Surrounded by seas and with many mountains, Japan positively abounds in nature. Consequently, a highly refined food culture, expressing the ever-changing beauty of nature and the four seasons, has been nurtured since ancient times, along with various ingredients deeply rooted in the land and many traditional vessels and implements. Recognized around the world as a major food culture, in 2013, "Washoku, traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese" was registered as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Washoku, an expression of the spirit of the Japanese people
There is a proverb in Japan: "A god dwells in every tree, and in every blade of grass." The Japanese are a people who deeply revere nature, and have long since mastered the art of getting along with it. Washoku (Japanese cuisine) has been deemed to be an expression of the spirit of the Japanese people and their respect for nature, and to encompass customs and traditions which have been handed down through generations. As such, it has joined the French, Mediterranean, Mexican and Turkish cuisines to become the fifth piece of heritage to be registered in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list's "Food and Nutrition" category.
A wealth of ingredients and a culture of fermentation
When describing washoku, one must not forget the wealth of ingredients, "riches of sea and mountain," for which it is justly renowned. Over 300 different kinds of plants and vegetables are said to be harvested in mountains and villages, while from the sea comes a huge variety of fresh fish, shell fish and sea plants. Also, the climate enjoys plentiful rainfall and just the right humidity, which makes an ideal environment for microorganisms to live in. This in turn has led to the development of fermented stocks and seasonings which play a prominent role in washoku, like soy sauce, miso, and dashi, and of a variety of pickles and other fermented foodstuffs. In this way, Japan has developed a rare and unique food culture which is truly something to be proud of.
The basic principle of washoku is "One soup, three dishes." This means that, taking rice and pickles as a given, a meal should have one soup dish and three dishes (that is, one main dish and two side dishes). Along with meat and fish, dishes feature vegetables prominently in home cooking.
In particular, traditional regional vegetables which have been handed down through the ages are a must. The first such to become noted nationwide were probably "Kyo-yasai", the vegetables of Kyoto. Vegetarian food became highly developed on account of all the temples, and the Imperial Palace would receive gifts of rare vegetables and seeds from the provinces. With the further blessing of a fine climate, and through the ingenuity of local farmers, Kyo-yasai superior in both flavor and form were developed, such as Shogo-in turnips, eggplants from Kamo and leeks from Kujo. These are vegetables with heavy flavors and characteristically strong fragrances, sweetness or bitterness, and give a real sense of seasonality. Japanese fruits and vegetables have been selectively bred to suit a variety of climates, soils and tastes, and the techniques used have racked up a world-class record of achievements and receive a lot of attention.
The vegetarian cuisine mentioned above was a result of the Buddhist teaching forbidding the taking of life, and therefore the culinary use of meat, fish or shell fish, which led to a cuisine based entirely on plants and vegetables, with ingredients like radishes and burdock, soybean products such as miso, tofu and yuba, and shiitakes and other mushrooms. "Koya-dofu", with its improved method of production, was first created by the monks of Mt. Koya, who found that their tofu, which would freeze overnight in the harsh cold of winter, had a delicious flavor and interesting texture when thawed and eaten the next morning. Also characteristic are the many kinds of "modoki ryori" (roughly, "pseudo cuisine"), which uses a lot of ingenuity to give the appearance of fish or meat, but contains neither. A good example is "unagi no kabayaki-modoki" (eel without eel), and then there's "gan-modoki" (goose, but no goose has been cooked here). This unique cuisine would flatter any table, and is truly the Japanese character taken form. The thinking and craft behind vegetarian cooking are part of the very basis of an ever-changing washoku, as can be seen in such fare as traditional kaiseki cuisine for both banquets and formal meals.
Japan is surrounded by sea and blessed with many lakes and regions of brackish water, so it has always been possible to reap an abundant harvest of diverse aquatic products which varies according to region and time of year. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is contained in fish, is an essential nutrient for the development of the cranial nervous system and the maintenance of its function. This nutrient is present in particularly large amounts in fish familiar to the Japanese since ancient times, such as tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, saury, bonito, sardines and aji (horse mackerel). Making fish containing high-quality protein the main dish and eating plenty of tubers, roots and vegetables provides a good nutritional balance for good health, and this plays a significant role in the long life span enjoyed by so many Japanese people.
