Rath on Ogata, 'Jiki-fu: A Japanese Aesthetics of Taste'

Shin'ichirō Ogata
Eric C. Rath

Shin'ichirō Ogata. Jiki-fu: A Japanese Aesthetics of Taste. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2017. 143 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-4-13-080219-2.

Reviewed by Eric C. Rath (Center for Japanese Studies) Published on H-Japan (September, 2017) Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin

Marie-Anton Carême (1784-1833) attempted to prove that pastry was in the field of architecture by constructing pièce montées, displays several feet in height made from marzipan and sugar that replicated ruins of Roman columns replete with growing ivy, triumphal arches, and classical pavilions on plateaus. Where Carême’s creations reveal how a master chef propelled confectionery into the realm of artistry, Jiki-fu shows how a master designer, Shinichiro Ogata (b. 1969), creates art with food.

Ogata’s design portfolio includes commercial spaces, packaging, and graphic design as well as a line of disposable paper plates called wasara that won the grand prize in the DFA Design for Asia Awards in 2009. He operates two restaurants in Tokyo, Yakumo Saryo and Higashi-yama, and he oversees the confectionery brand Higashiya, which has several branch shops in Tokyo. Ogata is an affiliate associate professor of Tokyo University, where in 2011 he completed the interior design for the university’s museum, Intermediatheque. As someone new to Ogata’s work, I wanted more information about his background and cooking than was provided in the few disparate passages in Jiki-fu. The website of Ogata’s company, Simplicity, helps to flesh out some of the details of his wide-ranging career and provides the gastronomic voyeur with stunning images of the interiors of his restaurants and glimpses of the foods served (www.simplicity.co.jp).

The food of Jiki-fu seems unlikely to be found on any ordinary table, let alone in a restaurant, so the lack of much reference to the dishes served in Ogata’s dining venues and confectionery shops is understandable. Jiki-fu can be loosely translated as “odes to food” or more literally as “food-music.” The book is in the mode of a coffee table art book and consists of twenty-five culinary moments that comprise the short chapters. It also includes two short essays, one by Yoshiaki Nishino, director of Intermediatheque, who introduces Ogata and his work, and a short statement by the designer.

The chapters begin with an opening image of a foodstuff showing how Ogata has placed an ingredient in a new context that is somehow familiar nonetheless. He arranges royal fern (zenmai) against a black background, placing the plants of green stems topped by a small curled frond against one another to suggest a larger horticultural specimen. He uses a black background again to showcase a tiger globefish in a white wood box that barely contains it in a photo that spreads over two full pages. On the next page, Ogata has disassembled the globefish into parts, arranging flesh and organs into two separate frames as if ready for exhibition at a natural history museum. In his essay at the end of the volume Yoshiaki Nishino observes that Ogata “destroys petrified traditions and reconstructs them,” which aptly sums up the fate of the globefish reconstituted as a curious display, and it is an idea worth keeping in mind when looking at the other foods in the book (p. 130). Ogata interprets familiar delicacies like matsutake mushrooms and bamboo shoots, local vegetables such as Kamo eggplant and Manganji peppers, both from Kyoto prefecture, and foods unusual for the traditional kaiseki repertoire like corn, wild boar, and soft-shelled turtle.

After introducing an ingredient, Ogata shows on the next page how he imagines it as prepared food. The captions provide only hints at the preparation of the dishes, confirming that Jiki-fu is not a cookbook. In one example three young sweetfish (chi ayu) hover as if swimming above a shallow rectangular cypress tray. In another case, a single large dried persimmon rests on a pile of salt (or is it sugar?), the fruit’s white skin offsetting a pale celadon footed plate. In a glass bowl with a blue floral pattern Ogata stacks Shiroshita flounder (karei) sashimi to make it look at first glance like soft-serve ice cream. The caption for this dish reads: “The Shiroshita flounder grows in brackish waters near the Hiji Castle in Oita Prefecture, where fresh water springs and mingles with sea water. It has been prized as a fish destined for lords, and was presented to the shogun during the Edo period. Its celadon flesh is thick, and extends to the root of its tail. Prepared in sashimi like a white peony appearing in the season of fresh verdure, it offers a plain and refined taste as well as a unique consistency” (p. 53). The passage is typical of Ogata, who provides the cultural background to appreciate a dish instead of guidance for anyone who would attempt to replicate the recipes themselves.

Most of the serving ware featured is Ogata’s own work. Yoshiaki Nishino contends that food completes Ogata’s creations in wood, porcelain, glass, and other media. According to Nishino, Ogata supervises traditional craftsmen, and he provokes them to deviate from their usual production methods. In one instance, he prevented a ceramicist from applying a final color glazing to an Imari vessel. By interrupting tradition, Ogawa makes something novel (pp. 136, 142).

Food-art might be the best way to sum up Ogata’s approach in Jiki-fu, which he defines both in terms of a musical score for food and as “a genealogy of devouring” (p. 151). It is evident that Ogata has digested Japanese culinary traditions, but he has also elevated the food of Jiki-fu to the level of the museum piece, where it is hard to imagine actually devouring it. The dishes appearing on the aforementioned website of Ogata’s restaurants look much more approachable, and, frankly, more appetizing. Fortunately, Ogata’s Jiki-fu cuisine can be appreciated for its sheer novel visuality, which is what one hopes for in any book consisting largely of photographs of food.  

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50473

Citation: Eric C. Rath. Review of Ogata, Shin'ichirō, Jiki-fu: A Japanese Aesthetics of Taste. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50473

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