Professor Eric C. Rath – The importance of learning the historical and cultural context that gave rise to the aspects of Japanese Culture

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 20.36.27

Eric C. Rath is professor of premodern Japanese history at the University of Kansas and a specialist in Japanese dietary culture and the traditional performing arts. His recent publications include Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2010) and “Revaluating Rikyū: Kaiseki and the Origins of Japanese Cuisine,” Journal of Japanese Studies 39.1 (2013): 67-96. His current research interests encompass local foods in Japan, tobacco, confectionery, and sake.

new Rath website photo

Eric Rath at the school of Mayul in Gande, Golok, Qinghai Province.

It is my pleasure today to introduce Eric C. Rath here on my blog. It is an absolute pleasure to know someone who can understand the special connections one has when one encounters Japanese culture from a very young age and how this becomes part of your life and you somehow want to express the appreciation for this culture in any way that you can throughout your adult life.

We share 2 things in common and that is the appreciation for Japanese food culture/ culture and  its history and having both spent some time in the Himalayas/Tibet.

I have never met anyone before that could perhaps understand this relationship that I have with Japanese culture and how important it is to learn more about the historic context that gave rise to this beautiful and outstanding culture in the first place.

Eric C. Rath’s work in Japan and his incredible achievements are far more developed then mine, however I really appreciate that I can learn and share the incredible information Eric is making available to us in english.

I have been a japanese chef in the western world for 15 years and what is lacking in our westernised japanese eatery’s is the cultural heritage. I feel it is of great importance to not just create restaurants that are completely removed from its own cultural essences as it is in most of America and the rest of the world at present.

In the 1970’s Japanese restaurants were adapted to suit Westerners as Japanese eating culture was very alien to the west in these day’s. All the chefs were japanese then but now you have so many different cultures working in japanese restaurants and nobody knows the actual culture which is very tragic.

Of course Japanese restaurants are aslo seen as a very profitable business and therefor we have had a japanese fast food to fine dining boom since the world wide successes of Nobu.

Generally there is a to wide of a cultural gap that is missing in our modern interpretations of japanese eatery’s here in the west in general and I would love to see more aspects of japanese cultural appreciation’s introduced here purely because this is the ultimate spirit, experience and essence of that which transmit something very special to people and of course if you have been to Japan you will appreciate what I am trying to say.

Japanese culture has many profound aspects to offer that are positive for all human’s to experience and learn about.

I strongly feel that the cultural aspects are so unique and beautiful as well as significant that they must not be lost and even if it is a modern interpretation of a japanese restaurant it should resonate certain key aspects inorder to be in harmony with the culture itself rather then be completely removed from its own original essence, history and culture.

To be clear I dont seek to replicate japan here in the west but to incorporate more culture and history as a concept.

It is my research and dedication to refine and develop restaurant concepts that can bring a more cultural experience then what we would normally see here in the west and to connect to the appreciation of the arts and culture for example: through space/ architecture/ art/ philosophy/ literature/crafts/ gardens/ values/ historical events and food etc.

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 20.23.04Illustration from a Heian period (794-1185) book on imperial court ritual showing kamaboko served at a banquet.

Eric C. Rath’s is helping us to try to uncover the origins of Japanese cuisine and study more about the traditions and  history’s of the ancient eating cutlure of Japan. He has translated some extraordinary historical texts that would normally not be able to be accessed or read by just anyone and most importantly he translated aspects of these important writings into english aiding us to gain a much deeper cultural insight into the history of japanese eating culture century’s ago.

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 20.11.49Ikamaryu Shikibocho (Court Knife Ceremony) Master/  Kyoto Kichisen Master Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa 京都吉泉 谷河吉巳

Introduction and shot interviewe with Eric C.Rath:

Ni: What brought you to Japan and what made you so closely connected to the Japanese culture?

