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Just outside the gates of Myoshinji, a Zen temple complex in the North section of Kyoto, lies Ajiro, a shojin-ryori (vegetarian temple cooking) restaurant that serves some of the most delicious and elegant food in the city. The restaurant, which is named after the woven hats worn by zen priests, was recommended by Reverend Daiko Matsuyama, the young abbot at Taizo-in. My husband and I had attended his lecture on Zen Buddhism, received meditation instruction, and enjoyed a private tour of its lovely gardens, and we were eager to extend our peaceful day. Matsyuama-san not only made the reservation, but in true Japanese form, escorted us to the lobby and deposited us safely in the hands of our kimono clad host after modestly declining an invitation to dine with us.

The two-storey building is small, the sign, discreet, and we would have had a hard time finding it on our own, but the restaurant is famous among Kyoto residents for its creative use of seasonal Kyoto vegetables in the subtly-flavored Kyoto style. It also supplies many of the banquet meals served within the temple grounds and provides meals for worshippers, travelers and even mourners attending wakes. Regardless of the occasion, meals are served on classic bright red lacquer ware. We were seated in a private tatami-mat room on the second floor at low individual tables. Around us, byobu screens depicted scenes from The Ox Herder, a zen parable of the mind on its way to enlightenment. The bold brushwork of the painting and with the formal style of the room set an elegant and mindful mood. Each course was served, one by one, in the style many know from kaiseki cuisine, but shojin-ryori is actually older.

Shojin-ryori emerged after Prince Shotoku Taishi converted to Buddhism in the 7th century and the ruling class adopted a vegetarian diet, and has been a big influence on Japan’s cuisine ever since. Far from the humble meals that sustain monks and nuns, shojin-ryori was elevated to a high art fit for the Imperial court and the aristocratic ruling class. Since shojin-ryori uses no meat, fish or dairy, even for that all-important flavor enhancer dashi (the katsuobushi is omitted and dried shitake mushrooms are sometimes added) it has to be more inventive than regular cuisine. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy shojin-ryori at some of Japan’s most famous temples, but I prefer Ajiro’s straightforward celebration of each ingredient to other styles where vegetables are made to look, or taste, like fish or meat.

The meal started with a small sip of ceremonial sake served in a red lacquer saucer. Then, a light umeboshi tea was served with a tiny terrine of zuiku (zucchini stems) nasu (eggplant) alongside the wanmori (simmered dish), a large age-dofu pocket filled with gingko nuts and yurine (lily root.) Tiny yuzu flowers perfumed the flavorful, clear broth. A beautiful mound of pistachio tofu (goma, or sesame tofu, is the norm) garnished with shiso flowers and freshly ground wasabi melted in my mouth with rich and creamy sweetness.

Next, the hassun (appetizer plate) arrived: an exquisite display of broad beans, pumpkin tofu, namafu wrapped in bamboo, and a single elegant piece of inarizushi with black sesame seeds. This was followed by kogane udon (which looked like soba but was made of soybeans) covered with nama yuba (raw soymilk skin).

The next course was my favorite: kamo nasu (a round form of Kyoto eggplant) dengaku. Half an eggplant was roasted to creamy softness, then covered with sweet miso sauce and sprinkled with toasted walnuts. The combination was surprising, meaty and thoroughly satisfying.

The rice course was next, signaling the end of the meal: plain white rice with hijiki, fresh pickles and miso soup with yuba dumplings and ki kurage, an aptly named, jellyfish-like fungus that grows on trees. Dessert consisted of chilled watermelon and a small herb dumpling.

Enjoying such a beautiful, elaborate and delicious meal, good for body, mind and spirit, is a rare luxury, and the experience inspired me to be more creative with my vegetable dishes and to treat them with more respect. How often do I buy vegetables only to have them go bad because I forget them? How unforgivable that is in Buddhist thought, where one is taught to cherish all life and to be thankful for the hard work of the farmers and workers. The experience also encouraged me to slow down, and be more mindful in order to notice the subtleties of life. I think that this, along with the inspiring words of Reverend Matsuyama encouraging me to meditate, will stay with me for years to come.

Ajiro is located just east of the south (main) gate of Myoshinji. English is not spoken, and reservations are essential, especially since it is included in the 2010 Kyoto/Osaka Michelin guide and is bound to be popular. At 3,150 yen for an eight course lunch, it is an amazing value. The menu varies with the season, but will no doubt include some of the tofu dishes listed above.

Pistachio tofu at Ajiro
Above: Creamy pistachio tofu is served with shiso flowers, shoyu and wasabi.
28-3 TeranomaemAchi, Hanazono, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto
TEL: 075-463—221
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