2020 NO.28

Tokyo: The Ultimate Gourmet Experience


Traditional Japanese Cuisine over the Centuries

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In Japan’s Edo period (1603—1868), the common folk began to develop a taste for gourmet food, a variety of restaurants emerged, and Japanese cuisine became more refined. This is the time when the foundations were laid for the thriving gastronomic culture of Tokyo today.

From a conversation with Harada Nobuo    Photography: Oyama Yuhei    Photos: PIXTA

Characterized by the use of fresh seasonal ingredients, outstanding nutritional balance, and detailed attention to arrangement and food presentation, Japan’s unique gastronomic culture blossomed during the Edo period. The continued political stability and peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate (a government of military leaders from the Tokugawa family) were conducive to the advancement of large-scale urban planning and the development of a distribution network of land and sea routes. As a result, specialty products from all over Japan were acquired by the seat of the Shogunate, Edo (present-day Tokyo). Historical evidence indicates that the area of Nihonbashi, in particular—the starting point of the main routes as well as a landing place for sea cargo—flourished as a commercial center for trade in various products, with riverside fish markets bustling with people.

In addition to the flow of material goods, Edo also enjoyed an enormous influx of people, and in the first half of the 18th century, it grew into a large city with a population over one million. It overflowed with samurai warriors, retainers, merchants away from home, and day laborers, and the need for eating establishments increased exponentially because most of these people were single men. Their hunger was satisfied by portable food stalls, which became popular as places where customers could enjoy swiftly prepared cooked meals. Later, these portable stalls transformed into small-scale restaurants and izakaya bars, and gradually, various eateries popped up along the streets of Edo.

Not long after that, the capital saw the emergence of upscale restaurants catering to the affluent townspeople class, and these establishments soon became social venues for cultural interaction hosting gatherings of haiku poets and other cultural events. Their skilled chefs prepared banquet-type kaiseki meals (traditional multi-course dinners), which were a slightly simplified version of ritual full-course dinners given to entertain samurai warriors. This kaiseki tradition is reflected in today's luxurious traditional Japanese restaurants and inns.

A bustling riverside fish market in Nihonbashi in the late Edo period. People are depicted carrying sea bream, octopuses, and abalones.
(Utagawa Kuniyasu, Nihon-bashi Uoichi Hanei Zu (“Prosperity of the Fish Market at Nihon-bashi”) (Partial image)