Fucha Zen Vegetarian Cuisine at Hakuun-an
Introduced to Japan from China in the 17th century, the ancient vegetarian cuisine known as fucha can still be enjoyed for lunch at Hakuun-an, the guesthouse of Manpuku-ji temple in the elegant Kyoto suburb of Uji.
Japan is well known for the way it adopts, adapts, and assimilates other cultures. Chinese culture, in particular, has been a major source of ideas and inspiration over the millennia. At times Japan’s rulers have welcomed China’s political and social practices because their hierarchical order helped to justify and support their positions and authority. Japan’s elites have also been attracted to China’s flamboyant arts because of their perceived sophistication and fashionableness. Eventually over time, however, Japan’s fundamentally Pacific Island and infinitely versatile culture fused these influences into the country’s uniquely homogenous social structure and naturalistic and humanistic way of life.
The first major wave of Chinese influence occurred during Japan’s Heian era (794-1185) when the Imperial court looked to China’s Tang dynasty (618-907) for cultural inspiration, and among other things, adopted Amida Pure Land zen Buddhism, whose doctrine stated that anyone could attain enlightenment and enter paradise after death without the rigors of meditation if they lived a good life. In Japan this was adapted into a tradition among members of the Imperial family and the country’s military rulers of retiring to their villas in the countryside around Kyoto, where they created visions of paradise in their homes and gardens and enjoyed a good life of earthly pleasures in the here and now.
A second major phase of cultural appropriation took place during the Edo era (1608-1868) when the Tokugawa Shogunate modeled its totalitarian military state after the extreme social discipline that was characteristic of life during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). This included the adoption of a reforming branch of zen Buddhism practiced in China, which sought to restore the simplicity, purity, and strict observance to zen Buddhist traditions. Brought to Japan in the mid-17th century, this branch of rigorous Buddhism was blended with Amida Pure Land zen Buddhism’s more ostentatious traditions among Japan’s elites and became the unique Japanese sect of Obaku zen Buddhism. One of its features was fucha zen vegetarian cuisine (fucha ryori in Japanese)—a complex, beautiful, and playful array of seasonal culinary delights, which is still served at Hakuun-an, the guesthouse of Manpuku-ji, the head temple of Obaku zen Buddhism located in Kyoto’s aristocratic enclave of Uji.
Set in a small park opposite the entrance gate to Manpuku-ji, Hakuun-an is evocatively designed as a rustic dwelling amidst a garden landscaped to look like remote mountain foothills. “Fu” means “ordinary” and “cha” means “tea,” and a fucha meal’s ostensibly humble intentions consist of a set of seasonal dishes served on platters, family style, to small groups of friends who have gathered informally around a table to drink green tea made using whole sencha tea leaves. Known as senchado, or “the way of steeped tea,” it is tea prepared the way common people make green tea versus chanoyu, which is the ceremonial ritual of making tea using powdered matcha green tea.
Despite its picturesque setting, fucha meals at Hakuun are elaborate and highly conceptualized affairs that retain much of the attention to literals forms of symbolic meaning typically found in China’s arts. Dishes are presented on a brightly lacquered red table to indicate a sacred Buddhist space, and the first course is always a clear soup containing a single preserved orchid which symbolizes “awakening” for Buddhists. The rest of the meal consists of a second soup and six vegetable dishes that follow detailed guidelines for preparing fucha food. The food must:
reflect the five cooking methods of steaming, simmering, grilling, deep frying, and serving raw,
include the five flavors of bitter, sour, spicy, salty, and sweet,
have the five consistencies of hard, fibrous, fleshy, crunchy, and soft, and
exhibit the five colors of red, yellow, green, black, and white.
While these rules were derived to correspond to the Chinese cosmology of the five directions of east, west, north, south, and center and the five elements of wood, metal, water, fire, and earth, they also help to ensure that the meal is nutritionally balanced.
At Hakuun-an, many of these requirements are met in a single dish. A cold platter of seasonal appetizers (shown in the title block above) includes sour red ume plums and bitter black fiddlehead ferns, simmered rolls of salty black konbu seaweed, hard chunks of grilled yellow bamboo, crunchy cylinders of raw daikon radish, fibrous sweet carrots mashed, pressed, steamed, and sliced into rectangles, fried rolls of tempeh, fleshy pieces of marinated black eggplant, white tofu in a variety of forms, and a roll of sweet green tea pudding. A bowl of braised lotus root, bamboo, gingko and pine nuts, carrots, mushrooms, and peas is another nearly complete composition of the rules of five: it has five colors, five flavors, and five consistencies, but lacks the five methods of cooking. Instead, it is a braise thickened with arrowroot starch (kudzu) in the classic Chinese manner of making a sauce. Fucha cooking relies on such thickened sauces, as well as the use of vegetable oils and deep-frying, to make dishes taste richer and be more satisfying. At Hakuun-an, the arrowroot starch is made from the best kudzu found on Mt. Yoshino, one of the holiest places of Buddhist worship in Japan.
A yin-yang balance of cold and hot dishes is also essential to fucha cuisine. A large platter of fried foods—ume plums, lotus root, fiddlehead fern, minced vegetable-filled gyoza dumplings, small green peppers, myoga ginger, and sweet rice balls—counters the cold appetizer plate. As side dishes, a small plate of chilled squares of sesame tofu (goma-dofu) is paired with a hot dish of tofu skins (yuba) and green soy beans, which is served in a bowl shaped like a lotus flower, the Buddhist symbol of purity.
One of the special features of fucha cuisine is the highly creative and playful way its chefs make foods look and taste like other things, usually fish and meats, sometimes cheeses, and even other vegetables. For example, in Hakuun-an’s platter of cold appetizers, chunks of seitan were seasoned to taste like roast duck. On the platter of fried food, rolls of tempeh wrapped in nori seaweed were designed to look and taste like onigiri rice balls topped with grilled unagi eel, and the minced vegetable and tofu filling in the fried gyoza dumplings was seasoned to taste like pork. By seasoning and shaping otherwise tasteless and formless vegetarian foods like tofu, tempeh, seitan, agar, and konjac, fucha chefs create mock versions of sashimi and raw oysters; steaks, pork spareribs, and fried chicken; and potatoes that look like spring radishes and fall chestnuts, among other delightful and delicious feats of culinary craftsmanship.
Manpuku-ji temple complex across the way from Hakuun-an is also an unusual survivor of Chinese cultural transfer during the Edo period. It was built in 1661 by the founder of the Obaku sect, Ingen Ryuki (1592-1673). Known as Yin-yuan in China, where he had been a zen master and the abbot at Wan-fu-si Temple on Mt. Obaku in the province of Fujian, Ingen came to Japan with an entourage of disciples in 1657 at the invitation of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Ingen and his followers were eager to escape the chaos that existed in China after the overthrow of the Ming dynasty by Manchurian invaders who initiated the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). The Tokugawa Shogunate, in turn, was glad to have practitioners familiar with the Ming dynasty’s highly centralized, conservative and militaristic regime, whose feats included the building of the Forbidden City in Beijing and the reconstruction of the Great Wall.
Manpuku-ji is an awe-inspiring complex with a layout similar to that of the Forbidden City. It consists of over twenty structures symmetrically aligned along a central axis linked by a sequence of impressive gates with principal temples set in large courtyards. The buildings are examples of classic Chinese architecture. They rest on raised stone platforms, are supported by massive red-painted timber columns, and have richly painted interiors. The tiled roofs are among the most impressive and exotic features of the buildings: multi-storied, with sweeping curvatures that rise at the corners, and decorated with ornate figurines.
Examples of imposing Ming architecture associated with the Tokugawa Shogunate still stand in a number of places across Japan, including the Tokugawa family’s mausoleums at Niiko in Tochigi prefecture. But fucha cuisine is now hard to find. Instead, it influenced the development of Japan’s tradition of zen Buddhist vegetarian cooking called shojin ryori (devotion cuisine) and also served as a model for the country’s kaiseki tea ceremony meals. Japan’s chefs adapted fucha cuisine to better suit the country’s tastes and sensibilities; in particular, the underlying reverence of nature. In shojin ryori, the artifice is naturalistic; cooks use seasonings and techniques to help foods look and taste more like themselves, not like other foods. In addition, Japan’s cooks replaced much of the religious symbolism of fucha dishes with seasonal references. Even at Hakuun-an, the final course consists of pickles, the second soup, and a bowl of rice that is topped in springtime with salted cherry blossom petals instead of a traditional Buddhist flower symbol.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
30 Gokasho Nishiura, Uji City, Kyoto 611-0011
Tel: +81 (774) 32 0700
Hakuun-an is open for lunch from 11:00 to 16:00 (last order at 14:00) every day except Thursdays. On offer are a bento box at ¥3,000 and two types of course meals: the Hana (Flower) course for ¥5,000 per person and the slightly more elaborate Tsuki (Moon) course for ¥6,500. Reservations made two days in advance are required, and your party must include at least two guests.
In addition to its dramatic Ming-style architecture, Manpuku-ji is unusual in that it exists largely as it was originally built and laid out, never having undergone any major changes or renovations over the centuries. The temple grounds and buildings are open every day from 9:00 to 17:00 (last entry at 16:30). Twice a year during spring and autumn a large senchado steeped tea-making event is held at the temple.
From Kyoto’s central train station, take either a local JR Nara Line or Keihan-Uji Line train to Obaku Station and then walk about 5 minutes to Hakuun-an and Manpuku-ji. Trains run regularly, and the ride takes about 20 minutes.
