Our second trip to Japan in the autumn of 2010 was planned around my 40th birthday. I didn’t want to turn 40 in cold, wet Britain. So we went to Japan – where it was cold and wet for a lot of the time! My first experience of a typhoon, that sort of cold and wet.
My big treat was a meal at Bon, near Asakusa. We’d read about it on the wonderful Happy Cow website and, based on previous experience of wanting to try somewhere we’d seen on HC and then coming unstuck when trying to find it on a Japanese map, we wisely decided to find out where it was located the day before my birthday.
For anyone thinking about going, the best way to get there is to take the Hibya subway line to Irya station and leave the station by exit 3. With the nearest traffic lights behind you, walk up the main road (Showa Dori/昭和通り) to the next set of traffic lights and turn right. You’ll know you’ve gone too far if you walk past a Toyota showroom. From the traffic lights, walk 7 blocks and you should reach a small junction with more traffic lights. Go across this junction and walk another 2 blocks then turn left. Bon is about halfway down. If you miss the left turn, the next road you’ll hit is Kokusai Dori (the big dual carriageway that runs along the west side of the shrines in Asakusa), so you’ll know to turn round and go back a block. At the north end of the street that Bon is situated on is the Saitokuji Temple.
Another good reason for finding the restaurant a day or so before you intend to go there to eat is that you really do need to make a reservation. The meal takes 2 hours to serve and eat. It’s a Buddhist set meal in the fucha ryori (普茶料理/ふちゃりょうり) tradition. Depending on which day you want to eat, you’ll need to arrive at least 2 hours before closing time. We went on a Sunday, when the restaurant closes at 8 p.m., and the only reservation time offered for an evening meal was 5 p.m. Unless you are confident enough to speak Japanese on the telephone, it is better to make the reservation in person to avoid misunderstandings!
We didn’t know at the time, but we could also have told the restaurant owners about my allergies, and they would have prepared a meal that catered for these.
Fucha ryori is a Chinese-influenced form of the Japanese shojin ryori (精進料理/しょうじんりょうり). Shojin ryori literally means devotion food and is a buddhist style of cooking usually served in temples. Fucha ryori is a shojin ryori meal eaten in the Chinese style, beginning and ending with tea. Fucha translates as “everybody drinking tea together”, and the style of the meal centres around people eating together in friendship and peace.
Shojin ryori is most commonly encountered in the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, while fucha ryori has its roots at Manpukuji temple in Uji.
And so, to the reason why I think everyone, vegetarian or not, should eat at least once at Bon in Tokyo. The experience is out of this world. From the moment you are greeted at the door of the machiya in which the restaurant is situated, you are transported away from the 21st century to a place of peace and fellowship. Neither my husband nor I is Buddhist, but the feeling of being among friends who were strangers was wonderful.
Inside the restaurant are individual tatami rooms, raised from the floor. You leave your shoes outside the tatami room and, if you’re having trouble taking them off (as I was!), one of the staff will help you. At the centre of the tatami room we ate in was a dark wooden table with a footwell beneath it. As we sat down, we were directed to look through the window at the small rock garden, and also to enjoy the flower arrangement (生花/いけばな) and scroll in one of the alcoves, as well as the blue-stained bamboo in a gourd shaped vase in the other alcove, while we waited.
The table was set with a square lacquer box at each place, with chopsticks/hashi on ebony rests. Next to the box was a small sugar sweet on a square of paper. On top of the box was a detailed menu – all in kanji! Before we could panic, our waitress arrived with an English version of the menu, explaining the 12 courses we were about to enjoy.
The waitress started to explain the meal to us in Japanese, which was too advanced for us! I apologised for only being able to speak a little Japanese. She admitted to knowing a little English, and between us we managed to make sense of each course! When she knew that she would struggle, she sent in her husband who spoke more English to explain the more complex dishes to us.
The meal started with a cup of tea, accompanied by the sugar sweet, and followed by a glass of plum wine. The tea was crystal clear and slightly salty. I had never drunk plum wine before this meal, and the one we were served was delicious – sweet and plummy, without being too sweet, and with just enough alcohol to warm us up!
The waitress returned to take away our cups and glasses, and explained that our first course was inside the lacquer box. It was a steamed water chestnut, a piece of potato, some fruit and some fu.
It was almost too beautiful to eat, and we spent a while looking at it before taking the plunge. It was absolutely delicious – very delicately balanced in flavour and texture.
Second course was a clear mushroom soup with a segment of Japanese plum to squeeze into it. The next course was brought in by the husband, who explained each element to us: seasonal vegetables arranged with autumnal leaves, consisting of sweet chestnut, ginger root, a timbale of chinese leaves and tofu, a condensation of miso, a fruit compôte of apple and purple chrysanthemum, a slice of tofu and a pot of something orangey.
Next was a thick Chinese vegetable soup, then steamed vegetables, then chilled sesame tofu (served on a plate I wanted to bring home – it was decorated with a grey and cream swirl like the crest of a wave). The next course was tempura, which was a work of art, with light as a feather batter and pefectly cooked vegetables.
We then received a surprise dish – a special course that wasn’t on the menu. I’m still not sure whether this was a standard thing, or whether our attempts to speak Japanese and our clear delight at the food had endeared us to the restaurant owners, but it was amazing. A charred chilli, a piece of yam and a piece of tofu spread with natto snuggled into a persimmon leaf that rested on a plate decorated with gold.
I think we had been taking too long, savouring and admiring our courses, and chatting with the restaurant owners as they brought the food, because our final courses came all at once, with miso, pickles and rice sprinkled with green tea.
We thought we had finished, but then plates of fruit appeared and finally more tea – oolong this time, strong and dark and bitter.
We were then presented with two lucky bells as a souvenir of our meal, and the waitress chatted with us about where we were from and why we had come to Japan. When she heard that we were from Manchester, she told us that the room where we had been eating was the very room that John Lennon and Yoko Ono always used when they came to eat at Bon.
Now, if Bon was a restaurant in England, that little fact (with pictures) would feature heavily on the website! I love it that, instead, it was just dropped into a conversation as an aside, because we came from somewhere near to where John Lennon was born.
As we left, both of the owners (our waitress and the chef who explained the more complex dishes to us) wished us a happy life. We realised that we were the very last to leave, and had been allowed to stay later than we should have. The lady followed us out into the street, asking if our hotel was far because she thought it was raining slightly. She waved to us as we walked away, calling “おやすみなさい” (Goodnight) as we went.
It was the best birthday meal I have ever had, and possibly the best meal out of any that I have ever had. If you have looked at the website and thought “That seems expensive”, then please consider that you will eat the freshest, most delicious food of your life, served to you by charming and delightful people, and will come away feeling as though you have had a special experience. It is 20 months since we went to Bon, and the memory of it is still strong. I’d say that was worth the price, wouldn’t you?