By way of welcome the university paid for us to have a slap-up dinner at a specialist tofu restaurant. Slap-up is much too vulgar and indelicate an expression to describe the experience, but it was delicious by every single account.
The restaurant was your classical, cinematographic, Japanese dining experience. Many of my friends are actors or are involved in theatre, and we once discussed how the law, the church, and the theatre were one and the same. Being a waiter in Japan has to be added to that list.
We headed – late – to Dazaifu, the ancient administrative centre of Kyushu. In the 7th century, when the Koreans were threatening to invade, Dazaifu became the forward command base for the defending Japanese. The place is full of gorgeous wooden buildings, most oriental, with swooping roofs and pedestrian streets, and Tori: red, Shinto arch-gates. We marched up a satisfyingly winding hill-road, negative ions in abundance, and came to a low, tiled wall. The place was not obviously restaurant-y; at the entrance shoes are removed and bows exchanged. I had a few seconds of confusion with the extremely smiley, extremely pretty, extremely bow-y waitress, asking where I might put my bag. She indicated that I should keep it, and so I placed it in the corner of the room (that’s right, a whole room to ourselves) we were in. Little did I know that ornate silk blankets had been prepared to keep our bags warm and comfortable throughout the duration of the meal. That, chers amis, is customer service. And bag service.
We “sat” at two “tables”. What I mean is, we kneeled (happily, Japanese gender politics being as it is, it’s acceptable for boys to sit cross-legged, phew!), at some extremely low tables. Much footsie was had by all, huzzah. I sat with Rory-san (Laurie), Dom and Matt along with Ikehara-sensei, a big-wig from the Uni, and Kim-sensei, cheeky Korean extraordinaire.
侘寂 (wabi-sabi) is the apogee of Japanese aesthetics. Wabi-sabi lauds simplicity, closeness to nature, economy, imperfection, asymmetry and delicacy. Wabi can be translated as isolation, or that feeling of smallness you get when you look up at the universe and sense your own insignificance. Sabi is slenderness, coldness or withering.
The Japanese architect Tadao Ando put it thus:
“It's simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.
Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It's a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It's a richly mellow beauty that's striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time-Katherine Hepburn versus Marilyn Monroe”.
Our dinner was wabi-sabi in surroundings, and in flavour. The walls were white, the doors paper. There were small windows at the bottom of the sliding doors that allowed kneeling waiters to peer in, but not passers-by to see. At the edge of the room, near where I sat, a strip of glass revealed a carefully raked garden, dimly lit, as if, and perhaps by the moon.
The portions were tiny but numerous. Red-snapper sashimi; a jelly made of tofu and fish, with richly flavoured mushrooms at the bottom; a clear soup; steamed abalone and lotus root; miso soup; pork dumpling with searing mustard arranged on its crown; a platter of different tofus, one crunchy, one wobbly, and one so thick and creamy as to almost be custard.
Beyond the delicacy of these little courses, the food got more japanterous. Dom and Rory-san had ordered beef instead of Abalone, and so got little heating stones, with a paper shield to keep the spitting oil away, and two lumps of beef. They sat and orally orgasmed right in front of me: either they were teasing us, or, as they claimed, it was the best beef they’d ever tasted.
Also, throughout the meal, there was a huge vat of steaming soy milk in the middle of the table. As a skin formed, you took it in turns to extract the skin and get it into a cup (not the easiest thing to do with large cooking chopsticks, flasks of sake running with your blood, and steam scalding your hands). You could the add a special sauce and some lime zest.
Our tofu skinning skills diminished as the night progressed, and that was because, as in so many places in Japan, it was all you can drink. We kampai-ed with Kirin beer, but then moved swiftly on to more exciting beverages. The sake was just excellent. Though the Japanese word for hot is 暑 (atsui), there’s a special word when it comes to talking about sake being hot: 熱燗 (atsukan).
I should préciser, also, that sake is the general word for any alcoholic drink in Japan. A fine Bordeaux is sake, beer is sake, 99p Lambrini from the offie is sake. Japanese rice wine as we know it in the west is either Nihon-shu or o-sake.
The main revelation of the night, however, was something called 梅酒 (umeshu), made from stepping ume, a type of fruit, in alcohol. I think it’s plum wine. Whatever it is, it is gorgeous, delicious and whatever other adjective you care to use. So good.
Drunk, they chucked us out after a few hours, and we proceeded to a jazz bar which, mercifully, had no jazz music. I drank Glenmorangie and then Moscow Mule (cocktails are really popular here: you can get cans of 5% cocktails (Sex on the Beach, Screwdriver, Tom Collins) for around 75p in supermarkets).
It was a wondrous evening: lots of Japanter, excellent food, and a new experience with which to hollow out new caverns in the spongy stuff in my skull.