Saying Itadakimasu before a meal and Gochisousama afterwards are taught as table manners to the Japanese since birth. As the Japanese live in harmony with nature, they developed a custom of expressing gratitude for nature’s bounty with the phrase, Itadakimasu (“I shall partake”) before a meal followed by the phrase, Gochisousama (“Thank you for the wonderful meal”) . At nursery schools, children are taught to sing the お弁当の歌/Obento song before saying Itadakimasu. It is considered rude to not say Itadakimasu and start the meal without everyone. After all, Japan has long been known for its honorific manners. Due to globalization, Japanese cuisine has become increasingly well known and available in many parts of the world. From Ippudo, Yoshinoya to Ichiban Ramen, these restaurants have built a solid reputation for the Japanese. Many have discovered a liking for Japanese cuisine because of its freshness and meticulous preparation. Omakase, a type of meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef, is an example of a meal that requires such preparation and the freshest ingredients. It is available at Tatsuya from $250 per person.
Did you know that the original sushi was developed in China where the fish meat was salted? It was only in the 7th century that sushi first appeared in Japan and subsequently became their staple. During the Heian period, uncooked rice was stuffed into the fish after they were gutted and washed down with sake before undergoing fermentation. Fast forward six centuries, vinegar was added into the preparation process to quicken the fermentation and make the sushi more flavourful. The most common form of sushi we consume today is known as the Edomae sushi. This particular type of Japanese cuisine originates from Edo (old name for Tokyo) fast food businesses. The Edo style sushi symbolises a significant period, the booming Edo culture where more and more commoners were allowed to hold business of their own back then. It is a combination of vinegar flavoured rice and fresh sashimi.
Did you know that Sukiyabashi Jiro - A sushi restaurant rated 3 Michelin Stars requires clients to make reservations 1 month in advance, converse only in Japanese and spend a minimum of $300 for a 30 minutes meal?
Miso is staple to the Japanese like how kimchi is to the Koreans. Similar to many of their dishes, miso also originated from China. It is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and fungus. However, there are various kinds of miso made from barley and wheat too. It too, started off being as a military provision and slowly expanded out to the society. Due to its high fibre and being rich in protein and vitamins, miso has become a must-have for every Japanese household, forming the basis of every meal. In the Muromachi era (1337-1573), Buddhist monks discovered a way to make miso into a paste which led to more ways to flavour different food and also to be used as military provision.
Did you know that miso has anti cancer property?
Onigiri is a traditional Japanese food made from plain white rice rolled into a triangular shape. The history of onigiri dates back to the 7th century and back then, it was called Tonjiki. Samurais would store the rice balls underneath their armours and have them for meals during war. The creation of onigiri was for convenience and a way to take care of leftover rice. Today, onigiri is mass produced and available in every convenience store. It comes in many different flavours such as salted salmon, pickled plum, mentaiko and more.
Did you know that onigiri is handed out whenever there is a disaster in Japan?
Buddhism has been introduced to Japan through China and Korea in the 6th century. Adapted from Mahayana Buddhism and later transformed to Japanese Zen, which emphasizes the value of meditation and intuition rather than simply worshipping or studying scriptures. Even though it is not a native religion, Buddhism has significant influence on Japan’s culture and history. With the belief that all living beings have the possibility of attaining enlightenment, laws and imperial edicts gradually eliminated the consumption of almost all flesh of animals,fowl, and insects . Since then, the vegetarian style of cooking known as shojin ryori is being widely practiced. Resulting from this practice, many of Japan’s famous delights have made their debuts, including soy sauce (shoyu), miso, tofu, and other products made from soybeans. The word “shojin” originally meant zeal in progress amongst the path of enlightenment or pursuing a free state of mind rid of worldly thoughts and attachment. In this way, the act of preparing shojin ryori is an essential practice of Buddhism that expresses one’s devotion to religious discipline .
The founder of Zen Buddhism's Sōtō school in Japan, Dogen, wrote a book called Tenzo Kyōkun, which shows the Japanese food philosophy. Under the heavy influence of Buddhism, knowing how to prepare a meal and eating the right way will enlighten an individual’s mind and spirit. Therefore, eating is an essential part in Japan’s culture, not just physiologically but also spiritually.
Japanese cuisine highly concentrates on its visuals, because presentation shows the balance and harmony of life, which is shown in the three basic styles of Japanese cooking included honzen ryori, chakaiseki ryori, and kaiseki ryori. Before actually eating the food, you must enjoy it with your “eyes” first; that is the Japanese way of dining. In Japan, food and dishes are considered to be a type of art . Think Zen when presenting Japanese food. It is acceptable to pile food up high, but not flat to cover a dish or plate. A lot of negative space is considered to whet the appetite.
One more fascinating Japanese tradition that is influenced by Zen Buddhism is Chanoyu, or Japanese tea ceremony, also called the Way of Tea. It is a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea, called Matcha, together with traditional Japanese sweets to balance with the bitter taste of the tea. Preparing tea in this ceremony means pouring all of one's attention into the predefined movements. The whole process is not about drinking tea, but is about the aesthetics; preparing a bowl of tea from one's heart. The objective of the Japanese tea ceremony is to create a relaxed communication between the host and his guests. It also includes the intimate connections with architecture, landscape gardening, unique tea utensils, paintings, flower arrangement, ceramics, calligraphy, Zen Buddhism, and all the other elements that coexist in a harmonious relationship with the ceremony. Another aim is the attainment of deep spiritual satisfaction through the drinking of tea and through silent contemplation. Most importantly, the understanding of tea philosophy, which contains harmony, respect, purity, tranquility, teaches a person to appreciate the beauty of things that are simple and natural, as well as to pour one’s heart and devotion into his or her actions .
To us foreigners, we just consume Japanese food without thinking about the various traditions and culture behind it. We simply enjoy sushi while slurping down miso soup or snack on an onigiri. However, in the Japanese culture, these food embody deeper meanings besides from being oishi (delicious). They are the way of living from generation to generation, the harmony between human and nature, and the path to reach spiritual wellness taught in Buddhism.
Buddhism heavily influenced the Japanese way of life starting from their diet. The imperial restriction on meat products during the Kofun period emphasised the extent of Buddhism influence on their beliefs. Buddhism also brought about a significant impact to how Japanese lived their lives, prepared their food and the art of tea, creating rich culture and tradition that amazes us even till today.
From this post, besides the significance of food that we often overlook, we learned that religions and certain beliefs can change the whole culture of a country. Furthermore, it can result in the creation of a new national identity.
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Dogen, E. (n.d.). Tenzo kyokun: Instructions for the Tenzo. Retrieved October 18, 2016, from http://wwzc.org/dharma-text/tenzo-kyokun-instructions-tenzo
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What is Washoku?. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2016, from http://tsukiji-cooking.com/whatswashoku/
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Group members: Zenda Soo, Clarence Low, Ly Tuan Kiet, Eliza Ng