Nara’s food

‘Kimigatame kamishimachizake yasunononi hitoriyanomamu tomonashinishite.’ This Tanka poem created by Ootomo no Tabito (665 – 731) illustrates how the life of ancient people is associated with Sake. Sake in those days was a relatively low alcoholic cloudy white liquid close to Omiki brewed to offer Shinto Deity. The poem inscribes a loneliness of a military officer working at a distant place whose friend has just came back to the capital. The poem depicts a rural scenery in which the officer drinks sake alone in the field thinking about his friend. Unfortunately the sake prepared for him failed to be matured in time for his homecoming.

The life of Tabito coincids with the period of radical change of ancient Japan in which the people were at the mercy of coup detats and political turmoils. However the trade with Tang dynasty of China was further developed in this period and through this increase of commerce various fruits, vegetables, condiments and seasonings were imported and took root in Japan. The list includes carrots, cucumbers, egg plants, green peas, oriental melons, sesame seeds, apples, grapes, oranges, green tea, mint, miso soy bean paste, soy source, sugar, vinegar et al and the many have still been used as essential materials for Japanese cuisine.

Nara counts itself as the place where Japanese culture originates and is proud of notably architecture, kraft and other often religious outputs. Traditional foods are, however, slightly less appealing due to its lack of showy appearance and flashy taste but they deeply penetrate into Japanese life. Among Nara’s special foods, this page briefly introduces some of the most familiar ones; Somen, Manju and Seishu which is one of the true inventions of this region.


Among Nara’s special local foods such as a tea porridge or Kaki-no-ha zushi, a mackerel sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, Somen noodles has domestically been the most familiar and widely spread one. Somen originates in Chinese food called Sakubei in Japanese. It was first imported from Tang dynasty of China in the Nara period (710-794) as a thick dried noodle made of salt, wheat and rice flower. In the 9th century, however, Sakubei was re-produced as a thin noodles at the foot of Mt. Miwa in current Sakurai city.

Note that there was a confectionery called Sakubei in ancient China, made of egg, milk, sugar, oil, wheat and rice flower. It is a sweet first created in the 3rd century as a edible charm which would word off illness. This was also imported to Japan paralleled to plainer ones and appreciated by aristocrats as a luxury imported fried cake. This sweet version with the same name has often been defined as the origin of Somen noodles but another plainer one is more likely the right answer.

Somen noodles will be served either icy or hot. The Japanese tend to favor the classical icy recipe but the hot nyumen noodles are also well appreciated especially in winter.


Variety of Japanese foods look authentic but in fact many of them originate in abroad. Throughout the history of this country the continental food culture has been imported and many foods took loot in this country adopting distinctive Japanese tastes. Seemingly original Japanese confectionary called Wagashi is not an exception. Manju, one of the most popular among them, however, does not originate from China, but created by a Chinese immigrant called Rin-Join settled in Nara in 1346. In this midst of the period of the northern and southern courts, Rin altered the Chinese traditional bun by stuffing sweet azuki-bean paste instead of ground meat so that even appreciated by Buddhist monks who cut down on meat. Rin’s Manju sweet bun was soon welcomed by all and enjoyed even by the Emperor Household.

In the city center of Nara, there is a Shinto Shrine called Rin (Hayashi) Jinja in the precinct of Kango Jinja Shrine. Enshrining the spirit of Rin-Join-no-mikoto, it has been the only shrine dedicated to Manju bun. In front of this small shrine with a pair of statues which mime the contour of buns, the Manju Festival is held every year on the 19th of April in which confectionary manufactures all over Japan meet and offer their products to the soul of Rin.

As it suggests that the food culture of this country has been associated with religious activities. Every Shinto Shrine regularly offers food called Shinsen to its Kami. Shinsen are food offerings which normally include rice, salt, sake, water and local seafood as well as various harvests in the mountain. This custom, however, occasionally formed particular rituals. One of the most famous one is Kakitsusai held at Tanzan-jinja Shrine located in the mountainous regions of Sakurai City. The ritual dates back to 1441 when the shrine was still a Buddhist temple called Myorakuji. In order to celebrate the return of the main image which had temporary been evacuated to avoid warfare, worshipers offered the original Sinsen, then the act turned into the permanent ritual which takes place every October. In one of them, 3,000 grains of initially dyed rice are gathered to form particular patterns.


Japan is a rice cultivated country. Aspects of Japanese food culture are irrevocably related to the rice hence it has been the staple food for well more than 2000 years. Cakes, mochi dumplings, oil, and vinegar are among a few familiar examples. However, an equally or even more frequently seen rice based product is Sake. Not to mention, Sake is the most popular alcoholic beverage in Japan and now widely appreciated throughout the world.

