Studying the soul of Japan: Universities offer courses on washoku cuisine

Kyoto Prefectural University students learn about the manners related to the chakaiseki set meal from Masahiro Kurisu, the chief chef and operator of the Tankuma Kitamise Japanese restaurant.
Kyoto Prefectural University students learn about the chakaiseki set meal from Masahiro Kurisu, the chief chef and operator of the Tankuma Kitamise Japanese restaurant. PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

An increasing number of higher educational institutions have or plan to set up faculties or departments to study food culture amid the growing popularity of washoku overseas

KYOTO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - “This dish symbolises the spirit and hospitality of the host,” said Masahiro Kurisu, the chief chef and operator of Tankuma Kitamise, a ryotei traditional Japanese restaurant. He was referring to nimono-wan, a lidded bowl containing simmered foods that is a highlight of a set meal served during a formal tea gathering.

In June, at an old-fashioned machiya house in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kurisu taught students taking part in studying the manners and history of chakaiseki, the set meal included in chaji formal gatherings of the tea ceremony.

This was part of a course designed by Kyoto Prefectural University to study the cultural and scientific elements of washoku Japanese cuisine. The course is part of the university’s general education.

Ms Shiori Honma, a freshman taking the course, said she realised “how little knowledge” she had about the cuisine of her own country. “I want to promote (what I learned today]) when I start studying abroad in the near future,” she said.

One day last month, students from the university were also taught how to grow Kujo negi green leek, a specialty in Kyoto Prefecture, during their visit to a vegetable farm in the city’s Minami Ward as part of the general education course.

The university plans to open a department specialising in washoku culture at its Faculty of Letters in April 2019 - the first of its kind at a higher educational institution. The new department will cover areas such as skills and techniques, manners and rituals as well as business management.

An assortment of Japanese dishes including food with celebratory meanings.
An assortment of Japanese food. PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The general education course on washoku is offered as a step towards the setting up of the new department, giving students an opportunity to attend lectures by chefs and learn how ingredients are produced.

It is an example of the increasing number of higher educational institutions that have or will set up faculties or departments to study food culture, amid the growing popularity of washoku overseas after Japanese cuisine was added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013.

In April 2015, Ryukoku University in Kyoto set up the Centre for Research on Food Palatability, led by Professor Toru Fushiki, who made scientific observations about food at Kyoto University.

The centre has invited 10 chefs from local well-established ryotei, including Michelin three-starred establishments Hyotei and Kikunoi, as visiting researchers. Its projects include developing flavouring essences by analysing components of katsuobushi dried bonito, which is used to make dashi soup stock.

“We’ll hope to create new Japanese dishes by adding scientific viewpoints,” Prof Fushiki said.

Nakamura Gakuen University in Fukuoka opened the Department of Food Management at the Faculty of Nutritional Sciences in April this year (2017), aiming to encourage students to study food culture from scientific and business perspectives to help them develop new food products or start new food services overseas. About 130 students are enrolled.

The department has developed its curriculum in collaboration with local governments and about 30 local companies, including Kubara Honke Group, a seasonings manufacturer, and Hiyoko, a confectionery maker. The curriculum, which includes field work, is aimed at helping students understand Japanese cuisine and its relationship to health from a scientific standpoint.

“To do food services overseas, we aim to help our students acquire extensive knowledge on Japanese cuisine and other cultural aspects while also acquiring skills to promote them,” an official at the university said.

Elsewhere, Tokyo University of Agriculture opened in April the Department of International Food and Agricultural Science, where students can study the food business process, from production and processing to selling and consumption, through hands-on training at farms and through other programmes.

Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto will set up a faculty of gastronomy management at its campus in Shiga Prefecture in April next year. Highlights will include guest lecturers from restaurants and food companies and collaborating with Le Cordon Bleu in the first partnership between a Japanese university and the globally renowned culinary educational institution.

Mr Kenji Yasuda, an executive of Daigaku Tsushin, which publishes books and materials on university entrance examinations, said programmes on food look attractive to high school students because it is a familiar subject.

“Many students hope to work in the restaurant business after graduation. So providing these programmes can be a great way for universities to get more students,” he said.