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History of Japanese Sushi

When we look back a the history of Japan, we can find that Japan’s wealthy blessing of nature is attributed to the fact that high mountain range on the center of the island, southern ocean current and northern ocean current create beautiful four seasons, which make snow and rain fall in the mountains and eventually form rivers bringing microorganism from the forests to the oceans, where fish eat the plankton of the microorganism. These geographic conditions provide a plenty of water for Japanese people for consumption as well as benefits of natural food items.


B.C. 400. Yayoi era

Cultivation method of rice was brought to Japan Island from South Asia with the influence of the continent. People were able to secure the source of energetic calories from the rice crop as well as food supplies of mountains and oceans around the Japan Island. Around this time of the era, river fish from inland and shellfish from the mouth of a river and sea coast were the principal of their diet.


B.C. 300. Latter half of Yayoi era

Kitchen Knives mado of Iron and Tousu (刀子) small knives appeared.


Circa 270

"Su" or rice vinegar was first introduced to Japan from China, during the rein of the Ohjin Tenno era, and was found and produced in the area presently known as Osaka. The Japanese vinegar was named Izumi-Su. During that period of time, vinegar had been used for flavoring throughout various parts of the world, along with alcoholic beverages such as Sake and wine, but its strong acidity and lack of aroma made it less popular compared to the simple citrus juices.


Circa 502-549

Ryo no Butei - Emperor of Ryo

The principle of bannedism on meat consumption came from India to China. He built the basis of original Chinese Shojin Ryouri, which was a form of Buddhist Cuisine.


Circa 574-622

Shotokutaishi - Shotoku Prince

He sent a Kentoshi, Japanese diplomat, to China in order to learn science and technology as well as Buddhism. He has then contributed to the development of its own Buddhism in Japan.


Circa 645

Technique of fermenting fish and vegetables along with Buddhism came to Japanese imperial society through China. These fermented foods were made in a barrel with layers of cooked rice, and salted fish with no internal organs. The fermentation of the rice and fish made it a natural preservative food. Similar type of fermented food still exists today in Kyoto and Hokuriku ( Japan Sea Coast) areas as Izushi or Narezushi. Due to high humidity influenced by its climate and the shape of Japan Island that produced its unique yeast, sake making and other fermentation took its own path to make Japanese original relish and umami.
It has also been said that there was a preservative fermenting technique, which used only fish and salt, in Japan long before the use of fermenting rice crop.


Circa 710 Nara era.

Imperial Palace started to make Hochou (Japanese Kitchen Knife)

In the Imperial Palace, there were an austerity ceremony called “包丁式” Hochou-shiki (Knives ceremony), where a chef showed his practiced skills and also the Samurai family invited their guests for socializing. Then, the ceremony slowly changed the form and style of its process and passed it onto the general public, who presented food and sake to the god at a Shinto shrine. The book called “日本書記” Nihon Shoki, the Chronicles of Japan, the second oldest book of Japanese history tells that in the Emperor Keikou’s fifty third article, circa 789 was the first year when the Japanese cuisine first master chef was appointed as the chef of the Imperial palace named “ Iwakamutukarino-mikoto .” He is now enshrined as the god of Japanese cuisine at Takaya Shinto shrine in Chiba Prefecture.

In addition, the name “Houchou”(Knife) was referred from the book of Souji of Chinese classics. Latter period of 15th Century, Shijyou school knife book was established. Presently, the “Hochou-shiki ”(knife ceremony) is held at Izumo taisya (Izumo Shito Shrine), Shimo-shinkawa Shinto Shrine in Shiga Prefecture and also other Shinto shrine.


Around Circa 1000

Sei Shonagon

Sei Shonagon [a famed author and court lady who served the Empress Teishi (also known as Empress Sadako who had much knowledge about Chinese culture) around the year 1000. Sei Shonagon’s best known work that was her collection of essays, “the Pillow Book.”] and Sei Shonagon helped to spread vegetarianism.


Circa 1118-1190

Saigyo Hoshi, born in a celebrated imperial court samurai family, who became a monk and poet, influenced many people through poetry parties held at temples and wealthy merchant mansions by traveling all over the Japanese Island. He was one of the first to introduce original and highly aesthetic Japanese elements, which was his own praise of Ka-cho-fu-getsu (flower, bird, wind and moon) to appreciate more of the beauty of nature, into the imperial and noble classes which had been under the influences of continent culture. For example, in the imperial gardens, cherry trees were introduced to take place of traditional plum trees from China. There were many cherry blossom tree fairs and breeding taken place. This tradition became popular throughout Japan that poetry parties and tea ceremonies were held under the cherry blossom trees.


