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HAKOZEN DELIGHTS

Dining out with a box of fine fare

by Eriko Arita

Tasty, healthy and wasting nothing; traditional Japanese cuisine served on a hakozen table distills many of the country’s dying cultures.

A hakozen is a wooden box used as a portable table for an individual and also as a case to hold tableware; it’s name derives from the Japanese words hako, meaning “box,” and zen, meaning “meal.”

The boxes were in widespread use in Japan from the Edo Period (1603-1867) until around 1930. Now, decades after dining tables effectively took over from them, the numerous virtues of this box-table cuisine are being revived as a way to maintain local food cultures.

Currently, as part of this revival, a restaurant named Chakodamari in Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district is offering hakozen meals featuring dishes from many areas of Japan depending on the season.

In early April, I tasted a hakozen dinner of northeastern Japanese cuisine. In part, this feast comprised rice mixed with lotus roots and wakame seaweed, soup with sea bream, edible cherry blossom and Japanese radish, simmered taro potatoes and carrots and fried chicken covered with sesame-like egoma seeds that imparted both a crunchiness and a savory taste.

All the vegetables in these dishes are organic, making them seem to be bursting with the energy of spring — as well as with fine flavors.

“With a hakozen meal, people should not leave anything over, so we serve moderate amounts of food,” said Mitsuru Owada, owner of the restaurant.

In my case, that question didn’t arise at all, as everything tasted great. Then, when it came to washing up, I found that waste was again eliminated as I was shown how to pour hot water into my rice bowl and clean it using a pickle — before then eating the pickle, drinking the hot water and drying the bowl with cloth.

In the Edo Period, Owada explained, people did not often wash dishes because nearly all the food was cooked without oil. Meanwhile, according to Kazunari Yanagihara, a master of a traditional Japanese cuisine known as kinsa-ryu, these principles of not wasting either food or water came from the teachings of Zen Buddhism, whose monastic followers would similarly clean their rice bowls using hot water and a pickle.

Later, Owada told me that he opened this restaurant serving both hakozen cuisine and soba noodles in September last year as a conscious attempt to rediscover and revive age-old Japanese food culture.

“This restaurant provides genuine Japanese culture, and hakozen is one of the styles of the culture,” he said, adding that the actual hakozen box — which serves as both the diner’s table and a case for their tableware — is a flexible and efficient tool based on old wisdom.

The restaurant is part of a network of groups that have been promoting education about Japanese food culture through hakozen meals in recent years.

In fact, another group in the network, a nonprofit organization named Egaotsunagete, meaning “connecting smiles,” has held food-education events using hakozen since 2006.

Hisashi Sonehara, head of the organization based in Yamanashi Prefecture, said that about 400 people have joined the group’s events in which they engage in farm work and eat a hakozen lunch whose ingredients are exclusively traditional local dishes.

In this way, he explained, participants learn something of the cultures of local food, farming — and importance of appreciating food and enjoying eating with other people.

“In the olden days, every member of family had their own hakozen, and they used to eat together while communicating well,” he Sonehara said, comparing that with the present tendency for people to often eat alone. Meanwhile, through owning their own tableware and box, people back then were also nurtured in treating goods with responsibility, he maintained.

Clearly the hakozen “rule” of not leaving food could be a timely lesson for people nowadays, as many will leave some of their food uneaten without a second thought.

“If people stop leaving food, which then becomes waste, research has shown that Japan’s self-sufficiency in food would increase to 70 percent from its current 40 percent,” Sonehara said. In addition, he pointed out that consuming food produced in the local area is the best way to try to reduce impacts on the environment.

“Distributing food from far-distant areas needs vehicles that consume fuel, leading to environmental pollution,” Sonehara said, adding that food education through hakozen includes teaching the relationship between food and agriculture.

Noting that many children these days seem to think that vegetables are products made in factories, he stressed that he wants “participants in hakozen events, especially children, to realize the links between the food they eat and agriculture.”

Egaotsunagete holds monthly food-education events based around hakozen meals in the city of Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture. The participation fee is ¥1,500. For more information, call the group’s Tokyo office at (03) 6273-9467 or send an e-mail to egao-plaza@mist.ocn.ne.jp For those living in the Tokyo area who may not be able to travel to Yamanashi, hakozen cuisine can be tried at the Chakodamari restaurant, where lunch or dinner are offered, subject to reservation, at prices from ¥1,500. For more details, call (03) 3289-2060. If you make a reservation for a hakozen meal and mention you read about the restaurant here, one drink will be served free.