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The Asahi Shimbun
By TAKASHI KONISHI/ Staff Writer
November 20, 2022 at 07:00 JST
A plate of “shoyu-ni” of sashimi slices served with heated dashi stock (Provided by the Tsuwano inn association)
TSUWANO, Shimane Prefecture–Literary giant Mori Ogai is often perceived as having been a stern-looking man with a keen insight into the human psyche.
And that is rather fitting in light of his remarkable career as an army doctor who went on to become one of Japan’s most influential modern writers.
Ogai (1862-1922) is best known for “Maihime” (The Dancing Girl) and “Takasebune” (The Boat on the Takase River).
Now, a ryokan inn association in his hometown here is trying to capitalize on his fame by serving his favorite dishes recreated on the basis of recollections of his daughters and others close to the writer.
They offer a tantalizing glimpse into his obsession with cleanliness, which no doubt derived from his background as a bacteriologist.
Ogai came into this world with the name Rintaro. He was the first son of the Mori family whose members served as physicians to the Tsuwano Domain (present-day Tsuwano and its surrounding areas).
He started studying “The Analects” by Confucius at age 5.
He served as an army doctor after he graduated from the University of Tokyo’s medical school, and was appointed director of the Tokyo Imperial Museum after retirement.
There are many entries in books written by his family members and other publications that describe his dietary habits.
In her book “Chichi” (Father), his second-oldest daughter Annu Kobori recalled how her father was obsessively hygienic.
“He always told us it would be better to stay away from gooey food like mayonnaise,” she writes. “He said that the more gooey it was, the more processes it went through to make it less hygienic.”
It also seems that Ogai didn’t eat fruits raw.
His eldest daughter Mari Mori recalled in her book “Osanai Hibi” (My childhood days) how her father loved boiled fruits, saying that Ogai especially enjoyed plums, apricots and peaches cooked in various ways from early to late summer.
After graduating from university, Ogai studied hygiene and bacteriology in Germany.
A particular favorite was “yaki-imo” roasted sweet potatoes.
According to the recollections of one of his subordinates during his tenure as director of the Tokyo Imperial Museum, Ogai once explained that yaki-imo were free of germs after being roasted and there was no other food so cheap and sweet as the snack.
In his book “Bunjin Akujiki,” which explores the relationships between famous writers and their favorite foods, author Kozaburo Arashiyama describes Ogai as follows: “He had an uncompromising stance due to his strict obsession with cleanliness. It was also applied to food in a stringent manner. He was pathologically fearful of germs.”
Koji Yamaoka, 66, a local historian who serves as vice president of the Tsuwano-cho Tourist Association, said, “(Ogai) was so obsessed with cleanliness that he didn’t even allow his children to drink unboiled water.”
As this year marks the 160th anniversary of Ogai’s birth and the centenary of his death, the Tsuwano ryokan inn association took note of Ogai’s favorite foods for a commemorative project.
Yamaoka revived a dozen or so plates based on books written by the author’s children, as well as Ogai’s diaries, calling them “Ogai-shoku” (Ogai’s food).
The special dishes have been served at lodging facilities operated by the association’s members since July.
One that is so uniquely Ogai-esque is a plate of “shoyu-ni” of sashimi slices. While sashimi is usually eaten raw, this plate is served with a heated pot of dashi stock prepared with soy sauce, “mirin” (sweet sake) and sake for the diner to stir with sashimi held by chopsticks.
While some dishes are suggestive of what today might be diagnosed as a compulsive cleanliness disorder, others are downright eccentric.
One of them is a serving of “manju chazuke.”
It takes the form of a regular bowl of rice with green tea poured over it, but comes with a “manju” bun stuffed with “anko” sweet azuki bean paste sitting on top.
In her book “Kioku no E” (The picture of memories), Mari describes the dish as follows: “You may think something was wrong with my father’s sense of taste, but I still love the sweet sensation that is bitter and yet classy. It does have a Zen-like sweetness.”
Possibly because he was influenced by Western culture while he was studying in Germany, it also seems Ogai had a fondness for Western food, albeit with simple flavors.
Croquettes and cabbage rolls flavored with just salt and pepper are among Ogai’s favorite foods that are being served.
Other dishes include tempura and “unagi” (eel), for which he frequented famed Tokyo restaurants to savor, as well as “tsukuda-ni” (preserved, boiled food) cooked with chili peppers and assorted leaves.
Although it is unclear whether Ogai liked it or not, “gyunabe,” a hot pot of beef, inspired by his eponymously titled short story is also served.
“Learning how Ogai’s daily life was helps us understand his literary works more deeply,” Yamaoka said.
Naoki Matsushima, 34, who works at the inn association’s secretariat, remarked that although Ogai had a stern public image, “I find a humanly charm in him now that I know his food-related episodes.”
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