Lifestyle

Is virtual art as nourishing as a set meal?

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

You have to admit, it’s all awfully clever. At “L’art de Rosanjin,” which runs at Nihonbashi Mitsui Hall until March 24, visitors can sit in a virtual tempura restaurant, and gawp as images of the chef’s hands at work are projected on the counter in front of them, accompanied by the sounds of sizzling oil.

In an adjacent room, an eight-course traditional kaiseki meal is recreated via the wonders of 3-D projection mapping. On a table lined with empty plates and bowls, servings of food seem to materialize out of thin air when you lean in close, then disappear just as you’re framing a shot on your smartphone.

This smorgasbord of high-tech froth has been laid out in tribute to Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959), the calligrapher, ceramicist and epicure whose theories on the interplay between food and art did much to shape current thinking on Japanese cuisine. The primacy of natural flavors, the virtues of simplicity and the importance of carefully chosen tableware, are all concepts that Rosanjin championed.

“By eating food we are consuming beauty,” he declares in one of the quotes that pepper the exhibition’s displays, each of them treated with the kind of glib reverence afforded to the utterances of Steve Jobs, or maybe Yoda.

Though he was originally schooled in calligraphy, Rosanjin started making his own ceramics so that he could “eat things well.” In 1921, the Kyoto-born artist founded the Bishoku (Gourmet) Club in Tokyo, a private restaurant where members could enjoy meals served on his collection of traditional pottery. After losing much of that collection in the fires that followed the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, he set about replenishing it with work of his own, produced at a kiln that he established in Kamakura.

There have been countless exhibitions of Rosanjin ceramics in Japan over the years, which perhaps explains why they’re featured so fleetingly here. When “L’art de Rosanjin” was originally held at the Guimet Museum in Paris in 2013, it showcased a wide range of pottery. At the Tokyo version, we get a single, large-scale reproduction of a glazed Oribe plate, which greets visitors at the entrance. The original is tucked away at the back of the hall, in a glass case surrounded by cherry blossom trees — fake, of course — and that’s about it.

By jettisoning the actual art of Rosanjin, this “L’art de Rosanjin” does rather beg the question, though. Its immersive simulations of Japanese fine dining are impressive enough, but — with real-life examples already in such abundant supply right outside the gallery doors — visitors might find themselves wondering if the ¥1,000 admission price would’ve been better put toward a fancy lunch instead.

Perhaps recognizing this fact, the organizers have added a culinary component that was lacking from the Paris show, creating their own pop-up Bishoku Club, with help from two high-end restaurants that Rosanjin used to patronize. One of these, the former ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) Fukudaya Kioicho, will only be serving food on March 21 and 22, but the other, sushi restaurant Kyubey Ginza, is present for the duration of the show. And, well, it’s a bit of a swizz.

For an extra ¥1,800, you can sample two pieces (two!) of exquisite Edo-style sushi served on a cardboard plate with a few slivers of pickled ginger, and then wash it down with a complimentary “Japanese Harmony” high ball. For a few thousand yen more, you could head to Ginza and have a full sushi lunch, served on proper tableware at the original Kyubey restaurant.

I think I know which one Rosanjin would’ve chosen.

“L’art de Rosanjin” at Nihonbashi Mitsui Hall runs till March 24; open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; ¥1,000; food tickets for Kyubey Ginza and Fukudaya Kioicho cost an additional ¥1,800 (limited to 200 per day). For more details, visit www.lartderosanjin.com/en