|Sushi, tempura, yakitori, ramen… Japanese restaurants are now a common sight in cities around the world, so it’s no wonder that many foreign visitors are eager to taste authentic Japanese cuisine when they come to this country. More and more people are enjoying Japanese food culture not just by eating in restaurants, but by going to see freshly landed seafood auctioned at Toyosu Market, or touring a sake brewery. The National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo is holding a new exhibition on washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine). So just what is Japan’s ‘food culture’?|
Washoku: a product of the Japanese lifestyle and the natural environment
In 2013, UNESCO listed washoku as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity under the title “Washoku: traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese”, following on from “The gastronomic meal of the French”, “Traditional Mexican cuisine” and Turkey’s “Ceremonial Keşkek [wheat stew] tradition”. What were the key reasons behind that decision?
Japan’s climate and geography were key factors in the development of its food culture. The country is narrow but long from north to south, surrounded by sea, and blessed with a rich natural environment of mountains, forests and rivers, and its people have eaten a wide variety of foodstuffs since ancient times.
The Japanese also have a tradition of expressing the changing seasons in food, decorating it with seasonal flowers and foliage, and serving it on dishes that reflect the seasons. Food is not just something to satisfy their hunger, but a way of expressing their relationship with nature.
Japanese cuisine is not only an important part of daily life, but is served at annual events and celebrations. At the New Year, for instance, people pound rice into mochi rice cakes to welcome the gods of the new year, and each family prepares a feast of special dishes known as osechi-ryori. Sharing these dishes has traditionally been a way of strengthening family and community ties.
Now, however, because of globalization and other influences, Japan’s traditional food culture is gradually disappearing. UNESCO’s decision to list washoku as part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity was based on a concern that this tradition could vanish.
An exhibition presenting washoku in a scientific way
To promote the attractions of washoku, the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno Park, Tokyo, is holding a special exhibition titled Washoku: Nature and Culture in Japanese Cuisine — More Delicious with More Knowledge, from March 17 through June 14, 2020.
The exhibition looks at the foodstuffs, culinary techniques and historical trends of washoku, and scientifically explains the links between the natural environment and the wide variety of food consumed in Japan, fermentation using microorganisms, and the extraction of stock from seaweed and other ingredients. Exhibits also include a wall-mounted display of over 250 kinds of seafood etc., and life-sized models of tuna.
We talked to a representative of Kyoto Prefectural University’s Research Center for Japanese Food Culture with many years’ involvement in food-related research, who supervised the creation of the exhibition.
Representative: This exhibition invites visitors to reflect on Japanese cuisine, but doesn’t unilaterally supply answers to all the questions.
We have an interactive video exhibit on fish such as tuna, which are an essential part of washoku. Digital technology allows visitors to touch images of fish on a large map and bring up information on that particular fish.
There is also an exhibit that invites visitors to consider the “washoku of the future”. It includes technology used to farm fish on land, and the role of Japanese food culture in the development of space rations for extended stays on the Moon or Mars.
We also asked about the culinary techniques used in washoku.
Representative: Among the techniques used in washoku — cutting, simmering, grilling, steaming and frying — cutting is particularly important. Traditional Japanese kitchen knives or wabocho are said to be the sharpest in the world, and cooks have more than 25 different ways of cutting up foodstuffs, and that’s counting only basic techniques. It’s how the food is cut that gives washoku its delicacy.
There’s a historical reason why the Japanese have developed such skill in cutting food.
In the past, the samurai favored very sharp Japanese swords forged by master craftsmen. After the age of the samurai ended, the skills perfected by the swordsmiths were passed on in the making of traditional Japanese kitchen knives or wabocho for cooks.
The sharpness of wabocho has made them sought after not only throughout Japan, but worldwide, and it is said that more than half of the chefs working in top New York restaurants use wabocho.
With the wealth of foodstuffs produced by Japan’s varied environment and climate, seasonal decorations, and craftsmen’s skills that set off its dishes, Japanese cuisine maintains the traditions of washoku and has become popular all over the world.
Ueno, where the National Museum of Nature and Science is located, is famous as one of Tokyo’s liveliest commercial districts, and the area around Ameyoko Shopping Street, where you can buy fresh fish and seasonings from around the world, has a great number of izakayas and restaurants serving ramen, tempura or sushi. After learning more about the wonders of washoku at the museum, why not experience its delights in an authentic Japanese restaurant!
National Museum of Nature and Science | Japan Travel | JNTO
National Museum of Nature and Science
Address: 7-20 Ueno-koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Special exhibition Washoku: Nature and Culture in Japanese Cuisine — More Delicious with More Knowledge
Exhibition period: Opening date undecided – June 14 (Sunday), 2020
Venue: National Museum of Nature and Science
Hours: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Notes: * The museum is open until 8:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays
* The museum is open until 8:00 pm on April 26 (Sunday) and 29 (Wednesday, public holiday) and May 3 (Sunday, public holiday) through May 5 (Tuesday, public holiday), and until 6:00 pm on April 27 (Monday), 28 (Tuesday) and 30 (Thursday) and May 6 (Wednesday, public holiday)
* Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time
* The museum is closed on Mondays, except for March 30, April 27, May 4 and 18 and June 8
* Hours and closing days may change
* For admission fees, please see the museum’s website