Circa 1168

Myoan Eisai, who was the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, brought the first tea seeds from China and contributed to spreading the tea all over Japan.


Circa 1200-1253

During the Kamakura era, Monk Dogen traveled to China and created his own Satori, philosophy of Buddhism. In 1237 he wrote the book called Tenzo Kyokun, which describes that eating meal must come first of anything because a person would not have a "healthy good life" or carry out their work and career without a meal. His book also states that cooking must come from this Satori.


三心San-shin ( three spirits you must not forget )

喜心Ki-shin ( pleasure of cooking, serving, and ascetic practice)

老心Rou-shin ( think of someone who you cook for)

大心Dai-shin ( put away stereotype thought and cook with confidence)

典座寮Tenzo-ryo ( kitchen for monks )

Think about nutritional balance and body condition when cooking

Cook with pleasant taste

Appreciate the blessing of nature and use up food items for cooking (ex: collect remaining pieces of food and make Kenchi-jiru soup)

Use seasonal food items

Extract nutrition from minimal food items through long cooking process

Honzen ( main platter)

Ichizen mori – Ichijiru Sansai

Gohan (rice), Tukemono (pickles), Shirumono (soup), other items

Sannozen mori – Sanjiru Shichisai

Add Nimono (cooked vegetables etc.), Yakimono (grilled food), and so on.

五味Gomi ( five tastes ) sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, sour (another taste, sixth taste which is called Tanmi, taste of its own characteristic.)

五法Gohou ( five method of cooking ) grill, boil, sauté, steam, raw

五色Goshoku ( five colors ) white, black, red, yellow, green

Express transition of seasonality and Ka-cho-fu-getsu (flower, bird, wind and moon) to appreciate more of the beauty of nature.

Food items to avoid

五くん五辛Gokun- gobi ( avoid strong smell, strong spicy, sake, meat ) Not to interrupt the ascetic practice

Santoku ( three good )

軽軟Kyounan ( light and warm ) looks light and taste kindly light

浄潔Jyouketsu ( clear ) fresh and clear

如法作Nyohousa ( right manner ) use right method of cooking

His philosophy spread out all over Japan and influenced clerisy and highly-educated people in Kyoto, so even now, many chefs and owners visit temples in order to inherit and learn his philosophy. At some point later, Kyoto vegetable cuisine and Shojin cuisine were combined together; then, it gradually made the development of Ryotei cuisine (Japanese luxurious traditional cuisine). Reference:


Circa 1550

Tenshin “点心”, which was referred from the Zen words, originally meant a light meal, which people had in their stomach when they became hungry or lunch that people had while drinking tea (Yum-cha) or between a breakfast and dinner because the common life style at that time was that people only had the breakfast and dinner.


Circa 1575

During the Azuchi-Momoyama era, emergence of powerful samurai clans along with rich merchants helped bring about a marked exchange in many of the Japanese art forms such as, tea ceremony, paintings, lacquer ware, architecture, kabuki and kimono dying (Japanese Renaissance). As for the epicurean trends, more rare and delicious food were brought into urban life, and made more accessible to the average person. This era saw high appreciation for more aesthetic presentation of foods and serving ware, as cooking techniques became far more sophisticated. The first production of existing type of Japanese Kanto region style thick soy sauce also began in this period with wheat, soybeans and salt as its main ingredients. Prior to this, most soy sauces were made from fish and salt or miso and brine, sometimes from plain pickle juice. At this era, type of sushi was still the fermented rice with fish, Izushi.


Circa 1522-1591

Through the spirit of Shojin, which means to follow the discipline of Buddhism, Sen no Rikyu introduced the philosophy of enjoying tea, that was attributed to “詫び” (plain simplicity) and “寂び” (feel the strength and beauty even to die), to samurai clans, rich merchants and intellectuals at the Japanese tea ceremony where Cha-Kaiseki ( 茶会席 ) was served along with Japanese tea to enhance the enjoyment of the tea ceremony, and expressed the transition of seasons and blessing of beautiful nature from mountain and ocean.
( each “way of tea” 茶道tradition or school has different style and it has been carried through to the present)

One soup and three side dishes are normally the base, then
Rice, Miso soup, and Mukouzuke (sashimi) on Orishiki (square paper or lanchon matt like) are placed. Those are the starter. And then, Nimono-wan (with soup, a main dish), Yakimono ( steamed , deep-fried, stewed without soup and etc ), Shiizakana ( recommendation ), Azukebachi (recommended food item that matches with sake), Hashiarai (lighter taste than regular clear soup), Hassun (food item from mountain or ocean, its form, color and more than two items) Yutou (leftover rice stewed with water), Koumono (pickles).

