Mukawa, Japan – In many countries, nostalgic links to folk traditions of simpler pre-industrial times are celebrated on special occasions. In Japan, where technology provides every opportunity to go thoroughly modern, these customs are everyday affairs in meals and religious practices.
I get a taste of this thanks to a distant Swedish cousin who now works in Tokyo but maintains close relations with “host parents” in the village of Mukawa, population 3,000, in the heart of the southern Japanese Alps, just beyond Mount Fuji.
Sushi may be the global emblem of Japan’s ocean-based cuisine, but inside the country it’s just one of many regional cuisines, each as deserving of recognition as those of France and Italy, and several of which are likely to be coming soon to a restaurant near you.
This ongoing link with its countryside may be hard for Westerners to understand, given the ultra-modern tech of the greater Tokyo area’s (their GTA) 35 million inhabitants.
Many of the local food specialties come from the forests, mountains and valleys that dominate two-thirds of Japan’s land mass, part of a forest and mountain heritage the country nourishes and subsidizes along with its industrial superpower status.
In Mukawa, “host mom’’ Masayo greets us wearing a handmade dress and ushers us into her living room, where we’re seated on the floor around a table.
She brings us bowls of matcha tea (green tea made from ground-up tips of unprocessed tea) grown in mountain ranges close by, and we exchange names during a 10-minute version of the traditional lengthy Japanese tea ceremony.
The dinner meal features tempura-style veggies. We each use our chopsticks to dip a morsel in a batter of egg, flour and water, then “Japanese-fry” it in a common cooking pot filled with Canadian-made canola oil.
The one-pot meal is standard in folk cultures that predate modern stoves and indoor plumbing. To avoid going crazy with the overwork and stress of coordinating cooking times for various dishes over the flames of a fire and then cleaning fire-scorched cookware, cooks (almost always women) developed meals that could be cooked in one container.
The subsequent invention of stoves “freed” women to make meals of several courses, each with its own recipe and complications. Reinstituting the tradition of family meals may well require a return to this folk strategy. Casseroles R Us.
After a few minutes in the pot, our morsels are lifted out and sprinkled with “snow salt” from a nearby mountain. Then comes the oohing and ahhing, which I translated into Japanese as ooh and ahh, apparently to good effect.
Japanese people seem comfortable expressing their pleasure boisterously when they eat, an apparent requirement of slow food regimes. There, dining isn’t treated as a refined, controlled exercise that establishes civilized behavior.
Masayo picked most of what we’re eating earlier in the afternoon. Because it’s early spring in the mountains, buds and leaves are common. Some look exactly like fiddleheads. There are clumps of what she calls mountain vegetables and the guidebooks call “sansei.” She has also picked pink flower petals from a camellia in her garden.
We eat the veggies with local beer and rice wrapped in seaweed. Think of it as a rice hamburger, Masayo says. The rice is grown on one-acre plots in the village and stored through the winter in a greenhouse. It’s considered a local delicacy.
Few foods are anonymous or impersonal commodities in Japan. Though almost all are bought unprocessed, without what North Americans might call “value added,” they come with hometown pride, stories and meaning added.
“Go tell it on the mountain” could be Japan’s theme song. Forested mountainsides and small plots along valleys are everywhere. The population of 120 million people crowded into an area about twice the size of Great Britain strives to be one-third self-sufficient in lumber.
Telltale signs of forest and mountain heritage show up in every aspect of life. There are mushrooms, pickled bamboo shoots, ginkgo nuts, chestnuts and, of course, green tea. In terms of household fibres, there are bamboo fences and lawn decorations, tatami (grass) rugs, chopsticks and other dinnerware such as lacquered wooden bowls and plates, both craft specialties.
Almost all Japanese practise both Shintoism and a Japanese version of Buddhism. Both express the standard characteristics of mountain- and forest-based spiritualities as distinct from the more judgmental, fear-based and austere teachings associated with desert-based religions in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions.
Shintoism, followed during life, has no Bible and proposes that the spirit of the gods is everywhere in nature and in foods, especially rice and sake (Japanese wine). In April, sake is offered to the gods at Shinto shrines, and whatever the gods don’t take can be drunk by parishioners.
Japanese Buddhism – quite distinctive among Buddhist traditions – is embraced on one’s deathbed, since Buddha takes everyone to paradise after death regardless of prior beliefs or behaviour. It’s said that when Japanese Buddhist monks learned that piece of good news several centuries ago, they decided that marriage was okay.
The rock gardens common to shrines and temples of both faiths are obvious imitations of the water, rock and shrubs of mountain terrains, places where people may feel at home with their deepest selves, just as food makes them at home in their bioregion.