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Japan's Culinary Culture: A Dialogue with Prairie Stuart-Wolff
Considered living in Karatsu, Kyushu, a place to see and feel a side of Japan that is often overlooked. Here is an excerpt from our chat with writer and photographer Prairie Stuart-Wolff about seasonal eating, cultural identity, and seeking sustainability. The full interview will be featured in STORIED print issue two; Islands.

Japan has few foreign residents (compared to most nations) and far fewer still who choose to settle in rural areas like Prairie, who has embraced country living with a seemingly effortless grace. Her website, Cultivated Days, is an ode to seasonal eating and her instagram tells a story of elegant living, in which every detail appears to have a purpose, be it practical, aesthetic, or emotional.

Tell me a little about your background, what was life like for you as a child?

I grew up in a small town in rural New England. Both of my parents are extremely independent, capable, forge-your-own-way people. And both, though in different ways, are very connected to the land. My mother instilled in me a real sense of home as a sanctuary and a love of the land on a domestic level through growing food and designing simple, delicious meals around the freshest available ingredients that the garden has to offer that day. My father took me on many backpacking trips in the American west and southwest when I was young. He introduced me to the wilderness, where I could really feel the ferocity and grace of the earth on a grander scale and relate to it on a spiritual level. I like to say that I’m a homebody with a serious case of wanderlust and I think it came from these two ways of being in the world that I found equally appealing.

When and why did you come to Japan?

I moved to Japan in 2007 and came directly here to Karatsu, in Kyushu, where I still live. Karatsu is my partner’s hometown. We met in the States, where she was working as a potter. She was working at her mentor’s studio but when the time came to become independent she decided to build her studio here because the bulk of her exhibitions are in Japan. So I came along, straight to Karatsu and straight into her family.

What did the locals think of you when you first arrived? And now?

I’m not sure I know what they thought/think of me. I think fundamentally people are just really curious. There aren’t a lot of foreigners here so I stand out for sure. I notice it mostly with kids who don’t yet have that etiquette filter that adults acquire. I get some wide-eyed stares that I interpret as something like running into a real life version of a character you thought only existed on TV.

my 2020 batch of umeboshi made from fruits of the trees in my small ume orchard

What would you say you do here? What’s your everyday life in Kyushu like?

I do a lot of things but they all centre around communicating about Japan’s food culture to an English-speaking audience. I run a website called Cultivated Days, which is an online home for all of the projects I do. The foundational project is a journal called Mirukashi: 24 seasons of eating. It chronicles seasonal eating here in the countryside of Japan through essays and imagery. As a writer and photographer I also produce essays and images for English-language publications as well as for Japanese restaurants or food producers who want to communicate with a foreign audience. And I host food culture-focused travel programs: we visit growers and brewers and other food producers to see how Japan’s ingredients are made; we also visit potters and craftspeople to learn about the integral role of tableware in Japanese cuisine; and of course, throughout it all, we eat a lot and experience how it all comes together at the table. I’m also designing a new set of culinary immersion experiences, along the lines of a workshop or retreat for a small number of people, that really focus on settling into the agrarian rhythms of rural Japan. It’s going to be a really hands on, intimate, and immediate way to dive into Japanese cuisine and learn about seasonal ingredients, cooking methods, the role of tableware, plating, and aesthetics, all through making and eating elegant and delicious food.

With juggling so many different projects the tasks of each day are always different depending on what is coming up fastest on the horizon. But one constant is that we sit down to eat three home-cooked meals a day at our table. So all of the work and projects I do stem from this real daily practice.

Cooking and eating pork and wild seri (water dropwort or water celery) nabe (hot pot) at my home

From what I see on Cultivated Days, yours seems like a sustainable, natural, and seasonal way of living – how true is this?

The natural and seasonal part is very true. What I show on Cultivated Days is of course a selected and curated version of my life but nothing is invented or embellished. The ingredients and dishes I write about are what I’m actually cooking and eating. I don’t stage anything in a way that isn’t true to my life and my home (beyond tidying up a bit before taking photographs). Sustainability is a much more complex issue that I grapple with. I use electricity; I drive a car; I fly internationally and my work encourages others to do so as well. And Japan is quite un-ecological in its use of packaging and plastics. Also a demand for perfect-looking produce, overfishing, and the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers in agriculture are unresolved issues as well. I do the best I can to avoid participating in these practices but it’s not always possible. Seeking sustainability is of utmost importance globally but a lot more of us need to go a lot further towards living closer to nature in order to get there.

What influenced you on your path towards culinary arts?

