15 January 2024

A Procession of Pottery: Onsen in Hakone

At an onsen hot springs resort in Hakone, the bath, the bed, and the bamboo outside the balcony in the afternoon sun were all perfect. I wanted to relax and unwind for a few days away from the everyday hassles. After soaking, napping, and reading all afternoon, dinner started arriving at 6:45, just as the server said it would when she showed us to our room. My relaxation took a unique turn when dinner arrived. I snuggled up to the floor table for the performance.


Michael Pronko

Michael Pronko is a Tokyo-based writer specializing in murder, memoir, and music. He is renowned for his writings on Tokyo life and character-driven mystery novels, such as "The Last Train," which have earned awards and received five-star reviews.

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The server carried a tray filled with dishes into our room. She knelt on the tatami and began placing the small dishes one by one onto the table delicately and caringly. One by one, each dish touched down on the wood with a light thunk, like notes in a jazz solo, as the room filled with the aroma of steamed veggies and grilled fish.

There were so many dishes that it took the next two hours to load and unload them all. It was more of a stream of pottery than it was a single meal. Some dishes could be eaten in a couple of bites, others a few more, but the dishes were all picked up, a delight to the eyes on the way to the mouth. The beauty of the small dishes enhanced the taste of the food. The neat little dishes were the opposite of the plastic surrounding a convenience store onigiri, which is purely functional. They formed a lovely frame for the painting of the food.

I once read that the custom of serving food in multiple, small, diverse sizes, shapes, patterns, and colors of pottery started as a way of amusing the daughters of merchants in old Osaka. A wealthy urban family at that time would never cook at home. They’d simply order out. So, to keep the rich household happy, a succession of ever-unique, small dishes had to be rotated to present the food and keep the family’s business.

If that’s true, and it sounds true to me, our eighteen-hour stay at the onsen felt like a week’s worth of different dishes in less than a day.

I became fascinated as I sampled each one, wondering how many total dishes had arrived. The numbers meant little compared to the total beauty, but I counted anyway.

Dinner (18:45)

Hors d’oeuvres 5 (square and round, flat and curved glass)
Hot soup 1 (2 if you count the lid)
Sashimi 2 (one white box and one circular soy sauce/wasabi dipping bowl)
Steamed dish 1 (again, not counting the top)
Fried fish 1
Noodles 1
Baked dish 1 (metal plate in wood frame)
Cold salad 1
Rice, pickles, miso soup 3
Dessert 3 (4 if you count the tray) (5 if you count the gold paper)
Tea cup 1
Sake flask and cup 2 (flask refilled twice)
Beer glass 1
Chopstick rest 1

Total: 22

I sat at the table going through the dishes like someone’s photos from a vacation. It was a blur of colors, shapes, and textures as if the chef was trying to include every variation of pottery. I wondered who selected which dish for which item. Was the head chef in charge? Was there a sous-chef just in charge of colors? Who was the culinary designer who matched them all up? It seemed more complex than the interior design of an entire household.

A glass or two of sake dispelled my questions and eased me into the flow of a delicious meal, after which I was ready for another soak in the bath. There’s no sleep deeper than after a steamy outdoor bath. Or maybe it was the mesmerizing flow of watching all the dishes arrive, put in place one by one, and then seeing them all picked up one by one and carted off again. Soaking in the bath, I dreamed of myself steamed like one of the gorgeous items on the menu.

The next morning, the ceremonial parade of pottery began again. Breakfast dishes were harder to count since the server needed two or three deliveries to get them all in place. The various dishes, bowls, pots, plates, dispensers, and containers filled the large, low table.

I wasn’t even sure how to count. Should I include the dark orange origami box that held the umeboshi dried-plum pits? Even the discarded parts were set on a lovely receptacle. The curved lacquer containers for oshibori (hot hand towels) and the placemats counted in, too. They seemed as carefully chosen and as delicately placed as at dinner. The actual number didn’t matter compared to the striking beauty of the table covered in dishes, but here’s the count from the morning:

Breakfast (8:30)

Grapefruit juice glass 1
Eggplant dish 1
Green vegetable dish 1
Western salad 1
Western salad dressing dish 1
Sashimi plate 1
Fish and fish egg bowl 1
Boiled tofu dumpling pot 1 (wood container and fire pot below, and wood top)
Fried fish, egg, and vegetable plate 1
Yoghurt and fruit plate 1
Rice bowl 1
Soy sauce dispenser 1
Soy sauce dipping tray 1
Miso soup bowl 1 (not counting the top)
Toothpick container 1
Umeboshi plum plate 1
Umeboshi plum pit holder 1 (for the pits only)
Leftover inarizushi container 1 (uneaten midnight snack)
Teapot 1 (shared)
Tea cup 1
Tea cup saucer 1
Lacquered rice warmer 1 (shared)
Rice scoop bowl (with warm water)1 (shared)
Extra bowl with spoon (not sure what for) 1
Chopstick rest 1

Total: 25 (more than dinner)

Was this what it was like to be a wealthy merchant in the Edo Period? And who washes all these? If we had those small dishes at home, I’d have to get a teensy dishwashing sponge.

I wondered how the server could remember the order. The cooks may have placed them in order. She placed them in the exact same spot for both my wife and me, which must have been the correct spot. Was there one particular place that’s better for the Western-style salad? Or was she free to improvise?

And where did they store all these serving dishes? They must use a storage system with an intricate network of specially shaped-shelves. Frankly, the place didn’t seem big enough to accommodate all the dishes. And what about seasonal dishes? You didn’t want too much orange or brown in spring and not too much green or pink in fall. I wondered if we were using one season’s dishes.

So, I asked her. She looked at me as if she had never heard that question before. It took me a minute to figure out her explanation, and I thought I had asked some taboo question, as I often embarrassingly do. She replied that a pottery delivery service brought new pottery to match the rotating menu for each season. When we returned, perhaps in the fall (if we could afford it), there would be all new pottery to fit the fall food.

I felt stunned at the detail of this miniature parade, at how well the food matched what held it. Which came first—the food or the dish? The table became a canvas on which to paint with superbly cooked food and artistically selected dishware. As I thought about the micro-majesty of all the porcelain, lacquerware, and glass we’d been fed from, I felt the steaming hot water working as a fixative, setting the colors and patterns of the food and the dishes deep into my mind, making sure the memory wouldn’t run or fade and would remain with me for a very long time.