Exclusive Dining in Osaka
One of the most extraordinary dining experiences of my life took place in a traditional
Japanese restaurant in Osaka. This culinary event was kindly bestowed on me by a family friend, Mr. Tadokoro,
the dynamic owner of Uokuni, one of the largest and oldest food catering companies in Japan; he is also the
proprietor of Ohnoya, an exclusive Japanese style restaurant famous for its authentic and artistic cuisine.
Ohnoya is a traditional ryotei which offers Kaiseki cuisine to an elite clientele. Often there are geisha present,
who are hired at an exorbitant rate to take meticulous care of important business clients, politicians,
celebrities or foreign guests. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a traditional Kaiseki meal
with two accomplished and delightful geisha in attendance.
The art of kaiseki cuisine has its roots in Buddhism and dates back hundreds of years
to the origins of the tea ceremony. The basic guidelines for this haute cuisine is that it celebrates nature
by featuring fresh seasonal ingredients designed to imitate leaves, trees, flowers, mountains, rivers and sea.
The shapes, textures and colors of the food are all displayed to reflect these elements found in nature.
There is a sense of culinary theatre as each course is respectfully served with quiet grace and charm.
A specific movement of courses is followed which includes an appetizer, a clear soup, a fish dish,
a mountain and sea dish, a grilled course, a simmered food, a deep fried course, a vinegar style
dish accompanied by rice and pickles, a final course, and then a selection of seasonal fruit.
These courses are all served on hand painted porcelain, lacquer bowls and boxes, handmade wicker
baskets, rare pieces of pottery, and other exquisite serving dishes that subtly suit the food to
the appropriate season. Since I was visiting Japan in the autumn season, our menu focused on such
seasonal ingredients as chestnut, matsutake (pine) mushroom, sweet potato, persimmon, pumpkin,
and seasonal fish. Each course was a visual and edible work of art following a tranquil traditional order.
For hours I sat transfixed by this extraordinary meal of highlight after highlight during which time
the geisha paid rapt attention to each miniscule detail. In between entertaining us with classical dancing,
traditional songs and shamisen (three string instrument), they also impressed us with their knowledge
of English and current events, humored us with anecdotes and jokes, and made sure we were comfortable at all times.
It was a truly memorable dining experience.
Tojo's Cooking Roots
It is in this exclusive restaurant that one of Vancouver's most popular chefs was influenced
and trained. Nearly forty years ago, Tojo was an apprentice at Ohnoya Restaurant in Osaka. After three years of
intensive training and highly disciplined work in this ultra traditional restaurant in Japan, Tojo arrived
in Vancouver to begin his successful career as a charismatic and creative sushi chef. Arriving on the West Coast
just as Vancouverites were being introduced to Japanese food, Tojo began creating original food items like
California Roll (crabmeat and avocado) and BC Roll (barbecued salmon skin). Tojo realized that many Canadians
were unfamiliar with eating seaweed and raw fish, so he created inside-out rolls using familiar Canadian ingredients.
Tojo's idea was to gradually woo the locals over to accepting raw fish as an appetizing food item on a menu.
Now world famous, these original rolls were followed by other equally delicious inventions such as the Spider Roll
(soft shell crab) the Dynamite Roll (tempura prawn) and the Great Canadian Roll (lobster and asparagus) to name
but a few. Using his traditional Kaiseki food training, Tojo began introducing other original Japanese delicacies
to Vancouverites who were now becoming addicted to sushi, sashimi and typical cooked dishes from Japan.
'Chef, we're in your hands...'
In 1988, Tojo's was opened to the delight of his many fans. Now Tojo could continue to create
original food dishes as well as offer a type of Kaiseki cuisine which he had studied in Japan. His own version of
this traditional Japanese cuisine focuses on several key points: fresh seasonal ingredients like organic vegetables
and wild fish, his own artistic creativity, and the budget and preferences of the clients who visit his restaurant.
With these points in mind, Tojo then proceeds to create 'omakase' style dishes for adventurous customers who prefer
to put themselves in the chef's hands and be served one-of-a-kind dining experiences. Customers include regular
Vancouverites, celebrities from all around the world, Japanese businessmen and their families, politicians, and
visitors willing to savour food that is pleasing to the eye as well as to the palate.
