Dec 12

The Rice Cooker Chronicles is a series of essays by JETs and JET alumni on the theme of cooking/eating and being alone in Japan. The brain-child of JETwit founder  Steven Horowitz (Aichi-ken, Kariya-shi, 1992-94) (and inspired by the book Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant), this series is curated by L.M. Zoller (CIR Ishikawa-ken, Anamizu, 2009-11), the editor of The Ishikawa JET Kitchen: Cooking in Japan Without a Fight. A writer and web administrator for The Art of Japan: Kanazawa and Discover Kanazawa, ze also writes I’ll Make It Myself!, a blog about food culture in Japan.

New submissions always welcome. Just e-mail it to jetwit [at]



by Justin Maki (ALT Osaka-fu, 2002-06), a writer and editor currently working at the Sports desk of Kyodo News America in New York City. Justin’s short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in a handful of small journals. Contact him at




“When you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, be born in the kitchen. When you finish there, die. Then be born at the dining table as you eat your dinner and, when you finish eating, die there. Be born in the garden, and sweep with your broom. When you get into bed at night, die there. And when daylight comes, and you awaken in your bed, be born anew.”

These are the words of Soko Morinaga Roshi, the famous abbot of Daishuin Temple in Kyoto. Ten years after Morinaga-Roshi passed away, in the rainy season of my third year in Japan, I had the opportunity to move into Daishuin with his successor. Nobody was there except me and the monk, a wiry forty-year-old with thick glasses and a firm, toothy grin. I cooked with him, cleaned with him, meditated with him; at every meal I asked him questions and learned what I could, although he often left me puzzled. I was a total newcomer to Zen, more of a guest than a student, and far from fluent in Japanese.

And so my life began, every morning, in darkness. I heard soft footsteps in the hallway, followed by the dreaded “kaijō!” More dead than alive, I scrambled for my belt and ran to splash water on my face and fetch the bucket and rag. I was born in the hondō while lighting incense, and after we chanted sutras, I died. I wiped the temple’s long wooden corridors as the sun came up. Finally, with a sense of relief, I would go to the kitchen to make breakfast for myself and the monk, and be born anew.

At the time, I was commuting to work at a public high school in Osaka, and living in the temple thanks to a substitute English teacher who had been friends with the late Morinaga-Roshi. In order to leave for work on time, I couldn’t afford to spend more than twenty minutes on breakfast — but compared to the strenuous pace of our chores, these twenty minutes were a long and leisurely extravagance. I would set the table with two bowls of rice gruel and two sets of chopsticks, and on a saucer-sized plate for each of us, I would arrange a few grams of seaweed, a pinch of salty miso paste, and a plum so intensely sour that even the monk used to grimace while eating it.

I remember this particular combination of tastes more vividly than almost anything else from four years in Japan. These breakfasts gave me a powerful sensory cue, a link to what Zen practice made me feel: the much-needed shock to my system, the open passageway for intuition rather than the word-bound, cluttered “thoughts” that I had grown so dependent upon. Two months after leaving Kyoto, when the clutter began to overtake me again, I decided to re-create the temple diet as much as possible.

In the interim, I had gone back to Colorado for summer vacation and returned to southern Osaka prefecture to a new job and a new home. The apartment, selected by the rural board of education that now employed me, seemed fortuitously suited to my project. It had a hardwood-floor kitchen — perfect for the peaceful grounding ritual of wiping it down with a rag before dawn — and two completely empty tatami rooms, either of which would be great as a mini-zendō. I bought a huge jar of sour umeboshi, packets of miso paste, and seaweed as part of a simple diet.

But perhaps from the very first day, the project was more sentimental than a sign of any true humility or dedication. My new job involved teaching English in kindergarten and elementary schools, a wonderful experience, but one that required a lot more running, singing, and game-playing than working in a high school, and a full day’s exertion on a third-grader’s lunch of tonjiru soup and white rice. I often came home exhausted and starving. In the last hour that my local supermarket was open, I bought discounted sushi packs and box lunches. I would make quick sandwiches from ham or cheap tempura; I bought ready-made, single-serving containers of potato salad or tofu dishes; and for dessert I had red-bean-filled tea sweets without tea. As long as it didn’t require cooking, I was satisfied. The healthy foods I bought optimistically on the weekend, the udon noodles and broccoli and carrots, rotted in opened packages during the week and eventually had to be thrown away.

