When asked what I love about Japan ” the food!” is one of the first things that come to mind. Washoku or Japanese cuisine is not only healthy and delicious it is seeped in cultural meaning. It can be so simple yet complex at the same time. Flavours range from the incredibly subtle and layered to the strong and pungent.
Washoku is not just one dish but a meal that is balanced and nutritious. It is thought out from the colours and textures of the ingredients, the presentation and use of different serving dishes, to the use of seasonal ingredients with complimentary yet contrasting tastes.
Special foods are served for special cultural occasions. Osechiryouri is served at New Year. There are special dishes for Girls’ day and Boys’ day. These foods combined with the customs and festivities help make these days very special and memorable.
Beautiful Osechryouri platters served at New Year
Girls’ day dishes 3rd March
Boys’ day food 5th May
Before Japan became the huge modern industrialized giant it is now it was an agricultural society as it was very much closed off to the rest of the world and had to produce all of its own food. I think this is the reason that Japanese washoku is so characteristic and particular to Japan. It has also made Japanese people are very knowledgeable about seasonal foods. Japan has very distinct seasons and a wide range of weather patterns meaning many foods were not available all year round.
Another fascinating feature is the huge range of regional foods. Each prefecture seems to have their own special dishes. Again Japanese people are so knowledgeable about this.While the Japanese don’t seem to take extended vacations like we gaijin (foreigners), they are very well traveled around Japan and there is a big travel market for overnight – two day trips to different prefectures. There are travel magazines devoted to exploring different regions and chapters on what specialties you should try while there. Many of these trips are taken specifically to go somewhere to eat that region’s seasonal delicacy. This poster shows the specialties of the 4 prefectures located in Shikoku.
All the major train stations on the bullet train lines have something called an eki ben. This a Station Obentou or a packed box lunch. It is made from regional produce and dishes. Many people have a tick list of different ekiben they have eaten. It’s a bit like a food specialty bucket list. The Japanese custom of bringing back souvenirs for friends, family and workmates means even if they have only been away on a weekend jaunt they bring back something for everyone. Common souvenirs include boxes of individually wrapped morsels of a local specialty. This is an easy way to hand out a little something to all your office workmates and plays its part in educating people about regional foods.
There are historical reasons for this regional diversity too. A long time ago different regions were fiefdoms of different Samurai overlords and almost run as their own country. They were isolated from others so developed their own ways and dishes. Regional dialects are another interesting subject. They can be almost like a completely stand alone foreign language. But that’s another subject. The climate also played its part in this regional diversity. Geographically Japan stretches from the far north where winter is long and harsh down to Okinawa which is tropical thus the produce grown and the way they prepare and preserve food is very different.
On December 4, 2013, washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. It is recognised as a social custom handed down from generation to generation that expresses Japanese people’s respect for nature. The application for recognition included 4 main reasons. They being;
1. Diversity and freshness of ingredients, and respect for their inherent flavors
2. An exceptionally well-balanced and healthy diet
3. An expression of natural beauty and the changing seasons
4. Close links with annual events
There is a more detailed article on “The Articles about Japan” page on this blog if you wish to read more.
When visiting a foreign country, food can be a little daunting. Many of my friends who come to visit initially are fearful of having to eat raw fish and rice only for their whole trip. This is far from the case! Japanese cuisine features wonderful, fish , chicken, pork, beef and vegetable dishes cooked and prepared in numerous ways. A little bit of research in to various dish names and you will be set to explore the culinary world! The other erroneous idea people come with is eating out is going to cost a fortune. I heard some young foreigner announcing loudly on the train the other day that the group should all expect to spend $100 dollars on lunch! Blimey not sure where he was going but there are some excellent eating establishments out there where you can easily eat a lunchtime set for under $10! Many restaurants offer menus with pictures or English menus ( though you may come across the Japalish versions! see previous post on Its all a foreign language to me). Hotels and hostels will make good recommendations. Be brave and adventurous! Take up the challenge to try as many different things as you can while you are here. You may surprise yourself and you will definitely having a truly unique Japanese experience. On my you tube clip page I have included a documentary series about food hosted by Adam Liaw, an Australian Master Chef winner. It may give you some ideas.
With the westernization, internationalization and increasingly busy lifestyles of young people many people worry that washoku may be lost in the coming years. I truly hope not. For me Washoku is an integral part of the the Japanese identity.
Yoroshiku Onegai shimasu