Restaurant Hall of Fame
On May 8, 2006 Tojo's creative culinary talent was recognized, and he was inducted into
the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame. The people of Vancouver are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to dine
on exquisite edible art created with passion by a chef who has had extensive training from one of the most renowned
traditional restaurants in Japan.
City of Extremes
Tokyo is often described as an animated kaleidoscope of noise, neon lights, action,
shops, restaurants, department stores, cars, trains and people. View Tokyo from one perspective, and it's sophisticated,
technologically advanced, and high tech. View it from another angle, and it's traditional, formal, quaint, and oddly old
fashioned. Twist the kaleidoscope again, and the city throws a curve that is kooky, distorted, and on the edge of
something weird. Turn another corner, and the city is instant teenage nirvana: cheap clothing shops and 'fruits' - kids dressed
up in gothic, Victoriana, space age or cutsie pie costumes in which they parade about popular hang outs in downtown Tokyo.
There are also the ex-pats who all tend to look a little off kilter. I'm not sure where our biracial family fits in.
We certainly don't stand out like we used to. On my honeymoon in Japan in 1990, passengers on the subway used to touch
my blonde hair and look at my Japanese husband and me in open mouthed amazement. Now in 2006, Tokyo is blasé
about mixed marriages and their hybrid offspring.
Celebrating the New Year
New Year's Day was spent strolling briskly to the neighborhood temple to pray for
our relatives and hope for a healthy and happy new year. The weather was crisp and cold but we quickly warmed up by
tasting different foods from the market stalls lining the temple courtyard. Our favorite item was noodle soup seasoned
with a pungent chili spice called kanzuri. (This tangy but mildly spicy paste is flavored with a Japanese citrus called
yuzu. The chiles used to make this seasoning are laid out on the snow in order to add a depth of flavour and also to take
the edge off the hot spice. The paste is then fermented for three years).
The next day we visited a family run sumo stable outside of Tokyo to participate in
their traditional New Year's mochi (sweet rice cake) pounding. The sumo wrestlers take turns pounding the rice into a
chewy cake that is served with sweet red beans, grated daikon sauce, or fermented soy beans. We were lucky enough to meet
Koto Ohshu, a charismatic baby faced Bulgarian, who is one of the most popular sumo wrestlers at the moment.
Escape to Snow Country
For a few quiet days in the New Year we were able to escape the sensory overload of Tokyo and retreat into a small mountain resort in Japan's snow country. Nasu is a quick ride by bullet train north of the capital and is famous for its onsen (hot springs). Nasu is also where the royal family has one of their summer retreats. Our small family run hotel was located high up in the mountains buried beneath two feet of freshly fallen snow. Every morning we donned cotton yukata (cotton kimono) and geta (wooden sandals) and slipped and stumbled outside across the snow to the hot springs. After dutifully scrubbing our bodies until they squeaked, we would then soak ourselves in a steaming hot springs overlooking the valley below. Thirty minutes of bliss later, we would shuffle back to the hotel to the dining room where we were then served a traditional Japanese breakfast.
Exquisite Culinary Experience
This healthy breakfast consisted of rice, miso soup, pickled daikon with ginger,
salad, grilled fish, seaweed, and Japanese style omelet. Lunch was usually an amazingly simple but
satisfying soup with home-made noodles, wild mushrooms and mountain vegetables. Snacks throughout
the day included intensely sweet mikan (mandarin oranges) or miniature artfully crafted cakes flavoured with chestnut
or red bean and served with green tea. Since it was the New Year, our dinners were banquet style
feasts with a dozen fascinating dishes and courses using traditional and seasonal ingredients: shabu shabu made from
Kobe beef and quickly cooked in soya milk; spectacular miso soup flavored with miniature lobsters: creamy,
melt-in-your-mouth morsels of tuna sashimi; fresh uni served in its own sea urchin shell; rice flavoured
with chestnuts or wild mountain mushrooms; exquisite bowls of edible vegetable art; silky custard flavoured
with gingko nut, shellfish and shitake mushroom. At the end of the day, we would again slip across the snow,
scrub our bodies until they glowed, and then submerge our abundantly fed selves into the boiling hot onsen.
With exhausted limbs, we would then shuffle back to our tatami rooms to sink our contented bodies onto
surprisingly comfortable futons. Sleep came swiftly. We returned to Tokyo feeling replete, relaxed, and rejuvenated.