Sitting on the floor, in a minimally furnished room, makes a great meal even better

Dining in Japan.

During a recent trip to Japan, my husband Paul and I were eager to try Japan’s highly acclaimed food. We had read about the fresh fish. We knew about the marbled cuts of beef. We had heard about the lightly fried vegetables. As we’d come to find out, eating in Japan isn’t just about trying a delicious cuisine, but also appreciating the entire dining experience. The simple elegance of Japanese food, coupled with a minimal dining environment, makes eating in Japan delightful.

Dining in Japan can be difficult if you don’t know the language. We wandered into a small Japanese restaurant, starving and sleep deprived after a 13-hour flight upon arriving in Tokyo, bound to try “authentic” Japanese food. “No English menu,” the hostess warned. We smiled and nodded as we made our way to the sushi counter. Our confidence dwindled and fear set in as we were handed menus comprised entirely of Japanese characters. We pointed to filets of fish in the case in front of us. We tried dropping the English pronunciations of “tuna” and “beef” in hopes the staff would understand. Truthfully, we had no idea what we ordered and dreaded what the bill would be.

Twenty minutes later we breathed sighs of relief when a young waitress appeared with a large bowl of sashimi (pieces of raw fish), followed by a piping hot bowl of miso soup with a chunk of tofu and thin slices of beef. The simplicity of the meal allowed it to burst with flavor. The fresh fish, which we lightly dipped in soy sauce mixed with wasabi, was delicious and a welcome change from the chewy or sometimes slimy stuff you find in the States. Plus, the bill was surprisingly inexpensive, given the amount of fish we consumed.

Even elaborate meals are simple at heart. We met our Japanese friends in Kyoto and spent a hot and humid morning seeing massive temples and shrines. It was our first trip to Japan, and we were impressed by their grandeur and history. Come midday we were starving and followed our friends’ lead to a restaurant for lunch. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and decided to let myself be surprised.

Upon arriving we were directed to the restaurant’s second floor, where we were asked to remove our shoes before entering our own dining oasis. I was struck by its simplicity. We had our own dining room, minimally furnished with a large table, a small painting, and vased flower; a sliding door secured our private space and removed all stimuli. Calmness filled the air. It was much different atmosphere than dining in America, where tables are so close together you inevitably hear others’ conversations over music a few decibels too high.

We sat on tatami mats, which lined the floor, supported by a thin cushion, as two women wearing kimonos brought a succession of courses: miso soup, lightly fried vegetables, white rice, tofu, and sashimi, beautifully arranged on small plates or bowls. A room devoid of distraction, visual and auditory stimuli, enhanced all of my senses. As a result, I savored the conversation and the meal, which proved to be one of my fondest memories of our trip.

While the multi-course lunch engaged my senses, the tea ceremony got me to focus. After we were greeted by our bilingual Japanese host, Paul and I removed our shoes and entered a modestly decorated room, a few tea-making utensils, a vased flower, and a single artwork were the only adornments, and sat on the floor — this time without a cushion. The simple environment made it ideal for learning about the tea making process, which is steeped in history and tradition.

Our host, dressed in a gray kimono, humbly explained she’s been trying to learn the tea ceremony for thirty years. We watched intently as she knelt nearby and began the tea-making process. Every step is deliberate: the “matcha” green tea is whisked until it has the perfect froth; then the cup is turned so the decorated portion faces the guest to enjoy. And enjoy we did, including the single sweet treat that accompanied it. But it was the simplicity of the experience that made the tea ceremony memorable. Etched in my mind are the details of how I felt sitting on tatami mats that lined the floor, trying to get comfortable, fascinated by the tea rituals unfolding in front of me.

Paul and I enjoyed the Japanese diet immensely, and have incorporated elements of it upon our return to America. We began eating a copious amount of fish and vegetables. Yet, sitting at our kitchen table before filets of salmon and a pile of greens, I quickly realized something was missing. The seafood is indeed better in Japan, but that wasn’t it. For us, food quality was only part of the entire dining experience; the environment was the crucial other part.

We didn’t remove our shoes and sit on the floor for every meal in Japan. Nor did we have our own dining room but a handful of times. The times that we did, however, showed us that reducing stimuli awakens all of your senses, not just your taste buds. As a result, you become physically and mentally present. The simplicity of Japanese food, fresh and in its natural state without heavy sauces and preservatives, coupled with a minimal dining environment creates a serene atmosphere — and an unforgettable dining experience.

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