Food on a Crowded Island: The Very Hungry Caterpillar comes to Japan!

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Cultivate member and erstwhile West Oxford resident Joel Lazarus  is away on a year-long sojourn in Singapore with his family. So much is he missing the VegVan that he’s decided to stay in touch in blog format. This is the sixth in his series in which he tucks into the social and environmental dimensions of how this small, crowded island feeds itself.


I know, dear reader, that this was supposed to be a blog about food in Singapore, but forgive me as this month I take you instead to Japan…

Japan will always be special to me. I studied its language and spent over four years living there in total. This trip was the first for my wife and children and my first for ten years. Our week there has revived my old sense of wonder and respect for Japan’s culture and people. My focus here will be on the sumptuous food we enjoyed, but, as usual, I will try to bring this into the context of Japanese history, culture, and contemporary political economy.

In the two years since becoming vegan, I have travelled widely with barely a pang of temptation to eat anything animal. That was till I went back to Japan! You’re never an ex-addict, only always recovering, they say, and that’s how it was with me and sushi. On the Saturday of our arrival, strolling down the quaint shopping street of Yoga, one of Tokyo’s more fashionable and prosperous suburbs, I soon found myself confronting my old addiction. First, there’s the smell – not the strong odour of fish, of course, but a delicate aroma of freshness. Next, there’s the aesthetic pleasure – the variety of colours of fish, the typically exquisite presentation, and, finally, the moist glistening of the sushi itself. The actual taste is beyond my powers of expression! I guess this is a public confession. I don’t eat fish. We are destroying our oceans. I want to minimise my part in this. But, I am only mortal and to avoid the sensual pleasure of sushi in Japan was beyond my limits of self-control!

And it started from there. The rest of the week reads like a ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ romp through Japan…

Sunday evening was spent in the company of old friends at a great izakaya (Japanese pub). Plates of  nasu dengaku (miso-glazed aubergine), edamame, shiitake mushrooms, salads, etc (yakitori for others) all washed down with ‘daijoki’ (L-size mugs of beer).

On Monday, after checking out the Daibutsu (the huge Buddha statue) at Kamakura, one of Japan’s medieval capitals, we slurped tempura udon soup at a quaint little restaurant. We also enjoyed freshly roasted senbei (rice crackers) and mochi (chewy rice ball sweets).

On Tuesday, we headed east to Hakone. After another bowl of tempura udon, we climbed, first on a switchback train, then on a funicular, then on a cable car to Sounzan or what our friends called  ‘Smelly Mountain’ due to the sulphurous steam rising up in thick pillars from the rocks. We declined the offer of the black eggs cooked in the sulphurous springs, and headed down the Oowakudani valley to Ashinoko, a beautiful lake below. An old pirate-style ship followed by a bus took us back to our fancy ‘ryokan’ (Japanese hotel). After a relaxing onsen session, we enjoyed our all-you-can-eat buffet – what the Japanese call ‘baikingu’ – ‘viking’!

On Wednesday, we headed by train to the heart of Honshu, to Chino in Nagano prefecture. Chino is dominated by the Yatsugatane mountain range – eight peaks whose beauty impresses in the summer, but dazzles in crisp, blue winter skies. The rice fields were starting to turn golden ahead of the October harvest, but Nature was already offering up her bounty. Our Japanese friend Alice was visited by farmer friends bringing her crates of wondrous produce – pumpkins, squashes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweetcorn, tomatoes, aubergines, apples, plums, blueberries, and grapes.

Chino aubergines Chino tomatoes

Alice is simply the best cook I’ve ever met! When she stayed with us in Oxford for two weeks, it was something. Eating with her in Chino was something else. It is the combination of the very freshest ingredients, decades of experience, and a profound love and respect for the traditional culinary culture of her country that enables Alice to create food that humbles and exhilarates.

On Thursday evening, after a soak in the nearby ‘rotenburo’ (outdoor onsen), we joined Alice, her son Junji and his family, and friend Hisako in an unforgettable feast. Chawanmushi, tempura, salads, spring rolls, tofu, sake, and much more. My wife Rajeka even got to don a kimono as we partook in a tea ceremony conducted by expert Hisako!

Wasanbon to accompany maccha Alice's dinner feast

On Friday, after a swift visit to the magnificent ancient Shinto shrine, Suwa Taisha, we headed back to Tokyo armed with a picnic of various norimake (seaweed-wrapped sushi) that Alice had lovingly prepared.

On Saturday, a blissful day in Baji Park and Kinuta Park crowned by a picnic of onigiri (rice-balls with a filling in the middle and wrapped in seaweed) and amazing pumpkin and aubergine salads followed by the finest nectarine I’ve ever tasted. The others ate ice-cream and looked on enviously! Luckily for them it was easily big enough to share.

