Ajiro: Vegetarian ‘shojin ryori’ in a Buddhist temple complex

by J.J. O'Donoghue, The Japan Times, Nov 11, 2016

Kyoto, Japan -- I ate my lunch at Ajiro in the company of a bewildered farmer with a comical Donald Trump-like mop of hair. But looks were the least of his concern; rather it was a bull that had got the better of him, escaping from the herd and hightailing it to the hills. Luckily he finally found the animal hiding behind a rock, lassoed him and triumphantly led him back to the herd. Was there something in my miso soup you might be wondering?

<< Sharp and creamy: Ajiro's goma-dofu (sesame tofu) comes topped with a sprig of hana-sansho (pepper flowers). | J.J. O'DONOGHUE

This was the simple but satisfying scene painted on the six fusuma (papered sliding doors) that surrounded me while I ate lunch at Ajiro. This restaurant specializes in shojin ryori, traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. And that painted bull was the only trace of meat at this restaurant, which serves only vegetarian meals.

Ajiro is located north-west of central Kyoto on the southern edge of the Myoshinji Hanazono complex, a sprawling district with a total of 46 temples and subtemples. It’s not surprising that chef Yoshitaka Senoo chose to focus on Buddhist fare — particularly considering he worked in the kitchen of one of the complex’s temples prior to opening Ajiro.

I chose to sit in the zashiki (floor seating), a second floor private room where a table no bigger than a tray rested in front of me. The tatami and the painted scene are past their prime, but the wear and tear is not without its charm: Ajiro is a cozy restaurant.

The Fuchidaka bento lunch (¥3,000), which changes in accordance with the seasons, opened with a briny, cold sake that acts as a palette cleanser. This was accompanied by goma-dofu (sesame tofu) topped with a perfectly sculpted mound of grated ginger and a sprig of hana-sansho (pepper flowers). Kyoto’s soft water is ideal for making tofu, and I would proffer in Kyoto you’ll find some of Japan’s best goma-dofu. Ajiro’s firm offering bolsters that claim — you won’t need the little splash of soy sauce it comes with. This was followed by a translucent citrus-flavored dashi soup containing yuba (bean curd skin) and a shimeji mushroom. Both were delightfully meaty.

Then the main bento box arrived, loaded with rich colors and textures. On first glance, the namafu (wheat gluten) could easily have stood in for a piece of glazed fish or mea, it’s chewy and delicious. A creamy tofu salad came with sliced seasonal persimmons. The little dish nearby contained a host of autumnal ingredients, including boiled chestnuts and a cube of Koya-dofu, the spongy freeze-dried tofu believed to be first made by monks on Mount Koya.

Ajiro makes great use of local fruit and vegetables, and if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive taster of shojin ryori in a whimsical setting then starting with Ajiro’s is recommended. Ask for the room with the bull.