08 Aug 21

Japanese Food – A work of art

Chris Kavanagh Japan

Anyone who has hiked in Japan will tell you that a significant part of the experience is the food – and it will definitely play a big role in your Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo Way experience. Along these trails you will often be staying in family run accommodation in small villages with the opportunity to sample delicious, fresh and locally produced meals. Here, food becomes a work of art; the combination of flavours, appearance and seasonal ingredients is taken very seriously. As is the custom around dining. Japan, while very advanced in many ways, can also be quite traditional in others. There is an etiquette surrounding many aspects of life, but particularly around food and dining.

Each accommodation owner or chef takes great pride in preparing a well thought out breakfast and multi-course dinner from local and seasonal ingredients. Yes, you will be eating a lot of rice and a lot of fish (raw and cooked) – sometimes three times a day. You will also get lots of vegetables, tofu, some meat, some eggs, soups, pickled dishes and food cooked at your table over a small burner.

Both of RAW Travel’s walks include amazing breakfasts and dinners. On the Kumano Kodo you are also provided with a packed lunch for most of your trekking days. While on the Nakasendo you do have a bit more of a chance to choose where you eat – though soba noodles is the local fast food and you won’t find any burger joints here!

You will receive an abundance of food, especially at dinner times when you will be presented with many courses (kaiseki). It is better to try some of everything and, while you can express you are too full if you are really struggling, the Japanese do not like to waste food. Cleaning your plate is the biggest compliment you can pay a chef (as is saying “Oishii” which means something like “delicious” or “yummy”. (It was very well received when I used it.) Another tip: if you are travelling with other people, you can swap your food with each other.

For those experiencing a temple stay in Koyasan, there is a unique way of preparing meals here. Shojin ryori is vegetarian cuisine which was created for samurai who wanted to train with the monks and have pure food – without fish, meat or animal products. There is a separate kitchen and special chef who prepares these meals. A typical shojin ryori meal is centered around soybean-based foods like tofu along with seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants, which are believed to bring balance and alignment to the body, mind, and spirit. The monks use the “rule of five” when cooking, so that every meal offers five colours (green, yellow, red, black and white) as well as five flavours (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). This simple meal is a big contributor to the fine dining kaiseki meals and is now trending outside of Koyasan with chefs training in this style of food preparation across Japan.

To accompany your meals, you may be wondering about the local tipple. Sake, of course, is the national beverage and a popular choice. If you have tried this at home and not liked it, I recommend giving it another try. I would also suggest the cold variations to ensure top quality (many of the heated sake are a restaurant’s way of covering up the cheaper ingredients). Exported sake has added preservatives which can impact some of the taste; however, the sake in Japan has no preservatives and this results in a smooth and clean flavour. Sake was the travellers’ choice of pleasure, following a long walk, particularly along the Nakasendo Way and you will find many breweries in Kiso Fukushima and the area.

For those who prefer something a bit sweeter, you may enjoy Umeshu, which is traditionally made by steeping the green plum in sugar and clear alcohol. It is sometimes called an apricot or peach – it is from the same family – either way, over ice, this is a lovely way to end your meal (or sometimes you will be given a small taste as part of your appetiser at dinner).

Punctuality is also appreciated. Meal times are set and you usually have only one or two choices with regards to the time.

While dietary requirements and allergies may be commonplace in many countries, it is neither common nor well understood in Japan. If this is something that pertains to you, read our insight on Hiking Japan with Dietary Dietary Requirements.


Written By

Chris Kavanagh

Chris is a seasoned hiker and RAW’s Japan expert. If you’re looking for the best advice about Japan’s walking trails, Chris is your go-to. With a background in personal training, Chris champions active travel. She loves hitting the gym, exploring local trails and immersing herself in a good book.

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