Water has been the basis of Japanese life and food culture since at least 2,000 years ago. There is a certain trait of water in Japan that makes Japanese food cuisine taste good. Along with explaining how this is so, we take a look at Harie in Shiga Prefecture, a beautiful town that lives an ancient Japanese lifestyle revolving around river water.

What are your country’s strengths?

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast today to talk about water, which can be key to surviving the coronavirus attack on humanity for us Japanese people and also foreign nationals living in Japan. My name is Kyota Ko.

I’d like to bring this topic up because I think it’s important to know the strengths of your own culture in times like these when countries around the world are starting to restrict exports. It’s not just social distancing that’s happening here. Countries are distancing from each other as well. I’m recording this podcast on April 11th, and the news reports that Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan have started to restrict exports of grains and vegetable oil.

So now each country may need to figure out a way to survive on its own because people are less mobile now to prevent the virus from spreading obviously, and now goods are starting to be more immobile too. 

No oil? No problem! Boil.

Particularly, the immobility of food is one big concern. If it becomes difficult to import food resources that are hard to produce within each country, each country will have to resort to its own produce. Enjoying foreign cuisine might become a luxury because prices of ingredients will go up. 

Japan especially relies heavily on imported food. We have plenty of rice, but very little wheat and oil. The self-sufficiency rate is the proportion of food that’s produced domestically, and the self-sufficiency rates in Japan of wheat and oil are as low as 13% the last time I checked. Japan relies heavily on imports for these two item categories. 

So it’s likely that sautéing beef or pork or chicken at home, which many Japanese households nowadays often do, won’t be as practical as before, because oil will be increasingly hard to get. Instead, making traditional Japanese meals will be more practical, because it doesn’t require much oil. Boiling is the primary cooking method in Japanese cuisine. 

These new circumstances may be a challenge especially for two kinds of people: single Japanese men who don’t know how to cook – there are many of them, and foreign nationals living in Japan. Because I think for a vast majority of them, homemade Japanese dishes is not part of their daily diet. 

When necessities such as vegetable oil are assumed to go scarce, chances are that prices will go up at restaurants serving hamburgers, Hamburg steak, beef bowls, basically things single Japanese men would eat. And this will mean trouble for them if they don’t know how to cook at home. They’re going to have to start learning how to cook.

And because people are already starting to hoard vegetable oil at supermarkets, this may disrupt the cooking routines of foreign nationals living in Japan. If they are from a country in which oil, bread and pasta are essential in reproducing their food culture here in Japan, the next few to several months are not going to be fun. 

So, I know this will sound a bit forced, but if you feel you may fall into this description of foreign nationals, why not take up Japanese home cooking as your next hobby? We all need to stay home for a good while anyway.

Anyway, many traditional homemade Japanese dishes are boiled stuff. And there is a good reason for this.

Why Japanese cuisine boil stuff all the time

The reason is in the geography of Japan. As you can see on a map, islands of Japan are quite narrow, and much of its land is mountainous. So there are over 35,000 rivers, and most of them are short – their water flows into the sea soon after birth. This means the river water is fast and there is hardly any mud in most rivers. 

In continents, rivers are wider and longer and therefore they are slow, and therefore their water tends to be muddy. You don’t really want to boil your food in muddy water. For example ancient Chinese people came up with a smart way to work around this problem. They steam their food so that they can utilize their water without letting their food bathe in it. But Japanese people, thanks to the short rivers, dunked their food in water directly.

So from long ago, Japanese people used water to wash their food. They would wash the dirt off of their vegetables, and that alone made the vegetables edible. By 700 AD Japanese cuisine had gotten fancier and boiling to get broth out of seaweed, dried fish or dried mushrooms became an important part of our food culture. After you get broth, you boil food in the broth, and you’ll be able to add umami to whatever you’re boiling.

Umami is the 5th kind of taste. It translates to “pleasant savory taste.” Sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami are the 5 kinds of taste. Food with umami tastes rich. Umami is a Japanese loanword because Japanese scientists had been claiming that such a taste exists for a long time, and finally in the year 2000, a receptor in our tongue was found to be responsible for us feeling the umami taste, and the world admitted that, yes, umami is not an illusion.

