The Tale of Tenjin and Travel’s Two-Way Gifts
Throughout my lifelong journey as a travel writer, my wanderings have conferred a keen appreciation of the gifts that travel bestows: the wonders we discover and connections we forge on the road that can fundamentally transform our lives at home. But since the pandemic, I have become keenly aware of their counterpart: the life-changing gifts that we can bring to a place and leave behind when we come home.
When I look back on my worldly adventures this year, exuberantly re-immersing in the world post-pandemic, this notion seems the grandest overarching lesson. I encountered versions of this revelation in Mexico, France, Greece, and Western Honshu, but it was most poignantly crystallized for me this spring on my first return to Japan after four extremely long years away, leading GeoEx’s Journey Through Ancient Japan trip to Kyoto, Nara, and Shikoku that I had created and begun leading ten years before.
Among the highlights of this journey were culinary adventures in intimate, off-the-beaten-path restaurants. One of these restaurants was a tiny tempura place called Tenjin, located in Nara, the country’s seat of power before Kyoto, from 710 to 794. And this story is the tale of Tenjin.
On our trip to Nara, our group began the day exploring two important sacred sites, the Shinto shrine of Kasuga Taisha and the Buddhist temple of Tōdai-ji, home of the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world.
After we returned to our mini-bus at noon, I announced, “We’ve just had a chance to visit one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, and one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan. Now we’re going to visit one more sacred site — a temple of tempura called Tenjin, presided over by a grand tempura master named Nishinaka-san.”
Tenjin was a one-counter, 12-seat restaurant tucked down an easy-to-miss corridor near the end of a nondescript covered shopping arcade in downtown Nara. The restaurant had been discovered ten years before by our Japanese guide, Hiro-san, a passionate foodie.
After reading about Tenjin, Hiro-san had eaten there and decided that it would be perfect for our debut tour. So we arrived in 2013, eight American travelers, me, and Hiro-san, and entered the tiny restaurant. We were greeted by a young man dressed in a spotless white chef’s smock and apron and looking like a young scholar. This was Nishinaka-san. Standing gravely in the long cooking area behind the gleaming counter, he welcomed us with a deep, formal bow. We bowed in return and ceremonially took our seats.
Artfully arranged before us were three shallow dishes containing curry salt, sea salt, and macha salt, a bowl with tempura dipping sauce and grated radish, and a bowl with lemon water. Nishinaka-san’s assistant poured us glasses of water and thimbles of sake.
Then Nishinaka-san set to work. For the next hour he stood before his wok and artfully dipped one delicacy after another into the sizzling sesame oil. When they were perfectly done, he would deftly place one on a tiny ceramic plate and carefully set it in front of each diner. We began with a crisp shrimp’s head, then proceeded to the shrimp’s body, followed by lightly battered, bite-size portions of asparagus, eggplant, local mushrooms, sweet potato, fiddlehead ferns, burdock root, Spanish mackerel, bamboo, eel, and Japanese ginger.
As the feast progressed, we all ate, sipped, and sighed. The batter was incredibly light, the vegetables seemed like they had been hand-picked in the fields that morning, and the fish tasted flopping-fresh from the harbor market. By the end of the meal, we all agreed that this was the best tempura we had ever had – that, in fact, it was one of the best meals we had ever eaten, period.
At that first feast, Nishinaka-san was extremely reserved. In later years, he confided to me that he had never had so many foreigners in his restaurant and just didn’t want to make any cultural faux pas. He focused intently on his cooking and paused only to answer my questions about his background and his art in a polite but perfunctory way. At the end of the meal, when we all exuberantly told him how wonderful the food was, his face broke into a smile for the first time.
The next year, Hiro-san and I returned with another group of eight Americans. This time Nishinaka-san was a little more relaxed and answered my questions a bit more openly, and once again, the tempura was the best any of us had ever had.
We returned the third year and the fourth year, and as we began to get to know him better, Nishinaka-san became more relaxed and open. On that fourth year, he took me aside and told me that he was so excited that we were coming that he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. He also confided that running a restaurant was really challenging and that he often had doubts about the quality of his food and his ability to keep the restaurant going, that he had even contemplated closing the restaurant. “But then,” he continued, looking straight into my eyes, “your group comes from so far away, from across the ocean, and you tell me how wonderful the food is and it really gives me strength and courage to go on. It really inspires me. I am very grateful to your group.”
