This week, rather than writing more about my publishing journey, I am sharing a report from December 2007, when my husband and I were in the midst of a six-week sojourn in Kyoto, Japan. I’m posting it today, Wednesday, December 5, because I may not have access to my website admin page on Friday; the piece is double my 500-word limit, but I decided to run it as is:
DECEMBER 2007, KYOTO, JAPAN
Last week we saw a notice about the annual radish-boiling ceremony at a local temple – well, how could we resist?
So late Saturday morning we rode our bicycles north on the Kamo River path, then west on some narrow lanes lined with homes and small shops. We got lost, got unlost, finally arrived at the temple just before noon. A long line of visitors trailed out of the temple grounds, down the paved entry lane, and into the street. Showing the depths of his spiritual training, a harried monk in indigo-dyed cotton pants and jacket bustled up and down the queue, politely askng people to please buy a radish-eating ticket first from a booth inside the temple grounds.
The radish that can draw such a crowd is called daikon, literally “big root.” It is to the small, round, American-style radish as a Great Dane is to a Chihuahua. One could hit a home run with a daikon.
Nearly every small vegetable patch I’ve seen in Kyoto has daikon; at this time of year farmers hang them on bamboo frames to dry before layering them with salt or sake lees to make pickles. Daikon pickles are often colored a bright yellow. They are considered a humble, homey pickle, crisp and slightly sweet, served as a complement to white rice. I once ate nearly a whole bowl of
homemade daikon pickles set out on the breakfast table at a small inn – I realized too late, after seeing the annoyed look on the cook’s face, that they were meant for all the guests, not just me. Grated daikon is served with tempura and some oily grilled fish, and slices of daikon are cooked in a broth with fish cakes, hard-boiled eggs, and small potatoes to make a winter stew called oden.
I speak decent Japanese, so I was able to the woman in front of me the reason for the boiled-radish tradition. She was probably in her late seventies, accompanied by her sister, both of them in cloche hats and tan jackets.
“It’s good for the health. It warms you up, at the beginning of winter. Daikon is good for the joints and the circulation.”
“Do you come here every year?”
“Yes. This year, my neighbor can’t come, so I’m buying some to take home to her, too.”
“Did you eat boiled daikon as a child?” I asked.
She smiled. “Yes, yes. In the winter, often.”
She and I agreed that the 1000-yen (about $9) ticket was a bit pricey, though part of the cost was clearly a fund-raiser for this small temple, in the same tradition as the Methodist pancake breakfast.
Saturday was sunny and warm for December, which made the waiting easier. It took us about ten minutes to move from the street to the entry lane, another ten to breach the modest temple grounds, another ten to reach the daikon-distribution tables. While we shuffled along, the sound of a beating drum and monks chanting a sutra came over a loudspeaker. Incense smoke wafted up from the urn in front of the main hall of the temple.
In the temporary kitchen set up under a tent, two huge metal cauldrons (large enough for a missionary-boiling) held the simmering daikon. Women in white kerchiefs carefully ladled each serving — three thick rounds of radish topped with a thin piece of seasoned fried tofu — into black lacquered bowls.
We carried our steaming daikon to one of the twenty or so benches, covered in red cloth, that had been set up for the visitors. Nearly every seat was taken, mostly by people past age sixty. While waiting in line with these Japanese seniors, even at five-foot-three I felt statuesque. This
is the generation that grew up during and after the war. Many of them would remember being hungry. Their grandchildren, fed on dairy products and meat as well as rice and pickles, look like rosy-cheeked giants in comparison.
I had expected that the boiled daikon would be like Thanksgiving turkey, presented as part of a ritual but, in all honesty, not that tasty. I was wrong. The daikon slabs were toothsome and satisfying, seasoned in a delicate soy-sauce fish broth that had absorbed some of the tangy
sweetness of the radish.
I noticed that even though there were perhaps eighty people seated on the benches, it was rather quiet. Of course this was partly because we were on a temple grounds where subdued behavior is appropriate, also because the daikon slabs were very hot, making it difficult to talk and eat at the same time. But I guessed that the quiet might also have been because
each bite of daikon carried a memory. This was simple food a mother or grandmother would have made, perhaps when there was not much else in the pantry. (An elderly woman I met a few weeks ago told me that growing up in the countryside, she seldom had sweets, but she and her friends would pull a daikon out of the vegetable patch, scrub it off with snow, and eat it raw as a treat. )
When I was finished, I felt fortified, I suppose as one is meant to feel after eating ritual radish. I found the woman who had been in front of us in line and wished her and her sister good health in the coming year. She bowed and smiled and wished us the same.
We rode our bikes back to the river path, followed it north, then stopped at a chic café where we were the elders among the twenty-something customers. With our coffee we had a piece of chocolate gateau, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it any more than I had that bowlful of boiled radish.
(The photo is of the Sagano Bamboo Grove in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto)