake brewery since 1636, and a suite of other memory-fogging names followed. My husband did it all, I sniffed and sipped with a feminine restraint. The roasted green houjicha, sencha and at the finale of the savoury kaiseki tasting, served before the desserts, the Kyoto staple of perfectly smooth matcha tea is whisked, with an assistance of his apprentice, by the chef himself.

Away from Kyoto, the engaging chef Masayoshi Nishikawa leads occasional cooking classes and demos at the Tokyo Peninsula.

Still, traveling to the ancient imperial capital rewards with an authentic experience. Unlike at most kaiseki restaurants and despite its location in the gaijin dominated Gion, mostly the Japanese, not many tourists dine at Nishikawa.

Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday 12noon (L.O.); Dinner: 6-8pm (L.O.)

Closed Sundays except before a Public Holiday and Public Holiday Mondays.

Price: Lunch menu: ¥5,400-21,600; Dinner: ¥16,200-32,400 Service charge 10%

473 Shimokawaracho, Shimokawara-dori Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

+81 (0)75 525 1776


Kumano Kodo: finding the ethereal spirit in the Japanese forest

Animist, buddhist and shintoist confluence of peaceful coexistence is awakened on the Kii peninsula of Japan. For more than a millennium, ancient pilgrimage routes have, like ropes of hope, connected the moist and verdant mountain peaks in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park. The most famous from the ‘lucky’ seven Kumano trails that originated in the 10th century are the Buddhist Koyasan and the Shinto Kumano Kodo, of which the Nakahechi trail is the most sacred. The later is also more visited by the Japanese due to its higher cultural value today.

Reverence of nature in Japanese culture

Here, in the southernmost crest of Honshu, the largest of Japan’s islands, the spirit of the forest has for countless generations attracted not just nobility, but all social levels, religious sects, and also including women. The rigidity of Japanese rules contradict the spiritual flexibility in the quest for worship. The first imperial capital, Nara, sealed the proximity of the mundane beauty of the forests appreciated by the entire society in Japan. The second and longest imperial seat – Kyoto, remains within a walkable distance (months) to he grand shrines of Kumano. NATURE is GOD in the shinto belief system. Shinrin Yoku or bathing in the forest is a spiritual retreat in solitude. Walking mindfully has been considered therapeutical even by the Japanese Government since the early 1980s. As much as two thirds of the islands are covered with dense, mossy, tourmaline forests.

hiking JapanKumano Kodo

Staying at ryokans is the ultimate weekend escape for the Japanese city dwellers. Like maternal love, nature has umbilically nourished humanity, and the Japanese appreciate this nurturing relationship. The humble, traditional inns nest in their natural environment almost invisibly – as if their habitable wooden skeletons were not to disrupt the organic waves of solitude. Alongside the Kumano Kodo there are hundreds of ryokans and onsens (hot springs), some public so you can jump in for a small fee even when not staying overnight.

I lodged hours away at the contemporary luxurious magnification of the discreet ryokan. Northeast from Kumano Kodo the Amanemu opened recently on the Ise Shima National Park grounds by the meta-sensual Aman group. The distance allowed for only a full day trip, so with a generous bento box I embarked on the locally most revered pilgrimage, the so-called Kumano Sanzan. This most visited route on the Nakahechi trail is abundantly scenic as all of the three grand shrines nest in these valleys nearing the Pacific. My guide Kimi, born in Kumano, took me through a less frequented section at first – snooping into the rural dwellings, tea gardens, persimmon and ume plum orchards, my kind of a hike! I’m a spy of an authentic local life when I travel, therefore connecting the spirit of the beastly forest with the frugal life of the mountain people stirred a nirvana in my childishly curious mind. What a learned though was sad, the by the city magnetised youth became disenchanted by the slow but longevity promising life of the countryside so increasingly many of the charming dwellings were abandoned.

