At an onsen hot springs resort in Hakone, the bath, the bed, the bamboo outside the balcony in the afternoon sun were all perfect. After soaking, napping and reading all afternoon, dinner started arriving at 6:45 promptly, just as the waitress said it would when she showed us to our room.
The waitress carried in a tray filled with dishes, knelt and set it on the tatami. She began placing them on the low table, one by one by one, delicately, wisely, like notes from a jazz solo. Each dish touched down on the wood with a light thunk as the room filled with the tenderly intertwined aromas of fresh fish, steamed veggies and grilled fish. It took the next two delicious hours to load and unload all the food. Each dish could be polished off in a couple bites, but the slowly revealed series felt endless.
I once read that the custom of serving food in multiple, small, diverse pottery started out as a way of amusing the daughters of merchants in Osaka. A wealthy urban family at that time would never cook at home. They’d simply order out. Every day. Have it delivered. To keep the wealthy household happy, a succession of ever-unique, unique, small dishes had to be rotated to present the food and keep their business.
If that’s true, and it sounds true to me, our 18-hour stay at the onsen involved exquisite food served in 50-plus well-chosen dishes each with a unique size, shape, texture and material. Here’s the count:
- Hors d’oeuvres 5 (square, round, flat round, large plate and gently curved glass)
- Hot soup 1 (2 if you count the top)
- Sashimi 2 (one white box and one circular soy sauce/wasabi dipping bowl)
- Steamed dish 1 (again, not counting the top)
- Fried fish 1
- Noodles 1
- Baked dish 1 (metal plate in wood frame)
- Cold salad 1
- Rice, pickles, miso soup 3
- Dessert 3 (4 if you count the tray) (5 if you count the gold paper)
- Tea cup 1
- Sake flask and cup 2 (same flask refilled twice, so nothing new)
- Beer glass 1
- Chopstick rest 1
It was a blur of colors, shapes and textures, as if the chef was trying to include every possible variation of pottery. I wondered if the chef was in charge, or the sous-chef, or if there was just a specialist in charge of how each would look—the visual chef, the culinary designer.
A glass or two of sake and the myriad flavors dispelled my questions and eased me into the flow of a delicious meal, after which, I was ready for another soak in the bath. There’s no sleep deeper than after a steamy, outdoor bath. Or maybe it was the fatigue of watching all the dishes arrive, put in place one by one, and then seeing them all picked up one by one and carted off again.
The next morning, Despite the post-sake bleariness and yuzukari (bath fatigue), I restarted my count when breakfast arrived in the same ceremonial procession. Breakfast dishes were harder to count since the waitress brought them out on trays in just two or three deliveries. They filled the large, low table.
A few items could be included or excluded from that total, depending, like the dark orange origami box to hold the umeboshi dried-plum pits. Should I consider that as part of the count, or as just a lovely, minuscule trash bag? To be reasonable, I left out the two curved lacquer containers for oshibori (hot hand towels) and the placemats. I didn’t want to exaggerate, though in fact the count should be doubled, as there was one each for me and another for my wife. That’d bring the two-meal, two-person total to nearly one hundred.
- Grapefruit juice glass 1
- Eggplant dish 1
- Green vegetable dish 1
- Western salad 1
- Western salad dressing dish 1
- Sashimi plate 1
- Fish and fish egg bowl 1
- Boiling tofu dumpling pot 1 (not counting wood container and fire pot below) (or the top)
- Fried fish, egg and vegetable plate 1
- Yoghurt and fruit plate 1
- Rice bowl 1
- Soy sauce dispenser 1
- Soy sauce dipping tray 1
- Miso soup bowl 1 (not counting the top)
- Toothpick container 1
- Umeboshi plum plate 1
- Umeboshi plum pit holder 1 (for the pits only)
- Leftover inarizushi container 1 (uneaten midnight snack, technically not breakfast)
- Tea pot 1 (shared)
- Tea cup 1
- Tea cup saucer 1
- Lacquered rice warmer 1 (shared)
- Rice scoop bowl (with warm water) 1 (shared)
- Extra bowl with spoon (not sure what for) 1
- Chopstick rest 1
Total: 25 (more than dinner)
My wife, not generally given to humor, suggested we start eating out of small dishes like this at home. But our dishes at home are huge, American-sized things. And who would wash all these? Me, I realized she was suggesting, but I’d have to get smaller fingers and a teensy sponge.
I wondered how the waitress could remember the order, or if the cooks sent them in order up the dumbwaiter. She placed them in the exact same spot for both of us, which must have been THE correct spot. But how did she know that? Was she free to place them where she liked? Did she practice with the chef? Did she just know? And where did they store all these 50-some serving dishes? An intricate network of specially shaped shelves each a narrow height?
So, I asked her. She looked at me as if she had never heard that question before, and replied that a pottery delivery service (it took me a while to figure out her explanation) brought new pottery to match the rotating menu for each season. That meant we were just getting the spring set for this specific menu. When we returned, perhaps in the fall, (if we could afford it), there would be all new pottery to fit the fall food.
I felt stunned at the detail of this miniature parade, at how well the food matched what held it. Which came first—the food or the dish? The table became a canvas on which to paint with edibles and containers.
Somehow, I wanted to keep something of the performance for myself. My wife was not amused when I confessed my desire to pocket the blue-swirled soy sauce dipping plate and the green, leaf-patterned umeboshi dish, the two that called me to me deeply with their appealing asymmetry.
But that would have turned the experience into a concrete solidity and ruined the fluid, fleeting beauty. And as I thought about the micro-majesty of all the porcelain, lacquerware, and glass we’d been fed from deep in the post-meal bath in the cool night air, I felt not only my worries soaking way but I felt the steaming hot water working as a fixative, setting the colors and patterns of the food and the dishes deep into my mind, making sure the memory wouldn’t run or fade, and would remain with me for a very long time.