Ninja and samurai still haunt the streets of this castle town on the sea of Japan.
By Will Aitken
When my friend Akiko announced that we were travelling 450 kilometres — from Tokyo to Kanazawa — for dinner, I was skeptical. I'm not much of a foodie, I just like to eat. And wasn't Tokyo itself full of wonderful restaurants, 150 of them with at least one Michelin star and a handful with three?
"But this is a very special restaurant," Akiko said, "and Kanazawa's a beautiful city — after Kyoto, it's the largest city in Japan that wasn't bombed during the war, and so its samurai, merchant and pleasure quarters are intact." So stuff to see as well as eat: I was game.
Now that I've experienced Zeniya, I can say that I would gladly walk from Tokyo to Kanazawa to eat there again. If you haven't eaten at Zeniya, you haven't really tasted the variety, freshness and beauty of Japanese cuisine, nor chef-owner Shin-ichiro Takagi's innovative yet tradition-steeped approach to creating meals that appeal not only to taste but to every other sense as well.
We met chef Takagi at Kanazawa's open market on a sunny morning. He led us past iridescent blue-, yellow- and pink-scaled fish so fresh, a lot of it was still jumping, past piles of glistening molluscs, big trays of serried rows of squid and in one place, at Takagi's request, the shopkeeper pried up a couple of floorboards to show us a gaggle of snapping turtles crawling about in a shallow pool.
"We don't have a set menu at Zeniya," he explained. "It all depends on what's fresh in the market, and on what I sense customers want or need on that day. For instance, it's now September, so I'm looking for a nice hamo fish, a white fish that looks something like an eel, which is very popular here in late summer and early autumn. I've been thinking a lot about your meal because I know you're jetlagged and vulnerable, so I want to do something that will warm you up a little and create inner harmony, too."
In a second open-fronted shop that offers decorative items for the presentation of food, he bought small wooden cages, gold-filigree pods of the Chinese lantern plant and six plain wooden boxes.
His arms laden with his new purchases and an assistant carrying stacked Styrofoam boxes of fish on ice, Takagi took his leave of us. Akiko and I intended to spend the rest of the day checking out Kanazawa before reconvening at Zeniya that evening.
Not that kind of ninja
Kanazawa, a city of a half million inhabitants located northwest of Tokyo on the Sea of Japan, is a little out of the way for foreign travellers, which is too bad, because it's enormously popular with Japanese tourists. And after spending even a few hours there, you'll understand why.
Western tourists who make it here often head immediately to the world-famous Ninja temple. Its real name is Myoryuji Temple, which disappointingly has nothing to do with Ninja assassins, but once you get over that, the temple yields its spectacular secrets. Built in 1643 at a time when powerful Tokyo-based shoguns ruled Japan and regional daimyos, or feudal lords, had their separate and often warring fiefs, it is basically an enormous and highly ingenious booby-trap.
Kanazawa daimyos used Myoryuji Temple for Buddhist worship and as a way of protecting themselves against rampaging daimyos or shoguns. Tokyo shoguns restricted the size of temples the daimyos could build in their districts to two storeys. From the outside, the temple looks as though it satisfies those limitations, but inside it’s actually a four-story building with seven internal layers.
Before touring the temple, guides give visitors a stern lecture about straying from the group and not opening any doors on their own lest they be swallowed up by Myoryuji. For instance, if you stand in front of the traditional offering box at the temple entrance to throw in a coin or two, you risk plummeting into a hidden oubliette. Secret staircases run throughout the building, along with trapdoors, secret chambers and, most chilling of all, a seppeku (or ritual suicide) room which, once entered, offers no way out. The room is covered with four tatami mats to remind you of your proper purpose here –— the number four is pronounced the same way as "death" in Japanese.
Memoirs of a samurai
Kanazawa's nearby Nagamachi samurai quarter is one of the few extant ones in Japan. Its almost featureless streets are lined by the high stucco garden walls and sturdy wooden gates of samurai villas. Kanazawa has long been a prosperous town — the elegance of the Nomura House, a samurai dwelling open to the public, attests to this.
Traditional houses in other parts of the city are generally low-built and narrow because dwellings were once taxed according to their street frontage. But the intricate blue-tiled roofs of the samurai villas rise high above their garden walls, their interiors as sumptuous as they are spacious.
The Nomura villa features a drawing room of intricately swirled cypress-wood, trimmed with ebony and rosewood designs. An upstairs tearoom overlooking the garden is the perfect spot for a bowl of bitter green tea. The garden, which at first looks tiny, gradually expands as you drink and relax, taking in its details, from moss-covered shrines and brief curving bridges to the brilliant-coloured carp that glide to and fro in the narrow streams feeding the small central pond.
