During the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD) farming villages sprang up, united in the highly organised, closely cooperative work patterns that the new agricultural system demanded. Even the gods got in on the act, as tending the rice fields became regarded as a spiritual act, a worshipful invocation to,Ta no Kami, the God of the rice paddies.
Yayoi era rice farmers. Photo by Yuya Sekiguchi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto, has placed food rituals at the centre of its practise since ancient times. Shinsen the offering of food to the Gods and naorai feasting, the communal sharing of food with the divine spirits, are still key parts of the religion today. Shiso perilla leaves were in use, likely harvested from the wild, and possibly used as offerings to the spirits. Aji mackerel, maguro tunas and katsuo bonito were being eaten, and there are records of goat’s milk being made.
A major culinary influence came through increasing contacts with China. BY 239 AD, shamanistic Japanese Queen Himiko of Yamatai was sending envoys to the kingdom of Wei in China, and soon mugi wheat and komugi barley were added to the list of culinary imports.
These foods provided essential winter sustenance, and backup in case the rice harvest failed. Thus, some 300 years before they received Buddhism from the Middle Kingdom, the Japanese received the primitive versions of udon wheat noodles and shoyu soy sauce.
The Yoshinogari historical park in Saga Prefecture is one of Japan’s best preserved Yayoi ruins. Its scholars list the following as Yayoi era favored foodstuffs: “Wheat, millet, beans, gourd, acorns, walnuts, boars, chickens, deer, bears, raccoon dogs, dogs, silver carps, carps, sharks, sea basses, horse mackerels, pond snails, river snails, and Japanese freshwater clams”.