Firstly I should probably explain the title. Japanese dining is self explanatory; the ‘Banyan City’ is the name often given to the city I currently call home, Fuzhou in Fujian province. During the Song Dynasty many banyan trees were planted that now provide shade to the entire city. Fuzhou, which is the capital of Fujian province, has over a 2000yr old history and is home to art industries such as lacquer work, stone sculpting and cork cutting. Although the city boasts many sights for the global tourist, it immediately felt like home. Of course there are many famous temples and gardens, but for me what makes this city home are the many coffee shops and restaurants, parks and night markets. I FEEL that I live here and not that I’m on an extended vacation.
This weekend a friend took me to dinner at his latest discovery, Tiangoushan; a traditional Japanese restaurant. Before entering the restaurant, you are greeted by two, almost life size, cartoons of a Japanese boy and girl. I shouldn’t be phased by this by now as it is the norm in China it seems to have this type of advertisement, yet it does make me slightly skeptical as to the quality dining experience I am about to become involved with. As with many similar moments of hesitation I was not disappointed.
Passing the questionable graphic “art” you are transported into a type of zen garden scene. Parasols shading cherry blossoms and decorating the ceiling. Water and fountains creating the perimeter, and a friendly front of house to guide you through to the dining area. The restaurant is divided into two, to the left is the open dining area where you have booths designed to aid privacy, with modified traditional seating. You have the tatami floor where shoes and slippers have to be removed before stepping on the tatami, and the low dining tables that are the custom in Japanese dining. However, rather than cushions the tables have been set into a rectangle hole and simple western style wooden seating is provided to give familiar comfort for the more western experienced diner. This is where we were seated but not before I had wandered off like an excited child exploring the unfamiliar. To the right are the private rooms which have the traditional shōji screens which almost silently slide open.
We are assigned our own host, dressed in the simple geisha style. She immediately presents us with slippers and guides us to our seats. The table setting provides a beautiful aesthetic that embraces the essence of Japanese culture, fine attention to detail. Every object on the table is placed with a purpose. My attention is brought immediately to the smaller than expected tea set as the tea is poured gracefully by our host. We are quickly shifted out of the historic dream this setting gives way to by the modern interruption presented in the form of a tablet holding the menu choices. I look at the pictures while my friend works with our host to order in Chinese. I’m happy not knowing whats coming as it all adds to the excitement of discovering a new place to dine and a taste of a culture not yet experienced in a country that is already overwhelming at times with all it has to offer.
As the dishes start arriving you are again reminded of the attention to detail so relevant to the approach to life in Japanese culture. So far, Japanese dining is the most artistic presentation of food I have experienced yet. Our host is guiding us through with the absence of English which dishes to use for the various meals, with no wish to offend we attempt to learn the customs quickly. There are a variety of sauces to pour into small ceramic dishes to dip the food into before tasting. The flavors offered by each delicate dish is nothing short of exquisite. Japanese food certainly has a very distinct flavor that I am struggling to best describe. The flavors seem cleaner and that there has been less toying with the ingredients, there is a quality to this cuisine that is allowed through its simplicity and purity.
With the last round of tea poured and all the plates emptied our evening is drawing to a close. I end my first Japanese dining experience suitably full and smiling at the evening. I’ve always enjoyed dining out, from getting dressed for the occasion, sampling dishes beyond my culinary skills, and being able to relax with the absence of dishes to clean! Although ironic that my first sample of Japanese dining takes place in China, I have a new destination to add to my future travels inspired by this little snippet of what Japan has to offer. If you ever find yourself in Fuzhou, be sure to sample more than just the amazing local dishes, this city is full of hidden gems and tastes of other cultures.