On the fifth year, I brought him a GeoEx hat, and the following year I presented him with a GeoEx T-shirt. That year our group unanimously agreed that if he opened his 12-stool restaurant in Los Angeles or New York, people would be lined up for blocks to get in. I translated for him and tears welled in his eyes.
The next year, 2019, he greeted us with a huge smile wearing his GeoEx T-shirt over his chef’s smock. As we feasted, we laughed and enthused once again over the lightness of his batter and the freshness of his fare. He told us about the saying, calligraphed by the head abbot of Tōdai-ji, that he had framed and hung on the wall behind him: “I do what I love as well as I can, and make the world a better place.” And for the first time he asked where our travelers were from. We all told him where we lived, and he said that one day he would love to go to the U.S. At the end of the meal, he invited me behind the counter so that our travelers could take photos of the two of us together, and gleefully replaced his chef’s cap with his GeoEx hat. When we parted, we hugged.
Then the pandemic shut down the globe. I didn’t see Nishinaka-san for four very long years. Finally this spring we were able to travel to Japan again, and we returned to Nara and the Tenjin tempura temple. When we walked in, I was overjoyed to see Nishinaka-san, and his face too brightened into a wide smile. We hugged, then all the travelers ceremonially sat down and Nishinaka-san artfully dipped ten shrimp’s heads into the sizzling sesame oil, and carefully set a lightly battered delicacy on a tiny ceramic plate in front of each diner.
As he prepared course after course, we caught up on what we’d been doing over the previous four years. I told him I’d been worried about him and was so relieved to see that his restaurant had survived. He smiled and said that yes, with the help of regular local customers, he had gotten through. And again, just as before, he served a succession of indescribably delicious dishes, and our travelers all agreed that this was the most amazing tempura they had ever had.
About halfway through the meal, Nishinaka-san looked at me shyly and said in a low voice, in Japanese, “By the way, I got a Michelin star last fall.”
“Wait, what?!” I said in Japanese. “You got a Michelin star last fall?”
“Yes,” he said with a shy smile. “I don’t know how, but I got a Michelin star.”
I burst into tears.
Then I stood up to get everyone’s attention. “Nishinaka-san has just told me something fantastic that I want to share with you all,” I said. Then, looking straight at the shyly smiling chef, I continued, “This wonderful little restaurant, created by this wonderful chef, was just awarded a Michelin star last fall!”
Everyone burst into cheers and applause, and then all rose at once to give him a standing ovation. We ordered more sake, and asked if he would share a drink with us. Every year we had asked if we would join us in a drink, and he had always politely declined. This year, he looked at me with a smile, and raised a glass.
We toasted him and his success, and there were tears in his eyes when he turned to me and said in Japanese, “I can’t thank you enough. I feel that you and your groups are really a part of my success. You have given me the inspiration and the courage throughout all these years to keep going. I am truly very grateful to all of you.”
Then he disappeared into a back room. Minutes later he re-emerged carrying a big bottle of sake and wearing his GeoEx hat and T-shirt!
He poured us each a glass and toasted us, and then we all again toasted him.
As we raised our glasses, Nishinaka-san put his arm around me and clinked his glass to mine. In that moment, I knew that we were toasting not simply his Michelin success but a multi-course feast of gifts: Hiro-san’s serendipitous discovery of his tiny restaurant a decade before, our shared passion for tempura, our annual adventure in intercultural communication and appreciation, the ever-deepening journey of our friendship, and the unbreakable connection we had built over the years.
In October I returned to Nara hoping to pay a surprise visit to Tenjin. But instead, the surprise was mine: There was a handwritten notice on the restaurant’s door stating that Tenjin had closed. Since then I have been trying to contact Nishinaka-san, but without success so far. I will keep trying.
Now, as I reflect on our spring celebration, I hope that he is preparing his next grand culinary adventure. I imagine reuniting with him next spring. And then I picture his dancing eyes and exuberant smile as he donned his GeoEx hat and poured celebratory sakes nine months before.
So I pour myself a glass of sake and celebrate that moment once more. “This is for you, Nishinaka-san,” I say. “Thank you for wholeheartedly sharing your talent and your passion with us through all these years. Thank you for showing us the magic that can happen when we open ourselves to other cultures, peoples, and places. And thank you for teaching me the ultimate lesson of the road: that travel truly is a two-way street, not just about the gifts we bring home, but the treasures we leave with those we meet.”
How about you? Did you have a particularly poignant travel experience in 2023? Please share your most important lessons from this year’s adventures. We’d love to hear from you!