A 14-Centuries-Old Culture of Diet and Faith: Savor Shojin Dishes in Silent Saikan
“Beautiful.” This is the single word that springs to mind when you see the beautiful dishes carried to the dining room. These shojin dishes, which you are about to enjoy in the dead silence of shin’iki (divine territory), are one of the symbols of the 14-centuries-old strolling monk training culture. They are here to tell the eternal stories of those monks who have long inhabited this place. The following is a brief description of the traditional shojin dishes served in Saikan at the summit of Mt. Haguro.
What are shojin dishes, life-sustaining foods for strolling monks?
The Three Mountains of Dewa are also known as a hub of mountain worship and Shugen-do. Shojin dishes, inherited by generations of Shugen-do practitioners to sustain themselves throughout their rigorous training, embody the knowledge and wisdom required for survival in the mountains. Since the beginning of time, this area has seen the development of methods for removing froth and other methods needed to cook wild mountain vegetables and mushrooms, which are essential ingredients of traditional local dishes. Based on this sophisticated gastronomy, shojin dishes of the Three Mountains of Dewa were created by merging the vegetarian dishes developed in temples with the self-contained diet of strolling monks. Attesting to this process is the fact that the dishes are made from food ingredients available in the mountains inhabited by the monks and in their vicinity. Seasonal mountain vegetables, bamboo shoots, native grasses and mushrooms were boiled or dressed for main shojin dishes. In winter, they were turned into non-perishables such as souses and pickles.
Since shojin dishes do not use meat or fish, soybeans and tofu (soybean curd) were essential sources of protein for strolling monks living in the mountains. Miso and shoyu, or fermented products of soybeans, not only served as seasonings but also were used to make soups to keep the monks warm in winter.
Saikan, a place in Mt. Haguro for Shinto priests to cleanse themselves
Saikan, an inn on Mt. Haguro where you can savor shojin dishes, is located to the left of the slope that leads to the summit of the mountain, called Sannnosaka. The solemn atmosphere of this cultural property of Tsuruoka City, which maintains its historical importance to this day, is deeply impressive. Formally known as Kezoin, the temple was once inhabited by shukuro, or the deputy to the executive head monk of Mt. Haguro. As a result of the Shinto-Buddhism separation policy adopted by the Meiji government, over 30 temples that existed on the mountain at that time were demolished, with the exception of this Saikan, where Shinto priests cleanse themselves before sacred rites. In other words, this is the only remaining place where strolling monks used to live.
Shojin dishes attracting attention as a Japanese vegetarian diet
Using no meat or fish, shojin dishes are a type of Japanese cuisine that is attracting the attention of international tourists as a Japanese vegetarian diet. Indeed, visitors to the Saikan inn in Mt. Haguro include an increasing number of vegetarians from across the globe. You could also say that Mt. Haguro is a “power spot” for the diet.
“Enjoy the blessings of the mountain in the mountain,” says the master chef, pointing at myoga ginger. Myoga, which in Buddhist terms means that “people are protected without knowing it,” were planted in more than 30 gardens that used to exist on the mountain. That is why the red seal of Saikan features a myoga ginger cut into two pieces.
Learn about the history of strolling monks and savor the flavorful nutritious taste of shojin dishes while listening to the stories about the dishes as told by the master chef. Experiencing shojin dishes in the mysterious silence of Saikan will soothe both your body and soul.