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A Note On Shojin Ryori
  • Author Masahiko Iga
  • Location Nagano, Japan

Past Alquimie contributor Masahiko Iga provides a couple of notes on a unique traditional sub-set within Japanese culture.

Have you ever heard of "Shojin cuisine"? It is a style of cuisine, which is based on the Buddhist teachings of embracing our earthly desires and respecting life of all forms. The meals embody humility and they reflect a historic culture defined by strict rules. However, the teachings are not strict for the sake of being strict. Some say that Kappo cuisine has its roots in Shojin cuisine. The philosophy of Shojin cuisine fits somewhere between vegetarian and vegan, and for that reason, particularly relevant within the context of modern dining trends.

It is 20 years since I migrated to Australia as a chef. At that time, I commonly encountered people that did not know the difference between sushi and sashimi. People believed that rice was boiled instead of “cooked”. Daikon and Chinese cabbage, popular ingedients for Japanese cooking, were hard to come by. I have had famous writers speak of some prawns cooked with koji (rice malt) as a "strange taste". Once, I prepared a traditional "Shigure-ni” composed from high grade wagyu.. it was reviewed as a "Bad idea by a young chef”.

Slowly yet surely, I’ve worked, introducing diners to real Japanese culture. My passion is conveying the real Japanese culture. My hope, is that people will be moved by it, in the same way that Japanese people are.

Melbourne is a food capital of the world. Nowadays, there are plenty of ingredients from abroad, and the general understanding for Japanese culture has greatly improved. I feel that it will not be long until we can understand authentic Japanese culture. I feel that we have finally entered a time when "Shojin cuisine", a reflection of our profound culture, should no longer be misunderstood.

"Shojin cuisine" is served in Buddhist temples, and does not include meat or fish. It is mainly served in places like Kyoto and Kamakura, where there are many old temples, but the style varies according to the region. In the photos provided, I visited the Shukubo of Zenkoji temple in Nagano: a traditional form of accommodation.

I was able to talk with Mr Masahiro Ogawa, who is the Shitsuji (manager) of "Fuchino-bo" in Zenkoji temple. The word “Shitsuji” is not commonly used these days, and it makes me feel that I must have come to a very special place.

The classic principles of "Shojin"

  • Eliminate all worldly thoughts, and focus solely on training.

  • Cleanse and restrain oneself.

  • Practice a vegetarian diet.

  • Try hard in what you do and continue to do so.

Buddhism was born in India, and has long forbidden the taking of life from other beings. "However, humans continue to rely on other beings for foods, other than salt and water, and that has not changed. Whether this be animals or plants, we cannot live without taking the life of others. Therefore, we prepare food under the philosophy of "Do not take life in vain", rather than "Don’t take the life of others at all." says Mr Ogawa.

Interestingly, other than meats, vegetables from the allium family—garlic, onion, spring onion and garlic chives—are also avoided. These ingredients contain a chemical compound, diallyl sulfide, that can contaminate the Holy scripture.

"Hannyato” is the Buddhist term for sakeand it forms an interesting aspect of the Shojin culture. Despite the restriction placed on their lifestyle, the monks can drink alcohol during their meal. Within Shojin culture, Hannyato is known as the ‘hot water’ that provides the wisdom to achieve enlightenment.

If you visit a traditional temple, like those of the Shojin Ryori, you may not only discover another part of Japanese culture, you may also discover something new about yourself.


For more information on the temple I visited: 

FUCHINOBO, Shinshu Zenkō-ji Temple Eidai-Shukubo
Zenkō-ji Temple, 462 Motoyoshichō, Nagano-shi, Nagano-ken ‪380-0851, Japan

Phone: +81-26-232-3669
Fax: +81-26-235-1836

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