Author Yōko Hiramatsu is known for her essays on the culture of food and dining. Here she writes about her travels not only around Tokyo but all over Japan, taking readers along with her to famous local restaurants and shops and making them feel as if they, too, were there, experiencing firsthand the culinary delights she describes. The essays originally appeared in a continuing series Hiramatsu has been contributing to the literary magazine All yomimono.
One of Hiramatsu’s primary interests is the pursuit of ingredients and dishes that embody their seasons. In the spring, her focus is edible wild plants: tempura and miso soup that capture and hold the unadulterated flavors of fresh-picked buds and shoots growing natively on hill and dale. As the sun grows warmer and the first signs of summer appear, the refreshing taste of beer beckons: for Hiramatsu, the perfect companions to the drink are gyōza potstickers and thin-sliced pork cutlets fried up crisp. Then when summer reaches its peak, there’s nothing quite like eel: in a temple town by a grand monastery, Hiramatsu sits down in front of a lacquerware box of rice topped with eel, and her description of the perfectly grilled fish glistening with fat and sweet-spicy sauce will have every reader’s mouth watering. Autumn brings on a craving for more companionship, and?nabe hot pots take front and center. Cooking and eating in a group around a single steaming pot creates a comforting sense of togetherness.
Hiramatsu’s curiosity about food is truly insatiable. On any given day she might be found smacking her lips over the direct-from-home flavors in a community of relatively newly arrived (1980s) Chinese in Ikebukuro, or sampling the offerings at a series of company cafeterias. In the title essay, she visits some venerable coffee shops and bakeries in Ginza to marvel at the unstinting attention to detail and distinctive touches each establishment brings to something as simple as the sandwich. The high point of her gastronomic travels is surely the bear stew she enjoys at an inn deep in the mountains of Shiga Prefecture. Having first witnessed the butchering of a bear bagged by a local hunter, she savors the rich flavors of the dish with a solemn sense of gratitude. This “taste of Shiga” and the deep cultural roots it reflects impresses on her how uniquely precious each food encounter is.
In her enthusiastic enjoyment of the many delicacies she introduces, Hiramatsu pointedly steers clear of acting the “food critic,” choosing instead to express her love of place and her close affinity with those who have prepared the repast. The manga illustrations by Jirō Taniguchi scattered throughout the text are superb, vividly capturing the flavor of these little-known places and dishes and bringing the many happy encounters to life.