Essential Guide to Japanese Traditional Dining

by Louie Anne Batac

From September onward, calendars quickly fill with holiday engagements and many opportunities for meals with friends and family. Why not look toward the Rising Sun for ideas on seasonal decor and design?

Next time you dine at a traditional Japanese restaurant, take a moment to observe the table setting. Though you might see an assortment of color shades, shapes, and textures, you will soon sense that these unlike things are in harmony with one another. The Japanese dining aesthetic is humble and exceptional; nothing is in the way or out of the way. Everything has a place and purpose. What makes a Japanese table setting? Read on and learn how to introduce these elements into your home dining experience.

A Well-balanced Meal

Of course, what you actually eat is most important! Traditional Japanese cuisine, washoku 和食, is famous for its health benefits. In 2013, it was recognized by UNESCO and added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, along with just a few other distinguished cuisines, mostly of the European flavor. How’s that for a five-star rating!

illustration of a traditional meal

Washoku is delivered to the table in the form of Ichiju sansai 一汁三菜, literally meaning “one soup, three sides.” Similar to the five food groups in the West, Ichiju sansai is the ideal way of eating healthy. The first component is soup, which is believed to fight off illness and encouraged to be eaten everyday. The other three “sides” consist of food from different categories: a starch like potato or noodles, steamed or boiled vegetables, and fish or other protein. Rice is a given staple of the meal, but not counted as one of the sides, as well as the pickled vegetables that typically accompany a dish.

Chopsticks and holder

Now, you can decide to skip the lessons or dig in! Chopsticks are the most recognized feature of Asian cuisine but they are not all the same. Japanese chopsticks, (o)hashi 箸, are shorter than Chinese chopsticks and longer than Korean ones. Nippon’s version also forms a finer point at the end and are traditionally made of bamboo or wood with intricate lacquer or engraved designs.

In informal settings, placing the chopsticks across the top of one’s bowl is acceptable but formal dining calls for a rest or holder. You can purchase matching pieces in chopstick sets or stores, or be creative and take your cue from the season! Explore the backyard for a small twig or flat rock, or a beach shore for shells with a natural indentation; nature’s simplicity can easily decorate your holiday smorgasbord or candlelit dinner.

sakura chopstick restchopsticks rest
Chopsticks rests offer many possibilities for decorating.

Plates and bowls

Washoku is designed not only to be a feast for the palate but for the eyes as well! Japanese tableware encompasses this artistic goal with its mélange of bowls, plates, and saucers, all of which serve a different purpose. Designs range from modest to ornate, wood to ceramic, but each are in symmetry with nature. Shades of blue, for example, are often a deep indigo to honor the sea, which has played an important role in Japan’s cultural history.

The most frequently used pieces are the soup bowl (sometimes with a functional lid), a stew bowl (for various simmered dishes like curry), a rice bowl, and flat plates for fish or meat. Obon trays and placemats--used for serving, transporting, and presenting food--also create an inviting ambiance for diners.

traditional japanese kaiseki meal
An appetizing presentation of different colors and textures.

Food is arranged in a special manner. From the guest’s view: Place the rice to the left, followed by the soup next to it on the right. Place the two “sides” towards the back left and right of the tray. The third side is traditionally placed at the back center, or next to the other sides as shown in the picture above, depending on the size and type of dish. Finally, rest the chopsticks at the very front of the tray with the pointed ends towards the left.

modern kaiseki meal
Modern plating style.

If you prefer to avoid the dishwashing that comes with multiple tableware pieces, don’t fret, you can still apply Ichiju sansai by arranging different parts of the meal on an extra large plate. Or gradually incorporate these elements beginning with the chopsticks and chopsticks rest. Whatever your inclination, don’t miss the chance to enjoy this season of appetites with this very practical art of Japanese table setting!

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