The Origin of Japanese Cuisine

heian-era(AC)The roots of Japanese cuisine, once traced, will reveal that several serving styles have been developed over the ages. During the Heian period in the eighth century, people ate individually served meals using their own tray tables (zen), plateware and chopsticks. The economy was built upon rice paddy cultivation, and rice had become an integral part of the Japanese diet. Under the Buddhist influence, eating four-legged animals was prohibited, bringing an end to meat consumption in Japan. However, various food ingredients were introduced. The origins of miso, soy sauce and tofu were first seen during this period, and people consumed abundant amounts of agricultural produce and marine foods, including seaweed and shellfish.

First Appearance of Honzen Ryori


“one soup, three sides”

Japan engaged in trade with foreign countries during the Muromachi period of the fourteenth century, and a distinctive Japanese culture flourished. Serving styles and rules were formalized, and the honzen ryori became a primary serving style of the time. The honzen ryori was a combination of several courses, each served on a tray table called a zen. It started with “hon-zen (main tray),” followed by “second zen,” “third zen” and so on. In fact, the historical record shows that it could consist of up to seven zens. A dessert tray was added during the later part of the era. A typical meal consisted only of hon-zen, which was prepared based on the principle of “one soup, three sides.” It came with rice, soup, pickles and three okazu dishes: namasu (vinegared vegetables), yakimono (a grilled dish) and nimono (a simmered dish). The “second zen” was prepared and served for guests, and the “third zen” and above were prepared and served for older or upper-class guests or on special occasions such as festivals. The honzen ryori underwent changes over time, but it continued to be a mainstream style of Japanese cuisine until the nineteenth century.

Kaiseki Ryori and Shojin Ryori


Kaiseki ryori

Also during this era, the kaiseki ryori, 懐石料理 (tea-ceremony dishes), a style integrated with the tea ceremony, was popular among the nobility. The kaiseki ryori (tea-ceremony dishes), however, isn’t just about the taste or gorgeous appearance of the food. With attention given to the types of serving plates and the arrangement of food items, the dishes are prepared according to a seasonal theme. The kaiseki ryori (tea-ceremony dishes) is a food culture that expresses the words wabi (quiet simplicity) and sabi (elegant but old-fashioned) in the manner of cooking.

tea-ceremony(AC)It was an era during which the temples were outside the realm of the government, so they had the status of special autonomy. Monks followed the Buddhist philosophy of not taking life, and consequently the temples prohibited the consumption of four-legged animals, birds and fish, which led to the creation of the vegetarian meal called shojin ryori.


Shojin ryori

The shojin ryori was created after a thorough search for the way to obtain nutrients from grains in replacement of animal proteins. While the processing techniques for beans and vegetables evolved, the continuous development of tofu led to the production of ganmodoki, koyadofu, natto, konnyaku and fu. Additionally, the techniques for making dashi stock were developed during this era. These techniques have made substantial contributions to the development of Japanese cuisine.

Fast Food Developed During the Period of National Isolation

The Edo period began in the seventeenth century, and subsequently Japan entered the period of national isolation, which lasted for approximately 200 years. As national conflicts diminished and the nation became stable, the population increased. Accordingly, the amount of food production was increased and new ingredients and cooking techniques were introduced. Many restaurants emerged in the city of Edo.



Such fast food dishes as ni-hachi soba, sushi and confectioneries were very popular. It was also during this era when dishes such as kabayaki (grilled eel), tsukudani (fish boiled in soy sauce) and tempura were developed.

Restaurants in the Edo period began serving the banquet meal called kaiseki ryori, 会席料理 (beverage-main meal) in order to entertain customers with sake and accompanying dishes.

Dishes were made with various types of seafood, all of which were selected with an emphasis on freshness and the area in which it was produced. Soy sauce, mirin, sugar, vinegar and miso were used as flavoring ingredients. Dashi stock was made with katsuobushi (bonito flakes), kombu (kelp) or dried shiitake mushrooms. Spices like wasabi, ginger, sansho pepper and red pepper were already being used during this era.