Eric: My father lived in Kyoto when he was in the military and my mother’s father traveled extensively in Japan and ended up dying there to be buried through the intervention of a close friend in Nanzenji Zen temple in Kyoto, so although I am not Japanese I have close family ties to Kyoto and Japan. I was unable to study about Japan until I went to college where I decided that if I really wanted to know the country I would have to visit there. One visit was enough to prompt me to enter graduate school to learn more. I earned a Ph.D. in premodern Japanese history from the University of Michigan, and en route I lived for several years in Yokohama and Kyoto studying language and doing research. Now I teach premodern Japanese history at the University of Kansas.
Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 18.57.12

Nanzen-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. It began as a detached palace in 1264 but was repeatedly destroyed by fire and most of the old garden was lost. A new Zen garden, called the Leaping Tiger Garden, was made after 1611 and is a good example of the karesansui (dry garden) style. . It has a large sand rectangle enclosed by a buildings on two sides and a sloping bank on another side. The bank has rock compositions at its foot which can be seen as tiger cubs or as a turtle and a crane (animals associated with the Isles of the Immortals). Nanzenji is now the headquarters of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen.
Ni: What made you write your first book and what was it about? 

Eric: I was involved in theater and I had the opportunity to see a noh play during my first visit to Japan. Noh uses masks, elegant costumes, and chanted speech punctuated by drums and a flute. The stillness and strength of noh can only be compared to watching a Zen rock garden, which in its silence, space, and forms has secrets to convey if one watches. As a graduate student, I had a chance to study the basics of noh dance and music in the Traditional Theater Training program in Kyoto, which brings Western and Japanese actors, dancers, and enthusiasts like myself to study noh intensively for a summer. The experience prompted me to try to understand the noh’s historical development to comprehend the culture that created such a powerful, mystical, but hard to understand drama. My dissertation, which later became my first book The Ethos of Noh: Actors and their Art (2004), is a study of the six hundred year history of noh examining the ways that actors through the centuries have tried to explain the close boundaries between their art and ritual, magic, and mysticism.

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 18.44.05 Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 18.44.17 Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 18.45.31

Ni: What made you particularly interested in Japanese food culture?

Eric: I was in high school when the movie “The Breakfast Club” came out, and there was a scene where actress Molly Ringwald eats sushi to demonstrate her sophistication. My more adventurous friends and I were accustomed to dining out if only to drink alcohol, and we decided we had to try sushi. I remember ordering it and being confronted by small beautiful pieces I had no idea how to eat. After observing our puzzled faces the owner of the restaurant mimed how to eat sushi. Chinese food had long served as an entry point to Chinese culture for me and after that first taste of sushi I learned that there was much more I had to discover about Japanese food.
Even as I wrapped up my project on noh theater, I knew that I wanted to do research on the history of Japanese food. While finishing my dissertation, I worked for about a year in a Japanese restaurant in Kyoto, chiefly as a waiter but occasionally performing minor kitchen tasks. Noticing the great drama that unfolded behind the counter where the chef sliced sashimi while talking with customers, I had thought to research cooking as a type of performance. I later learned that at least one eighteenth century author compared the meal to a noh play to describe how a fish had a starring role and the vegetables were minor players. But, when I began researching Japanese food history, I decided to try to uncover the origins of Japanese cuisine, which led to my second book Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan. The book describes the multiple artistic, religious and poetic meanings behind preparing and consuming food in premodern Japan.

Ni: What in your experience is the first initial attraction for western students to Japanese culture?

Eric: Many students are attracted to Japanese culture through manga, anime, films, food, and the samurai which have become part of our global culture. I hope that students taking my classes are able to learn the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to these familiar aspects of Japanese culture and that they learn that there is a deeper level to these things and that they can uncover that hidden story through the historical method.

Some other publications include:


Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan. University of California Press, 2010.

Japanese Foodways Past and Present, Co-edited with Stephanie Assmann. University of Illinois Press, 2010. 

The Ethos of Noh: Actors and Their Art. Harvard University Asia Center Press, 2004 (Pb. 2006).

Articles and Chapters

“The Magic of Japanese Rice Cakes,” Routledge History of Food, ed. Carol Helstosky. NY: Routledge Press (scheduled for 2014).

