Jennifer Telfeya is a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Bra, Italy; and works at Eataly NYC.
I embarked on my eighteen-hour journey to Tokyo with zero itinerary, a completely inadequate international cellular plan, and a tenuous understanding of wabi sabi. The lack of planning did not worry me; I was excited to blindly trust the advice of the few locals I knew and would fill in the gaps of my days’ plans each morning when inevitably the thirteen-hour time difference would wake me before the sun and I would silently peruse travel blogs of those come before, searching first and foremost for markets and restaurants that were not to be missed, neighborhoods to explore, temples and parks to visit, and the most direct subway routes to said destinations. Wabi sabi was another story. A Japanese aesthetic philosophy and world view that finds beauty in imperfection, venerates the transience of all things, wabi sabi is subtle and nuanced and reveres authenticity above all else. It can be found in Japanese art and pottery, poetry, and Zen gardens, tea ceremonies, and theater. In the knots and twists of a piece of drift wood, in the impermanent beauty of a single flower. It evokes a familiar sense of melancholic longing. There is no English translation for wabi sabi. I was instantly fascinated when a friend introduced me to the ancient philosophy weeks prior to my departure, and as is often the case in 2015, had done just enough research to have a completely unfounded confidence in my shallow, nebulous grasp of its meaning. So when it came time to consider what I wanted from my ten days in Tokyo, diving as deeply as possible into the cuisine was of course at the top of my list, followed in close second with finding wabi sabi.
I made good on my goal to become intimately familiar with the local cuisine, as much as a reasonable person can while respecting the anatomical limitations of how much one can actually consume in a ten-day period. The supermarket staff below my friend’s apartment grew accustomed to seeing me each morning holding up a packaged pastry asking, “Anko?” confirming that the doughy concoction I held in hand was indeed stuffed with sweet red bean paste and not a savory curry surprise like it was one morning. I put away enough anko in all its forms during those ten days that you would have thought it was my job. And every type of noodle under the rising sun. And yakitori, Japanese meat skewers, and steaming bowls of ramen – never mind the 95 degree heat and matching humidity to boot. And of course gobs and gobs of raw, beautiful fish, best as breakfast, alone in a quiet forgotten hole-in-the-wall at the Tsukiji fish market. I braved nattō, fermented soybeans, which is really not that bad, but should never be described or discussed prior to sampling. And there were impeccable Japanese vegetables, some raw, often pickled, bowlfuls of the tiniest fleck of a fish, and a curry dinner that is best forgotten to the sands of time. And I was the world’s luckiest girl because I got to enjoy unagi, eel, three times during my days there, which has to be the most unctuous, delectable food that this world has to offer. And sake, of course, and matcha, and Japanese whiskey, both neat, and as a canned highball served chillingly fresh from a 7-11 convenience store.
But wabi sabi evaded me. I searched for it high and low in my wanderings throughout town. In the gnarled wood upon which my utensils at lunch rested, the artistry and precision with which my matcha and red bean treat were served at the Hama-rikyu tea house, the gardens of the Meiji Jingu Shrine, in the stoicism of workers on the Tokyo metro in the morning. Surely there were glimmers of it among the soaring trees of the Tokeiji Temple in Kamakura, in the bamboo bowl into which my sake overflowed, and the quiet business of flower arranging at Eatrip restaurant. Like most truths in life though, the harder you seek the more elusive they become. One evening over dinner, with my legs curled under me at the tea table, cramping in unimaginable ways, I asked Eriko our native host to tell me about wabi sabi. After a few stalled attempts to define it, she gestured to the tree branches, hung just so inches above my head and declared that they had wabi sabi, and then as a means of indicating that the conversation was finished, insisted, “But where did you hear about wabi sabi?” I was not to find wabi sabi by asking for it.
Five days or so into my Tokyo adventure I hit the inevitable wall of culture shock that often accompanies trips to new lands, when the novelty of kanji character wanes, and you just feel isolated by your total inability to communicate your most basic needs, or understand a single item on restaurant menus, and all of those frustrations that in the moment feel monumentally huge but are really just the foreignness that we craved that led us there in the first place. That particular day the weight of the Tokyo heat felt more unrelenting and unkind than it had in days prior, or perhaps it was just accentuated by my frustration of once again being led to a dead-end address thanks to the pitfalls of technology. When I finally found my destination, a kissaten, tearoom, I joyfully collapsed into my chair in the corner of the small, modestly air conditioned cafe. Two middle-aged women with green kerchiefs covering their hair and matching aprons tied around their waists elegantly bustled to and fro, taking orders, ringing up tabs, and making ohagi, hand-packing sweet red bean paste around fist-sized mounds of mochi rice. Naturally, as this was red bean paste, I had to order one for myself with an iced coffee, complete with coffee ice cubes, served on a pristine lacquered tray with the sweetest pitcher of cold cream alongside. The world slowed as my treats satiated my physical hunger and wish of gentle comfort. I studied the aging housewife in the corner sporting thick-rimmed glasses as she went to work on her own ohagi, relieved to see that she too delicately sawed at it with her chopsticks. I was at a table for four, alone, when a few locals trickled in, all strangers, who were seated at the three remaining seats. One lady ordered an enviable dish of soba, topped with a magazine-worthy fried egg that had me wishing I had space within for two lunches. But it was seeing what was presented before the two gentlemen that really lit me up like a four year old at the zoo meeting the elephants and giraffes of her children books for the first time – a fluffy mountain of the finest slivers of shaved ice delicately piled up to the height of their chins, flavored with what was perhaps matcha and definitely sweet red beans. Watching them devour their frozen masterpieces before the heat of the day could wrangle its grasp on the dreamy concoctions, I felt a wave of something distantly familiar swoosh over me. A melancholic tenderness, witnessing the visceral, childlike joy shared among the four diners in the corners of that table as we each communed with the dishes laid before us. A moment of pure pleasure, alone, measured against nothing and no one.
I wish I could say that I recognized it in that moment, but it was only later once the experience of Japan settled and metabolized into my being that I realized that there in the puddles of near empty bowls was wabi sabi.