Enduring Flavors of Japan, Cultivated Over Thousands of Years
Nara is a landlocked prefecture surrounded by mountains, in the middle of the Japan archipelago. Japan’s capital was situated here in both the Asuka and Nara eras of Japanese history. During those times Nara was the center of politics, trade, and culture in Japan. This included relations with the outside world, and Japanese missions to Tang China brought back art and technology that in turn further developed into unique Japanese styles.
In Cooperation With Kasuga Hotel
Superlative Farming Creates Local Specialties
According to Teruyoshi Matoba, Professor Emeritus at Nara Women’s College, “In this region Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have greatly influenced the development of art and technology. After the relocation of the capital in the Heian era, the peasant class found itself freed from the influence of powerful families, and were free to farm on their own and refine their technique.”
Excellence in farming is the norm here. From the 4th decade of the Meiji era until the start of the Showa era, Nara boasted the largest rice harvests in the country. In the early Showa as well, farmers here established a field-cycling method where fields would be switched between rice cultivation and dry crops every few years. Wet-land rice would be periodically switched out with cash crops like cotton, rapeseed, watermelon or strawberries. Nara farmers remain proactive about advancements in farming technology to this day, with current efforts focused on watermelon varieties and methods for growing strawberries out of season.
Persimmons are plentiful in Nara, even immortalized by a poet who wrote of eating one while hearing the bells of Horyu-ji temple ring out. Gojo City in particular boasts the largest area devoted to their cultivation in all of Japan (according to the 2015 agricultural census). The slanted plots have good drainage, and the climate offers a good contrast in temperature between day and night, all of which adds up to high quality persimmons. Additionally, the “Gosho Persimmon” found in Gose City at the southern tip of the Nara basin is said to be the progenitor of the modern day sweet persimmon.
Nara prefecture can be broadly divided into three parts: the Nara basin, Yamato tableland, and the Gojo Yoshino and Totsukawa rivers region. The largely flat and fertile fields of the Nara basin accounts for 24% of the prefecture’s area and more than 90% of its population. Situated near the outskirts of both Osaka and Kyoto, its main crops are strawberries and greens, in addition to wet-land rice.
In the north is the expansive Yamato tableland. The food culture here is heavily influenced by the neighboring Nara basin and Mie prefecture. Home to the famous Yamato tea, the region utilizes its cold winters to make cold-weather staples of freeze-dried tofu and mochi.
In the south of the prefecture is the Gojo Yoshino and Totsukawa rivers region which boasts a grand mountain range. Woodlands are plentiful, but paddy fields are few and far between, so since ancient times people here have relied on nuts and grains, pickled wild vegetables, and other preserves. The Yoshino river offers freshwater fish such as sweetfish and trout, and whole sweetfish sushi is a local specialty.
The food culture of Nara has developed along its own unique path throughout history. What sort of stories might lay hidden in that history?
Nara Flavors at the Root of Japanese Cuisine
Having long boasted a well developed transportation network, Nara had extensive exchange with east asian countries like China and Korea, and functioned as the end point of the silk road. In the Asuka and Nara eras, envoys to Sui and Tang China, as well as settlers from China and Korea, brought art and culture from abroad, and formed the foundation of modern Japanese cuisine.
The Yamato tea cultivated in the Yamato tabeland is considered to be the origin point for Japanese tea. In 806, Kobo-Daishi brought seeds of the tea tree from Tang China, and planted them at Butsuryu-ji temple in modern day Uda city. This was the start of tea cultivation in Japan. Soon after, tea cultivation spread to the general population, and many people enjoyed lightly roasted tea grown in their own gardens. The practice of combining tea and rice as a gruel also began.
Practitioners at Toudai-ji temple not only combined tea and rice in this way, but also began boiling rice in tea along with well-cooked soybeans. This tea-boiled rice known as “chameshi” also spread to common folk, but didn’t really catch on. In the Edo period, it became known in Edo city as Nara Chameshi. Here it became quite famous, even garnering a mention in the writer Jippensha Iku’s comic novel Hizakurige. Today, you’ll find it on the menu at many establishments in Nara, and even served in school lunches.
