The Japanese Table / Event dishes represent appreciation for nature

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Hisako Miyamoto, center, and other women show rice balls sprinkled with soybean flour, front, and a simmered dish to mark rice planting season, in Iizuna, Nagano Prefecture.

By Yukako Fukushi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer This series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. This installment takes a look at how traditions have been maintained while going through changes.

Japanese people make special dishes for annual events and festivals such as New Year’s Day, and eat them while giving prayerful thanks. This is one of the major characteristics of washoku, and families and neighbors have deepened bonds by eating such dishes together.

“For us, annual events have been based around rice growing,” said Hisako Miyamoto, who has been engaged in agriculture for more than half a century in Iizuna, Nagano Prefecture.

Even today, she makes taue nimono, which literally means “simmered food for the rice-planting season,” and kinako musubi, rice balls sprinkled with soybean flour, and eats them in May and June. Taue nimono uses dried daikon radish and warabi bracken, among other ingredients, with daikon, which contains water, representing rice paddies filled with water. Meanwhile, sunny yellow kinako sprinkled over rice balls represents ears of rice.

These are event dishes related to rice planting to wish for a good harvest.

Inheriting food culture

The culture of agriculture and food had been waning. In 2007, Miyamoto and other women from farming households began conducting interviews with elderly people and other activities. They also cooperated with schools, trying to have children experience rice planting and eat event dishes related to rice growing.

At first some people said, “It’s no use teaching children such things.” However, the practices have spread well, and in the rice-planting season, children eat kinako musubi made by Miyamoto and others.

Miyamoto and others plan to hold workshops on event dishes for each season and their meanings on a regular basis at a restaurant run by a local processors’ association that opened in April. “I will be glad if children remember the tastes that have been inherited by local people when they are grown up,” Miyamoto said.

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  • Yomiuri Shimbun photo, in cooperation with Ecole de Cuisine Egami

    Kashiwa mochi, left, and chimaki, both of which are dumplings with red bean paste made for the Boys Festival on May 5, with the former using oak leaves and the latter using bamboo leaves for wrapping

  • Yomiuri Shimbun file photos

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Yoichiro Nakamura, former professor of folklore studies at Shizuoka Sangyo University and an expert on annual festivals and food culture, said Japanese people have believed that gods are in everything since ancient times.

“Rice cultivation, which was at the center of people’s lives, is easily affected by the climate,” he added. “The practice of eating dishes using ingredients that are in season according to seasonal changes, while having awe and appreciation for nature, has been inherited in the form of annual events.”

The basic law on food education, which went into effect in 2005, has a provision that calls for the inheritance of food culture linked to traditional events and having regional characteristics. However, only a small number of people eat event dishes, aside from on the New Year’s holidays.

According to a survey conducted by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry in 2015, fewer than 40 percent of respondents said they ate event dishes for the Peach Festival (also known as Girls Festival or Doll Festival) on March 3 or the Boys Festival (Children’s Day) on May 5. Also, the younger respondents were, the less they felt an appreciation for nature and the gods, which is the original meaning of event dishes.

The Washoku Association of Japan, a Tokyo-based general incorporated organization whose mission is protecting and passing down traditional Japanese cuisine, began promoting five sekku seasonal festivals this year. At an event held in April, they introduced major event dishes related to the five festivals, and proposed dishes that can be cooked at home for Shichiseki (the Star Festival on July 7) and Choyo (the Chrysanthemum Festival on Sept. 9).

“We would like to involve a wide range of industries including manufacturing and distribution companies to realize a society where households serve event dishes just like other regular dishes,” said Prof. Toru Fushiki of Ryukoku University, the head of the association.

Nakamura said: “Although society changes, there is no change to the fact that Japan has four seasons. I believe appreciating nature and having an interest in ingredients that are in season and traditions will make people feel more enriched.”

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