“The Tastiest Dish in Edo: Print, Performance and Culinary Entertainment in Early Modern Japan,” East Asian Publishing and Society 3.2 (In press for 2013). 

“Kyoto Foodways,” Sabor: Culinair Magazine Voor Bon Vivants 3.1 (2013), 8 pp.

“Traditional Kyoto Vegetables,” Sabor: Culinair Magazine Voor Bon Vivants 3.1 (2013), 5 pp.

“Revaluating Rikyū: Kaiseki and the Origins of Japanese Cuisine,” Journal of Japanese Studies 39.1 (2013): 67-96. 

“How Intangible is Japan’s Traditional Dietary Culture?” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.4 (2012): 2-3. 

“Honzen Dining — The Poetry of Formal Meals in Late Medieval and Early Modern Japan.” In Japanese Foodways Past and Present, ed. by Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann. (University of Illinois Press, 2010): 19-41.

“Mealtime at a Tibetan Monastery,” Gastronomica: Journal of Food and Culture (2010): 17-21.

“The Significance of Large Servings of Food in Japanese Cuisine” [in Japanese] for Kokubungaku: Kaishaku to kanshō, special edition on Japanese foodways, ed. Haruo Shirane et al. (2008): 278-82.

“Rural Life and Agriculture.” In A Companion to Japanese History, ed. William Tsutsui. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007): 477-92.


What is the most important ingredient in Kyoto cuisine?


Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 14.11.07

In order to be a great chef you need to learn the nature of things deeply and also learn how to think.

Many chefs go everywhere in the world to do STAGE work placement for free from one day – a year etc  inorder to gain experience and also to build up there CV’s. I regularly read about young chefs that  have been here and there traveling then making a restaurant. In japan that does not go down so well as training to be a very good chef is through discipline and long years as a apprentice . Being in a lot of places of high acclaim does not make you a good chef necessarily.

It is important to do these stages of course  however the most important thing to develop as a chef is often overlooked and that is to develop an interest to try to really understand as much as one can about the natural nature of things and how to think for yourself. Ferran Adria more then anything really wants people/ chefs to do exactly this.

Nobody expects you to become a professor but the intention to try to make a deeper relation to the nature of nature is something that will benefit your cuisine much more then you can imagine.

You have to ask yourself or with others questions inorder to come closer to what you really want and need to know.

I just want to encourage everyone to look at water for example more deeply. Not just follow but try to experience Water and learn about Water if you are a chef or not.

How you want to do this is up to you the internet is a great starting place and see what you can find. Please send me anything that you might particularly find interesting and I keep adding links to this article for others to have a look at.

I will just briefly share some things about Kyoto and the significance of water in Japanese culture.

In Kyoto WATER is and always has been a very significant natural element that is at the center of Kyoto Ryori.

Kaiseki (懐石?) or kaiseki-ryōri (懐石料理?) is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. The term also refers to the collection of skills and techniques that allow the preparation of such meals, and are analogous to Western haute cuisine.

There are basically two kinds of traditional Japanese meal styles called kaiseki or kaiseki-ryōri. The first, where kaiseki is written as 会席 (and kaiseki-ryōri, 会席料理), referring to a set menu of select food served on an individual tray (to each member of a gathering). The other is written 懐石 or 懐石料理, referring to the simple meal that the host of a chanoyugathering serves to the guests before a ceremonial tea, and which is also known as cha-kaiseki (茶懐石).

In Kyoto Dashi ( a very specific stock used for the base of dishes ) is a fundamental key to the hart of Kyoto Ryori and water is extremely specific as to what atributes it has to have.

Many of you may have read or seen japanese chefs from kyoto use Volvic bottles of water when away from kyoto.

Murata-san the grand master of Kikunoi in Kyoto has worked with local university researchers to find out the optimum method for making dashi by extracting the maximum umami flavour from the ingredients.

Firstly you need soft water, like the water they have from the mountains that surround Kyoto (the city is famous for its water which is why its sake, tofu and fu are so renowned throughout Japan). If your water is too hard, it won’t extract the best flavour which is related to  PH values etc. Volvic being the closest alternatieve.

