One of the most striking and impressive aspects of Japan is the sheer diversity of micro-regional differences. I take great interest in the culinary expression of those differences but the same holds true for crafts and social customs and even language. Towns of opposite sides of the same hill take pride in the distinctions of their locality. But many small communities in Japan are struggling. Though immensely skilled at what they do, few farmers and craftspeople have the resources to bring their products to a larger audience.
The Tombo Project is an organization within Japan that promotes the products and culture of regional communities to a national and international audience in an effort to revitalize rural communities. They recently teamed with Tsumugi, a similar organization specific to Sasayama in Hyogo prefecture, to showcase the castle town known for its pottery and fresh produce through a pop-up event called SASAYAMA – Cultural Dining Experience for 15 guests that brought the regional ingredients, architectural assets and local crafts together with a top-level chef to create a hyper-local culinary experience, a meal of the place served in the place.
Chef Atsushi Nakahigashi, son of Hisao Nakahigashi who founded Kyoto’s famed Sojiki Nakahigashi restaurant, cooked for the event. Alongside his accomplishments as a chef, Nakahigashi has dedicated himself to communicating the traditions and culture of Japanese cuisine to an international audience. He worked for 6 years at Kajitsu, the well received Japanese shojin ryori (temple food) establishment in midtown Manhattan before founding his own consulting business One Rice, One Soup. Nakahigashi’s mission is to build a bridge between restaurateurs and Japanese cuisine aficionados in the States and Japan in an effort to share Japan’s culinary traditions with the West.
For this event Nakahigashi spent a day in Sasayama sourcing local ingredients, vegetables and black soybeans (the local specialty) from farms, venison from hunters, and even foraging the riverbanks for wild sorrel. The event took place at the Shuraku Maruyama Hotel in Maruyama Village, a collection of once uninhabited historical homes on the outskirts of Sasayama that have been beautifully restored to operate collectively as an inn for travelers. For the meal service, Nakahigashi drew on the region’s long traditions of Tamba pottery choosing to use pieces by Masafuni Onishi, a local potter dedicated to creating a new expression of the region’s ancient pottery traditions.
As smaller communities grow more and more accessible to travelers who crave an off-the-beaten-path experience, these very local experiences, akin to agro-tourism, that brings the audience to the source could be a way to preserve the specific identity and integrity of local communities.
*photos by Dana Meirson