Those arriving at Tsukiji Station on an early morning food hunt are most likely in pursuit of some breakfast sushi. Although Japan’s world-famous Tsukiji fish market relocated to Toyosu in October 2018, the ramshackle outer market remained, with its eclectic mix of household goods, tea and dried goods, and seafood donburi shops.
Those in the know, however, might head for a different and very unusual breakfast experience in the area – one that has its origins in traditional vegan Buddhist cuisine.
The most striking landmark upon exiting Tsukiji Station is not the market entrance, but the imposing Tsukiji Hongwanji temple. Set back from the road, this grey stone behemoth is modeled after ancient Buddhist architecture found in India and other Asian countries, with an arched roof rounded into a ringed point known as a sorin. It looks far out of place in central Tokyo, as if it were mistakenly transplanted from another country.
Yet the temple has a long history. It was initially established in 1617, but the Great Fire of 1657 forced its relocation to its present-day location, on what was reclaimed land carefully constructed by the temple’s devout followers. The word Tsukiji, itself, means “built-up land.” The temple was yet again destroyed by a fire following the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and rebuilt in its current design in 1934.
Now, the modern Cafe Tsumugi sits in the temple grounds, boasting a sleek wooden design and large windows that look out onto outdoor decking. It offers all-day dining and a variety of high-quality green teas, but the main appeal lies in a mildly extravagant 18-dish breakfast.
It’s a typical winter morning in Tokyo when we visit – the sky crystal clear, the light bright and crisp as if to match the chilled air. It’s the kind of day when Mt. Fuji looms clearly on the horizon from many a viewpoint, or sometimes appearing in a mere sliver between towering buildings.
Stepping into Cafe Tsumugi, we are hit by warmth and bustle; it’s a popular place, and reservations for breakfast fill up quickly. We’re guided to a bright table by the window, and after we make a choice of hot or cold green tea, we await our 18-dish meal.
The number 18 is far from arbitrary. A small information card replete with a QR code cheerily directs us to an explanation: A Buddhist follower named Hozo decided to embark on the path to Buddhahood, making 48 vows to guide his way. After some severe ascetic practice, he finally became Amida Buddha, the main Buddhist deity in Tsukiji Hongwanji. It’s the 18th of these vows that Hongwangji followers particularly cherish: “Let all beings be born equally in a world where they can truly live in peace.”
It’s with that heartwarming sentiment that a tummy-warming breakfast is served.
No amount of pictures can quite encapsulate the scale of a tray of 18 dishes and the visual delight from the arrangement of colors and shapes. Each glance reveals another detail or reminds of a dish previously examined and tasted, but momentarily lost to the memory in the face of such variety.
The meal is inspired by Buddhist cuisine known as shojin ryori, which traditionally consists of simple, plant-based dishes – mainly vegetables, tofu and rice – but this modern rendition also includes meat, fish and eggs.
There’s octopus salad in a tangy shio-koji dressing; juicy slices of duck with hints of sansho pepper; grilled satoimo (taro) with a sweet miso sauce; and fried aubergine with tomato soy meat sauce that is so good we have to save a piece until last.
Much of the produce is sourced from local traders at the nearby Tsukiji markets, such as Yoshiokaya’s bettarazuke crisp and refreshing daikon (white radish pickled with malted rice), Edoichi’s sweet kombu tsukudani (boiled in a sweet soy sauce reduction), or one our favorites, Shoro’s soft tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette).
All of these are accompaniments not to plain white rice but to okayu, Japanese rice porridge. It’s comforting and provides a light base on which each ingredient can shine. Spicy mentaiko (cod roe) with nori is a delight to mix in, and the salty-sourness of a Nanko umeboshi (pickled plum) opens the eyes wider than a caffeine hit.
Each dish holds its own, rightfully earning its place on the tray and reflecting the obvious thought and care that has gone into designing the entire meal.
When finished, we shuffle comfortably full into the brisk air and across into Hongwanji itself. The temple opens its doors daily to visitors, from devout Buddhist followers to sightseers who have come to admire the architecture.
The interior is broad; a large pipe organ lines the back walls, and grey stone pillars punctuate the central hall fronted by a golden, richly ornate altar.
A member of staff, encouraged by our visible interest, launches into an explanation. “The central statue,” he tells us, “is the Amida Buddha who made the 48 vows.”
We make a note to thank Amida Buddha for the 18th vow that inspired our breakfast.
The man then indicates a statue on a secondary altar to the right.
“This is Shinran,” he explains, the founder of our school of Buddhism. “He understood the ordinary people. For example, people back then were told not to hunt and eat animals, but many people had to in order to survive. Shinran understood that.”
He goes on to explain that the hall floorspace is wide compared to that allocated for the altar. “The temple was built as a space for the ordinary people, not just the elites,” he says.
It’s an appealing image, and perhaps it’s that sentiment that underlies the bustling cafe just outside: Cafe Tsumugi is a modern-day approach, welcoming people with a delicious breakfast and a good cup of tea.
Published on March 14, 2023