A Cafe Where Cosmology and Organic Foodways Intersect
On Nishiogiology, we have many accounts of how restaurant owners and chefs use their dishes and restaurant spaces to communicate ideas about places—other countries, other regions in Japan, or even Nishiogi itself—and to express a nostalgia for times, including tastes of childhood or of a specific era. But the meanings of food are not limited to nostalgic memories of times and spaces. Cuisine can also express abstract values, ideas, and experiences. A three-minute walk from the train station, “Organic Café Yukisukinokuni” is a restaurant where you can have a taste of organic cuisine that represents a unique amalgam of ideas of healthy living conceived by the owner, Rieko Ido. The name Yukisukinokuni – as explained by the owner below – could be roughly translated as “the land of your future self,” a reminder that what we eat today is our future self or at least our future body.
When you step foot into the restaurant, you are greeted by dulcet background music and interior designs that evoke themes of nature. The owner, Rieko Ido explained her experiences when she first opened the restaurant: “From the beginning, I helped create everything in this setting—for instance, painting [the walls] with diatomaceous earth, or running the water pipes underneath the floor. […] I directed them to create the interior by saying things like ‘use stuff like this’ or ‘use stuff like that’ from a selection of various works designed by a person called Morison Koyabashi.”
Since its opening in 2015, the restaurant has been in operation for three years and is currently run by Ido and four of her friends. There are seventeen seats in the restaurant, but ten more people can fit in for events held about four times a month, which consist of information sessions on traditional Sino-Japanese almanacs or Buddhism and cooking classes. Further in the restaurant, customers can sit shoulder-to-shoulder around a wooden counter. Stovetops are also installed on one side of the counter. As you watch the staff prepare the meals and listen to their detailed explanations, you will notice the careful thought invested in each of the dishes.
The restaurant name that Ido created, “Yukisukinokuni,” reflects her cosmological conception of each meal she serves. “‘Yukisukinokuni’ means… ‘Yuki’ means ‘only leading to the future.’ In Japanese, ‘Yuki’ means ‘Future.’ And, it also denotes the word ‘East.’ And, ‘West’ is ‘Suki,’ I call this ‘Sukinokuni.’ The kanji characters are written as ‘shu’ in ‘shujiku [primary-axis]’ and ‘ki’ in ‘kihon [basics].’ Together, they mean ‘what I choose now creates the future.’ What I eat right now creates my future body. And, that is what ‘Yukisukinokuni’ means,” explained Ido.
The dishes served at Yukisukinokuni draw inspiration from diverse values and experiences, Ido said. “You see, I’ve been cooking since my childhood days,” said Ido. “My grandmother—she ran a ryōtei [a traditional, luxurious Japanese-style restaurant]. And, because my mother was raised by that ryotei taste, I was raised eating meals like Ita-san’s bentos.”
Ido herself prepares much of the food. “I have always loved cooking,” she said. “Sekku cuisine—sekku is… like, imperial court cuisine—I used to cook sekku cuisine, and I presented those at events for a decade. And, well, I was often told ‘why don’t you try starting a restaurant?’ I could serve sekku cuisine as well as youjō cuisine—cooking that cures and preserves the health of the human body—I would be able to serve those, so I began to serve those foods.” In this way, Ido delivers to her restaurant customers dishes based on the ryōtei, sekku, and youjō cooking that she has been involved with for many years.
Ido’s professional experiences cut across many fields. For instance, although she did not design the restaurant interior herself, she has broad experience in design. “I also do various design projects. For example, creating family crests, or company crests. So, by referencing old family crests, I design new family crests. I also do things like that. Also, I make lacquerware,” she explained.
Ido also engages in educational projects. “I’m still currently teaching environmental engineering at a university. I’m teaching environmental engineering in the Faculty of Architecture at Tama Art University […] I do a variety of projects all over Japan—well, for work and at companies—projects like town revitalization or events. Because I do those types of projects, I go to various locations, and also, I network with artisans and craftsmen,” she said.
“Work is work and the restaurant is the restaurant.” As someone who rigidly separates her other professional work life and restaurant life, Ido has an artistic and design network and a restaurant-related network, using the latter to acquire food ingredients. Regarding this restaurant network, Ido explained, “I’ve been friends with them for about thirty years now. Everyone sure enough has always had an interest in food and we are trying to reshape food. We try to protect nature through food. So, when the Ezo shika deer population multiplies, it begins to lay waste to the mountains, and so as a part of our nature-protection activities, we thought about what foods we ought to be consuming.” In this way, Ido partners in activities aimed at environmental protection and makes it possible through Yukisukinokuni for her and others to communicate these individual values through food served to her customers, including venison from Hokkaido.