I really have to give my mother-in-law and father-in-law most of the credit. I am so grateful that my introduction to Japan’s varied foodscape came through them. They have an exquisite appreciation of food on multiple levels, all the way from the basic gratitude of having enough and feeling full to the finer points of sophisticated flavour and presentation. They grew up during wartime and reconstruction and have known scarcity on a level most of us haven’t. But my father-in-law became a renowned potter during Japan’s economic bubble and life has afforded them many opportunities to travel domestically and abroad, to eat at the finest restaurants, and befriend many accomplished artists, chefs, and intellectuals. And still they like nothing more than an excellent meal at home. Their approach to cooking is simple but the influence of those elevated experiences is revealed in an unusual level of dedication, refinement, and sophistication applied to home cooking.

How entwined are Japanese food and culture?

I think food and culture are entwined everywhere in the world because the culture of food is intimately tied to society – to politics, histories of immigration and colonisation, socioeconomic divisions, gender, and often religion as well. All of those less romantic but powerful influences are at play here in Japan, too. But what Japan also has is a very long and rich history of cultural arts that have significantly influenced the cuisine, both how it’s made and how it’s consumed. Consider the tea ceremony, which defined one particular expression of kaiseki (a traditionally elegant multi-course meal). At its core, kaiseki is a meal with a choreographed arrangement and combination of ingredients and flavours, but the practice includes considerations of the vessels used and the presentation, of the arrangement of space, of the interactions between host and guest. The meal is a complete aesthetic and sensual experience. That’s the kind of link between food and culture that’s exciting to discover and practice.

Cold somen lunch at home, a staple meal in summer
Cooking and eating pork and wild seri (water dropwort or water celery) nabe (hot pot) at my home
Shucking foraged chestnuts on my deck
Chawanmushi (savory egg custard) garnished with kinome (sansho leaves) and salted cherry blossoms, both from trees in my yard

Rural and urban Japan are almost two separate worlds, what do you think they can learn from each other? And what can we learn from both?

They really are. I think rural towns could greatly benefit from looking to the creativity, innovation, and sophistication more readily evident in urban spaces and businesses. Reversely, I think that urban Japan could stand to slow down a bit and learn something about longevity and timelessness from rural Japan.

A lot has been lost in rural Japan. There has been rapid urbanisation over the last century and today over 90 percent of Japan’s population live in urban centres. Agricultural land is going fallow at a rapid rate. Rural populations are ageing rapidly. Without the vitality of a youthful population, culture and the economy are stagnant.

On the other side, I think an inherent connection to Japan’s traditional food culture is lost in urban environments. People may find delight at the first taste of matsutake mushrooms in autumn, of young sansho (Japanese pepper) leaves in spring, of winter crab, and ayu (sweetfish) in summer, but it’s understood through the intellect that these ingredients are seasonal specialties. I think there is a disconnect when flavours that originate in a natural environment are experienced in a predominantly man-made environment. When you live in a place where the hillsides are full of bamboo shoots in spring and the bright yellow leaves of ginkgo trees in autumn carpet the road you drive on everyday, the visceral connection to those ingredients as essential flavours of a season is enhanced in spades.

What’s a common misconception about Japan that you often hear?

Relating it to food, I think people outside of Japan have become quite familiar with the ideals of washoku, the national cuisine, and assume that everyone eats fresh, beautiful, healthy food all the time, which is sadly really far from the truth. Broadly speaking, the general diet is moving away from the very fresh and healthy ingredients associated with the national cuisine towards pre-packaged, convenience-oriented meals and ingredients. Not so many people still fillet fish, make dashi from scratch, and prepare tsukemono (pickles) at home.

What has living in Japan taught you?

You learn a lot about yourself when you travel and experience another culture anywhere. But the further that culture is from your own, the more you learn. Living outside of your culture initiates a feedback loop where you are constantly running into yourself. Situation after situation you are faced with the decision, do I assimilate or maintain my own cultural identity? In my early years, I was hell-bent on fitting in. I tried to be Japanese. It was compounded by the fact that I’m an American who isn’t often proud of my culture and country. I didn’t want to be associated with the global reputation of my compatriots. And luckily a lot of my personality traits naturally pointed me in the right direction. But over time I bristled in certain situations when my actions felt unnatural or disingenuous. I started to see and celebrate the parts of my cultural identity that I value. I reached my limit of washing dishes all day during the local festival while the men drank themselves silly and changed the way I participated in established roles. I started hugging people even when it confused or flustered them. Now I only bow when it feels natural. Over these many years of living in Japan, that constant feedback loop has allowed me to really get to know myself better. I understand which parts of which culture matter to me and I choose when to assimilate and when to embrace and maintain my differences.

WORDS
Rachel E T Davies
Prairie Stuart-Wolff
PHOTOS
Prairie Stuart-Wolff