info for vegetarians
Tokyo Vegetarian-friendly
Restaurant Guide
Diary - Living in Tokyo
as a Semi-Vegan
Recommended Readings
Written in Japanese
Articles about Vegetarianism
written by Hiroko Kato
Online Vegetarian/Vegan Handouts
Shopping Guide
Good News & Good News
Links for Vegetarians

- Japanese Vegan Foods Found in Oriental or Natural Food Stores
- How to Eat at a Japanese Restaurant the Vegan Way (written for Vegetarian Journal)
- A Vegan Wedding (Special to The Daily Yomiuri, June 29)
- The Zen of Shojin Cuisine (Special to The Daily Yomiuri, November 30)
- Vegan Japanese Noodle Dishes (written for Vegetarian Journal)

The Zen of Shojin Cuisine (Special to The Daily Yomiuri, November 30, 2002)

No meat, neither flesh nor fowl. No fish. No dairy or eggs. Even garlic and onions are verboten. And just forget about those ready-made meat substitutes. The ingredients used in shojin Japanese Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine are extremely limited--and yet, one bite and you will be stunned by the profound deliciousness of these humble vegetable dishes.

Though shojin cuisine appears simple, its taste trumps any expensive gourmet meal--and it's all accomplished using only the natural flavors of the freshest of vegetables, which are delicately seasoned. Learning to prepare shojin cuisine is one aspect of Zen training, and the cook's entire personality, not just his cooking skill, should be reflected in the taste.

Shojin cuisine was introduced to Japan, along with Buddhism, from China, almost 1,500 years ago. One of the five precepts of the religion is Fusessho (Thou shalt not kill), so monks and believers naturally shun killing animals for food. Shojin cuisine spread through Japan in the 13th century when the Zen sects arrived. Zen monks have continued to follow the strictest edicts of shojin cooking, even though other sects have gradually forgiven meat consumption.

Zen Buddhists describe the daily cooking routine as one of the most important ways to practice religious discipline, and that is why they call it shojin, which means "zeal in progressing along the path to salvation." Dogen, the founder of the Soto sect of Zen, wrote that shojin cooks must exhibit deep faith in Buddhist teachings, have a wealth of experience and possess righteous and benevolent hearts.

"When I cook, I am always amazed at how beautiful the vegetables are," Koei Hoshino, abbess of Sankoin temple, a nunnery in Koganei, western Tokyo, said. "All of the vegetables are full of energy, and they reinvigorate us. I feel Buddha in each plate, and appreciate the vegetables' offerings all the time."

Hoshino, 71, is one of the most respected shojin cooks in the country. She entered Sankoin temple when she was young, and learned the art of shojin cooking from the late abbess, Soei Yoneda.

Sankoin offers shojin lunch courses in a quiet, peaceful setting, surrounded by trees and a bamboo grove. All the meals at Sankoin maintain the shojin spirit--the menu is always seasonal. For example, in late autumn, fukiyose--braised seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, nuts and leave-shaped fu (a type of wheat gluten)--reflects the view of the garden with its colorful autumn leaves, chestnuts and ginkgo nuts.

Accordng to Hoshino, shojin cooking never wastes ingredients.

"When cooking eggplant, the stems are usually discarded as inedible," Hoshino said. "But we cut them into tiny leaves and put them in the soup as a decorative garnish. They are edible, of course."

Concerning the differences between shojin and vegetarian cuisines, Hoshino said shojin should have a sixth taste in addition to the regular five tastes of bitter, sour, sweet, hot and salty.

To bring out the sixth taste, delicate, shojin cooking has become as simple as possible. However, that doesn't mean it's easy.

"I was told that it takes 10 years to learn to make a perfect sesame tofu," recalls Aya Nishii, who entered Sankoin to study shojin cooking eight years ago. Sesame tofu, which resembles tofu in texture and presentation, is actually made of a mixture of pulverized white sesame, water and kuzu ko starch. The cooking technique is simple, on the surface--grind the soaked white sesame, mix with water and thicken with kuzu over heat. "I can understand how to do that, of course," says Nishii, a former French cooking teacher who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. "But if I don't immerse myself in the process, I'd never be able to make it properly--I'd either end up with a mess in the pot or something that tastes awful."

She said that although she is not religious, she now believes that she couldn't cultivate her ability to cook shojin without following a lifestyle free of distractions, as Zen Buddhism teaches. "Sesame tofu represents the Zen spirit," Nishii said. Hoshino smiled, and added, "It reveals the depth of the cook's spiritual enlightenment."