We also asked Ido what “organic” specifically means at Yukisukinokuni. She explained, “Rather than ‘organic’, it’s natural food. Eating the natural. And so, we try to eat foods that are as close to natural as possible. So, even with vegan foods—well, even all our vegan dishes as well—we cook all of them, but we try to eat what is available. Eating the natural. We eat various foods found within Japan’s natural environment. […] There’s a classical text called “The Classic of Herbal Medicine [Shin-nou-hon-zou-kyou/Shennong Ben Cao Jing]” with much wisdom. A teacher who was researching ethnic minorities in China—they were a Doctor of Medicine—and from that teacher, well, I received lessons when I was young. I think it was when I was about twenty. And, I first thought about how to apply the worlds of food and medicine written in that “Classic of Herbal Medicine” to food, and I also do research on the classical almanacs—the four seasons and the like—and during my research, I was also looking at how internal organs move within the body and that these movements aren’t bad. And the dishes I cook are a combination of these findings.” It appears that “organic” and “natural” at Yukisukinokuni does not merely refer to traditional organic farming, but also brings in Ido’s research findings on classical Chinese medicine, the Sino-Japanese almanacs, and other ideas about traditional medicine.
Ido explained how some of her dishes are prepared: “[Our popular dishes are] curry—medicinal curry—and pork bowl and… we use products from Hokkaido for all of these. A vegetable plate, bread or rice, a side dish, and a small dessert. Also, we have two types of pork bowls—a light pork shabu and a richer, meat-thick one that is cooked in miso. And, these pigs are only fed small grains, so they are good pork for the body. Also, we have dishes like a curry that uses Yezo shika deer from Hokkaido, we also have [other] Yezo shika deer dishes. Right. While we have curries that are completely vegetarian, we do also have regular curries, but they are all medicinal curries. We are dedicated to maintaining health while eating.” While she is particular about the livestock-rearing practices towards pigs, she is also particular about the health effects posed by the natural cultivation of vegetables. “Pork and meat products are mostly from Hokkaido. But vegetables from their various regions are naturally-cultivated—we focus on using products that don’t use pesticides and chemical fertilizers,” she noted.
A consciousness towards health is also apparent among customers. Ido explained, “I have customers who come once a week without fail saying, ‘I’m able to maintain my health when I eat here.’ There are people who come saying it’s to keep in a healthy condition—many customers come saying their condition isn’t good.” In addition, they tailor their menu at times to customers who express health consciousness through dieting. “We are particular when making all of our desserts. So, well, people who are dieting can eat them as well,” she explained.
While in this way, customers may share values of health consciousness, it appears that customer characteristics such as gender or age are rather diverse. “There may be slightly more women, but men often come. […] Generations are completely scattered. They are very scattered. Anywhere from an eighty-year-old grandmother to well, someone in their twenties,” said Ido.
Customers who come to the restaurant are not limited to Japanese people. We asked Ido about her menus after being a bit puzzled that a smaller restaurant like Yukisukinokuni would have a second, solely-English menu. She explained, “Among our vegan customers, there are many foreigners. And, for foreign customers, there aren’t that many restaurants with vegan menus, and just in case, we are also gluten-free. We don’t use flour whatsoever. And, because we are gluten-free or vegan-friendly [they come].”
Regarding these foreign customers, Ido added, “They come quite often. [They represent] a variety of ethnicities. They come from various countries. I think many customers come because we are vegan-friendly. Also, teachers from international schools come. And acquaintances of these international school teachers come as well.” Furthermore, Ido stated that news about Yukisukinokuni “seems to have permeated quite a bit” among the circles of these customers who seek out vegan-friendly or organic restaurants in Japan, which she noted are still quite rare.
Rather than a single spot where you can have a taste of a specific region, Yukisukinokuni is a place where you can enjoy the taste of a unique organic cuisine based on an intersection of values such as natural food, environmental protectionism, Chinese herbal medicine, ancient almanacs, and veganism (Lisa Katsube and James Farrer, Jan 15, 2019)
(text by Lisa Katsube and James Farrer; interview by Lisa Katsube Aug. 15, 2018; transcription and translation by Lisa Katsube; Japanese language editing by Fumiko Kimura)