Japanese people consider eating as an activity to please the tongue, eyes and also body, as they make sure their meals are nutritious by applying a simple yet effective habit. This secret habit relates to the unique Japanese value of regarding the coming and going of seasons as an important part of their culture.
Show host Kyota Ko explains how Japanese food, healthy eating, the four seasons and travel make up one big concept of enjoying life under Japanese culture.
Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese bringing you a podcast about all the great things about Japan and its culture. So if you plan to come here sometime in the future, please have a listen. My name is Kyota Ko.
And today I’d like to discuss food. Japanese food is often considered the healthier dining option around the world now. That’s partially true. For example if you like sushi, yes, eating various kinds of fish instead of red meat will help to lower your blood pressure, you get DHA and EPA, Vitamin A and B and even if you can never remember what these acronyms exactly do to you body, like me here, it already sounds really healthy.
But if you take a careful look at what sushi is composed of, it’s basically rice with basically fish on top. It’s carbs and protein. That is strikingly analogous to a hamburger bun and a beef patty. Carbs and protein. There’s definitely no vitamin C there. If you don’t want to catch a cold, you need Vitamin C. Hamburgers, or sushi, don’t give you Vitamin C. You need Vitamin C to keep your immune system going.
So if all you eat is sushi, you are less likely to die of stroke than your buddies who only eat hamburgers, but you are just as highly likely to be catching diseases all the time as hamburger eaters. Both sushi eaters and hamburger eaters need some fruit rich in Vitamin C.
So it’s not wise to assume that your health stats will be perfectly sound just because you consume food that’s labeled “Japanese food.” You need to think about what nutrients are missing in the plate right in front of you. And that’s how Japanese people maintain health and not die early. It’s not Japanese food per se that is healthy. It’s the Japanese perception of meals as an activity to reward your body with all the nutrients you need that day that makes Japanese cuisine generally healthy.
When you have breakfast at a traditional Japanese inn – they’re called Ryokan – you’ll get a nice wooden tray full of different kinds of food. On that tray, there will most likely be a bowl of white rice, a cooked slice of salmon, eggs cooked in Japanese style, miso soup with seaweed, tofu or both, two or three kinds of vegetables like spinach, carrots white radish and tomatoes. So basically your tray will be very colorful. You’ll see white, pink, yellow, brown, black, green and red. So why all the colors?
It’s because food with different colors tend to have different kinds of nutrients. The more colorful your meal is, the higher the chance of getting all the nutrients the body needs to keep it at maximum health. Of course that doesn’t mean you should food-color everything on your table in neon colors. We’re talking about colors of nature.
Carbs of white rice give you energy to live through the day. White tofu carries calcium which helps to keep your body strong. Red meat gives you iron and protein. Tomatoes give you lycopene, which helps to fight cancer and heart diseases. Vitamin C of yellow lemon helps you stay immune to diseases. Green broccoli serves as a natural deodorant. So if your body odor’s really bad, you’re not eating enough broccoli.
Purple eggplants have anthocyanin which helps the immune system. Brown Shiitake mushrooms have this thing called Eritadenine which prevents cholesterol from building in your blood. Black seaweed has folic acid, which helps to produce red blood cells.
So even if you are not an expert in nutrition, you can make sure you eat a healthy meal by eating different colors everyday. It’s OK to eat fried chicken, pizza, beef bowls and all those brown colored food for lunch or dinner, but if you want to stay healthy you need to make sure you eat some other colors in other meals during the day.
Japanese kids learn all this at school. The study of nutrition in Japanese cuisine is called Shoku-iku, which loosely translates to “Eating education.” Shoku-iku education became a national priority in 2005, and there are many people who have learned the basic philosophy of Japanese cuisine during schooling.
One more thing kids learn as early as in elementary school is about selecting food. There are 4 seasons in Japan and the climate is very different in each. So some types of vegetables and fish are in season during spring, some others are in season in summer, some in autumn, and some in winter. When a particular food is in season, it carries a lot more nutrients than it does in other seasons. For instance, spinach is in season in winter, but of course you can buy spinach almost all year round at supermarkets. But if you buy 100g of spinach in summer, you are basically buying 20mg of Vitamin C. But if you buy spinach in winter, you are buying 60mg of Vitamin C. 3 times as much. So children learn that you will make healthier choices by knowing what food are in season when.
