Japanese cuisine's spiritual nourishment

FUKUI - A Buddhist cuisine known as "Hoonko ryori" is a traditional dish that has been passed down for centuries in the Hokuriku region, home to many followers of the True Pure Land Buddhism.

During a lecture for children on table manners held at a community centre, Rieko Taniguchi, a certified dietitian, explained some Hoonko dishes to sixth-graders from municipal Kita-Nakayama Primary School in Sabae, Fukui Prefecture.

"This simmered daikon Japanese radish cut into rectangular blocks symbolizes the wooden clogs worn by [the sect's founder] Shinran," the 62-year-old dietitian told the students. "The long gobo burdock root represents his stick, and the pieces of carrot are his weathered fingers."

The table manners lecture was launched nearly 15 years ago at the Kita-Nakayama Community Center and has since become the perfect opportunity to pass on knowledge about the local cuisine to children.

Watching the children, who looked little tense, Shigeru Morimoto, the centre's chief manager, explained the aim of the lecture: "Eating with good manners is an important part of washoku [Japanese cuisine]. It's meaningful [for kids] to eat local cuisine cooked by their mothers with a sense of gratitude."

UNESCO will soon officially add washoku to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, recognising the dietary culture nurtured in the traditional Japanese lifestyle that features a rich variety of cooking methods developed within local communities, use of the rich taste of umami and a deep relationship with annual traditional events, such as those seen in osechi New Year dishes.

In the reality of modern Japan, however, the streets are cluttered with fast food shops, and an increasing number of people have tended to prefer eating alone, while washoku culture has been pushed to the edge of extinction.

Akihiro Miyamoto, 33, a miso shop owner in Uozu, Toyama Prefecture, lamented the situation, saying: "Miso soup is fundamental to washoku, as in the concept of 'ichiju sansai' (one soup, three dishes). It's a shame that fewer and fewer people eat with all family members together at the same table these days."

The owner of Miyamoto Miso-ten, established 56 years ago, held an event on how to make miso in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, in November, wanting to transmit washoku culture through the miso-making techniques that his grandparents handed down to him.

Ikumi Kinoshita, a senior at Keio University, is working on her own project to collect recipes representing local cuisine from all over the country by visiting rural districts suffering from severe depopulation.

On Nov. 30 in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, the 23-year-old was given instructions on how to cook dishes with Yamakoshi kagura nanban, a rare variety of hot pepper that has been grown in the Yamakoshi district of the city since the Warring Period.

Surprised by the hot taste of the traditional vegetable, Kinoshita appeared to be impressed by local people's wisdom in continuing to eat the vegetable throughout the year by salting it for preservation, for instance. "[Local cuisine] is full of ideas that were born from necessity," she said.

Washoku's listing on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list has heightened attention on Japan's traditional food culture. Handing down proper table manners and time-tested home recipes to future generations is also a key to preserving Japanese spirits, including its "omotenashi" hospitality spirit and strong family bonds.