Like a lotus growing from the mud of a murky pond, Gesshinkyo is a still point of serenity amid the hubbub of Harajuku. Its simple wooden door lies just steps away from Omotesando’s fashion boutiques and preening temples to high-end spending. But when you step past the the coarse-woven hempen noren you find yourself in an oasis of calm and cultured refinement.
The look is utterly traditional. The hallway has a tokonoma with incense, candles and an ancient block print of Buddhas. The walls are of cracked mud, with wooden beams and pillars. A young assistant dressed in a gray country-cotton tunic greets you with appropriate formality. You will, of course, have a reservation (Gesshinkyo does not accept drop-in customers).
Having removed your shoes, you will be ushered inside — larger groups to tatami-covered inner rooms, couples to a wide, dark wood counter from where you look directly onto a large, no-nonsense kitchen that is spotlessly clean.
The master of the house, Toshio Tanahashi, wears the indigo samue work clothes of a novice monk. This is no affectation. He studied Buddhism and its culinary arts at Gesshinji, a simple nunnery on the outskirts of Kyoto where the adepts — led by the indomitable Rev. Myodoni Murase, now in her 80s — live off the produce of their kitchen garden.
From this ancient tradition of vegetarian cuisine, known as shojin ryori, he has developed his own style of cooking that is entirely relevant to contemporary Tokyo. Despite the obvious Zen influences, Tanahashi’s food is a far cry from the dainty, highly sweetened dishes of the effete temples on the tourist trails of the ancient capital. Instead, he draws on an earthy rural tradition in which the body must be nourished no less than the spirit. This is not merely kaiseki with the meat removed, it is a celebration of the manifold possibilities of the vegetable kingdom. For Tanahashi, fresh seasonal roots, greens and wild mountain herbs are not embellishments to remind you what month it is — they are the banquet itself.
There is no menu. Tanahashi serves only one set dinner each evening, a substantial 12,000 yen, 10-course affair that roughly follows the traditional sequence. It is his boast that every meal will include some 35-40 different vegetables, many of which may be unfamiliar even to people born and raised in Japan.
The exact ingredients will naturally depend on the season. Thus in early spring sansai (wild mountain plants sped down to Tokyo from remotest Akita) form the centerpiece of the meal. Up to last week, Tanahashi was serving several varieties of bamboo shoots. This month, he is starting to feature specialties of Okinawa — not just goya (bitter melon), but several other vegetables rarely found outside the subtropical southern isles.
As soon as you have ordered your drinks — Bass Pale Ale, served in ceramic flagons; ginjo sake from Fukui, either warm or chilled; or a glass of crisp Pouilly-Fuisse — the meal begins.
As the mukozuke (starter), Tanahashi invariably serves his trademark goma-dofu, a delectable, custard-soft cube imbued with the savory taste of sesame. He grinds the sesame seeds himself, using a suribachi, setting the resulting liquid with kuzu starch. It’s a laborious process, but for him it is part and parcel of his philosophy. Food made by hand, as close as possible to its natural state and without chemical additives, offers true nourishment along the spiritual path. In Tanahashi’s hands, it also does a good job at filling the belly, as you will find as one dish succeeds the next.
The mukozuke is followed by small servings of rice and miso-shiru — in our case, lightly vinegared sushi rice and a dark, rich soup containing sliced lotus root, green snap peas and sweet potato. Then the aemono, a large celadon bowl of dressed, lightly cooked salad vegetables; and mushimono, a heaping serving of plant matter steamed almost exactly as it came from the ground.
Our yakimono was a mixture of wok-fried okra, shiitake, scallions, slivers of abura-age (deep-fried) tofu and kuzu-kiri noodles, cooked in a smooth Chinese-style sauce. The next dish, the agemono, was comprised of crunchy okoge rice with crisp shards of deep-fried yuba (soymilk skin), fiddlehead ferns, yurine (lily bulb) and bamboo shoot, all served in a thick ankake sauce.
