During CentreTerm 2020, a group of students traveled to Japan and immersed themselves in the traditional Japanese diet, with a focus on how pre-industrial Japan was able to feed a very large population with only a small amount of land and other natural resources.
“We visited Tokyo’s Toyosu Fish Market, home to the world’s most active and expensive tuna auction,” said Michael Dixon, assistant professor of Japanese. “We also visited the Cup Noodle Museum, an entire museum devoted to one of Japan’s most iconic food exports. We have seen demonstrations of the traditional methods of making soy sauce, miso and sake, all foods that are fermented with a fungus culture known as kōji. We took the Shinkansen—Japan’s ‘bullet train’ high speed rail—to Kyoto, where we toured the famous Nishiki Food Market, visited various historical temples and shrines, and we ate a beautifully prepared lunch of Buddhist temple food—shōjin ryōri—next to the Tenryū-ji temple.”
With this being Dixon’s first year of teaching the course, it was open to anyone who has a curiosity about the food, culture and history of Japan. Dixon said that all of his students share an enthusiasm for Japan, and a few of them have taken his Japanese language courses.
“The idea for the class came quite easily,” Dixon added. “Interesting food experiences are a natural part of any visit to Japan, and any visitor here can see that with space being at a premium, they have traditionally been very creative in utilizing space to produce food for their large population. You don’t have to go very far to see a rice field or vegetable garden right next to an apartment building.
“Artisanship is a big part of the food experience here, as well,” he continued. “It is very common to find people preparing one particular food that they have been training for and improving on for their entire adult lives.”
Dixon said, that first and foremost, the purpose of the course is to give students an experience that helps them to enjoy and appreciate their time in Japan. Second, the course is meant to deepen their appreciation for Japanese food and the circumstances that have made their cuisine the worldwide phenomenon it is today.
“I’d like for students to understand that food should not simply be taken at face value—that a meal on your plate is the result of agriculture, natural resources, land, history, culture and the lives of the people who have considered the meal and prepared it for you,” Dixon added. “I hope that they deepen their understanding and appreciation of Japan as a nation and culture and come away with a sense of respect and reverence for where their food comes from.”
Dixon believes this course is an important opportunity for students, because it allows them to step outside of their own cultural biases.
“I think CentreTerm is a really great way for students to get to know their professors better and for professors to get to know their students outside the classroom,” he said. “There’s no better way to learn about something than by immersing yourself in it, and that is especially true of learning about other countries. Whenever I visit a new country, I like to visit one of their grocery stores as soon as possible, because I feel like there’s so much you can begin to understand about a country’s values through looking at the foods that they eat and the ways in which they are marketed.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
January 31, 2019