OF ZEN GARDENS AND MISO SOUP
Milan, 3 December 2016
Back from Kyoto, and still with a bad case of jet lag (it’s 4 am and my wife and I are sprawled on the living room couches, wide awake), it’s time to review the three weeks we spent in that city. Apart from the misery cause by the American presidential elections and the pleasure derived from teaching a course on sustainable industrialization to a group of eager youngsters not yet affected by the pessimism of old age, what else will I take back with me from my three weeks spent in Kyoto?
Ever since I first visited the city thirty years ago, Kyoto for me is first and foremost the place of Zen gardens. I have already written a paean to these rock gardens in a previous post, so I will not repeat myself. I will simply mention the pleasure I derived from visiting several rock gardens which I had not seen thirty years ago (or even five years ago, when we came for a brief visit from Beijing). My wife and I decided that our daughter, who came to visit us for Thanksgiving, just had to see a couple of these glorious creations: “he (or she) who has not seen a Zen garden has not lived”, to surely misquote someone famous. We took her to the gardens in Tofuku-ji Temple as well as those in Kennin-ji Temple, both at the foot of that range of hills which runs down Kyoto’s eastern edges and which is constellated with temples. The garden in Tofuku-ji was laid down a mere 75 years ago, in the last years of the 1930s. It gives one pause to think that these so very peaceful gardens were created when Japan was ramping up its war effort towards the disastrous conclusion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years later.
The garden was designed by Mirei Shigemori. This was his first major work and it made him famous (at least in the small world of landscape gardening). The work consists of four gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The largest, and best known, is the south garden.
It is dominated by four clusters of massive rocks. Standing imposingly at one end of the garden, they represent the mythic, far-off isles of the immortals.
Their shores are “washed” by a sea of raked white gravel, which leads the eye to five moss-covered mounds at the other end. These represent the five main temples in Kyoto of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, one of whose temples is Tofuku-ji.
This garden obviously has its roots in the design of the far more famous zen garden at Ryoan-ji.
Shigemori’s departures from the classical zen garden style were far more radical in the other three smaller gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The north garden has a checkerboard pattern, with square paving stones embedded in moss, that gently fades off into randomness, thus drawing the eye to the stand of Japanese maples beyond.
The west garden repeats the checkerboard motif, but this time with a dense array of square-cut azalea bushes.
The small east garden departs from the usual use of rough stones, inserting instead seven truncated stone cylinders (recycled from the temple’s old outhouse) into the usual “sea” of raked gravel surrounded by moss. Shigemori set the pillars out like the stars of the Big Dipper, Seven Northern Stars in Japanese.
These last three gardens caused much frothing at the mouth by the traditionalists but also drew much praise from the garden landscaping avant-garde. I leave it to readers to decide in which camp they want to be in. Meanwhile, I will move to the second zen garden which we visited with our daughter, the gardens in Kennin-ji. These gardens are a good deal more venerable, as befits the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.
The same design of gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall is found here. We have here the main garden, where, in contrast to Tofuku-ji, the monk-designer allowed a fringe of vegetation along the far border of the garden.
On the other side of the Abbot’s Hall, we have a smaller garden that invites the visitor to step over it to a beckoning tea house.
(unfortunately, the path is off-limits, but the determined visitor can reach the tea-house through a more circuitous set of stepping stones).
We have a moss garden enclosed between buildings and walkways.
Finally, squeezed in between several buildings, we have the small, compact “circle-triangle-square” garden
so-called because it is said that all things in the universe can be represented by these three forms (at the risk of being irreverent, though, I see the circle and square in the garden but I don’t see a triangle).
Switching gears dramatically, these three weeks in Kyoto also reanimated the love which my wife and I have for miso soup, that most Japanese of all soups.
Readers may think I lack gravitas turning in this way from the glories of Zen gardens to the humble miso soup, gentle handmaiden to the flashier main courses of countless Japanese meals. But I feel there is a strong affinity between the two: spare simplicity in the assemblage of the constituent elements, yet delivery of intense pleasure to the senses.
What is it about miso soup’s ingredients that give it that unique taste, to be found in no other soup? It is a question which I have asked myself every time I sip on its delights, yet it is only now, in my jet-lagged haze, that I turn to the Internet to find out.
The answer is the miso paste. It is this paste which, mixed with the traditional Japanese stock “dashi”, is at the heart of all miso soups. Other ingredients that are added, such as silky tofu cubes, finely chopped spring onions, and seaweed, are – if I may mix my culinary metaphors – merely cherries on the cake. Digging further, to my mind the magic of miso paste, what gives it that so very special taste, is the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. I should perhaps explain that miso paste is the product of a fermentation process; here we have the fermentation taking place the traditional way.
Our friend A. oryzae works its fermenting magic on a mash of soybeans and salt (to which other grains such as barley and rice are sometimes added). This is what the little critter looks like through a high-powered microscope.
My internet searches have also turned up the interesting fact that there are many kinds of miso paste, depending on the length of fermentation. At the less fermented end of the spectrum, we have white miso, lighter in colour and taste, at the more fermented end, we have red miso, darker and with a stronger flavour, and we have different colourings in between.
As one might imagine, there are regional preferences in the colour of one’s miso paste and, by extension, one’s miso soup. We must have been eating white miso soup since that is the preferred colour in Kyoto (while red miso soup is preferred in Tokyo, for instance).
After all this, my eyelids are beginning to droop. Maybe I’ll be able to get in a few hours of sleep before the new day dawns and have sweet dreams of visiting Kyoto once more. There are more Zen gardens to visit and more miso soups to try.
Tofukuji-south garden-1: http://kyotofreeguide-kyotofreeguide.blogspot.it/2010/04/tofukuji-temple.html
Tofukuji-south garden-2: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3930.html
Tofukuji-south garden-3: https://www.artflakes.com/en/products/japan-kyoto-tofukuji-temple-landscape-garden-1
Ryoanji garden: http://www.123rf.com/photo_21419380_zen-garden-in-ryoanji-temple.html
Tofukuji-north garden: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toufuku-ji_hojyo7.JPG
Tofukuji-west garden: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/121832697
Tofukuji east garden: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/121832672
Kenninji gardens-1: http://www.yurukaze.com/tag/kennin-ji/
Kenninji gardens-2: mine
Kenninji gardens-3: http://www.wa-pedia.com/japan-guide/kenninji_kyoto.shtml
Kenninji gardens-4: http://asian-images.photoshelter.com/image/I0000NbQQcA_e4yM
Miso soup: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/lH7pgsnyGrI/maxresdefault.jpg
Aspergillus oryzae: https://sites.google.com/site/microbiologiecours/support-de-cours/mycologie
Miso pastes : http://www.thekitchn.com/the-best-type-of-miso-for-miso-soup-tips-from-the-kitchn-215117