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The Art of Food in Japanese Literature

Food is a sacred part of Japanese culture. An art-form. Something that must be cherished and savoured.

Fun fact: The Japanese term ‘kuchisabishii’, meaning ‘lonely mouth’ describes a Western tendency to eat for the sake of it. Eating when bored. Sound familiar?

In contrast, in Japan, every ingredient, the food preparation and the eating must all mindful.

It’s no surprise, then, that we find an abundance of food in Japanese novels. But the portrayal of food is more than simply an insight into everyday life; food in Japanese novels is deeply symbolic – laced with meaning, significance and reflection.

Characters devote time, care and attention to food. These scenes are highly emotive, packed full of feeling, and often represent a moment of reflection and understanding.

Characters use food to take stock of their lives. Inhale, assess, and move forward. Unite with family, friends or strangers. Or reach a higher moment of self-awareness.

Memorised, we often observe lonely characters, and wonder how something as mundane as cooking and eating can be so soothing, and symbolic.

Food is everywhere in Japanese literature. Here are some of our favourite moments.

 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

‘I let the phone ring three times and cut the sandwich in half. Then I transferred it to a plate, wiped the knife, and put that in the cutlery drawer, before pouring myself a cup of coffee I had warmed up. Still the phone went on ringing.’

Notice how Murakami’s protagonist, Toru, considers his sandwich sacred. He will not allow the incoming phone call to take priority over his cathartic routine,

 

Sweat Bean Paste by Durien Sukegawa

‘The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth.’

Wonderful, descriptive language.

 

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

‘To me a kitchen represents some distant longing engraved on my soul.

‘All kinds of plates silently awaited their turn.

For Mikage, cooking is the meaning of her life. Her safe sanctuary.

 

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Here, food united 38-year old Tsukiko and her ex-high school teacher, Sensei, together in union. It allows two socially awkward people to spend time together without stress. Share a common interest. And fall in love.

‘Taking my seat at the counter, I ordered “tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root, and salted shallots”, while the old man next to me requested “Salted shallots, lotus root fries, and tuna with fermented soybeans” almost simultaneously.’

‘It’s always better to drink than cry’.

 

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