Japanese food and the all-important Dashi

It’s natural that Umami is a very important kind of taste in Japanese food culture because broth, or what we call Dashi, is better extracted with soft water, not hard water. Water in Japan doesn’t  contain much minerals so it tastes soft. Water in for example Europe generally contains a lot of minerals so it tastes hard. And Dashi is extracted better with soft water. Bottled water like Dasani, Crystal Geizer and Volvic I think are soft water and Evian and Cortex are hard water. So if you’ve ever tasted those, you can tell there is a  difference in taste.

Also on a side note, soap works better with soft water – it gets more bubbly – than with hard water. And I’m suspecting this may be just one of probably the many reasons behind the differences in the scale of the Coronavirus pandemic between countries in Europe and countries in Asia. At least in Japan, and Taiwan by the way, where the pandemic is kept relatively calm as of today on April 10th, water is soft. Maybe soap is doing a better job over here thanks to our water being low in minerals.

Going back to talking about food, Dashi extracted with soft water also tends to taste sweeter and Dashi extracted with hard water tend to taste more bitter. Dashi is used in many Japanese dishes, like miso soup. If you have miso soup in other countries, like at hotel breakfasts that attempt at providing something Japanese, they sometimes taste really bland because they didn’t go through the process of getting good Dashi or getting Dashi at all. You need to get good Dashi if you want to cook Japanese food and doing that with hard water can be a bit difficult. So we can say that Japanese food culture evolved thanks to the soft nature of Japanese waters. Water is a very, very important natural resource that we luckily have in abundance.

The ancient town of water, Harie

There is an interesting town in Shiga Prefecture, which is a prefecture next to Kyoto. Shiga Prefecture has a huge lake called Lake Biwa and a 400-year old castle called Hikone Castle.

So in this town called Harie in Shiga Prefecture, you can see an ancient Japanese lifestyle revolving around water. There is an immaculately clean stream running between two long rows of houses and most if not all of these houses have the stream running inside themselves. So a part of these houses, namely their kitchen space, is built above the water. Every household has a private  water space.

The water is so clean that biodiversity is rich and you can see carps swimming around in the stream and of course because you have a part of the river drawn into your house, they would visit your kitchen every day, The water is super clean because the stream flows from a spring nearby and also because each household has a water system that divides the river water they get into different artificial ponds in the house. So each pond has a purpose like drinking, washing their faces or washing the food scraps off the dishes, and the carps would come in to eat the food scraps. No-one uses soap in the river water, They use tap water to do that, so the stream never gets tainted. 

Tap water everywhere in Japan is edible by the way because it’s ensured that all tap water in Japan is filtered and added a minimum of 0.1 mg per liter of chlorine. That’s like a tenth of the amount of chlorine in swimming pools. This means there is no bacteria kept alive in the pipes so you cannot get sick drinking the water. But tap water doesn’t taste the best because there is some chlorine in it, or to be precise, there is a slight but distinct scent of chlorine that comes with tap water and therefore many people prefer to buy bottled water. 

But people in the town of Harie don’t drink tap water, nor do they drink bottled water. They drink river water because it’s just as safe and also much tastier. In this town, people living downstream trust the people living upstream, and the people living upstream consider the lives of people living downstream and so everyone makes sure their lifeline is kept clean. 

And if the water tastes good, of course your Dashi is going to taste good. So I am feeling very envious of people living in Harie. I live in Tokyo and I don’t have a biologically diverse river nearby – I need to rely on tap water. If we make miso soup the exact same way, miso soup made in Harie will always taste better. 

Also, we can say there is a religious background to why people in Harie do not dare to taint the water. In Shintoism there is a god in everything from mountains to rives and trees to stones. The stream we’re discussing here eventually ends up in Lake Biwa and from long ago, people there have been told from their parents and grandparents that if you taint the river, you’ll upset the god of Lake Biwa. 

Shintoism is a very interesting religion and I talk about it in depth in another podcast episode so if you’re interested, please check it out. 

The lifestyle of the people of Harie is called Kabata culture and it’s said that it existed since at least 2000 years ago. And Shiga Prefecture seems to be the only place in Japan where Kabata culture is still around. If you look up the keyword “Shiga Kabata” on Youtube you’ll see the culture for yourself.

Anyway, I hope I made my point that water is an integral part of making food in Japan taste good. I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。