Yamato Yasai & Nara's Vegetarian Heritage
Since Buddhism came to Nara in the Asuka period, it has had a long association with vegetarian cuisine. In 675, Emperor Tenmu decreed that meat shouldn’t be eaten. And as Nara became a powerful base of Buddhism, vegetarian or vegan shojin ryori was perfected in temples and pilgrim lodgings.
As a result, Nara grows fantastic organic vegetables, known as Yamato Yasai. Most are recognisable, but if you visit a local green grocer, you may find large red turnips, purple carrots and other unfamiliar “greens”. Nara’s pickles, narazuke, use local vegetables like gourd, cucumber and miniature watermelon.
The fertile land is scattered with small family farms; the slow life, slow food movement isn’t new in Nara - it’s how they’ve always lived. One of the champions of the organic and slow food movement is Chef Kinji Ogawa, owner of Michelin starred restaurant, Le Benkei. A key member of Slow Food Japan, he has been working closely with local producers to bring farm to table for 40 years.
The history of shojin ryori has fostered a deep respect for natural produce. Each ingredient is carefully sourced and prepared to maximize flavour. The close relationship with the land means you will often find chefs growing their own vegetables or taking part in the local rice harvest. There’s a real satisfaction in knowing exactly where your meal came from.
For many local chefs, vegetarian and vegan cuisine is not just about health, but about sustainability and minimizing environmental impact. It extends to using recycled timbers and restoring old buildings and reducing the use of chemicals. It’s not a trendy lifestyle in Nara; it’s just a return to their roots.
With a slower pace of life and a rich, rural landscape, it’s easy to embrace a more organic lifestyle in Nara. Local initiatives connect traditional farmers with young chefs; farmers invite you to connect with the land and help with the harvest. At restaurants and cafes, you’ll find owners eager to explain their dishes and the origin of their ingredients.