Also, when food is in season, the supply is higher. And when supply is high, prices go down. So for example if you buy tomatoes in summer, when tomatoes are so in, you can buy a kilogram for about 500 yen, which is around 5 dollars. But if you buy a kilogram of tomatoes in fall, when tomatoes are out of season, you need to pay 800 yen, or 8 dollars.
So by learning Shoku-iku, you make both better health decisions and better financial decisions.
Even before the idea of Shoku-iku became commonplace, the relationship between seasons and food were a thing for the Japanese. Japan is of course not the only culture that gets four seasons every year, but I’m super duper sure that it’s the only culture that looks forward to the next season, misses seasons that have passed, and generally cares about seasons to its degree.
All haikus, haikus are Japanese poems, all haikus are about one of the 4 seasons, many Japanese upbeat songs from traditional ones to modern pop songs are about anticipating discovery or development of love in Spring or Summer, and many ballades are about the end of love in Fall or Winter. It’s not that love in Japan is seasonal, but each season is associated with particular sentiments.
Each season is associated with particular regions in Japan because there are activities and festivals that are best enjoyed in different parts of the country. For example in spring, cherry blossoms are best displayed in temples, and there are just lots of temples with beautiful gardens in the city of Kyoto, therefore Kyoto is a hotspot for tourism in spring, In spring, news programs forecast when cherry blossoms bloom in each prefecture. Generally, cherry blossoms start blooming in mid to late March in areas in the middle latitudes in Japan like Fukuoka, Nagoya Osaka and Tokyo, early April in the Nothern areas like Niigata and Sendai, and in late April in the North-most area, which is Hokkaido. Spring is also the season people tend to start something new, like a new job, moving to a different neighborhood, or going on a diet. It’s also when a new school year starts, so kids in many areas of Japan go to school feeling all fresh, walking under cherry blossom trees.
In summer, like in many other countries, Japanese people think of swimming and so they hit the beaches of tropical Okinawa or the Prefectures that are along the shore facing the Pacific Ocean. Also summer is the season for fireworks festivals, and because fireworks are typically done above rivers, people travel to areas with big rivers. There are also many famous summer festivals that lure millions of people in various parts of Japan, like the Nebuta festival in Aomori Prefecture which is held in early August. Summer is also the season for homecoming. Especially young people and families who work in the city go back to where they were born to pay their relatives a visit. So there’s a lot of people-movement in summer.
Autumn leaves are a big reason people go outdoors in Autumn. News programs forecast when maple and ginkgo tree leaves will turn red and yellow starting around October in Northen Japan and November and December in Eastern and Western Japan. Autumn leaves are displayed in the most eye-pleasing ways in the gardens of temples and there are many well-maintained temples in Kyoto, therefore Kyoto is often crowded with tourists as crowded can be in fall.
In winter, kids want to play with snow and some adults want to go skiing or snowboarding, so the mountainside gets populated. The city of Sapporo in Hokkaido has a Snow Festival in February, and they set up all kinds of gigantic snow sculptures that are as big as buildings, they light them up at night, and this event also attracts millions of visitors every year. There are many other festivals related to snow in northern parts of Japan, so there’s more traffic heading towards the north in this season. Winter is also a season Japanese people head out to hot spring resorts in various areas of the country, to get wondrous views of nature like mountains, forests, and snowscapes while being naked in an outdoor hot spring bath.
The number of tourists from foreign countries has increased by almost 4 times since 2012, and there are now over 30 million people coming to Japan a year, and an interesting fact about this is that over 60% of these people came to Japan for their second time or more. My guess is that a sizable number of these people are returning to Japan in a different season to enjoy the culture in very different ways.
Now going back to talking about food: so each season is associated with food and each region is associated with at least one season. So naturally, each region is associated with particular seasonal food. This means that travel experiences in Japan always, always involves eating local specialties of your destination. So the food culture of each Japanese prefecture has been deliberately evolved and local specialties have been promoted throughout the country because raising awareness of local food directly translated to getting more tourists and therefore business growth.
