The Japanese people’s appreciation and respect for culinary art is known around the world. To the outside observer, Japanese food and table settings may seem unique, innovative, and perhaps mysterious, with demure portions perfectly arranged on dishes ranging from the simple to the intricate, and yet the roots of Japanese cuisine are surprisingly down-to-earth. Through generations the people of this country have based their meals on traditions surrounding the seasons and have incorporated the freshest local ingredients to enhance the color and taste of each meal.
It is sometimes said that Japanese cooking is based on the Shinto concepts of hare and ke, or “special occasions” versus “daily life.” Traditionally on days of hare, which included local festivals or other days deemed propitious on the calendar, one would don their best clothes and prepare a dish of seasonal foods on a special plate decorated with freshly picked flowers and greens. These foods tended to be a step above those eaten on a daily basis. The term go-sekku, or “five seasons,” is the name given to the most important festival days. Considering their long history, it is remarkable that these special days of hare continue to be celebrated even in the modern day.
In contrast, on days of ke the people return to a lifestyle of quiet humility, a characteristic once necessary in order to maintain the harmony of communal farming. Simple in content, these meals consisted of plain white rice accompanied by a bowl of soup and three small side dishes.
Through the years, the foods and traditions surrounding the seasons have adapted to modern living while still retaining their original heart and form. They reflect the love for community and continuity that is the essence of Japanese society.
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