Sake is a rice wine brewed with fresh rice and good water. It has its origin as sticky white liquor created in ancient times as an offering for Shinto deities. This was also appreciated by the people as it was illustrated by the contemporary Waka poets such as Ootomo no Tabito who laments man’s life through sake which can not part with him. However, the alcoholic beverage we generally call sake is quite different one that requires more sensitive treatment of materials and complex fermentation processes. Refined sake, Seishu in Japanese, is a fermented alcohol brewed with its own unique process. What distinguishes sake from other fermented alcohols such as grape wines or beers is its process of conversion in which molding and fermentation occur simultaneously.

Among the first successful refined sake appeared in the early medieval period, products brewed in Nara were the most admired of all. They were called Sobosen hence brewed at Buddhist temples to maintain the complex. The prime brewing method for refined sake was, however, invented in the mid 15th century at one of those temples in Nara called Shoryakuji. The temple continued to brew the sake with this method under the name of Bodaimoto until the mid 17th century. Upon the rediscovery of the lost formulae in the late 20th century Shoryakuji begun to brew again once a year following the method of the day. The temple, however, limits to brew starter mesh which is passing to breweries as a seed for their own brand of refined sake.

In view of the brewing technology, what Shoryakuji proposed was new methods and processes in which the quality of refined sake would further be enhanced. It features white rice even for koji enzymes as well as for starch and polished rice then the fermentation process repeats three times. In addition to this reiteration called Sandan-jikomi, this particular method requires pasteurization to kill bacteria before proceeding to maturing processes.

At present, there are aroud 28 sake breweries in Nara Prefecture, and nine out of which produce refined Sake based on Shoryakuji’s newly restored Bodaimoto. Those breweries were mostly established during the 18th to the 19th century and have been brewing various sake through unique methods nurtured by their distinctive traditions.

Nearly every store front, such breweries install a stack of some barrels and hang orbs from the eaves. These decorations make a typical scenery of customer’s entrance of the traditional sake brewery. The orb is called Sakabayashi or Sugidama made by branches of Japanese ceder gathered and rolled into it. Breweries renew the orb when they begin to brew the year’s sake as an indicator of its progress. Changing of the color that the newly made greenish orb turns to dark brown parallels the progression of fermentation of the sake. This custom seemed to begin in the 18th century, in the middle of Edo period. Edo was the last feudal period of Japan, lasted for about 250 years. It was the period that steadily governed by one shogunate clan and under this stability, Japanese food culture was especially flourished and progressed. It was also this period many Nara’s still survived traditional breweries were established.

The brewing process

The first step to make refined sake is to polish the rice by carefully striping away the outer layers of rice grain. The taste of sake depends on each process but the overall grade of the product will be determined at this stage. Koji is the basic element of sake and will be produced in the next step. The polished rice is steamed and the part of them is mixed with koji-mold; a special mold that grows and spreads over the surface and ultimately penetrate into the core of the rice. This process, takes about 48 hours, converts the starches in the rice into glucose which requires to create alcohol. Koji is a material which determines the quality and the character of the product. The portion of finished koji is then mixed with steamed rice, water, and yeast to make the starter mash called moto. In the next step, the koji, steamed rice, and water are added to the starter mash to create moromi mash by accelerating the fermentation of yeast. This process is done over three successive stages so as to stabilize the process and avoid failure. The starch of the rice form glucose and it is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide, while helping the fermentation.

It generally takes one month to complete this fermentation process in which the alcohol content will rise to as much as twenty percent. After this process, moromi mash will be separated from the lees adding the pressure to make pure undiluted sake. This sake is further filtered and pasteurized around 65 centigrade then kept to mature. This final step will usually be repeated twice before the bottling.

Lees and Narazuke

The most commonly sold byproduct of sake brewing is ‘sake-kasu’, lees of sake, which can be used as a cooking material, a condiment, or even eaten as it is. In Nara sake lees have been conveniently used as the base for pickling and this particular pickles is called Narazuke. Cucumbers, watermelons, pickling melons et al are pickled with sake lees to add a robust taste and rich fragrance to them. Because of its quality which well surpasses other pickling products, Narazuke has been a souvenir or gift idea as one of a representatives of Nara’s food. In exchange for the taste, however, the pickling requires hard work and time-consuming processes therefore only a few sake breweries in Nara provides self made Narazuke. Those who have developed the refined palates should consult directly to the brewery but it may also be available at some special shops.

Guides and Tours

Guided tours are provided by Kenichi Nakatsu who is an official tourist guide interpreter of Nara Prefecture. Living in the north western edge of Nara, Kenichi works as a guide to introduce relatively unknown along with the famous spots of this insightful region of Japan. Special tours will be made according to the request. For more information and queries, please contact Kenichi Nakatsu.

This website is created and maintained by Kenichi Nakatsu.

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