My curiosity about Japan and Japanese culture has gradually grown into a mild obsession. I think it really started when I read Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. It’s a dark, depressing little book — and beautiful, because there is beauty in melancholy. I felt the same about Norwegian Wood, which I read a few months later. After that, I knew I was hooked on… something, I’m not quite sure what. Maybe the mono no aware – that gentle sadness – that permeated the characters’ lives in both books.
I feel like every aspect of Japanese culture that I have come across has had this perfect balance of sadness and and beauty, and this balance fills me with a sense of joyful calm. In modern Western culture we are so accustomed to excess, sweetness and complexity that we have forgotten how deeply satisfying simplicity can be. We recently discovered Tamago, a small Japanese restaurant in Canterbury, and the meal we had there reinforced my love of the Japanese simplicity and balance. I had a bowl of spicy ramen with kimchi, bamboo, seaweed and perfect, perfect fresh pork. The ramen was so beautiful that I didn’t want to eat it and destroy the presentation. Let me add that this was my first ever proper ramen, and I never imagined that simple noodle soup could be so aesthetically pleasing and exciting to eat. To drink, we ordered iced green tea, which we thought was going to be sweet (Western expectations!) but wasn’t. It was surprisingly delicious and delicate. For dessert, we had goma (black sesame) ice cream, which, again, wasn’t as sweet as the ice cream we were used to. Instead, it had this subtle nutty flavor that went really well with the tea and was the perfect way to end a meal without overdoing it. We left feeling satisfied in both body and spirit.