With every trip a little bit of you is left behind, and a little bit of the place stays with you forever. I took a lot of Japan in and left a lot behind. I felt lost the entire time - not understanding the culture or language - but in that feeling, I let go of myself to experience this place fully.
I loved every single second.
I got back a little over a month ago. It should feel like a distant memory, yet I can’t get it out of my head. I can no longer look at a toilet, train, or sidewalk the same way. No sushi will taste as good or cup of tea shake me as deep as the ones I drank in Japan.
I caught myself mesmerized, in tears even, questioning everything and wondering if any of it was real. If I close my eyes, I can taste every single bite I had, from the 7-eleven onigiri to the most expensive traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner: the tea ceremony surreal, the omakase dinner at Bar Yasuda intimate and delicious, the cocktail tasting menu at Gen Yamamoto mouthwatering, and the yakitori at Piss Alley and Golden Gai smoky and decadent.
In the West, we are constantly encouraged to try it all, do a lot of littles and experience more. Here, we can eat pizza, a burger, and sushi in one meal if we want to. Freedom is good, but it also dilutes and renders everything good enough. We get by. We have it easy. We are impatient. We are selfish. In Japan, life seems the exact opposite. Patience is the key to success and work is more important than leisure. Perfecting a craft seems like the end goal, everything else is just a treat to enjoy the long, dedicated, arduous, yet amazing ride that leads to beauty. I am not sure one way is better than the other, yet it is very hard not to admire the Japanese ways. Their appreciation and deep knowledge of craft, architecture design, and food.
While there, I imagined myself splitting into a million people and experience alternate lives, each focusing on a single craft and dedicating myself to perfecting it. I revered the lives of the bartender, the sushi chef, the carpenter, and the furniture designer as aspirational, both so simple and so complex, so isolated yet part of a bigger picture. I wanted to be all of them, I did what a Westerner does, wanting to experience it all and missing the point all together.
If I am doing a terrible job at describing this place it is because it is so foreign, so surreal, and so magnificent. Words cannot describe it unless you are a part of it.
This is an attempt at sharing the breakfast I had while staying up in the mountains of Nagano with my good friend Sheyen: white rice, miso soup, vegetables, furikake. The trick here is to waste nothing. (PROTIP: use the cooking water as base for the miso soup; it adds flavor and complexity)
This minimal and oh, so Japanese meal perfect for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But what do I know, I am just a foreigner, lost in translation, trying to make a sense of it all, five weeks after visiting the most beautiful, complex, mystifying place on earth.
You have to see it, take a look with the eyes of a child and witness how much bigger than you this place is.
A Simple Fall Japanese Breakfast
While there are a few steps to making this meal, it is fairly effortless and straightforward. Get good miso paste and good furikake. The combination of belly warming soup, white rice, and a vegetables is delicious, satisfying and full of umami.
- 1 cup medium grain white rice
- 1 cup of water, plus more for rinsing
- pinch of salt
- Place rice in a large bowl with enough water to cover. Using clean hands shake the rice, rinse and repeat a couple of times until water runs clean.
- Transfer rice to a small pot with 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt over medium-high heat.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low. Cook, uncovered until most of the water is absorbed. Then, cover and cook for another 15-20 minutes, or until tender and translucent.
- As the rice cooks, start cooking the vegetables and miso soup.
- ¼ small butternut squash, or more if you want to save for later use.
- 2-3 cups water
- 1 drizzle olive oil
- 1 small handful fresh herbs of choice for garnish, such as fennel fronds, cilantro, parsley, or chives
- Using a sharp knife, cut butternut squash in half, then into quarters. Cut one of the quarters into thin, 1/2” slices. Save the rest for later use.
- Place water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then add the butternut squash slices.
- Cook over high heat for 10 minutes, or until fork tender.
- Remove the squash from the water, and onto a plate with a towel to absorb excess water. Set aside unti Ready to serve.
- Reserve the cooking water for the miso soup. It adds a mild sweetness and a lot of flavor.
- Cooking water
- 3 tablespoons gluten-free miso paste, I have been using one made by a farmer in Nagano, but there are lots of great brands.
- 1 cup mushrooms, button, porcini, or enoki
- Cut mushrooms into bite size pieces, then add to the pot with cooking water with the miso paste.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer for five minutes. Set aside until ready to serve.
Spoon rice into a small bowl. Add butternut squash and a few fresh herbs. Sprinkle with furikake (this is my favorite Japanese brand based in Nagano). Spoon hot miso soup into a mug. Serve together. Itadakimas!
Cook time 35-40 minutes