So each prefecture competes with other prefectures in promoting local food. One of the big battlegrounds is collaborations with popular confectioneries. Take KitKat as an example. There is an overwhelming number of KitKat flavors in Japan. So some prefectures have their own KitKat flavor inspired by a local specialty food, and those KitKats are readily available only in those prefectures.
For example there is a KitKat that tastes like a famous brand of strawberries produced in Tochigi Prefecture. There is a KitKat that tastes like apples made in Nagano Prefecture. There is a KitKat that tastes like custard pudding made in Kobe, which is a city in Hyogo Prefecture. There is even a KitKat that tastes like a famous brand of Sake produced in Toyama Prefecture.
Because the KitKat flavor is rarely found in other parts of Japan, tourists buy them as souvenirs when they see it during their trip, bring them back to wherever they came from, give them out to local friends and family and thereby promote the respective Prefecture as a travel destination.
Just to help make my point, I did a quick search of how many and what kinds of KitKat flavors there are in Japan and other countries.
While there are 7 distinct flavors of KitKat in the US, in Japan, there are at least 27 distinct flavors, many of them representing some local specialty of some prefecture, plus 2 or 3 new flavors that hit store shelves every turn of the season, for example flavors like chestnut, sweet potatoes and apple pie in Autumn. So over 25 flavors at any given time plus 8 to 12 new flavors sold seasonally. Close to 40 flavors. Check out nestle.jp/brand/kit and you’ll agree with me that Japan is crazy.
So food, seasons and travel are all intertwined in the minds of Japanese people, but this idea didn’t come about overnight. It’s been with Japanese people for a few centuries. Ordinary people became able to travel around in the country freely from around the 17th century when the ruler of Japan back then, the Tokugawa Shogun designated a single long path that connected Kyoto and Tokyo as one of the most important roads of the country in 1601.
Along the road, there were 53 stop over locations where bed and breakfasts were set up. So Japanese people living in the city were finally able to travel on foot without carrying around half their belongings with them because there were places to stay and eat at 53 locations along the way. They just needed to carry around cash and because there were so many people travelling along that path, there was little risk of being mugged or robbed.
So the Japanese middle class had been enjoying tourism since the 17th century. Middle class tourism only started in Europe in the mid 18th century, and this was after steam engines and railroads were established as infrastructure. Japan of course didn’t have that kind of technology, but realized tourism for ordinary people through realizing convenience and safety.
This road is called Tokaido, and it took 13 to 15 days to get to Tokyo from Kyoto on foot, or vice versa. Now there is a high speed bullet train connecting the two cities, and it takes only 2 hours. This bullet train is called Tokaido Shinkansen.
One of the most famous ukiyoe painting artists who was called UTAGAWA Hiroshige drew paintings of the 53 stop over places and published them as one book in 1832, and these ukiyoe paintings served like a travel guide, like TripAdvisor for people to see and look forward to what awaits in their travel destinations, and it was killer content. Sold like hot cakes. So traveling was a big deal to Japanese people.
In his last two years of his life in the 1850s, UTAGAWA Hiroshige drew almost 120 ukiyoe paintings of various areas of the city of Edo – Tokyo was called Edo back then. His subjects were all a combination of a location and a season, like Nihonbashi covered in snow and Mt. Asuka in spring. Unfortunately he died without completing what he started, but a publisher put together his works and published the series of paintings under the name 名所江戸百景.
What’s interesting here is that his almost 120 paintings were not compiled in chronological order, nor were these paintings of Edo compiled in any geographical order. They were compiled into four sections, categorized into seasons. So all the paintings of landscape in spring were put in one group, and all the landscape paintings of summer were put in one group, and so on so forth.
Dividing sections of a travel guide by seasons made the most sense in Japanese culture. Today, if you go to a famous tourist attraction in Japan, for example Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, and try getting a post card there, most photos will be about Kiyomizu Temple in spring with cherry blossoms. Or Kiyomizu Temple in autumn with Autumn leaves. It’s because what you will see, experience and feel will be totally different depending on what season you visit there. Also the food you’ll eat will be very different depending on the season.
So food, seasons and travel are all intertwined in the minds of Japanese people. And if this podcast gets you thinking about which season you want to visit Japan, I’ll be happy.
Thank you for listening, またお会いしましょう。