Rosanjin Kitaoji was a man of multiple faces, at various times being a gourmet, a chef, a calligrapher, a potter, an artist, a writer and a critic. Like the French epicure and gastronome, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, he devoted his life to the culture of food. Also like the English designer, William Morris, he said that he was “trying to make people’s lives more beautiful” but he produced many works of art that were out of reach of the ordinary man. Moreover, like the German philosopher, Nietzsche, he repeatedly caused a lot of arguments with the others because he refused to make any compromise. These may be enough to describe how unique and extraordinary he was. However, seemingly out of character with his famously arrogant personality, his works often have a free, bold and even fun feel. So how exactly is he conceived of in the world of food that he so entirely gave himself to? We see that the relationship between his pottery and cooking gives us clues as to how to better appreciate Japanese food.
“I would like to stay pure, like a bird in the mountain. Wake up with sunrise and fall asleep with sunset, like those mountain birds. Hewing closely to nature is the only path to true beauty” -Rosanjin
Fukujiro Kitaoji, later known as Rosanjin Kitaoji, was born in 1883. He was famous in his day, and left such a mark on future generations that he was chosen as the basis for a character in a food-related series of comics, which have been popular for decades in Japan.
Somewhat glamorously, he was born into a family that, over generations, has overseen the well-known Kamigamo shrine in Kyoto, but his life saw continuous hardships. Being adopted by other families, and receiving no attention from his own parents, he developed his skill and interest in cuisine because, from the age of six, he cooked for the family that finally took him in. He grew up with a deep knowledge of the arts, and eventually started calling himself “Ro [silly] san-jin [mountain man]".
He founded the private Gourmet Club in 1921, and later another club - Hoshigaoka Saryo – in 1925 because he wanted an audience of selected admirers – drawn from various industries – to whom to showcase his unique and imaginative creations. Not content with merely being the chef, he then turned his hand to pottery. Working alone and with the same diligence and passion, he was eventually able to serve all his dishes on crockery of his own creation.
Rosanjin believed that valuable lessons could be drawn from the past. In his writing, he is neither shy of praising those he respected, nor prone to showing any mercy when he criticised the many artists or gourmands who he didn’t agree with. The gaps were so deep between who he liked and who he hated.
Purity and innocence make the extreme
“If Rosanjin and I had been alive at the same time, I would definitely have fought with him”, said Yoshihiro Murata in his soft but sharp Kyoto dialect. Murata is the third head chef of Kikunoi, a long-established three-Michelin-star restaurant in Kyoto. He played a key role in the campaign to have Japanese cuisine recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. He owns plates by famous artists from different eras, and his collection includes a number of Rosanjin’s works.
“I read Rosanjin’s books when I was young, and I thought how selfish he could be. He thought only about himself, you simply cannot neglect the others and enjoy all the fun by yourself”, Murata said. Still, when I asked him if it was fun to serve his dishes on Rosanjin’s plates, he smiled and answered immediately: “Yes. It’s so much fun”.
“Without such extreme aspects to his character, he wouldn’t have been able to make something so powerful. Many artists have unusual personalities, but it’s irrelevant to the value of their works. Even though Rosanjin worked in a number of fields, such as pottery, calligraphy and cooking, his artistic essence seeps through into all these areas. That’s how I think artists are supposed to be. He probably had a strong desire to surprise people. Rather than wishing to please people, it’s more like, an attitude of “what would you say about this? Isn’t this great?”, almost like a big child. That’s why he was able to get married six times, because he was not afraid to try anything”, he laughs. “His Hoshigaoka Saryo restaurant offered a fusion cuisine of Japanese and something like Chinese, and honestly I doubt if all the dishes were that delicious. But his spirit to challenge the status quo was always strong. He tried many traditional pottery places: Oribe, Bizen, Shino, Shigaraki, Seto… and he also made famous potters like Toyozo Arakawa and Seika Suda help him to create his ideal works”.
Excitement is the best spice
Rosanjin often described deliberately flamboyant cuisine as yabo, a casual term suggesting uncool and a lack of good taste. Instead, he valued the harmony and co-ordination of the tableware and the food. His philosophy seems to reflect the fact that he was a chef, lending his dishes a distinct perspective”.
“Simply because he himself loved eating”, Murata explains. “From the point of view of a chef, we get a sense of how the food is meant to be placed on his plate just by looking at the plates. Even if it’s a very big plate, if you look carefully, you’ll see how he intended you to use the space on that plate. You simply need to follow that guidance, and your dish will automatically look good.
