Japanese Mountain Cuisine (山人料理)


When one considers the highly regarded reputation of Japanese cuisine all over the world, what instantly comes to mind is its strong emphasis on seasonality and locally sourced ingredients. 

Images of handmade nigiri made from the day’s catch come to mind, alongside platters of sashimi made from a variety of different fish. Most mainstream outlets in the English speaking world constantly focus on the bountiful seas that surround Japan. This is not without its merits- not only are the oceans surrounding Japan rich in diversity of fish, the culture and knowledge that they have cultivated over the centuries, combined with a transport system designed to deliver fresh seafood all around the country within hours of being caught, is second to none.

But often forgotten is that inland Japan consists of mostly mountainous forest. You don’t have to travel far from Japan’s urban centers to find yourself surrounded by serene, untouched nature. Here, amidst mountain peaks and lush greenery, resides a culinary culture shaped by centuries-old traditions and a reliance on the natural resources of the mountains and rivers known colloquially as Yamabito Ryouri (山人料理), or mountain person cuisine. 

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Dietary traditions here are distinct from coastal areas and cities, with hunting and foraging playing a larger role. Rich and earthy matsutake mushrooms can be found under the leaf litter of Japanese pine trees, whilst various mountain vegetables, known as sansai (山菜), peak through the ground signaling the arrival of spring. Very little seafood is consumed at all as historically it would have gone bad given the long distances it needed to travel. Instead freshwater fish, such as Ayu sweetfish or trout are caught in the numerous fresh water rivers that run throughout the forests. 

The main source of protein in these areas come in the form of game meat, with traditional hunting practices passed down through generations. Collectively known as gibier (ジビエ) from the French word for game meat, it includes venison from deer, wild boar, various game birds, and probably the most prized of all- bear meat. Whilst much harder to find in the big cities around Japan, it’s still possible to find restaurants dotted around the mountainous forests that specialize in serving this kind of cuisine. 

This series consists of two parts, one on the various mountain vegetables and their preparations, and another on the different kinds of game meat served in Japan. You can explore each one by clicking on the images above.