Other Fucha Restaurants
While many Buddhist temples and a growing number of restaurants across Japan serve shojin ryori (Japanese-style zen vegetarian cuisine) to guests, there are only a few places offering fucha cuisine. Here are two of them:
Although much smaller than Manpuku-ji, Kanga-an is another extravagant example of Ming architecture built by members of the Obaku sect of zen Buddhism in the 17th century, when the temple initially served the Imperial family. Located in an upscale residential neighborhood in northern Kyoto, the jewel-like temple offers fucha cuisine for lunch and dinner. Lunch is one type of set course meal priced at ¥5,000 and served from 12:00 to 15:00 (last order at 13:00). For dinner there is a choice of three increasingly elaborate and more expensive course menus served from 17:00 to 21:00 (last order at 19:00). The temple’s “food analogues,” i.e., food made to look like other types of food, are especially refined, beautiful, and delicious. Reservations made two to three days in advance are required and your party must include at least two guests. The temple also has a small, discretely hidden bar (which was once the head priestess’ private salon) where you can enjoy the temple’s dramatically lit garden at night as well as a large selection of drinks.
278 Karasuma-dori, Kuramaguchi-higashi-iru, Kita-ku, Kyoto
Tel: +81 (075) 256 2480
If you won’t be traveling to Kyoto, Bon in Tokyo is an excellent place to enjoy fucha cuisine. Located in an elegant home in one of Tokyo’s more traditional neighborhoods, Bon offers lunch boxes and lunch sets in the afternoon and a variety of course meals at night. Reservations must be made one to two days in advance.
1-2-11 Ryusen Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0012
Tel: +81 (03) 3872 0375
Located 10 kilometers south of Kyoto, roughly midway between Japan’s ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara, the small city of Uji is one of Japan’s oldest settlements, mainly serving as a country retreat for Japan’s elite, who have built lavish villas along the Uji River ever since the Heian era. Uji has also been the center of Japan’s green tea production since the 11th century, and is famous for the superior quality of the green tea grown on small tea “gardens” within the city and in the hills bordering the town. Because of its aristocratic connections, Uji has always been a center of high culture. Its out-of-the-way location has safeguarded a number of Japan’s most ancient and culturally-important buildings, including the Uji Shrine, which is one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, and Byodo-in, the country’s prime remaining example of Heian architecture. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Set in a green valley that has a number of streams and rivers, Uji is a great country day trip from Kyoto, and a leisurely stroll or bicycle ride will enable you to take in all that the city has to offer. The path along the east side of the Uji River is an especially fine walk.
Built in 1052, Byodo-in was the country palace of the Fujiwara clan, who were the kwampaku (military leaders and powers behind the throne) of the Imperial court during the Heian period. Although the main Phoenix Hall and two flanking pavilions at the end of horizontal wings are all that remain of the original structure, Byodo-in magnificently displays the elaborate Chinese aesthetic influences popular at the time. The palace was converted to a Buddhist temple in 1053 by Yorimichi Fujiwara, who retired here in 1068. Built as a vision of Buddha’s palace in paradise, the central hall houses a gilded, seated image of the Amida Buddha surrounded by ornate relief carvings of Bodhisattva angels playing instruments and reading sutras.
Located next to Byodo-in along the Uji River, Taiho-an is a teahouse operated by the Uji Municipal Government to give tourists a chance to experience the chanoyu matcha tea ceremony. The ¥500 admission ticket, which is purchased next door at the Uji Tourist Center, includes a demonstration of the tea ceremony, a bowl of hot matcha tea, and a sweet. The experienced teachers of the Uji Tea Ceremony Association who provide the demonstrations make it one of the most rewarding tea experiences you’ll have in Japan.
Tsuji Rihei Honten Shop & Cafe
Founded in 1860, Tsuji Rihei Honten is a tea grower and tea trader that has also had a long history as a provider of green tea sweet confections, which are made using the company’s own high quality teas and blends from some of the best tea gardens in Uji. The company is currently headed by sixth generation Shinsuke Tsuji, who has been behind the company’s introduction of a variety of highly refined and complex tea drinks and sweets that showcase the rich and nuanced flavor of green tea. These include gyokuro koridashi tea, which is a cold tea made by dripping water from ice over expensive gyokuro green tea leaves for a week, matcha and hojicha (roasted green tea) chocolate truffles with chestnut centers, matcha daifuku mochi rice cakes stuffed with sweet adzuki bean paste and covered in powdered matcha green tea, and seasonal parfaits—all of which should be tried at the company’s main shop and cafe, which is housed in an elegantly renovated old tea processing plant in the center of Uji.
Conveniently located directly across the river from Byodo-in by a bridge, Kosho-ji was established in 1233 as the first independent zen temple in Japan and continues to be a working temple. Admission is free; a receptionist will give you a map to the complex and let you freely walk around the grounds while the monks go about their business. It is a wonderfully serene place starting with the long walk to the temple, during which the only sound you hear is the water running down the narrow channels on either side of the path.