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Japanese Food Encyclopedia

Any appreciation of Japanese cuisine requires some understanding about Japan's geographical aspects. The mountainous land mass of Japan stretches from north to south, surrounded by seas and oceans. From the extreme cold and frequent snowfalls of Hokkaido to the warm subtropical weather of Okinawa the regional climates of Japan are very different. This diversity of climate makes it possible to procure a wide variety of seafood and vegetables for use as ingredients for cooking Japanese dishes.

Historically, the spread of Buddhism all across Japan in the seventh century brought about a prohibition on the consumption of meat, which became a major factor in causing Japanese eating habits to shift from meat to fish. When Japan opened up with the advent of the Meiji era (1868-1912) after its long national isolation, eating meat became a symbol of modernization, leading to the creation of the popular Japanese dishes that we eat today, such as 'sukiyaki' and 'shabu-shabu' (hotpot style meals with thinly sliced meat and vegetables).
With regard to the special features of Japanese cuisine, the special significance that rice has should also be mentioned. Rice, to the Japanese, is much more than a food. For example, rice was a valued product that was submitted to the government as a payment for taxes. Also, the territorial holdings of the feudal lords known as 'daimyo' during the Edo period (1603-1867) were assessed according to the amount of rice produced from their rice paddies (for example, 50,000-bushel daimyo).
Another feature of Japanese cuisine is its strong emphasis on seasonality. The climate of Japan has the four distinct seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This differentiation in terms of weather makes it possible to use a variety of food ingredients that are appropriate for each season. The Japanese enjoy the taste of high-quality food ingredients that can be procured only during a specific time and season, an experience that is enhanced with seasonal decorations such as tableware, flower arrangements, hanging scrolls, and paintings.

The Japanese also tend to enjoy food with all five of the senses, including vision and hearing in addition to taste, smell, and touch. The quintessential example of such cuisine is the traditional multi-course Japanese dinner called 'kaiseki,' which was originally a formal meal served to guests as part of the Japanese tea ceremony. Nowadays, however, you can even order 'kaiseki' at restaurants.

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