Japanese tea gardens

Japanese tea garden

Named after the mighty Kumano River, once flooding the mountainous valley with its spring swell of melted snow, a namesake city by the seaside rose up with the pilgrims pouring in. Like in my native Czech Republic, the river’s name changes as it curves through the different valleys and villages. We curved along and then towards the Yuya-gawa River swelling away from the Hongu Taisha. About four to seven hours curvy coastal drive from Kyoto, ages past only horses and your feet could trot the sacred mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Kodo means pilgrimage or a spiritual trail, and today the unmotorised passage is in some way the leftover of the ages long gone. There are countless “kodos” in Japan, with an overstretched history reaching past thousands of years, but Kumano Kodo is the essence of Japanism. All the grand emperors wandered up, around and down the ghastly mountain passes, some trumping their fit predecessors crossing with their comfort ensuring suite the entire trail dozen times. Their phenomenal accomplishments, battered with frequent rain spells, were engraved in the honourable stone tablet facing the colourfully restored trio of buildings at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine. Three milestones mark the end of the weeks lasting pilgrimage – the three Shinto shrines:  Kumano Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha (known for the tallest waterfall in Japan – Nachi-no-Otaki drops down from 133 meters). I have explored two of them, one deep inland, the other near the Pacific ocean, keeping the more easily accessible waterfall in the shroud of mystery to motivate me coming back.

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Split in two, our seven kilometres long walk embarked from a verdant hamlet to the Kumano Kodo Hongu Taisha, then a car cut our journey to the Pacific side Hayatama Taisha where we just reverently wandered around the colourful shrines. It was late April, Wednesday, yet the midweek pilgrims mushroomed on the trails. The foreigners (mostly Australians) were hiking in the forest, while the Japanese on buses and in cars parked themselves right in front of the saintly shrines, bowing, clapping and bowing again, purchasing good luck amulets and taking group photos. More than the usual shrine traffic, the forest rewarded the mind with a spiritual boost, caressing your thoughts with a flow of gentle strokes, allowing thus for a deeper insight into one’s life. I began to identify with the ‘nature is God’ religion of the Japanese. Trotting through the bamboo groves and the spring spikes of their young shoots, the refreshing and sturdy sugi cedar forests, spotting the lower than me fiddlehead ferns, seahorse curled zenmai and the fens of the ostrich fern kogomi, mugwort known locally as yomogi, the unfamiliar cute nomenclature of the Japanese flora that sounds so exotic in restaurants (especially in the laborious kaiseki meal) softened up on me, settling like a butterfly friendly in my memory as the origin met the product served to me by nature.

Japanese cultureHonesty stands

Yet the Japanese today have a love hate relationship with the oldest sugi tree survivor. Cryptomeria japonica, often called Japanese cedar in English, triggers an annual allergy epidemic throughout the country. In spring, the pollen tickles the sinuses of a fifth of the population. As my first visit of spring Japan revealed, sneezing and watery eyes penetrate the densely populated cities. The hay fever, known as kafunshō, troubles the new generations so much that new pollen-free species replant the predecessors. In 2007, Toyama Prefecture’s Forestry Research Institute christened the first of the engineered species Haruyokoi, which means welcome, spring. The over two millennia old (some scientist believe as much as 5000 years old!) jomon sugi on Kyushu are designated as UNESCO World Heritage together with the younger, millennials only, yaku sugi. Trees, the lungs of the green Planet, like the cedar forests in Lebanon, they survived wars, centuries, and now the changing climate commiserated by our convenient activities, are not having their greatest moment on Earth. In his best-selling book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohllleben (his surname means “living entirely, wholesomely”) suggests the communication and the feelings shared between trees in a native, wild forest, trekking the Kumano Kodo offers to any sensitive human an opportunity to listen, to participate in this talk of trees. Then, perhaps, your relationship with them and the entire cycle of nature will change for ever.

sugi Japanese Cedar trees

Japanese Cedar trees knows as sugi

The ethereal spirit in the Japanese forest offers itself freely with each straddle of your urbanised feet. The sacred is found in nature, and shintoism is a folklore, the core of the Japanese culture. The divine “kami” gushes through the veins of / surrounds you in trees, rivers, waterfalls, boulders, animals and certain holy places. Kumano Kodo hives countless kami in its vast precinct, and you recognise them by shimenawa, a rope twisted around their usually vast circumference. Jizo, a stone carved boddhisatva dressed in a mossy coat, often with a red bib, guards your journey. You do not just get lost, but if you pray or leave him some gift (5 yen secures good relationships), it protects children and travellers, and is tended mostly by women who lost their child. There are treacherous pests in the nature here to be shielded from. Venomous snakes like the Mamushi or the aggressive Suzumebachi hornet like demons can usurp your life. The smart wiki warns that it is more painful to humans than typical wasp stings because hornet venom contains a large amount (5%) of acetylcholine”. For some their sting can be deadly, so checking the first aid instructions ahead and call 119 for multi-lingual assistance in the case of emergency.

