On zen, writing and perfect sushi

At 91 years old, Jiro Ono is widely regarded as the world’s greatest sushi chef.

He owns and runs Sukiyabashi Jiro, a small and unassuming restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district – which serves only sushi, and seats only ten. Prospective diners wait months for a reservation, and include world leaders. The food’s simple, and the venue’s quite plain. It has three Michelin stars.

Walk-in enquirers, sometimes taken back by the prices for such simple food, aren’t given the time of day. They don’t get it.

Jiro Dreams of Sushia fascinating documentary, delves deep into the life and mentality of chef Jiro Ono. His work ethic, his lifelong constancy, and his absolute commitment to serving only perfectly cooked rice and only the most flavoursome fatty tuna from the market. Uncooked, of course. Again, this isn’t flashy food. But a vast wealth of experience, and near-impossible standards of quality, are hard at work behind the scenes.

His eldest son Yoshikazu, following in his father’s footsteps, worries that he’ll never escape his shadow – or live up to his legacy. Not a legacy of flashy food in opulent surroundings, but of perfect food in largely irrelevant surroundings. A legacy of the sheer time and pressure involved in doing one thing to the point of perfection. Colossal, monumental, singleness of purpose.

Jiro’s passion for simplicity is absolutely inspiring to me. I hope, in time, that I can learn from it and apply it to my writing. But hope and action are two very different things. I need to commit myself to intense practise, and years of it.

My early writing was eager to impress. It used big words that no one says in conversation. I cut them out; trimmed the fat. I learned that effective writing isn’t out to dazzle and peacock to its readers, but to communicate efficiently. There are no cornucopias here.

My first novel is wandering and verbose. I think one of my reviewers put it like that, and they’re right. Tabitha’s sequel, less so – I hope. And I’d like the third book to be even more refined. Clarity, brevity and simplicity are key. But still with the invented words and moments of sense-blurring transcendence that I believe the story needs.

I write, edit and proofread my books, without input from anyone but my Amazon reviewers. The self-reliance appeals, even if it does take more time. That’s how I like to work. I’m hardly Jiro Ono, and it’d be egotistical to think I’m made of the same stuff. But that path to perfection definitely appeals.

Some readers enjoy my writing, and some don’t. But every review teaches me to become a better writer – whether their opinions massage my ego, or kick it in the balls. It takes me much longer to accept criticism than praise, but both teach me valuable lessons. To write less, and say more.

When I look up long enough from my own world to think about it, I’m extremely grateful to these people. Because they buy my stories, and it’s enough for me to live on and write their stories full-time. I owe it to these people, to be better. I’ll never reach perfection, but I’ll try my hardest.

But that’s enough of the sentimentality. Let’s end with a lesson in zen. Nothing mystical; only plain-terms and normal-life. It’s a film quote from chef Jiro Ono, about his lifelong passion – but it seems to me like a beautiful meditation:

“Shokunin try to get the highest-quality fish and apply their technique to it.

We don’t care about money.
All I want to do is make better sushi.
I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.
There is always a yearning to achieve more.
I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top,
But no one knows where the top is.
Even at my age, I don’t think I have achieved perfection.
But I feel ecstatic all day.
I love making sushi.”

 

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