This renowned Japanese photographic artist has an eye for good grub: as well as being an accomplished cook, he has a penchant for puffer fish. Here he takes us on a journey from ‘jambon’ to Dom Pérignon – and explains why his last meal wouldn’t involve any food.
“I was born in downtown Tokyo in 1948, when everything was still half-broken after the war. My father was in the pharmaceutical wholesale business; I was the son of the boss so the staff would play with me and take me to nursery, and I have good memories of that time. My father was also a semi-professional rakugo [storytelling] performer. Almost every day he would go to a traditional theatre and often take me with him. I recall one memorable night, aged five or six, standing with the geisha and beautiful girls who would gather backstage. They were serving food from one of the top restaurants in Tokyo and it was the best tempura I’d ever tasted.
I moved to California in 1970 – the time of the student movement – then to New York in 1974 to establish myself as an artist. My wife started an antique shop in Soho and I helped out. I was coming back to Japan four or five times a year. I would go to Kyoto to see the antique dealers and when we struck a deal we would go out for dinner. There are so many beautiful hidden restaurants in Kyoto. I became good friends with a chef whose restaurant only had five seats and it was one of those ichigensan okotowari [invitation-only] places. I wouldn’t pay there and then – they would send me a bill in New York later. While the chef cooked in front of me I watched and asked questions, and that’s how I learned to cook properly.
Now I have my own four-guest counter in my home in Tokyo and I do the cooking. I like to have a drink, maybe some Dom Pérignon – if that doesn’t sound too snobby – or white wine. Saké makes me dizzy. I had a column in a Japanese women’s magazine called Fujingaho for a couple of years: I would write about food and art, and host dinners with artists and actors.
I don’t like noisy restaurants; I prefer somewhere small and intimate where I can have a conversation. One of my favourite Italian restaurants in New York is Basta Pasta, which is run by a Japanese chef. When I’m in Japan I don’t like anything too formal. Real Kyoto kaiseki [a multi-course meal] is a once-in-a-lifetime experience; to eat it every day would be a kind of torture. I prefer a place that just serves fugu [puffer fish], sushi or tempura.
When I’m shooting a seascape it can take up to a week, usually far from civilisation. I have to bring my own food, like an 18th-century traveller: rice, miso, salt and seaweed. I also need a fire so I carry a small camping kit. I remember shooting in the south of France one time and eating white rice, jambon, shoyu [soy sauce] and wasabi. That was beautiful.
When I was young I would go to more remote, even dangerous places. Once I was shooting the Red Sea between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The water was crystal clear but I couldn’t step onto the beach because it was mined. At the time I travelled alone and had to carry everything; even now I only go with one assistant. I take the developing chemicals and plates so I can process on-site; I don’t buy pre-mixed developer, I make my own. It’s like cooking, in a way, and I learned from Ansel Adams’ recipe – he wrote it all in his books.
For my ‘last meal’ I wouldn’t want to eat, but drink the purest water filtered from Mount Fuji. I’d want to empty my stomach and in my last moments drink fresh water to purify my body and spirits, and then I’d be ready to go. My wife died of cancer when she was quite young and refused any kind of treatment at the end. When someone is dying their eyes change, as if their voice is getting smaller. If you look at the human eye there’s a strong spirit behind it but this changes as the person dies. I saw the spirit leaving my wife’s body. I realised then that spirits exist; they don’t disappear but are stored somewhere in the universe and maybe come back sometime. I would like to be conscious as I go too. I would like someone there as a witness to watch my eyes, and see my spirit flying off.”
Hiroshi Sugimoto is one of the world’s greatest photographic artists, renowned for black-and-white series such as Seascapes – images of the sea and horizon shot with a large-format camera – and Dioramas: lifelike displays of animals and early humans taken in the American Museum of Natural History. In recent years he has turned his attention to architecture and he has his own practice: the New Material Research Laboratory. Among his works are the Enoura Observatory (for his Odawara Art Foundation), which opened in 2017; it includes a modern Japanese teahouse, a Noh stage and a glass-walled gallery. Sugimoto, who divides his time between Tokyo and New York, is also a highly accomplished cook.
Sahsya Kanetanaka, which opened in 2013, is a modern Japanese restaurant in central Tokyo. It is part of a small group run by Shingo Okazoe, whose family’s first restaurant was the more formal Ryotei Kanetanaka; it opened in Shimbashi a century ago and is still in business today. Sahsya Kanetanaka, which serves Japanese food in a more relaxed setting, has a clean wood-and-white interior, plus a striking sculpture and small rock garden designed by Sugimoto himself.
Grilled aubergine with shaved dried bonito and ginger
Cold Inaniwa noodles with sesame sauce and green onion
Milk pudding with brown sugar syrup
Powdered matcha green tea