Meanwhile, Toshio Tanahashi, owner-chef of eclectic shojin restaurant Gesshinkyo in Harajuku, Tokyo, also believes strongly in sesame tofu. "I never use a food processor to grind the sesame," he said. "I start my day by grinding sesame in a suribachi (Japanese ceramic mortar), using a surikogi (wooden pestle) by hand for about 30 minutes. This time is an essential process in cultivating my spirit. Of course, it requires a lot of work, but we can't achieve enlightenment without this kind of hardship."

At age 27, Tanahashi decided to serve as an apprentice at Gesshinji temple outside Kyoto, a nunnery famous for its abbess' excellent shojin cooking. He trained there for three years and then opened his own restaurant 10 years ago.

News about his style of shojin cooking--preserving the essence of the ingredients, but mixing them up to create a kind of culinary adventure, as in miso soup with sugar tomatoes or mochi pizza--has spread by word of mouth. These days, the only way to get a seat at Gesshinkyo (along with Sankoin) is through reservations. And many of Tanahashi's customers are people who usually think shojin cuisine is too orthodox.

"I want to share my joy of cooking vegetables with as many people as possible," he said. "As a cook, I believe no food is greater than vegetables. Their colors, shapes and flavors are an art form all by themselves."

The portions are generous, and diners at Gesshinkyo can experience Tanahashi's love for vegetables through set dinners, which may use as many as 40 different seasonal ingredients. He also showcases the beauty of traditional local vegetables, mainly from Kyoto, served in simple Zen style.

But Gesshinkyo is not just a place to enjoy meals. Tanahashi built a traditional wooden Japanese residence to house his restaurant. He lives there himself, and tries to keep his living space purified, so that guests can experience the spiritual side of shojin.

"In the morning, I take a cold bath to purify myself, a necessary step for cooking pure ingredients like vegetables. "Also, I clean every nook and cranny in the restaurant by myself. It's not a business for me. I want to show my belief in shojin and the traditional Japanese way of eating," he said.

Tanahashi worries that Japanese have discarded the shojin tradition of eating mainly grains and vegetables.

To popularize shojin cooking, Tanahashi holds a biweekly cooking class. Last year, he demonstrated shojin cooking at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, and is currently planning a similar demonstration in New York next year.

"There are a lot of negative consequences to eating too much meat, such as environmental damage and contributing to famine," Tanahashi said. "Eating vegetables could solve those problems, and I think shojin cooking is the best way to enjoy both the taste and the benefits of vegetables."


(042) 381-1116


(03) 3796-6575 Sesame tofu


Recipe: Sesame Tofu

16 servings

  Ingredients: 400 g white sesame seeds (untoasted)
8 cups water
less than 2 cups Yoshino kuzu starch
1tsp salt
1 cup sake
soy sauce and grated wasabi to taste
seasonal garnishes for decoration


Soak sesame seeds in plenty of water overnight. Strain and rinse. Strain again.


Place the sesame seeds into the suribachi. Add 4 cups of water and grind thoroughly. Move the surikogi in a circular motion until the mixture takes on a smooth consistency (you will notice the sound of grinding getting lower).


Add 4 more cups of water and blend. Pour mixture through a bleached cotton cloth into a large pot. Make sure to squeeze out all the liquid.


Place a small strainer in the pot. Put kuzu, salt and sake in the strainer. Blend the mixture by hand until all lumps disappear.


Remove the strainer and place the pot over high heat. Stir continuously with a wooden spatula, making sure not to let it burn. After approximately 10 minutes, the mixture will thicken. Keep stirring vigorously for 10 more minutes, until the mixture becomes completely smooth.
6. Pour the mixture into a slightly wet mould (16.5 centimeters by 21 centimeters by 4.5 centimeters) and let cool. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and place the container in cold water. After about one hour in winter (two in summer), transfer the sesame tofu to a wooden cutting board. Cut into 16 pieces and place in a bowl of water. Serve on a plate with soy sauce, topped with grated wasabi. Decorate with something seasonal, such as an autumn leaf.
  Recipe from Toshio Tanahashi of Gesshinkyo

By Hiroko Kato

Copyright 2002 Hiroko Kato. All rights reserved.

Copyright (C) 2002 Hiroko Kato, Tomoko Kinukawa(designer).All rights reserved.