Shōjin ryōri, or Japanese monk food, has been around since the 6th century when Buddhism was first introduced in Japan. From the 9th century onward, most Japanese people followed a vegetarian diet; however, in the 19th century, Japanese diets started to shift as European food customs were introduced into Japanese culture. Even though many Japanese Buddhists eat fish and meat today, Buddhist temples throughout Japan still offer shōjin ryōri for the general public to try. Here are a few key facts about shōjin ryōri:
- Shōjin ryōri is entirely vegan as it does not contain any meat, fish, egg or dairy.
- The way in which the food is prepared and presented is based on a philosophy centered on balance, harmony and simplicity.
- There is a strong emphasis on using fresh, local, nutrient-rich ingredients that are in season.
- Like most Japanese food, careful attention is paid to presentation and creating a visually pleasing experience.
We had the unique opportunity to spend one night at Jimyo-in, a Buddhist temple in the mountain town of Koyasan. The overnight temple experience tends to be a bit pricey (starting at $200 USD/night), so most visitors generally save this overnight for a special occasion. Staying in a Buddhist temple provides not only a unique perspective on the day-to-day life at a temple, but it also offers guests the exciting opportunity to try authentic shōjin ryōri. As for the experience of living in a temple, get ready to sleep on a futon on a tatami mat, enjoy the quiet of zen rock gardens, partake in the traditional Japanese evening communal bath experience and wake up bright and early for optional morning prayers with a Buddhist monk.
When you arrive to Jimyo-in, you’ll be asked to leave your shoes in a cubicle at the main entrance for the duration of your stay. These green slippers will become your indoor shoes while staying at the temple.
As you weave through the maze of hallways at Jimyo-in, you’ll quickly notice that you are surrounded by interior courtyard gardens.
Additionally, all of the private rooms look out onto beautiful, delicately manicured gardens.
Each private room is complete with elaborate sliding doors and intricately decorated portable walls to create smaller, intimate spaces for dining and sleeping.
A typical overnight stay at a Buddhist temple will include both dinner and breakfast served on red lacquer trays in the quiet and comfort of your own room. The entire meal is served at once, and while it may feel like your multiple trays are overflowing with food due to the large number of small bowls and plates used, you’ll quickly realize that most items are just a few bites.
Since the food is entirely plant-based, the food is light, yet filling, allowing you to achieve “hara hachi bu” or eating until you’re 80% full. All of the food is served at once, but there aren’t any rules regarding the order in which the food should be eaten. Usually Japanese locals will end their meal with steamed rice and pickled vegetables, but feel free to indulge in whatever order provides you the greatest satisfaction.
Here is the seemingly massive feast from above:
Let’s take a closer look at a few of our favorite dishes. The nabe hot pot below came with fresh greens, cabbage, enokitake and shiitake mushrooms and gomadofu.
This assortment of cold, spongy tofu and fresh, crunchy vegetables (snap peas, lotus root, carrot and mushroom) provided a nice balance with the other cooked and/or pickled vegetables dishes.
The thick strips of mochi below were grilled and topped with white miso (left) and red miso (right). The candied walnuts added a perfect nutty and sweet crunch to the smooth and chewy texture of the mochi.
The gomadofu came in two shades, white and light pink. Our best guess is that the pink was used in celebration of the cherry blossom season. The fresh wasabi, pickled cucumber and shoyu added the perfect balance of flavors.
After an early morning wake-up on our second day at Jimyo-in, we were up and dressed for the optional morning prayers at 6:25am with the temple’s monk. We were strictly observers, but some Japanese guests chose to partake in the ceremony. Following the ceremony, we returned to our room to find that our futons had disappeared and red lacquered trays with breakfast had taken their place.
A traditional Japanese breakfast is hot and savory. In fact, it might look like something you would normally eat for lunch or dinner in Japan. Our shōjin ryōri, breakfast consisted of hot rice porridge, steamed white rice, pickled vegetables, nori sheets, a cold wakame salad and a cold salad of steamed greens and mushrooms.
This savory, nutrient-rich breakfast reminded me to think outside of the box when it comes to new breakfast ideas. American and European breakfasts tend to include sweet foods that our brain registers as providing the perfect morning energy boost, but these sweet breakfast foods usually make us crash mid-morning, prompting another craving for a quick burst of energy from something sweet. Instead of that same bowl of oatmeal or cereal, why not enjoy those leftovers from last night’s dinner?