Nearby shops sell objects made with gold leaf — Kanazawa, which means "golden marsh," is said to have been founded by a peasant who discovered gold flecks in nearby wetlands — as well as delicious local pastries and artisanal ice cream (try a scoop or two of durian-flavoured ice cream sprinkled with gold leaf).
A few hours later Akiko and I are seated at two of the six seats facing the long zelkova-wood counter of Chef Takagi's restaurant. Zeniya has six private dining rooms as well, but for the full dining experience the counter offers the best seats in the house.
First, because Takagi acts as both chef and server (along with two young assistants), constantly interacting with his guests, joking, asking questions, describing what ingredients he's using and why. And second, because it's fascinating to see what comes out of this very basic open kitchen — there's only a backsplash of rough white tiles, a wide grill, pale wooden cupboards, a couple of stainless-steel mini-fridges, two small shelves for condiments and such, and that's it. I could imagine throwing together a grilled cheese sandwich in such a barebones kitchen but not much else.
Effortlessly Takagi conjures up a multi-course chef d'oeuvre while never losing the conversational rhythm. A tall, robust man, he speaks English fluently, having attended university in the US. On a small 18th-century blue-and-green porcelain dish he lays out thin slices of sea bream sashimi and then sprinkles them with lime and coarse salt (Zeniya uses four different kinds of salt).
When I comment on the beauty of his porcelain and lacquerware, he produces a photo of a sumptuous dinner he prepared at the Manhattan residence of the Japanese ambassador to Washington. "I took nine suitcases full of dinnerware with me, because they're the most important part of the meal."
The dinner was arranged by Manhattan's Gohan Society, a group of high-flying gastronomes devoted to Japanese cuisine. "The Zagats were there," Takagi explains, referring to the authors of the famous Zagat guide, "along with the food editors of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal."
Another course — there were so many I lost track — began with one assistant placing wooden discs before us while another with metal tongs set a heated stone ringed with fine salt atop the discs. We picked up morsels of shellfish meat with our chopsticks and lay them out to fry on the hot stone. The cooked meat was slightly chewy, but also sweet and almost buttery rich.
Savour the sublime
When Chef Takagi placed two black lacquer bento boxes before us, Akiko lifted the lid of hers and gasped. It looks more like a jewel box than a course. In one corner a bright yellow chrysanthemum turned out to be a lid — underneath was the hollowed-out rind of a half lemon stuffed with ruby salmon roe.
In a blue bowl, two green gingko nuts impaled on a pine needle; a tiny, intricately carved slice of carrot; and a minuscule slice of roast duck. An aquamarine vase the size of a thimble held a morsel of abalone liver that made foie gras seem bland and very old hat.
The gold Chinese lantern seedpod contained a single shrimp stuffed with egg yolk that had been boiled in spring water and miso, as well as a chunk of tofu the size of your thumbnail, chockfull of nuts and currants. With its multitude of delicate and yet pronounced flavours and colourful palette, this bento box turned out to be the highly condensed version of a grand banquet.
]The last course (excluding dessert) of any Japanese meal is always rice — in fact "gohan," the word for rice, can also mean "meal."
Our rice came not in a bowl but rather a lidded wooden box. "I've prepared a special rice dish for you," Takagi explained, "it's meant to represent the forest floor in autumn." I removed the lid to find a multicoloured landscape made of slivered gingko nuts and chestnuts, tiny shrimps, shredded chicken, perfect miniature potatoes the size and colour of a penny, and everything sprinkled over with black sesame.
It seemed as if we'd eaten very lightly because each new dish was just a biteful or two. About halfway through the rice box though, I was feeling not simply full but nearly satiated.
But with just enough appetite left we managed not one but two desserts. The first was two perfect Muscat grapes and a quarter of a pear sprinkled with pomegranate seeds; the dense sweetness of the grapes, mild graininess of the pear and the crunchy seeds made this simple dish a textural wonder.
But it was the second dessert that made me sit up and beg: a glossy black, Oreo-sized rondelle with three streaks of palest white across it, so soft and smooth-looking it seemed on the quivery verge of melting before our eyes. "I used black molasses," Takagi said, "and white lily root to represent three geese flying south in autumn."
"Is this a popular meal?" I asked Takagi as he served us black-glazed bowls of green tea. For a moment he looked aghast. "Oh, no. I never make the same dinner twice."
About the writer