Nara is also considered the birthplace of refined sake. During the Nara era, with the introduction of technology from China, the imperial court established an official “court brewer.” When the capital was moved to ancient Kyoto, Buddhist temples took over the sake brewing. In the Muromachi period, the Bodai-moto, a revolutionary fermentation starter method, was invented at Shoryaku-ji temple and became the basis for Japanese sake production. According to Professor Matoba, “the temples and shrines at the time served essentially similar functions to modern day universities and industries, and drove a lot of innovation. The refined sake that came out of Nara is a great example of this.”
For another example, muginawa, a wheat-based confection from China, formed the basis for Japanese soumen. Specifically the Sanrin ward of Sakurai City, famous for its “sanrin soumen,” is considered the origin point for soumen. Hishio, a paste made from heavily salted beans and grain long produced in Nara, can be said to be the progenitor of soy sauce and miso. In this way, many foodstuffs that blossomed in Nara can still be seen today in more developed forms.
Local Cuisine Spurred by Farming Culture
At the heart of Nara cuisine is the simple food culture of a small farming town, where in-season foodstuffs are used to their fullest and prepared appropriately. This local cuisine based around people’s daily lives can be seen on display in events and festivals at shrines and temples, surviving to this very day through the long march of history.
“Noppei” is emblematic of this. Referred to, essentially, as “slush” in the Nara dialect, noppei is a stew of taro, thick fried tofu, and seasonal vegetables, distinguished by the thickening effect of the taro. It’s said to be the origin of stewing in Japan. At the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri festival held every December at Kasuga Grand Shrine, “Nara Noppei” can be found on offer even today as a traditional vegetarian cuisine.
“Chagayu,” a gruel of tea and rice, has long been a staple in farming communities. Nara’s is distinctive for its higher ratio of liquid, but it’s not done to skimp on rice. Rather it allows the diligent farm workers to wolf down their meal even quicker so that they can get back in the fields. For a more filling meal, taro, sweet potatoes, or dried mochi were added.
At New Years, people in Nara eat “Yamato zoni,” a soup made with white miso. The soup contains round cuts of daikon and other vegetables, and round cooked rice cakes, symbolizing the hope for a well-rounded and peaceful life. Towards the end of the year you’ll spot “festive daikon” on sale for just this purpose. In some regions it is common to fish out the rice cakes and douse them in kinako flour before eating, a practice called “kinako zoni.” The yellow kinako flour brings to mind ears of rice, and represents the hope for a good harvest.
When the summer festivals come around, the young leaves of the persimmon tree come into their own and fan out. Around this time in the Gojo-Yoshino region people make what’s known as “persimmon leaf sushi.” Salted mackerel from the Kumano region is wrapped together with sushi rice in the persimmon leaves, which are said to have antibacterial properties. In days past the dish was made as a treat for sunny days at the summer festivals. Today, it’s a famous Nara specialty.
Traditional Yamato Vegetables
Across the prefecture, all manner of traditional “Yamato vegetables” are cultivated and sold as delicacies. They include “Uda golden burdock,” “Yuzaki spring onions,” “Katahira madder,” and “Ajima potatoes.” The “Yamato mana” derives from the variety of turnips mentioned in Japan’s oldest historical records, and has long been pickled and eaten. As it spoils soon after harvest, it is not suitable for wide distribution, but a new variety developed jointly by the prefectural agricultural research center, universities, and private industry is sold across the country.
Traditions Alive and Well in New Food Culture
In Nara, even shaved ice has its own unique pedigree. In the Nara period, during winter ice would be stored in a special chamber at the Himuro shrine, dedicated to the gods of ice. Come summer, it would be presented to Heijo palace. There, nobles would shave off ice from the block, and sweeten it with ivy. In modern times, an ice festival is held at Himuro shrine to bring prosperity to ice makers. A giant ice pillar is erected at the shrine, with flowers and fish frozen within it.
As Professor Matoba says, “throughout Nara’s long history, the people here have created a peaceful food culture patterned after the region’s climate and natural features, which in turn became the foundation for Japan’s food culture as a whole. When you’re in Nara, you can feel all of that living and breathing around you, and you can’t help but be struck in solemn awe, that you are alive in but one moment of a continuum.”