In the temple, we were not allowed to waste a single grain of rice. But this, obviously, was not temple life: not only did I never get up in time to wipe the hardwood floor, but I hardly got up in time to eat breakfast at all. Most nights I would set my rice cooker to begin cooking at 5:20 a.m., so that it would be done by 5:55 when I was supposed to get up. But with nobody yelling “kaijo!” in the morning, it could be 6:19, or 6:44, or even 7:02 by the time I got up and ate a quick bowl of rice and/or a slice of white bread before rushing out the door, biking furiously through the shotengai shops, parking illegally at a cram school behind the train station and sprinting through the ticket gate and up the stairs. Leftover rice was often the basis for dinner. Many times I would boil a bag of cheap instant curry to dump over the cold rice, and toss in a large package of tofu. My habit of eating sweets made sour plums unbearable. They too had to be thrown away.

One problem, I thought, was that I simply didn’t have the skills to cook healthy foods that were also satisfying. I enrolled in a bilingual weekly class called “Let’s Enjoy Japanese Home Cooking.” At every session I got hands-on practice making dishes like pork dumplings, grilled salmon with vegetables, various stir-fry meals and dashi-based soups. It was a fun and helpful class, but I still had trouble finding time to cook. My kitchen was not nearly as well-equipped as the class kitchen, and what implements I had were more often than not piled dirty in the sink.

As the winter progressed, my so-called meditation room fell into disuse as well. I had a profound appreciation for the benefits of Zen practice, but I wanted my own sort of practice, not necessarily locked into the culture of Buddhism. Therefore, my mini-zendō was actually a zendō-inspired reading room: by honing my concentration, I would learn to immerse myself completely in works of literature, to focus beyond the words until I could see the characters and situations take shape before my eyes. While sitting on the tatami floor, however, I had the same problem as I’d had while meditating in the zendō. My concentration wandered. My posture slumped. But instead of straightening up and persevering like I would have in the presence of a monk, in my private apartment I would slump further, lie on my back, or prop myself up on an elbow — none of which allowed me to concentrate for very long, and none of which were comfortable while shivering on a December evening. The hardwood floor I’d promised myself to wipe daily, as if wiping the stale, tangled thoughts from my mind, remained covered in teaching materials, dust, books, and dirty laundry.

Looking back, it is not hard to understand why this happened. One of my first questions for the monk had been to describe his idea of happiness. “When I have continued something tedious and difficult for a long time without giving up,” he’d answered. “That’s happiness.” Picking up a saucer-sized plate, he’d said that the top of the plate was tedium, the underside happiness. There was no dividing the two. But perhaps the attempt, this futile struggle to have it my own way, was a necessary stage of learning. Even Morinaga-Roshi describes the resistance in his young heart, the impatience with which he heard but failed to understand the words of his teacher. When Zuigan Roshi took him in at Daishuin, the very first lesson was this: “From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash.” Morinaga admits that it took considerable time and effort before he could put the meaning of this statement into practice. Similarly, I was not finding it easy to adopt the monk’s wisdom into my accustomed routine. The temple meals, apparently so simple and powerful, depended upon a much larger context that I couldn’t duplicate on my own.

And when I think of the best meals I had in the year after leaving the temple, I remember all the people who invited me into their homes and tried their best to speak English while generously providing homemade cooking and good saké. I remember my girlfriend making Sunday morning pancakes, and one day — a cool, fragrant day of sakura trees blooming in the rain — we’d made a big leafy salad with kiwi fruit and avocado, with cashews and raisins and orange chunks, with celery, spinach, cherry tomatoes — with the abundance and joy of springtime itself.

But most nights after work I was alone, and nothing went into my dinners but a hasty cash transaction. A thousand yen in the closing grocery store, choices made while trembling with hunger, happy at the weight of the basket against my arm. Cinnamon-raisin bread, some apples, seaweed with sprouts and tofu, a box lunch, a somen noodle tray. This is the way it happens: I rush out of the store and wait impatiently for the elevator to my fifth-floor apartment. There is no need to open my small fridge, because nothing of what I’ve bought will be left over. I go straight to eating the box lunch. It is a multi-compartment tray with take-no-ko rice, grilled salmon, a fried meatball, mashed potatoes, lettuce, seaweed, and a few other things. I do not look at the food very carefully before grabbing it with disposable wooden chopsticks and rushing it to my mouth. When I am finished with the tray, all I know is that I want more. I eat two apples quickly and dig into a packet of fried tofu. To make it more like dessert, I squeeze a layer of honey over the top of the firm, black-spotted surface. It cuts yet holds together as neatly as moist cake, and is just as delicious. Finally I take a long drink from a lukewarm bottle of tea that has been sitting in the apartment for several days.

I take a deep breath, the first one in quite a while. I am full, but far from born anew. A heap of empty plastic trays, dishes with neither tedium on one side nor happiness on the other, clutter the sink. “From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash” — and yet here I was in the rainy season of my fourth year in Japan, a year after my stay in Daishuin, reminding myself to get more trash bags.


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