From Sushi to Bonkei to Art

Ebisawa Tatsuo

When I was a child, my parents were too busy running their own business to offer me afternoon snacks, so one day I swiped some coins from my mother's purse and headed for the nearest sushi shop. Standing at the counter, I asked for mirugai clam and abalone. I was an elementary-school second-grader at the time. The delicate aroma and clear sweetness of that mirugai I remember to this day. The next pieces I ordered were aoyagi clam, and they were just as tasty. Although many years have passed since that day, I'm happy to say that my intimate acquaintance with sushi continues to the present.
One of my favorite sushi restaurants is in Tokyo's Shirokane district. I spent time in Italy as an exchange student, and I think one reason I like this restaurant so much is that it not only serves fantastic food, but pairs it with sushi's best partner: delicious white wine.
What we think of today as "sushi" began in the Edo period as fast food peddled in the streets of Ryogoku in Tokyo (Edo). From a kneeling position behind his stand, the vendor would handform pieces of fish on rice that were much larger than the sushi of today. Customers stood on the other side and, after eating his wares barehanded, rinsed their hands in large teabowls and wiped them dry on his noren (stand curtain). Apparently, vendors doing the best business had the dirtiest noren. So how did sushi today come to its sophisticated spot at the top of the Japanese cuisine? Should you be interested, I direct you to the countless gourmet magazines and specialist books that explore the many reasons for this phenomenon.
Let's return to my Shirokane restaurant. First, the space is minimalist, its walls and counter absent of any pictures, ceramics, or arranged flowers. To learn how to make ideal sushi, the stocky master forwent the typical apprenticeship at an established restaurant, and instead travelled around trying food at countless sushiya and diligently putting into practice what he discovered. I was impressed when he told me one day, "Even I can make this quality of sushi." As an artist practicing in the contemporary art world, I too had no interest in working under some maestro or in some organization, for such environments are anathema to developing your own philosophy and ideas. Great sushi, like original artworks, can only arise from one individual's heightened awareness. Next, we turn to the crucial place of the hostess. Her presence in kimono and crisp white chef's apron (a vision from my dreams!) complements her knowledge of French and skills as sommelier. Passing through the sliding entrance door, you notice a modest wine cellar set into the wall on the right. You'll never find a distracting wine cooler sitting on the counter. To be in this space enjoying a holiday lunch with a bottle of wine selected for that day is my idea of heaven. But even in such a wonderful restaurant, the finicky critic in me finds something lacking. Of course, the hospitality is phenomenal, but, if forced to admit it, the dishes are not. I know we are not talking about Narisawa, Asia's number one French restaurant, and that I can't request the type of dish to be paired with mellow, amber-hued white wine poured into a beautiful wine glass. Yet I can't help thinking that the marriage of excellent sushi and fine wine demands fine, original dishes and bowls of contemporary design, not those you might find in lesser restaurants. I started to think about designing dishes, though by no means western-style, that would best match the level of this restaurant's sushi and wine. This desire led me to begin making sushi tableware.
I made a series of Bizen-ware plates and, if I do say so myself, it turned out quite well. But I wondered if these new dishes would be suitable in the closed environment of the sushi shop. I also started to worry that this fancy new hobby I was devoting time and money to had nothing to do with art. Around this time, I was asked to participate in an exhibition in Hannover, Germany. Earlier, I had been interested in making bonkei (tray landscapes), and now I thought of ways to somehow combine bonkei with plates of food. At some point, the concept of "cold food" arose in my mind. In Germany after the Second World War, so many men had died on the battlefield that the women had to go to work rebuilding the country. For a woman coming home exhausted everyday, cooking was the last thing on her mind. Consequently, family meals came to consist of mostly cold food. Not wanting to generalize, it does seem that cuisine is a minor concern for many German people, and that, unlike the Italians, for instance, they don't consider eating to be a form of pleasure. Returning to the subject of fish on dishes, top-quality sushi is expensive. The dish that will receive this aliment—one that evolved over generations from fast food to edible art form—becomes the transit point between chef and eater at which the sushi appears most beautiful. Therefore, I thought to use my dishes to make bonkei for German sausages, mashed potatoes, and cheeses. At my studio in North Hiroshima, I started making drawings on colored paper and mounting them on hanging scrolls. Once in Germany, I made an installation with German food on my porcelain plates. I also organized a well-received workshop where people could make their own food bonkei. During the workshop, I spoke of dry gardens, bonsai, and the celebrated master of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, but I'm not sure how many people I reached. I tried to emphasize that, unlike the flower arrangement of ikebana, this bonkei food-art required no specialized knowledge or techniques, but was open to all. Through this bonkei installation—a combination of "cold food," plates originally designed for sushi, and hanging scrolls of colored paper—I sought to create both a work of art and a modest metaphor for the richness of the Japanese cuisine.