When Murata-san traveled to a book launch to London, he brought his own water with him. There was one restaurant in the UK that claimed they flew in there water from Kyoto specially.

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 14.33.09

So now, even though I agree that Water is fundamental in Kyoto Ryori, I also see the implication the information above could have on the environment if everyone jumps on the bandwagon with out thinking about this in more detail. One also needs to understand a little about the natural constitution of Kyoto historically, the wells, the sake culture, the mountains that surround kyoto basically something about how water behaves and has behaved in the past and present. Water always changes and adapts there are reasons for the water to have its unique “flavour” depending on what is going on in and around or what is influencing the water at that moment in time.

Is water really significantly determined by hardness or softness? The flavour of this, the hardness, is definitely very distinctively different however- what I want to really investigate is, the total capacity of what the miracle of water is and that there are other aspects to look at inorder to find the best possible water for Kyoto Ryori or for what ever you are wanting to produce from beer to Sake, Tofu etc.

There is so much more to say about the significance of water in Kyoto/ Japan and I will update as best as I can on my blog in the future.

Indeed there is so much more to say about WATER and our relationship to it GLOBALLY.  Everyone has seen something about the terrible things that have and are happening to our water and the overfishing and global warming etc. and it is really urgent that we all try to do our best to get to know water on a more intimate and personal level no matter who you are. It is really overdue to recognise that water unites us all and gives us life itself and we need to take care and show gratitude.

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 02.11.10

Dr. Masaru Emoto offers prayers before shipping out boxes of “Love and Gratitude Water” to afflicted peoples of Japan effected  in the afflicted areas of Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate prefectures in Japan. This is a great thing to do and it is importnat to collectively show our gratitude to our Water.

I wish we would adopt a global world water day tradition because it is an important practice for us human beings beyond anything else in life, to acknowledge what is our life force before anything else!  It would be educational and awareness enhancing to all generations and it may help to inspire people to spend more attention to our WATER!

Water in my personal opinion needs to be looked at much more holistically and Ho2 is only describing water very basically and impersonally for example. Any isolated characteristic is only an aspect:  so what or who is water?

If water is so changeable what is my relationship with water? As we are predominantly made of water we should know so much more about water, should we not?

What does the fish know of the water that it lives in? Probably more then us to be honest.

Certain instruments have made it possible  to record the fact that within each water memory cell it contains

440 000 information panels! Each of which is responsible for its own type of reaction to the environment.

Water has a structure like a nervous system which reacts to any irritation.

Water in its NATURAL form in its NATURAL ENVIRONMENT is incredibly alive and has intelligence amongst many other atributes and I doubt that by transporting water in tanks abroad or in bottles that it is really what we should be looking for in our water. To challenge this I am suggesting more research and study of what the true nature of water is.

Were did water come from Theory National Geographic:

The next question is what is the water like were you are, what is happening to your water, why are things added into the water, should I test my water, were is a natural water source closest to were I live, what does water mean to you, what is your relationship with water, how can the relationship with water make me a better person and a better chef, how can I help to treat water more better………we need to have gratitude to water, water is our best friend and it is what connects as all and more!

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 01.39.21

From Masaru Emoto
Emoto Peace Project:


My sincere request to the concerned people in the world

March 11th, 2013 will mark 2 years after the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated Japan. Measuring at a magnitude 9, the earthquake created a huge tsunami to follow, that hit the Tohoku area of Japan at 2:46 pm that day.Literally destroying everything in its path, including victimizing 18,574 people. Sadly there are still 2,694 people who are missing as a result of the tsunami’s powerful surge, taking them back out to sea. In addition, the earthquake created meltdowns at the Fukushima Nuclear reactors that resulted in a lot radioactive substances leaking into the ocean waters of Japan, contaminating the Pacific Ocean.In 1997, I was with a Buddhist monk, Rev. Kato who cleansed dirty dam water with his prayers at the Fujiwara dam lake in Gunma Prefecture of Japan. I would like to share this important story with you.
Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 02.25.53