Kumano KodoShinto cleanliness

As a symbolic act of inner purification in the Shinto philosophy, all sacred places are heralded with an addendum of a washing basin or a well. Wooden or tin ladles gather the living essence of nature to clean one’s mouth, then both hands (left first) ending with the rinse of the holder with respect to others. Japanese ceramic cups as a courtesy to fellow trekkers nest nearby the wells with drinking water. Alongside the Kumano Kodo hundreds of such washing rituals take place as you wander past the soon familiar statuettes of Jizo. Goohoin, an evil warding amulet also known as Goshimu that keeps you safe, you hope. The shrines and historically significant spots like the Fushiogami-oji view that rewards the pilgrim with the first glimpse of Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine. Here, pilgrims fall on their knees and pray, well they did, as now it is more photographing and posting online by the foreign visitors who boost their achievements in an instant. This verdant hilltop is where a legendary female poet, Izumi Shikibu, who walked the Kumano Kodo trail, got her period prior to entering the shrine, distressed she wrote a poem about her curse of impurity.

Beneath unclear skies,

my body obscured by drifting clouds,

I am saddened that

my monthly obstruction has begun.

The tale ends happily as the Kumano deity appeared and allowed her entering “impure”, in replying: How could the god who mingles with the dust suffer because of your monthly obstruction?

Kumano KodoJapanese forest

There is a legend about almost any boulder, notable tree or view point. Kumano Kodo is welcoming to any open soul as well as to the plainly curious traveler. Honesty stands offer food for a small fee, shaded from the sun and the frequent rain spells. Replenish your bodily energy with local honey, oranges, tangerines, nuts, pickled umeboshi plums, and other seasonal bounty. I wondered how anyone can make money from this, and my guide responded with a chuckle, widening her narrow eyes. This is Japan, hardly anyone would steal or not pay the exact amount. In contrast, high moral values do not necessarily apply to eco-consciousness since almost every edible item for sale was sealed in plastic, the environmental plague that has haunted the overtly sanitary Japan for decades.

equalitysugi Japanese Cedar trees

Compact tea plantations surround the inhabited settlements. Most of the green and whitish tips are for family use only, but some of these precious high mountain teas are commercially sold and offered at the tea houses along the route. We lingered with an elderly lady vendor selling wild asparagus that my guide Kimi loves so she purchased some, her backpack being large enough for souvenirs. I was offered to sample her various pickled concoctions with the ume plum, a local specialty, pickled with vinegar into pinkish umeboshi. Sealed tightly, they survive any journey. Mine grappled with the inflight altitude multiple times on my way back to Europe.

wild asparagusumeboshi

Our walk was nearing the end. Once more, I was struck with a renewed wonder, even joy from witnessing the human devotion to the spirit of nature that found its ambiguous shelter enveloped in massive, ancient camphor trees. Entering to the Hongu shinto shrine through a Torii gate, that like a door into one’s house separates the common, ordinary space from the sacred, clean, lovingly tended shrine of intimacy, we left the wild for the human world. For a small sum you can purchase a wish plaque called Ema to bribe the deities. Compared to the original offering of horses in the past, the picturesque objects sold conveniently in the vicinity of each of the grand shrines were indeed just nickels. Superstition is an Eastern toy, so Omamori, yet another evil-sparing amulet can be customised to your needed area of protection, but I did not buy into trinkets. After washing my sweaty hands, I am bowing twice, deeply, ringing the bell, again twice, offering coins, clap, clap, and bow once more. Humility and worship (a bounce of the dangling bell, incense lit and prayer recited) is mandatory at each shrine, so respect the believers and play along, arigato!

Kumano KodoKumano Hongu Taisha

Ever since the UNESCO recognition, Kumano Kodo ceased to be the gateway to a thoroughly undisturbed solitude as it once was. It is more social today. The meditative spirit of the forest is being wrestled out through the abounding human presence as the loud voices in groups enter the sacred land it still is for the Japanese. Still, some days you may be alone.

Traveling to new destinations enlightens us, but there are some journeys that inspire deeper, mind-changing thoughts. They are the wells of contemplation. In the Japanese forest you will explore silence and the charm of simplicity, that allows for happiness to settle in your life. And not last, abide by the pilgrimage etiquette, which besides the cleanliness and respect instructs you to “greet others with a smile and warm heart”. A happy trail.