In ancient time, Kaiseki 懐石literally means that when Zen monks were on the practice of Buddhism, they held a warm stone wrapped with a cloth in the bosom in order to keep warm and ward off hunger. Warm stone, medicine stone and other stones were the original concept, and it associated those stones with a little meal of Kaiseki 懐石 that would not make the monks fall in sleep while practicing.

In Edo era, it was defined that the philosophy of Cha-Kaiseki (茶懐石) attributed to the Shojin Cuisine, which was the very simple meal of Buddhist monks following their discipline, one soup and three vegetables as the base of the meal served during the ceremony where the host and guest had the enjoyment of the space and atmosphere.

On the other hand, in Edo Yoshiwara, rich merchants from Kyoto produced Ryotei cuisine culture, which included appetizers and other forms to make guests welcome by presenting the transition of seasons with seasonal food items on dishes and putting in time and effort through long cooking process, and where exclusively wealthy and beautiful Kaiseki 会席 was served to enjoy. Then, it has been re-produced freely as the economy grew in the present speed, so many specialized cuisine restaurants would be able to serve their own reasonable Kaiseki会席 and that has been getting popular among women.

A large difference between懐石(茶懐石料理)-Cha-Kaiseki Cuisine and 会席(会席料理)-Kaiseki Cuisine (Banquet style of Ryoutei Culture) is the process of serving the meal.
Common Cooking process for Kaiseki (会席料理)
Menu for enjoying sake with meals. 先付 Sakizuke became more in quantity and looked much more beautiful, 椀物 Wan-mono (nimono, if there is a lot of soup, make it like a bowl of soup), 向付Mukouzuke (sashimi), 鉢肴Hachizakana (yakimono and etc.), 強肴Shiizakana (something recommended for a day and matches with sake such as yakimono, nimono, vegetable and fish mixture and etc. ), 止肴Tomezakana (sunomono and etc. to stop drinking sake), 止椀Tomewan (rice, ko-no-mono, suimono), Mizukashi (sweets). The rice came more in latter part. As things modernizing, the Kaiseki has been influenced by western cuisine and using more food items and more decorative appearance.


Circa 1590

Tokugawa Ieyasu contributed his effort to build the world largest city of a million population, which had canal, water supply facility, sewerage system in Edo city (current Tokyo city) in the middle of Edo era.
He also started the cultivation of Wasabi for his personal health care, based on studies of various medicinal plants. The family crest of Tokugawa clan displays three Aoi leaves, which somewhat resembles the leaves of Wasabi. The earlier Shoyu (soy sauce), mainly produced in Osaka, were costly and therefore not popular among the commoners. As the production of wheat increased in Edo (Tokyo), Koikuchi Shoyu became more popular for its lower cost.


Around Circa 1595

Oubakushu (黄檗宗), which was one branch of the Zen Buddhism from China, spread out its Chinese shojin cuisine (Fucha cuisine-普茶料理) to the general public as the word “fucha” meant serving tea to people. And then, it became more popular that after Monks and families, who contributed to temples, gathered together to practice the discipline of Buddhism, they enjoyed eating Fucha cuisine with tea. It was very common that the people ate on a large plate to share food.


Circa 1660

During Edo Genroku period, Unagi Kabayaki (broiled eel) and Soba (buckwheat noodle) made their first appearance in Edo's culinary scenes. Vinegar made from sake lees became very popular, and was mixed with rice or used with fish. Sashimi also became popular during this period. Dry seaweed was started to be cultivated in Tokyo Bay area (Edo-mae).


Circa 1820

Nigiri Sushi (individually made sushi pieces) was first introduced by Kaya Yohei. This form of sushi was considered as a fast food, and there were only limited items such as marinated Tuna, vinegar cured Kohada and etc due to the quick and simple process in making them.


Circa 1830

Inari Sushi (cooked fried bean curd sushi)


Circa 1870

Raw fish gradually found its way into Japanese dining tables, as a result of the invention of icebox. Toro (fatty tuna), one of the most prized sushi fish today, was not popular at that time.


Circa 1950

As prices for sushi became more reasonable, the demand for Toro increased.



Globalized economy brought an unprecedented number of Japanese business into New York. The trend triggered a sushi boom in the metropolitan area, with sushi making a steady step into American culture.



Now American style sushi, such as California Roll, is making a fantastic home coming to Japanese culinary scene. Today the demand for restaurants with distinct characteristics is ever increasing. Ambience, quality of food and its ingredients, as well as the service are crucial to their success. A low-keyed and spiritually restful ambience is in high demand. American culture appreciates more diverse presentation of Japanese food than ever before.


By Toshio Suzuki