Visitors flock to the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto to take in its striking temples and shrines, its beautiful gardens and its palaces that evoke the era of the samarai. In the springtime these sites are bathed in the soft colors of cherry blossoms, while the musical talents of geisha are showcased in annual spring concerts.
But these are not what have repeatedly drawn me back to the city of Kyoto. When I lived in Japan as a junior high school teacher, my most enjoyable moments were the occasions when I was invited into the homes of friends and colleagues to experience Japanese culture up close and personal.
Whether it was learning how to make miso soup, trying on an exquisite kimono or participating in a traditional tea ceremony, this was the difference between visiting Japan and experiencing Japan.
On a recent visit with my mum (a first-time visitor to Japan), I was delighted to learn that the opportunity to learn and practice traditional Japanese culture and arts is available to Kyoto visitors via The Women’s Association of Kyoto.
The Women’s Association of Kyoto has scheduled us to meet with Mrs. Osawa one morning of our short stay in Kyoto. The group organizes personal and group classes in an array of Japanese arts and crafts that take place in the instructors’ own living rooms and kitchens.
The classes include ikebana (traditional flower arranging), tea ceremony, kimono wearing, origami, koto (Japanese zither), calligraphy and conversational Japanese. The lessons take on the feel of a mini homestay and allow repeat visitors like me to revisit favorite Japanese activities, and first time visitors, like my mum, to immerse themselves in Japanese culture in a comfortable and welcoming setting.
The home visits can accommodate up to four guests, while larger groups enjoy their lessons in conveniently located hotel banquet rooms or public facilities.
It is the one-on-one lessons in the privacy of a Kyoto home, however, that allow visitors not just a chance to learn a Japanese art form, but allow them a unique opportunity to experience a taste of Japanese home life.
This is how my mum and I found ourselves in the kitchen of Mrs. Osawa’s 4th floor apartment in an outer suburb of Kyoto.
I am dressed in an apron and attempting to mould perfect spheres of cooked rice as my host looks on approvingly. It’s a surprisingly intimate situation, given that Mrs. Osawa and I have only just met.
Mrs. Osawa, in her early 50s, is a self-described housewife with not an ounce of frump about her. Dressed casually yet with distinct style for our cooking lesson, her petite frame propels her about the kitchen with combined grace and speed as she guides us through each dish on the menu.
Our task during our 2 1/2-hour lesson is to learn the various dishes that make up the Shokado bento. A Shokado bento is the name attributed to the style of serving ware that the meal is presented in, traditionally a shallow, painted and lacquered wooden box that is divided into four separate compartments.
The box was named in honor of Shokado Shojo, a monk and painter from Japan’s early Edo period, in the 17th century.
Bento boxes are a popular dining choice throughout Japan. The divided compartments allow the box to accommodate warm and cold dishes, sweet and savory courses — essentially a banquet in a box. They can be found throughout Japan on restaurant menus, in department store food courts and at train stations; they’re perfect for a meal on an intercity bullet train.
Having enjoyed this meal (which includes courses of fish, beef, pickled vegetables, rice and soup) on many occasions, I was curious to learn what went into each of these delicious dishes.
But before we get down to cooking, Mrs. Osawa explains a set of elaborate origami paper models proudly displayed on her dining room cabinet in celebration of her daughter’s engagement and upcoming wedding.
They include an old couple, to wish the young couple a long life together, and bamboo and plum trees, to wish them strength and prosperity, respectively, for their new life.
As we commence our cooking lesson, Mrs. Osawa shares the fact that she had made such a lunch meal for her adult daughter every day since she was a school student, and only ceased the practice a week earlier.
As we prepared each of the dishes in turn, carefully cutting cucumbers and eggplants, delicately rolling a paper-thin omelet and vigorously squeezing seaweed, it comes to mind that perhaps our teacher’s joy at her daughter’s wedding is partially related to the retirement from this daily chore!
As the three of us talk and cook together, the lesson takes on not so much a class in Japanese cookery, but one of cultural exchange. Mrs. Osawa’s family stories spark tales from our own family life, and my mum’s initial shyness in being in a foreign country, in a foreign city and in a stranger’s home is replaced with engaging chatter and shared laugher.
In no time our dishes are ready, our Bento box assembled (those rice spheres came out a treat!), and we sit down in Mrs. Osawa’s dining room to enjoy the bento box lunch we have made together. Over our delicious meal and endless cups of tea we continue our conversation and learn more about life in Japan than any guidebook or tour guide could ever impart.
If You Go
The Women’s Association of Kyoto
Individual lessons range from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Kyoto is an easy 2 1/2-hour journey by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo.