The Japanese Table
Foods of Pleasure and Travel in Early Japanese Artby Isao Kumakura
Japan's early paintings and prints often impart detailed insight into the country's food culture. If one picture does indeed speak a thousand words, then through such images this society's ancient foodways and customs may be revealed. Our feature series has explored Japanese food culture as depicted through its art, and in this final installment we discover the kinds of meals that were enjoyed during times of leisure, diversion and travel.
From Beneath the Cherry Blossoms
Those special experiences and occasions that occur apart from daily routine are among the joys of life. In Japan, one such experience is afforded by the custom of cherry blossom viewing in the Spring. This involves outings and picnics under the cherry trees, for which special dishes are prepared.
Cherry blossoms have special meaning in Japanese tradition. From ancient times, people believed that cherry trees were a temporary abode for the gods of the fields who brought forth an abundant harvest. The springtime cherry blossoms were an indication that the gods had descended from the mountains to the valleys. When the trees come into full bloom, people prepared sake and special dishes, and held joyous banquets beneath the blossoms. Their feasting and dancing was seen as entertainment to please the gods and to induce them to bring forth a plentiful harvest.
The very well-to-do sometimes set up curtains beneath the cherry trees and invited entertainers to perform at their banquets. They brought along food and drink in elaborate picnic sets called hanami bento, or “flower-viewing lunch boxes.” These were often artfully made lacquerware containers filled with drawers of delicious treats; some large-sized boxes even had a built-in compartment for a flask of sake. For more sumptuous banquets, chefs were present on site to prepare and serve the food upon large plates.
While today's bento lunch boxes trace their origins back to these gorgeous hanami bento, they have evolved to become a very practical and integral part of Japanese food culture. Nowadays, a wide variety of bento exists to meet many needs; one such example is the eki-ben, or station lunch box, sold at train stations throughout the country. These feature regional or local specialties for travelers to enjoy during long train rides.
Complements to Sake
By the early seventeenth century, Japan's larger cities already sported well-established pleasure quarters: these were very clearly defined and disparate worlds that focused solely on the pursuit of leisure and the arts—entertainment centers patronized by both samurai and townsfolk.
The women working in the pleasure quarters were ranked from high to low, and courtesans of higher ranking were trained not only in singing and dancing, but in cultural pursuits such as poetry, calligraphy, tea ceremony and flower arrangement. These were professional entertainers accomplished in providing amusement, and food and drink were naturally significant elements to such entertainment; in fact, many genre paintings from that era depicting the pleasure quarters of edo (Tokyo) and Osaka reveal that lavish banquets took place. In one such print, a pleasure house located at the mouth of a river provided freshly caught fish, which was then served immediately.
Essentially, a city's pleasure quarters were not considered embarrassments or blots on society, but rather as places where both a remarkable range of arts and a refined culture of daily life were able to blossom—and it is safe to say that food was a vital element within this ferment of arts and culture.
It is important to note, however, that the dishes that were served—whether at picnics spread beneath the trees, or in private rooms in the pleasure quarters—were intended as accompaniments to the drinking of sake, rather than as a regular meal.
The typical Japanese meal comprises four basic elements: rice, accompanying dishes, miso soup and pickled vegetables. For sake-drinking feasts, rice and miso soup were not served, and those delicacies complementing the sake—called sakana—were mainly sashimi, vinegar-marinated dishes (sunomono) and simmered dishes (nimono), all accompanied by a delicate soup. These sakana dishes were so tasty that many similar delicacies appear in Japanese meals today.
Eating During Travel
In old Japan, travel was another experience that provided opportunities for people to break away from the routine. Such opportunities, where one might travel to faraway shrines or temples, might come only once in a lifetime.
Travel in those days was not easy and involved many hardships, but the thrill of seeing famous landmarks along the way made such journeys memorable. Another pleasure was found in the enjoyment of the local fare, distinctive to each region of the country that one passed through.
There were post towns at regular intervals along the highways, where innkeepers vied with each other in calling out to travelers, inviting them to stay. The fee for stopping at these post town inns was approximately 200 mon, or about 5,000 yen (US$50) in today's currency. This price would include an evening meal of ichiju sansai, one soup, three dishes,” plus a breakfast.
Along the route between the post towns, teahouses offered local confectionery and tea to travelers. When we look at these local specialty products from the folkloric point of view, it appears that they were considered as being connected to the local deity.
Although modern Japanese may no longer consciously make this spiritual connection, eating these local specialties was thought to signify receiving the energy of the spirit of that particular place from its indigenous god. This might be why, even today, Japanese eagerly seek out local specialty foods to bring home as souvenirs of their travels.
Isao Kumakura was born in Tokyo in 1943. He taught at Tsukuba University from 1978 to 1992 and then held the position of Professor of Japanese Culture at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Since 2004, he has served as professor emeritus of the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka and as director of the Hayashibara Museum of Art, Okayama. Dr. Kumakura is the author of many publications on Japanese food culture and Japanese tea culture; his most recent publication is Nihon Ryori no Rekishi (History of Japanese Food).