Like the U.S., Japan has four seasons–spring, summer, winter and fall. Unlike the U.S., Japanese culture and cuisine inexorably ties with the changing of the seasons, and the country’s agricultural roots. With each season come specific customs and celebrations using locally produced foods representative of the season. Japanese chefs pride themselves on using the freshest, most seasonal ingredients as a celebration of time of year, abundance and major events in the lives of children, health and happiness. It is the closest link between urban dwellers and agriculture I have seen. Even with most Japanese people generations off the farm, they honor and celebrate food and agriculture each time they eat traditional cuisine.
A trip to the Tsukiji Outer Market yesterday morning revealed an amazing variety of fish and seasonal veggies from throughout Japan. Thanks to Ito-sensei, who brought along friend Nami Fukutome, Ph.D, an instructor and specialist in Japanese cuisine, the guided tour allowed me to understand fresh food in Japan at a completely new level. While wandering, we ran into Nami’s friend Naoyuki Yanagihara, a food writer and private culinary instructor. Mr. Yanagihara shared that he comes to the market nearly every day, to find inspiration and tap creativity to create recipes and food art for his columns and his students. Inspiration, indeed. So much fresh, beautiful abundance, right at your fingertips. Even this amateur cook was in heaven.My understanding of the role natural seasons, agriculture and food plays in Japanese culture became further enhanced when we traveled to Ichikawa City to visit the Shira Hata ten Jinjya (a Shinto shrine). Here I became indebted to one of Ito-sensei’s former students. Kiyoshi Suzuki, Ph.D., is both a lecturer in Local Community Policy at Seigakuin University, and a priest. He and his sister explained that celebrations at the shrine revolve around thanks for blessings of agricultural harvest, and food provided by farmers. The tenets of Shinto involve a constant celebration of the seasonal flow, providing Japanese people with the blessings of rich, bountiful lives and abundance. Deeply indebted to the blessings of nature, the Japanese people come to shrines to acknowledge spiritual powers which bring about life, fertility, and prosperity. Within the belief that divine blessings come through the natural seasons, food becomes instrumental in celebration of abundance and blessings. A divine spirit (God) resides in nature and brings joy and bounty to life through nature. Rice and sake play key roles in these celebrations (and reminded me of how we honor Christ through bread and wine in Christianity).
After freshly made sushi for breakfast at the market, I had another fantastic lunch and traditional supper yesterday (I’ve got to stop eating like this…oh, wait, no I don’t!) At lunch, I was able to taste many different varieties of beef produced here in Japan, several of them non-traditional Japanese beef products, over a conversation about cattle breeds and types of beef with Yamamoto-san, president of Good Tables, Ltd. Yamamoto-san writes a popular blog about cattle and beef.
I have to share something that some of you may find inappropriate (that’s the disclaimer, stop reading now if you don’t like bio-functions.) But, my responsibility to inform readers about my true experience in Japan necessitates, even demands, that I share this with you, in case you should encounter it. It is a Japanese squat toilet. Nuf said.