A platter of simmered nimono vegetables was preceded by a memorable sherbet made from the ground leaves of the sansho pepper and containing morsels of soft white asparagus. With its emerald color and powerful, pungent flavor, this was the culinary equivalent of a temple bell resounding across our palates or perhaps the slap of a wooden paddle across the shoulders during Zen meditation.
The meal closed with konomono — a large bowl of pickles, including smoked takuan radish with slivers of fresh ginger — more rice, in the unlikely event that we were still hungry; plus, as dessert, a mouthful of kanten jelly made with strawberries, koyadofu (reconstituted dried tofu) and matcha (green tea).
This is extraordinary food by any standards, especially compared to the refined, restrained traditions of mainstream Japanese cuisine. It’s not just the forthright flavors and the straight-from-nature vegetables that makes it so unusual. It’s also Tanahashi’s willingness to experiment, be it with sansho sorbet or a miso-shiru made with fruit tomato (another of his left-field specialties).
Call this Zen-modern cuisine, vegetable therapy for body and soul, or what you will — a meal at Gesshinkyo will satiate the senses and elevate the spirit. You will find nothing like this anywhere else in Tokyo.
Tanahashi’s book “Shojin: Yasai wa Tensai (Vegetables are Genius)” (Bunka Shuppan, 1,600 yen) is in Japanese, but the photographs by Yasuo Konishi will make even hardcore nonvegetarians salivate.
Gesshinkyo 4-24-12 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3796-6575; email@example.com Open 6-8 p.m. (last seating), closed Sundays and 2nd Saturday of each month. Cash only. To get there, from the La Foret crossing walk up the left side of the boulevard toward Omotesando. Turn left after the koban, walk past the entrance to the school, turn right and then take the first left. Gesshinkyo is on the left after about 30 meters.
By some quirk of geography, or perhaps feng shui, the Harajuku and Omotesando area has become one of Tokyo’s most fertile areas for vegetarian and wholesome food. Here are a few other places worth knowing about:
Crayon House has been a reliable source of simple, natural foods for more than a decade now. Crayon House comprises two basement restaurants — one, called Home, a more formal, sit-down affair; the other, a more casual buffet-style dining room called Hiroba — plus a small retail food store and the children’s bookstore from which the complex’s name derives. It’s starting to look a bit battered around the edges, but we still like its casual style.
Crayon House, 3-8-15, Kita Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3406-6409. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Just across the street from Crayon House you will find the back entrance to the sleek new Brown Rice Cafe and Cooking School. Besides selling Neal’s Yard cosmetics and herb teas, they also serve light meals prepared according to the macrobiotic philosophy of quality and balance. We love their thick, multigrain potage served with slices of wholewheat bread. And the little open-air patio is perfect for a relaxing cup of organic coffee with a slice of tofu cheesecake.
Brown Rice Cafe, Green Bldg, 1F, 5-1-17 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; www.brown.co.jp ; tel: (03) 5778-5416. Open noon-9 p.m. (last order 8 p.m.)
On the other side of Aoyama-dori, among the designer shops and well-dressed restaurants, is Pure Cafe, which subscribes to a vegan, no-additive ethos. This self-service, all-day cafe is an adjunct to the Aveda shop, which promotes ayurvedic medicines and spa treatments. They even open early to provide one of the healthiest breakfasts in town.
Pure Cafe, 5-5-21 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; www.pure-cafe.com ; tel: (03) 5466-2611. Open daily 8:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Probably our favorite vegetarian hang-out in the city is Cafe Eight, close by the Nezu Museum. As we wrote a year or so ago, the main reason we like it is not so much for the food, though it’s very tasty, but for the hip, youthful atmosphere and the open-air rooftop terrace that looks out across the Aoyama skyline.
Cafe Eight, Time & Style 3F, 4-27-15 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5464-3207; cafe8.jp/ Open 11 a.m.-11:30 a.m. (bar until 4 a.m. in summer); closed Wednesday.