We can therefore see that the origins of nearly all the types of Japanese-style dishes we eat today already existed during the Edo period.

Once the Ban on Meat was Lifted



The Meiji Restoration took place in 1868, whereupon the new government issued the order to separate Shintoism and Buddhism. Consequently, the ban on meat consumption was removed. This facilitated the development of various meat dishes, including sukiyaki, shabu shabu, gyudon (beef bowl), yakitori and many other typical Japanese meat dishes. Then, as the long period of national isolation came to an end, many new ingredients and dishes were brought in from foreign countries. These were then adapted to suit the Japanese palate. Finally, dishes like tonkatsu (pork cutlet), croquette, curry rice and ramen noodles were introduced to Japan, resulting in the establishment of a new food category known as Western cuisine.


Japanese dining table and tatami mats

Various foreign cultures were introduced to Japan, and they influenced the lifestyles of Japanese people. People sat on chairs instead of tatami mats in order to eat at dining tables. In the style of the honzen ryori, each person ate from his or her own tray table. However, the honzen ryori was then served only at restaurants, hotels or festival banquets. At home, people would gather around the dining table to enjoy the family meal together.

From the Modern Era to Today

The 1960s were years of rapid economic growth, and the Japanese lifestyle changed dramatically. Japanese cuisine was no longer classified into such styles as honzen, kaiseki and shojin dishes. Instead, these were disintegrated and then redesigned or blended to establish new styles and rules.

Incorporating New Styles


Kaiten-zushi (revloving sushi)

Many ingredients that were once very expensive eventually became widely available to the general public. The quality and freshness of ingredients improved, and cooking techniques were further refined. Today the ingredients for Japanese cuisine are now imported from throughout the world. A wide variety of food ingredients can be found in downtown shopping districts near train stations, supermarkets, wholesale markets and depa-chika (a department store’s basement food floor). Many specialty restaurants have emerged, among which sushi restaurants, izakaya restaurants and Western-style restaurants are now considered the three pillars of Japanese cuisine. Kaiten-zushi (sushi served on a conveyor belt), soba, gyudon (beef bowl), curry rice and ramen noodles are the most popular forms of Japanese fast food, while take-out bento shops and sozai delis continue to thrive.

Japanese Dishes Going Global

For many years, when new food ingredients or dishes were imported to Japan, they were altered to be incorporated into the nation’s cuisine. However, in recent years the export volume of Japanese food has increased significantly. Japanese dishes are made with many ingredients that can’t be found in other countries and are prepared using methods developed over the centuries. With its delicious flavors, nutritional value and delicate presentation, the worldwide popularity of Japanese cuisine will continue to expand. Japanese cuisine is characterized by the use of a wide variety of fresh ingredients, such as seaweed, seafood, shellfish and all kinds of agricultural produce. Fresh seafood and shellfish served raw are considered to be among the finest dishes. Ingredients are seasoned only lightly to enhance their natural flavors through the use of dashi stock as a base, and along with fermented seasoning such as soy sauce, miso and mirin for added depth. Food is delicately arranged on a carefully selected plate in such a way that it represents a season or evokes emotions. Dishes are set on a table according to certain rules. For example, a bowl of cooked rice–the main part of a Japanese meal–should be placed on the left front. A soup bowl should be placed to the right of the rice and grilled fish in back with its head facing left. The most notable characteristic of Japanese cuisine is that new food items are constantly incorporated and adapted to fit the tastes of the Japanese people.

The Appealing Aspects of Long-Established Japanese Cuisine


Osechi ryori

Japanese cuisine has been developed over the course of 1,800 years. Its rich history is recognizable whether it is at ordinary Japanese households or restaurants, or inside lunch boxes or osechi ryori (New Year’s foods). The long-established Japanese cuisine always captivates the mind, taking us back into its magnificent history. This is the history of food as well as Japanese culture. Japanese cuisine has slowly evolved through the centuries, and it has attracted much attention from the world. Any Japanese dish can impress the senses with its distinguished flavors and tasteful presentation, which are unique to this national cuisine.

Gochiso Magazine, Nijiya Market

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