A plate is so important that you simply cannot find any personality in the dish if it’s on the wrong plate. Especially, I think of Japanese cuisine as being four-dimensional, in that it has a story to tell, in a way. For example, when you see the red line on a tororo yam bun and find out that the name of the sweet selection that it’s part of is, say, Tatsutagawa River, the vision of an autumn leaf floating on the river automatically comes to mind. If it’s a soft pink line and it’s called Yoshino-yama Mountain, your mind pictures cherry blossoms. You also look at the whole setting, including the arrangement of the room, and ideally you feel like you are drinking tea while looking at the cherry blossoms of the Yoshino-yama mountains. A ryori-ya, a Japanese course restaurant is like an amusement park for adults, one which operates on the imagination”.
As we talk, we are served Murata’s many dishes on Rosanjin’s plates. The landscape created on the plates seems to inform us of the places and the seasons where the ingredients were grown. Blue dishware implies the fun of early summer; the fried Ayu fish, with its small but strong fins, elicits a scene of it swimming powerfully against the flow of the river. This particular Oribe dish, colored deep blue and green, is Murata’s favorite, and is reminiscent of a clear stream. Summer vegetables are served with wet bamboo chopsticks, creating a pleasant and cool atmosphere, in a bowl painted with Rosanjin’s calligraphy. A yellow-ish bowl of pickles creates a beautiful contrast with the fresh-colored vegetables. Over the course of just four dishes, it feels as though we have passed through a rich forest.
“I always say that there is nothing to eat if a dish doesn’t touch people’s emotion”, Murata continues. “Cooking is consisted of three elements: aroma, texture, and the wow factor. So if you don’t have a sense of playfulness, including in your choice of dishware, you can’t be a good chef. If our customers are able to interpret the true message of a dish, then both of us will feel pleased because we are able to communicate with one another”.
“When you understand art, your own taste will be formed automatically. When you have your own taste, everything becomes fun. When it comes to fun, you just cannot stay still” -Rosanjin
The key to gastronomy lies with yourself
In recent years, Rosanjin’s dishware has been priced out of the reach of even the wealthy, and some key pieces cannot be bought at any price. But as Murata says, we shouldn’t consider them to be museum pieces. And the focus should not be exclusively on the plate. More important is to take your time to understand what the chef wants to express by the combination of plate and food.
“There are many people who value Rosanjin’s name, but don’t really care about the quality. He sold some plates which other artists would probably never have allowed to reach the public. Even the quality of the Oribe pottery, for which he was nominated for the title of National Human Treasure, which he declined, varies wildly. Some plates have beautiful colors, but some don’t. Still, Rosanjin might have found beauty in imperfection and he might have thought perfection is a bit dull. That was his sense of aesthetics. So it would be strange if all of us liked all of his work. We, as chefs, try to convey a variety of messages, while paying tribute to Japan and its beautiful seasons, or trying to give voice to the farmers. However, people simply cannot receive those messages if they don’t have a certain understanding or knowledge. It’s like trying to read Shakespeare when you can barely read a picture book. The same is true in utsushi [a common way to learn traditional arts in Japan, by emulating designs from predecessors’ works], where many people just copy Rosanjin’s designs. They copy the outside but don’t try to appreciate what lies inside. So they’re just making funny dishware; they don’t understand the beauty and the boldness of the Momoyama period in the late 16th century, which was represented by Chojiro’s works, and which Rosanjin in turn admired. It’s not a matter of having the money for it. It’s about effort to understand– that’s the best way to ultimately be able to eat really delicious food”.
Respecting the four seasons and learning from predecessors, and not forgetting a touch of playfulness. Rosanjin applied this approach in all areas of his artistic life, and that’s why his crockery is still heavily desired by Japanese chefs. Like children, they are prepared to experiment, to create for the sake of creation, and to enjoy themselves. Those of us who aspire to appreciate their creations should ask ourselves if we are able to enjoy food like they do. When you can read the subtle code embedded in a dish, your food can become unforgettable, not merely delicious.
“The Rosanjin Ceramics” (Written by Kitaōji Rosanjin, edited by Masaaki Hirano, Chuokoron-Shinsha, 1992)
“The Taste of Rosanjin” (Written by Kitaōji Rosanjin, edited by Masaaki Hirano, Chuokoron-Shinsha, 1995 revised)
“Rosanjin's Cuisine Kingdom” (Written by Rosanjin, Cultural Publishing Bureau, 1980)
“Letter to Rosanjin” (Yoshitomo Kajikawa, Kyuryudo 1999)
Photos: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation