Savoring Shodoshima: Japan
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013
offee and a hamburger?” a smiling barista named Hirai asks me.
It’s a damp, drizzly day on Shodoshima Island, the second largest in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Five hours earlier, I embarked on this journey: a circular pilgrimage around the island, covering all 100 miles (160km) of its 88-Temple Circuit on foot.
“You know what?” I say to Hirai. “That sounds perfect.”
But it’s not just the offer of a belly-warming lunch that pulls me into the Blue Beat Bland Café on this chilly afternoon – it’s the fact that he is asking from within a tan-and-white Volkswagen van, set on the left side of the one-room café. There are some things you simply can’t walk away from without investigating.
Norah Jones and The Cardigans are on the playlist while a poster of Twiggy from the National Portrait Gallery hangs above packs of guitar strings for sale. I slip off my backpack, rest my walking stick against the wall, and sink into a black leather settee, feeling entirely underdressed in my white pilgrim kimono jacket, hiking pants and boots inside a place that would be just as at home in Seattle or Brooklyn. I look across the street and there it is, the very supermarket I’d visited the night before.
Chances are I would have missed this one-of-a-kind café a second time but for the fact that today I’m on foot, going at a slow enough pace to actually notice it and giving Hirai time to call out to me. Although I don’t know it then, this fortuitous find is the first of many during my time on Shodoshima: a series of culinary serendipities that would never have happened had I not been doing this pilgrimage.
Striking the Right Balance
The following day, I set out from Tonosho, a quiet city now home to Shodoshima’s busiest port, and begin making my way up the rugged west coast. Although it is the middle of April, cherry trees are surprisingly still in full bloom, boughs laden with pink and white blossoms casting petals like snowflakes over each narrow lane of wooden houses. In the distance, blue hills rise up from the horizon where the sea reflects the faultless sky.
Breaking up my journey are the 88 temples that form the circuit, all built on sacred spots said to have been visited by Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, in the 9th century. It’s only my second day on the pilgrimage and I can already tell that no two temples are alike – from Temple 57, unobtrusively located in a local neighborhood, to Temple 60, set into the side of a cliff with its main shrine in a cave.
But it is at a temple that veers off the circuit where my next encounter with Japanese cuisine and philosophy takes place. The jushoku, or head priest, of the temple – a 72-year-old man named Teruhiro Tabuchi – invites me inside, while his wife Teruyo sets a tray of traditional Japanese green tea called matcha and two brightly colored bean sweets before me.
“You know Japanese wabi-sabi?” their son Saikuku asks as we sit on tatami mats around a low table, our legs tucked beneath us. “It means the tea is very hmm bitter,” at which he scrunches his nose into a sour face, “while the sweets are very good. Best match.”
They direct me to chase each sip of the warm bitter tea with a bite of bean sweet, the two tastes complementing each other. Indeed, these balanced flavors still linger on my tongue when I say goodbye to the Tabuchi family, continuing on a journey proving to be as much of an adventure for my taste buds as it is for me.
I make slow but steady progress around Shodoshima, the path turning away from the sea, carving up forested slopes and through towering groves of bamboo, before bringing me to the northern coast. Outside the town of Kotozuka, my stomach lets me know lunchtime is fast approaching – and yet there isn’t a restaurant in sight, nothing but Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines, proffering cold soda and hot coffee.
Just as I’m beginning to mourn my lack of options, I notice a crowd gathered down the road, with men in blue and orange jackets directing cars into a parking lot. I follow my curiosity and appetite to what I soon learn is an annual festival. The festival’s organizers – a couple named Mr. Ishitoko and his wife Mitsuyo – are quick to spot me in my white kimono jacket, and they rightly assume I’m in need of a hot meal.
Mitsuyo tucks me under her proverbial wing and we’re soon standing before a row of food stalls. An assembly line of women in long red aprons serve up udon noodles – one woman fills a bowl to the brim with thick broth and white slippery noodles, another sprinkles freshly chopped scallions, while a third adds a slice of fried tempura, and the last a round piece of kamaboko, or fish cake, its edge a distinctive pink.
With a glass of draft Asahi beer, I find a seat at one of the many tables set up for the occasion, snap my pair of wooden chopsticks apart, and dive in.
Having a mild climate often compared to that of Greece, Shodoshima is famous for its production of several items: olive oil, soy sauce, and – as I discover at the festival – the thick wheat noodles known as udon. I’d passed small udon factories on the island, where long strips of dough are left to dry in the sun, but I had yet to swirl them around chopsticks and slurp them up myself. They’re tasty and filling, and when soaked in savory and flavorful broth, become soft and chewy – exactly what I need to keep me fueled through the rest of the day’s hike.
It isn’t until after I’ve twirled the last of my noodles that Mr. Ishitoko tells me the festival normally takes place in May, but for a reason I never discerned, they held it one month early this year. As though fate itself decreed, my culinary discoveries on Shodoshima continue.
Bonding Over Food
As the temples stream past in a blur of bronze bells, stone lanterns, and black tiled roofs, so do my days on the pilgrimage. Soon I’m almost at the end of my journey, just one more day before I’ll arrive back where I began, at Tonosho. I trace the coast of the southern peninsula, its pronounced cliffs covered in a thousand shades of verdant green. Just as food options were few and far between on the way to Kotozuka, so are they here. But just like before, I needn’t have worried.
Coming around a corner, I stumble across a restaurant called Jimichamiya – or the Jimi and Chami House Café – and meet the café’s namesakes as soon as I enter. Although both are in their late fifties, the duo seem decades younger, and their playful, mischievous spirit is infectious. Chami has short wispy hair and sparkling eyes, and Jimi keeps a colorful bandana around his bald shining head at all times.
While Jimi works his magic in the kitchen, Chami bustles between three tables making sure everyone feels at home in their home. When she tells me their café has been open just ten days, I can only marvel at my luck.
They lay a true feast out before me, a large bowl of fragrant white rice and golden crispy breaded katsu pork surrounded by a gaggle of smaller bowls. Chami walks me through each one: first pointing out a clear soup with dashi stock, then seaweed, onions and tempura, and nimame, or beans boiled with sugar and “just a little soy sauce,” as well as a salad doused with Jimi’s secret dressing (I’ll later learn it contains such piquant ingredients as mustard, vinegar, ginger and garlic). Every dish bursts with life, as colorful as it is flavorful.
As I order a coffee at the end of my lunch, Chami walks over and says, “Candy, I have an idea. You stay here tonight?”
Although I’m reluctant to impose on them, Jimi and Chami insist on picking me up when I finish walking that night. I then spend the evening with them, overwhelmed by their hospitality as they feed me for the second time that day and endlessly ply the table with beer, wine and a homemade coffee liqueur.
And it’s as Chami’s 82-year-old father Papa is crooning old Japanese love songs that I realize: From Hirai’s juicy burger to the Tabuchi family’s wabi-sabi to my steaming bowl of udon noodles with Mrs. Mitsuyo, the meals I have savored on Shodoshima have only been as rich as the new friends I’ve met through them. Here, as on any other journey, the people have made the place.
When I say goodbye to Jimi and Chami the next morning – my last day on the circuit – I can hardly buckle the straps of my backpack around my waist. Full from a week of culinary epiphanies and encounters, it’s little wonder why.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013