Me with Rev. Kat
Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 02.26.01
Water Crystal Photo – before the prayer
Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 02.26.10
Water Crystal Photo – after the prayer
My interpretation of the 2 photos is that they were certainly a good indicator about the condition of the lake at that time. The water crystal before the prayer shows design that looks like a figure of suffering female face. On the other hand, the water crystal after the prayer turned out to be divine in showing lights around the water crystal.
Another example of how our prayers effect water, In the early morning of July 25th in 1999, 340 people were gathered for a water ceremony at Lake Biwa the biggest lake of Japan. At that time, Lake Biwa was so polluted that horrid odors were emitting from the lake. A few days after we went there to offer prayers, the local newspaper reported that suddenly there was no longer bad odors emitting from Lake Biwa.
So from these experiences, I learned that if our prayers and intentions are pure, with using water as medium, multi-dimensional power can take place.
I would like to help those missing 2,694 people who are still missing after 2 years past from the disaster. I would like to protect and heal the oceans from contamination of radioactive substances. I am sure that you feel the same way. In order to do so, we need numerous numbers of people at the same time to join together to send pure prayers to souls of the victims.
I speak of this well known Einstein theory at my seminars:
E = MC2  Mass–energy equivalence by Albert Einstein
I believe the true meaning and power of this equation is
The amount of energy or power of the prayer is determined by amount of people who collective connect their pure hearts at the same time. Therefore, I would like to request the everyone around the world to join together for a Simultaneous Global Prayer at exactly 2:46pm Japan time on March 11th. Together we will collectively send our sincere prayers with the following words.
To the victims lost in the oceans and to the water in Pacific Ocean which has suffered radioactive contamination from the nuclear accident in Fukushima.
“I am sorry, please forgive me, thank you and I love you.”
(Repeat 3 times)
Where: Right from where you are.
When: Match 11, 2013
Time: 2:46pm Japan Time
*** Use this Time Convertor Link to find out what time 2:46pm Japan time is in your time zone.
My sincere love and thanks to each and every one of you for your simultaneous participation in collectively connecting to your heart for this powerful global prayer.
With sincere love and gratitude,
Masaru Emoto
Emoto Peace Project
Water the future:

Hiroyoshi Ishida

Hiroyoshi Ishida  is cooking for 40 years.  He is a buddhist but not a monk, all his dishes have a spiritual sense. Meditation is, for him and his wife, a daily practice.

The Japanese chef feels devotion to freedom which is a mirror of creativity. Because the architect of Mibu “is a lone wolf, who has maintained the individuality in a kitchen that  is also marked by traditional schemes.

Ishida has developed a unique signature cuisine. Ferran Adrià liked his technique and creativity and the fact of being unique. Both reflect his spirit on the plate, as the Impressionists.Mibu his restaurant in barely advertised and in a seemingly normal pedestrian area in Ginza. If you did not know it is there you would not even see it really.

A tiny room 20 m2, a table for eight guests, and a unique exclusivity. This is the avant-garde restaurant Mibu, owned Hiroyoshi, Ishida, renowned Japanese chef. And it is trendy restaurant, situated in the fashionable Ginza district in Tokyo, is all the rage, despite its high cost, a few thousand euros per person.

A booking made months and even years in advance, can give you the luxury of dining at this prestigious restaurant, which is two hours of ritual. Only members and guests have access to Mibu, once a month and already made a reservation in advance. Without reaching questions, Mibu has earned its reputation as a restaurant is complete in all respects.

The menu is based on traditional Kaiseki cuisine, a cuisine that is both food quality and artistic quality, a key role in avant-garde cuisine. They are delicious for the eye as the palate. The menu is updated every month, and in each seasonal the products  color, texture and taste is different.

To have a meal in such a unique setting and with such an experienced and artistic chef like  Hiroyoshi Ishida is indescribable and unforgettable. This is pure and magic.

Ishida Hiroyoshi prepare your meal with a spirituality that characterizes it, is that Ferran Adria already said once: “The big difference between European and Ishida is that the former can cook with the hands, with the senses, the brain and even with affection, but never with the soul as he does. “