The winter chill began to dissipate as we cupped frozen fingers around the ceramic hibachi. Filled with glowing charcoal embers, it was the only heat source in the room. Steaming cups of frothy green tea were set on the tansu (low table). A white velvet light diffused through the delicate paper shoji. Yet the screens provided little protection from the harsh seasonal cold.
On one wall hung a banner containing a favorite poem, written in hiragana script. Hand painted sliding doors (fusuma) enclosed little storage spaces tucked high above a window casing.
The muted clink and scrape of serving could be heard over the flutter of conversation in Japanese.
This is the Taki-an restaurant, located in a converted samurai house built over 250 years ago. We sat on zabuton cushions eating the steaming soba noodles made of buckwheat flour. Sipped Chiran tea served in delicate hand-painted porcelain cups - these having neither handle nor saucer.
An earthenware plate of nigiri rice, shredded daikon and cold spinach sat beside a ceramic tray filled with pickled things (tsukemono). A mizuzashi of extra water to freshen the tea was placed in the wooden tray.
Each container, each piece was different, and designated for use with a particular food or drink. Yet the beauty and harmony of all the elements knit together to give a sense of elegant, rustic simplicity.
When asked of our Japanese host the translation of tsukemono, he replied ‘there is no English word for it’.
And, perhaps no English words adequately describe the enchantment of the experience.