The Japanese concept of ichi-go ichi-e translates loosely as "one chance in a lifetime". It is most often applied to the tea ceremony, where heightened awareness of one's surroundings and guests are intrinsic to the experience. It is no small coincidence that to enter Noma's pop-up restaurant (now closed) on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Tokyo, diners had to walk past washi-papered walls reminiscent of those of a chashitsu, or tea house. Some of the stoneware used during service was commissioned from potter Masanobu Ando, noted for his modernist tea utensils. Chef René Redzepi, it seemed, had done his homework.
Before I arrived in Tokyo for a meal that came with a 62,000-strong waiting list and a price tag similar to what Heston Blumenthal is charging for his own sold-out Fat Duck pop-up in Melbourne, I was sceptical of this Nordic-Nippon collaboration. The advance press about the still-twitchy shrimp dotted with dead ants and the cuttlefish "soba" with cuttlefish guts made me squirm, not because I'm a squirmish eater, but rather because the menu didn't make sense to someone who has sat through her fair share of stately kaiseki dinners by practiced masters in traditional ryokans from Kyushu island to Gunma prefecture.
On the night, however, as course after course arrived at the table, the stories of sourcing the produce for each dish impressed me. The full-day conversation with a farmer who refused to sell Redzepi the unripe strawberries he wanted. A lady fishmonger striving for equality in the male-dominated Tsukiji market. The impossibly patient technique for netting wild ducks in Aomori Prefecture. A fresh tattoo of Raijin, the Shinto thunder god, on the forearm of Lars Williams, Noma's head of R&D. (He hoped it would fend off bad weather during their tenure.) "Everything here is about relationships," Redzepi said. "Whereas everything back home is about transactions. You might have to go three times to the person who has three hectares of turnips, drink miso soup or sake, and then on the fourth visit, have them finally say we're ready now to do business. But as soon as you're in, you're in for life."
Most compelling were the meal's subtle underpinnings, which exemplified Redzepi's range of experience here (he first visited Japan in 2008) - pine dashi, fermented black garlic, cherry wood oil, wild cinnamon root. "Our plan was simple," he explained. "To leave everything behind in Copenhagen and come tasting in Hokkaido, Nagano, Fukuoka, Tokyo, Kochi, Okinawa. Basically everywhere from north to south, east to west; trying to stitch together not empirical Japan but Japan through our eyes."
"Some aspects you just can't articulate about this culture," he continued. "Like what sort of inexplicable emotions does tofu evoke for a Japanese person? Because there's tofu and then there's tofu." Noma's version was steamed to a creamy pudding consistency and paired with peeled walnuts. It was almost the best I've ever eaten - and from a Danish chef who had never tried his hand at making it before.
"It's going to be difficult to leave a place where food is considered such a big part of the culture," said Redzepi. "Here, people reach for the sublime."
The companion principle to ichi-go ichi-e is mono no aware, or the wistful comprehension that the most exquisite moments in life occur immediately before they end. The falling cherry blossom, the penultimate chord, the traditional plain bowl of rice after a dozen elaborate dishes. At the end of this particular once-in-a-lifetime meal, a bottle of aged sake was proffered. The 12-year-old brew comes from a small brewery on the coast near Kyoto. The label depicts two boys sitting by the ocean next to an inscription about the end of their summer vacation: mada kaeritaku-nai. It means, "I don't want to go home yet."
I'll bet Redzepi knows how the kid feels.