“When all is said and done, Japanese cuisine is deceptively simple. Its key ingredients are but two: a rather delicate stock (dashi) made from konbu (giant kelp) and flakes of dried bonito; and shoyu, Japanese soy sauce. Its key requirements are also two: the pristine freshness and prime condition of materials used, and beauty of presentation.”
Shizuo Tsuji, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art
The Essence of Japanese Cuisine
In 2013, UNESCO recognised washoku traditional Japanese cuisine as an intangible cultural heritage. Six years prior, epicures around the world had been stunned when, for the first time, Tokyo overtook Paris to be awarded the greatest number of Michelin stars of any city worldwide; an honour it has retained ever since.
The quality of Japanese cuisine is uniformly high across the country, even in the most rural of locations – if anything, because rural areas have access to fresher ingredients and hold local culinary traditions even closer, they can offer some of the highest quality and most unique culinary experiences for travellers.
Naturally, then, food is not only one of the most enjoyable and appealing aspects on all of our tours, but also a vital sensory gateway into appreciating the intricacies of Japanese culture.
Dashi is the base flavour of so many dishes, from miso soup and stewed vegetables, to dashimaki omelettes and okonomiyaki pancakes. It is the source of much of the elusive umami savoury taste that imbues Japanese cuisine, and must be perfected before a chef can hope to create truly delicious food. Classic dashi is made by boiling water with kombu/konbu kelp seaweed and shavings of dried katsuobushi bonito fish flakes. Although most Japanese home cooks now use powdered dashi, good restaurants prepare it every day, while truly elite chefs insist on a fresh batch for each dish.
The Five S’s 料理の「さしすせそ」
Nearly all foods in Japan are seasoned using varying amounts of something called the "5 S's", considered the most important building blocks of Japanese cooking:
さ Sa for sato, sugar
し Shi for shio, salt
す Su for su, vinegar
せ Se for shoyu, soy sauce
そ So for miso, miso paste (made with soy)
Shoyu soy sauce in particular is an integral component of Japanese cuisine, more than eight litres of which the average Japanese person consumes per year and which every housewife used to brew at home. Shoyu is made by combining soy beans and wheat grain, typically at a ratio of 50/50, and allowing them to ferment along with koji rice mould. The fermentation process releases sugars which lend shoyu its distinctive flavour and deep rich colour.
Kaiseki ryori 懐石料理
The underlying ethos of Japanese cookery is most apparent in kaiseki ryori, the equivalent of French haute cuisine. Originating many centuries ago in the modest meals served at tea ceremonies, it evolved into an elaborate multi-course style of dining popular among aristocrats. Today, it is served at traditional ryokan inns or at exclusive members-only restaurants, all of whose chefs espouse broadly similar principles of purity and restraint.
The Japanese insistence on eating fresh seasonal produce arose initially from poverty. Nobles of the Heian Period (794-1185), forced to live and maintain expensive lifestyles in Kyoto, could only afford to eat whatever was in season locally. Rather than bemoaning this, they embraced the changes brought by each season, aiming to eat every creature, fruit and vegetable at its ripest and best.
Meals on Walk Japan Tours
In order to provide culturally insightful tours, the majority of the accommodations we stay at on our tours are traditional Japanese inns – some of which have been in operation for many generations. These are typically small, family-run establishments.
On tour, morning meals are nearly always in our accommodation. In traditional inns, a Japanese breakfast is the norm and usually consists of some or all the following: rice, grilled fish, vegetables, miso soup. The vast majority of breakfasts on our tours are of this style.
Occasionally in traditional inns and nearly always in hotels, western-style breakfasts are available. This usually consists of some or all the following: bacon, sausages, salad, bread, jam, cereals, soup and yoghurt. Coffee and English-style tea are usually available in both traditional and hotel accommodations.
Breakfast is invariably included in your tour.
Lunch is either in restaurants or with food bought to eat as a picnic at an interesting spot en route.
Lunch is sometimes included in your tour. Please see your tour itinerary for details and expect to pay between JPY700 to JPY2,000 per person for lunches not provided.
Dinner is almost always included in your tour and is Japanese cuisine. When staying at a Japanese inn, the evening meal will often be in kaiseki style. As outlined above, kaiseki comprises many dishes and usually includes raw and cooked fish, meat, vegetables, tofu, miso soup, salad, pickles and rice plus many other mouthwatering dishes. These dishes may be served in a multi-course style, one after the other, or they may all be presented at once on a tray.
As you can see, the meals served on tour feature a plentiful variety of ingredients. If you have any dietary preferences, it should be relatively easy to simply avoid certain items, and there will be plenty of alternative delicacies for you to choose from at any given meal.
Vegetarian and vegan customers
Contrary to popular belief, the notion of vegetarianism is not commonly practised nor understood in Japan. If you are vegetarian, our caterers will nevertheless do their best to replace any fish or meat dishes with alternatives. However, due to the essential and widespread use of dashi stock throughout Japanese cooking, which typically uses fish or meat as its base, Walk Japan is unable to provide strict vegetarian or vegan meals on tour.
While Japanese culture is based above all on rice, gluten does feature in certain ingredients throughout Japanese cuisine, most notably in soy sauce and miso made with barley. Therefore, while it is usually straightforward to omit certain items that obviously contain gluten, such as bread or noodles, unfortunately we are unable to provide fully gluten-free meals due to the use of certain staples that serve as the basis of many dishes.
If you have any allergies to particular foods, please do communicate this to us at the time of booking. We will be in touch for further information and to let you know whether we are able to accommodate your allergy. Depending on the allergy, we may pass on details of the allergy only, or we may ask vendors to omit more items. For example, if you are allergic to shrimp, we may ask vendors to omit all shellfish.
Please note that the food is usually prepared in small kitchens, and cross-contamination is always a risk when travelling.
Risks and challenges
As explained above, stating your dietary requirements does not guarantee that your meals will necessarily be free from those items. For instance, it will not be possible for accommodations to provide meals free from dashi stock in the case of vegetarians, or shoyu soy sauce in the case of coeliacs. We understand that this can be challenging for those observing strict vegan or vegetarian diets, or those with severe coeliac disease. Unfortunately, the nature of our tours means that there are certain necessary limitations to what we are able to provide.
If you are joining one of our guided tours, you will be with a bilingual tour leader who will be available to explain the contents of your meals, and help you to avoid anything you may wish to. That said, your Walk Japan Tour Leader may sometimes need to communicate with members of catering staff to establish detailed components of a meal, and is always responsible for managing a group of up to 12 people. As such, a risk of miscommunication or misunderstanding is always a possibility.
If you are joining a self-guided tour, you will naturally be open to more risk, so we advise familiarising yourself with the Japanese language for your dietary requirements for meals eaten out. Your dietary requirements will have been communicated to your accommodation, where the vast majority of your meals are taken.
Ultimately, the tour leader, accommodation providers, and Walk Japan cannot be held responsible should the constituents of a dish be miscommunicated or mis-translated.