Miyako no Shokubunka

miyako no shoku bunka

The Museum of Kyoto's exhibit on Kyoto food culture

The poster looks tempting, or so I thought when I first saw it large outside the Museum of Kyoto, which is between my home and work, so I've seen the poster almost every day. What it says loudly in Japanese is nicely translated into English at the top: Traditional Food Culture in Kyoto – the history and charm of Kyoto cuisine and vegetables, and it's on display until April 16th. How fascinating. What might I learn, I thought, so when I finished work early one afternoon, I stopped by the museum on my way home.

(You may ask why Kyoto people have so much pride for their vegetables, which is easily explained if you look at a map. Kyoto is in the middle of the Japanese main island, about equidistant from the Japan sea in the north and Osaka bay in the south. Traditionally, there was little fish in Kyoto, which means also you don't go to Kyoto for their sushi… let's have a moment to sigh deeply… But their vegetable dishes can be exquisite in both flavor and aesthetics.)

However, after paying ¥1000 with an excited sense of anticipation, riding up to the fourth floor of the museum on an elevator, and getting off at the exhibit, I felt a little misled. I should have asked myself beforehand, "What could a museum exhibit about food?" Museums exhibit preserved objects for viewing. Food is for consuming and is difficult to preserve.

At least I got a general review of the different kinds of cuisine lumped together under the term "Washoku" (Japanese cuisine). First there was Honzen Ryori 本膳料理 (Literally, "food on raised trays"). Raising food onto trays is a way of offering it to the Shinto gods or to someone exalted. This was apparently how the members of the Japanese court ate all the way back in the Heian period (794 – 1185). Shojin Ryori 精進料理 is Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.

Then, Kaiseki Ryori comes in two versions (written in different Japanese letters). Kaiseki 懐石 are meals for extended tea ceremonies. These meals came from the Buddhist practice of monks putting hot stones in their robes to stem their hunger (hence the second character meaning stone) and developed into simple tea breaks and eventually into equisitely prepared yet humble meals accompanying tea ceremonies. The other kind of Kaiseki(会席) is what you will find in fancy Japanese restaurants throughout Kyoto, elaborate meals of many small dishes in multiple courses.

By the end of the exhibit, my head was spinning from A) the overexposure to untranslated Japanese texts, which I can read only slowly (obviously, the little bit of English on the poster was seriously misleading), and B) the desire to eat. My recommendation for anyone unable to read Japanese is either take a Japanese friend along or don't go. It's not really worth the entrance fee. I should probably have spent the money on a nice lunch that would have given me a more intimate experience.

On the positive side, the exhibit got me thinking about all the kinds of foods I want to try here in Kyoto. The options are practically endless. Wouldn't it be great if Kyoto put on food events, perhaps along the lines of Paris' Le Fooding? One wonders… and feels one's stomach growl. Time to find some food. Ittadakimasu!