UNESCO World Heritagebamboo forest

Practical advice: It rains a lot on the region, therefore a waterproof jacket, shoes and a foldable umbrella will comfort any weary hiker. An English speaking guide can cost as much as 48,000 JPY (I booked through my hotel AMANEMU that is about four hours drive from the nearest hiking spot). The signage is bilingual in English and Japanese. Like along the Camino de Santiago, the Christian pilgrimage and the only other UNESCO protected trail, the frequent stamp stands along the Kumano Kodo validate your presence in your pilgrimage “passport”. Further, the walkways of Kumano Kodo are well tended, and approachable to any level of fitness. The water in the natural sources along the route has not been tested, and is inadvisable for thirsty human mouths, so hydrate well at the numerous inns and refreshment stands.


Farm to table soba at Tamawarai Tokyo

Eating Japanese soba noodles at Tamawarai Tokyo is a slow food act with a Michelin stared attentiveness to quality. For most Japanese eating lunch at a sobaya is a rushed experience in any fast metropolis on the island country, but not at Tamawarai, where fresh and hand-cut “te-uchi soba” is slowly made and served in a snail pace. The meal starts in a waiting lounge just by the entrance, where the call for tables is being made, one at the time.
The traditional Japanese house where Tamawarai resides stands out in the contemporary residential core of the commercial Shibuia-Harajuku area. A short stroll will transfer you from the hive of caffeinated shopping to a serene spirit of zen.

Simplicity breaths out from its minimalist interior, only a handful of barren tables, laced with stiff, straight wooden chairs and a counter along the wall with small windows letting in just a pinch of daylight. The ubiquitous solitary diners at tiny Japanese eateries call to my mind a prison, be it an indulgent confinement to one’s mind and the meal served often with a muted non-engagement of the server. Some foodies revel in this focused experience. Whether it is meditative or in other way soothes their over-stimulated urban minds, only they know. To me, eating alone is enjoyable for a day or two, but then I seek company, a table full of people sharing the meal’s bountiful pleasure.
Despite the claustrophobic restraint, dining at Tamawarai Tokyo is a happy meal. Our lunch there was a shared affair with friends, injecting in an engaging conversation, plus ordering most of the menu and tasting it all, not wasting a morsel.
The meal at Tamawarai is not just about the long thin spaghetti-like, yet naturally gluten-free soba. You should order the splendid starters and sides. A group of five can share one of each. We doubled the favourites like the perfectly soft rolled egg omelet, the umami reeking baked shiro (sweet white) miso, the pickles or the freshly strained house tofu topped with a dab-full of fresh, pungent wasabi. In spring a cold fern salad is on the menu, their firm bite reminded me of blanched string beans. The grilled mackerel was good, but not outstanding, and can be ordered before or with your soba. We all agreed that the tofu and the miso overshadowed through their brilliant yumminess the main deal at Tamawarai – the buckwheat noodles.

For my main course I ordered the house speciality of zaru soba, soba served in a bamboo basket that’s dipped into a soy sauce. A side of crispy seaweed complemented the noodles with more umami. Two of our friends went for the chilled hiyakake soba in a delicate broth slurped like a cold soup. A hot broth version is “kake soba”. Farming its own buckwheat for the wholesome “Juuwari soba” noodles, so powerful on the palate and visually dark that you suspect if any other condiment was blended in, but as you chew slowly the softness of their soba made of 100% buckwheat flour ground daily in the kitchen, sates you fully with its high fibre content. At first, only a small serving is placed in the bamboo straw basket before you are asked about another round. This waste-reducing portioning is practical also for the diner who mindfully assesses his/her level of fullness.
You must come early if you want the tempura shrimp pickled in Saikyou miso and deep fried served over the soba, otherwise you can have the noodles just with the wasabi and soy sauce.
At Tamawarai sip on soba-cha, a caffeine-free warm beverage brewed from roasted buckwheat groats, that is confusingly referred to as tea. There is beer and sake too put for a complete Juuwari soba experience, try the vitamin-rich soba tea.
Tamawarai Tokyo: 5-23-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Lunch Wed-Fri: 11:30am-3pm; Sat 11:30am – 8pm & Sun: 11:30am – 4:30 pm; Dinner Wed-Fri: 6-9pm; Closed on Mondays
+ 81 3 5485 0025


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