Japan is a country which is surrounded by seas, and so the fresh riches of those seas can be eaten raw, such as is the case with sashimi and sushi. Countries around the world which are blessed with such plenty are few indeed. Also, the need to preserve fishery products beyond the fishing season and transport them over long distances has led to the development of many processed products based on fish, shellfish and sea plants. Examples which come readily to mind are fish paste products developed for the purpose of preserving small fish caught in coastal waters, and "himono", the particular textures and flavors of which derive from the salting and drying which characterize their preparation. These techniques achieve more than just improved preservation: the resulting products are also remarkable for their delicious, concentrated flavors. One might even say that these techniques represent the acme of a Japanese food craft which always pursues the most delicious flavor possible.
For a long time, people around the world regarded all flavors to be composed of four "basic tastes": sweetness, saltiness, acidity and bitterness. It was not until the year 2000 that a team at the University of Miami discovered receptors on the tongue involved in the sense of taste, and found that savoriness stood apart as a fifth basic flavor element. A defining feature of Japanese cuisine, this basic taste has come to be known by its Japanese name, umami. Umami results from glutaminic acid and inosinic acid, which are present in large quantities in the fermented seasonings and ingredients like soy sauce, miso and dried bonito dashi (stock) which play such a major role in washoku.
As in other regions of Asia, fermented foodstuffs developed early on in Japan owing to the hot and humid climate. From the Heian period to the Muromachi, only specialists, called "koji-za", who were officially recognized by the imperial court and shogunate government were allowed to produce seed malt ("tane-koji"). Fermented seasonings like soy sauce, miso, sake and mirin (cooking wine) are made by mixing this seed malt with various raw ingredients and allowing it to ferment. (And of course, this used to mean buying the seed malt from a koji-za first!) The distinctive umami taste of washoku is a result of flavoring with these seasonings.
Senmai-zuke pickles of Kyoto
The many pickles which are such an essential part of washoku are also fermented food. Adding "nuka", or rice bran, to salt and using this to pickle vegetables in a preparation technique called "nuka-zuke" produces foods with a unique umami flavor and aroma as a result of lactic acid fermentation during the pickling process. Japanese people sometimes call these pickles "ko-no-mono", or "aromatic things". From their pleasant freshness, they are sometimes called "o-shinko", which roughly translates as "fresh aroma". Other pickling methods include using soy sauce or vinegar, and adding things like rice malt or rice wine lees. In short, pickles with a wide variety of flavors and ingredients are made in every part of the country.
Tokaido: A lunch box and something sweet for your journey
Travel became a pleasure of the common people from the middle of the Edo period onwards, especially through pilgrimages to temples like Ise and Zenko-ji. On the way, travelers would enjoy bentos (lunch boxes) and local specialties in the places they passed through.
A commonly-used container would be an "ori-bako", which was a kind of thin wooden box made from bamboo sheaths, wood shavings or the like. These containers had both natural anti-bacterial properties and excellent air permeability, so even after some time the inside still wouldn't get stuffy and the contents would still be tasty. Moreover, when finished with, they could be thrown away without any regrets, so travelers could continue on their way without unnecessary encumbrance. This lunch box culture therefore provides another interesting glimpse of Japanese wisdom, in this case concerning how to make good use of helpful bacteria while suppressing harmful ones.
Junkei Nagoya Cochin Chicken Rice
Most travelers in the Edo period went on foot, and could cover about 40 kilometers in a day. The most effective food for restoring their energy levels was probably "unagi", i.e. eel, which is abundant in protein, vitamin A and minerals. There are several places along the Tokaido where unagi is a specialty. Another important restorative menu item is "tororo-jiru", soup made from yams. This soup was also called "yama-no-unagi" ("mountain eels") on account of its high nutritional value and restorative effects, and makes an appearance in such travel-related artworks as Hiroshige Utagawa's series of paintings "Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido" and Ikku Jippensha's picaresque comic novel "Tokaidochu Hizakurige".
Travelers of old were also in no way averse to something sweet when it came to dispelling weariness. In particular "Abekawa Mochi", or freshly-made mochi (rice cakes) dusted with kinako (roasted soybean flour) and topped with white sugar was a specialty sweet of the Tokaido. It's said that until the development of the railroads, the highway along the Abe River ridge was lined with teashops selling mochi, which the travelers would all eat while they were waiting their turn to cross the river.
Other things which can also surely be said to be characteristics of Japan are the "eki-ben" (station lunch boxes) made using local specialties, the sheer number of different kinds of same, and the fact that it is so easy to be able to sample a wide variety of local sweet flavors which have been handed down through the ages. These are surely some of the essential pleasures of travel.