Our adventure ended in excess – karaoke and beer followed by tonkatsu. Yes, I confess, tonkatsu. Everyone else wanted it and who was I to stand in their way. I don’t at all deny that that combination of fried breaded pork, finely-shredded white cabbage, and white rice complemented by brown sauce and mustard was delicious. We washed the dregs down with green tea to make ochazuke and, with that, headed back to the airport.

Japan is a unique and special place. Like our own islands, Japan is an archipelago off the coast of a continental landmass. Unlike (what is at the time of writing still) Britain, Japan did not experience centuries of cumulative invasion, occupation, and settlement. Despite belated efforts, it also never colonised half the world. The best bits of British culture and food are shaped by our domestic and international history. That is not to say that Japanese culture is in any way pure. Indeed, Japanese culture is marked by its incorporation and assimilation of multiple historical influences. Tonkatsu is an edible expression of this adaptation!

Capitalism and ‘modernisation’ also came late to Japan. Their arrival and implementation 150 years ago, after centuries of internally-enforced isolation, were sudden and dramatic. The key factor in Japan’s ability to preserve its culture in the face of dramatic socio-economic change seems to have been its ability to avoid direct colonisation. When I compare what we experienced culinarily in Japan to, say, our experience in another peripheral archipelago, the Philippines, this truth really hits home.

This is not to say that Japan is somehow immune to the cultural, socio-economic, and ecological consequences of global capitalism. The majority of Japan’s 120 million citizens live in its coastal megacities. The Greater Tokyo Area is home to almost one-third of Japan’s entire population! It is the biggest megacity in the world by ten million people! And Osaka is the ninth biggest too!

In the megacities, life for most is relentlessly tough. They either pay extortionate rents for tiny spaces in central locations or pay somewhat less extortionate rents for slightly less cramped spaces in one of its sprawling and soulless satellite towns. This is the world of perpetual exhaustion: ‘salarymen’ and ‘office ladies’ commuting for often three or four hours each day, working long hours, living off fast food lunches and convenience store dinners. The men, and increasingly the women too, drink too much and sleep and rest way too little. Unsurprisingly, the combination of prolonged stress and bad diet make stomach cancer a big killer here, one of the main manifestations of ‘karoushi’ (death by overwork). Those who drop out or are kicked out of this rat-race often find themselves joining the ranks of the homeless in their expanding tarpaulin encampments.

The migration to these vast cities has been accompanied, of course, by a concomitant exodus from the countryside. What was so striking on our visit to Chino was that the people working the land and soaking beside us in our onsen were almost all well over sixty! It seems that Japan’s younger generations are, out of choice or necessity, pursuing relentless urban corporate servitude over the relentless physical toil of rural agriculture. Both generally offer meagre incomes. What will happen to Japan’s predominantly small farms in the coming decades I just don’t know. If its people wish to continue to enjoy their islands’ bounteous fruits, a reverse migration seems unavoidable.

When it comes to other issues shaping Japan’s precarious future, one issue above all else looms largest – Fukushima. The huge tsunami that hit that prefecture’s coastline and Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station three years ago shook far more than Japanese territory. It has also profoundly shaken its people’s faith in their political and economic leaders and institutions. Despite public words and actions designed to allay fears, few people that I spoke to seemed confident that the effects of the disaster were not widespread and malign. In the country of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the profound antipathy toward nuclear power is unsurprising. Public pressure has led to the closure of all Japan’s nuclear power stations, but now dangers of insufficient energy threaten instead.

More immediately, beyond the usual concerns about industrial food production, Japanese people are understandably worried about the safety of their food and water supply. In supermarkets, I saw heavily discounted produce from Fukushima prefecture. Though authorities claim the prefecture’s produce is safe, its farmers suffer as consumers remain unconvinced.

Yet, I finish on a positive note. I want to identify one particular contribution among Japan’s remarkable contribution to humanity’s common culture and development that I believe can show us the way toward a harmonious relationship between ourselves and Nature. Masanobu Fukuoka, a Shikoku farmer, is widely recognised as the founding father of what is known today as ‘permaculture’. Permaculture is the very antithesis of capitalist farming: it is about emulation rather than domination and manipulation; variation rather than homogenisation; production for social benefit rather than private financial gain. As I slowly progress through my online course in permaculture, I have been struck by its intuitive yet scientifically-grounded pragmatism. I think that the principles and practices permaculturalists like Fukuoka promote point the way not just toward the repair and rejuvenation of our environment, but toward a future based on common labour and ownership, and equitable distribution of Nature’s plentiful resources – the foundations of a fairer future for all.

Finally, just to let you know, I’m now back in Singapore and very happily back to eating vegan!