By: Jennie Lam
3:45am on June 8, the day had finally come. Excited, I woke up two hours before the meeting time without any help from my many alarms, which is very unusual for me. We were saying our temporary goodbyes to Tokyo and heading to Kyoto, one of the prefectures on my Top 5 places to go see in Japan. We checked out of Sakura Hotel and took the shinkansen (bullet train) to the former capital with the use of our new Japan Rail passes, which allowed us to take unlimited rides on any JR transportation for a week.
After approximately two hours, we arrived at Kyoto Station and met our tour guide for the day. We quickly checked into Ibis Hotel, dropped off our luggage and got onto the tour bus. First on our schedule was the Zen meditation at Kounji Temple, an unconventional “tourist” activity. It was a first experience for everyone. We were led by a scholarly monk who told us about the history of the temple and how it was supported by the local empress. He continued with teaching us the techniques for clearing our minds and meditating. We began our 15 minutes of silence, counting our exhales and inhales and drawing circles in our minds. Once the session was over, my legs were numb and I realized how hard it was to concentrate and think of nothing. I kept thinking about how the day was going to play out, financial issues, and of course I was worried about my research question.
Although going to Kounji Temple (as well as seeing other sites such as Nijo Castle) was intriguing, I didn’t really see the connection to my research topic of the adaptations of Chinese food in Japan. I thought the day was going to be empty of findings until we had dinner at Tokasaikan, a Chinese restaurant that our TA used to work at.
We were fortunate enough to meet and talk to the manager of the restaurant, Mr. U Shuchu, whose grandfather came to Japan from Shandong, China about 90 years ago. His grandfather started the family business in Kyoto to avoid the competition of other Chinese immigrants who settled in the different Chinatowns of Japan. Although Mr. U stated that the restaurant serves “real mandarin style cuisines,” later he provided a more nuanced explanation of his restaurant’s food when I asked whether or not the dishes had changed over the past 90 years to accommodate for Japanese tastes. He did mention that he wanted to keep the food served as traditional as possible. So although there have been changes such as having milder dishes and using Japanese soy sauce, he has the desire to preserve the traditional dishes as much as possible. Despite this, the restaurant is more popular among Japanese than Chinese, but that may be because Japan is an ethnically homogeneous country with 98% being Japanese and 2% being all the other minorities. It was a great opportunity to be able to have a discussion with the manager about the food and then sampling some of the dishes right after. Getting to try the food for myself was a great hands-on experience.
Many of the dishes we had such as the fried spring rolls and the fried rice tasted really similar to dishes I’ve had back home, but there were also some dishes I’ve never tried such as the shrimp with chili sauce. Even those dishes that tasted similar weren’t prepared exactly the same. The soup, for instance, was a different version from the ones in Los Angeles. This restaurant added in crab meat and blended the corn with the soup while the same soup back home had the actual corn pieces without the crab. I also noticed that a lot of the dishes had bamboo shoots in it, which isn’t as abundant in dishes from China or America. According to my observations bamboo shoots are used in many Japanese dishes such as ramen, yakitori, and bento boxes. Perhaps the addition of the bamboo shoots in many of the dishes was one adaption that he mentioned before our dinner. Even the dessert wasn’t what I think was traditionally Chinese. We were served fried mochi balls with red bean paste and powdered sugar. Although mochi with red bean paste is common, fried mochi is not familiar to me, let alone served with powdered sugar. The Chinese mochi desserts I know are smaller and served with a sweetening soup, which sometimes include sesame seeds. It would be better to say that the dessert was a combination of mochi and a doughnut.
The mix of both cultures within the dishes helps support the claim that the dominant culture, the Japanese culture, definitely has an affect on the minority cultures, in this case Chinese cuisine.