by Josh Schlachet
Meibutsu: Boasting the Famous Products of Edo
In honor of Golden Week, one of Japan’s best reasons to travel, this month’s installment of Flavors Past looks at the Edo period culture of meibutsu, the specialty local food products that put many of the most famous tourist destinations on the map. Yet the ways of depicting Japanese local delicacies in the past were varied and surprising, and the comic authors and artists of the Edo period had fun with their food.
“Like making dried bonito on the beach, you have surely cut me down. The last hand-made dish of the Bonito flowing from the Ichikawa! Watch my performance upon the chopping block, and speak of the Bonito caught on this night. How absurd!”…“Your chance for escape has passed! Hurry, slice your belly and make shiokara from your guts!”
Surrounded and captured, Lord Hatsu Katsuotarō delivered this dramatic monologue—lamenting his impending death to his unsympathetic foes—at the climax of Santō Kyōden’s comic tale Edo jiman meisan zue (The Stick of Pride in the Famous Products of Perilla Land). Beyond its theatricality and literary flourish, Hatsu Katsuotarō’s speech also reveals the degree of interconnection between object, fame, place and publicity that defined meibutsu, literally “famous things,” in Edo-era Japan. As was common in fiction of the period, the plot relied on wordplay and double-entendre to tell a story within the story, to introduce and publicize an array of specialty goods while walking the audience through the narrative of the book. Like all the characters in Edo jiman meisan zue, Lord Hatsu Katsuotarō is a famous local product personified. He hails from Kamakura, known for its superior bonito, and his name refers to the coveted first bonito catch of the new fishing season (hatsu katsuo).
Even in the face of his own demise, he weaves into the content of his speech a list of the various bonito specialties that one could make from his flesh. His enemies cut him down like namaribushi, a delicacy of sliced, roasted and semi-dried bonito meat. He is captured like the exceptionally fresh bonito caught and delivered to market on the same night (yogatsuo). His enemies urge him to commit suicide through ritual disembowelment, slicing his belly (presumably into sashimi) and curing his innards into a fermented snack (shiokara). Even the title of the book is a transparent pun on the homophonous Edo jiman meisan zue (An Illustrated Collection Boasting the Famous Products of Edo).
But Hatsu Katsuotarō was also a famous food out of place, a fish associated with Kamakura in the popular imagination trying to represent the city of Edo. His unrealized goal within the narrative was to usurp the position of Lord Edogawa no Koi (carp from the Edogawa River) at the top of the hierarchy of Edo specialty foods, and his title of “the Bonito flowing from the Ichikawa” references both the Ichikawa Danjurō lineage of actors and Ichikawa as a locale, where the Edogawa River met Edo Bay. In the Edo jiman meisan zue, Santō Kyōden turns Hatsu Katsuotarō and Edogawa no Koi into actors performing on their cutting board-stage, into famous products incarnate, while occasionally interjecting his own voice to hawk the merchandise he sold at his real-life store.
More conventional guidebooks offered an overwhelming volume of nitty-gritty, practical information on local places and their specialty foods. Texts like the Nippon sankai meibutsu zue (Illustrated Collection of Famous Products from Japan’s Land and Sea) were filled with thoroughly mundane details about products’ harvest, manufacture, shipping, flavor, and appearance, as in this entry for “Citrus (mikan) from Kii Province”
The citrus fruits that come from Kii (Wakayama), Suruga (Shizuoka) and Yatsushiro in Higo (Kumamoto) are all meibutsu. Even among these, those from Kii surpass all others. The skin is thick, and their flavor is sweet. Many of the mikan sold in the capital and Osaka are from Kii. When taking them from the mountains, they put them in baskets and take care to bring them so as not to be exposed to the wind. There are baskets that hold one hundred, two hundred, and three hundred fruits. The size of the basket is always the same. There are not many large mikan. There are also few in provinces outside this one. There are no mikan trees in Kaga (Kanazawa), Echizen (Fukui) and such snowy places.
Poetic allusion and cultural reference also served to enhance the desirability and prestige of local culinary souvenirs. Kuniyoshi’s 1840s woodblock series Edo jiman meibutsu kurabe (A Comparison Boasting the Famous Products of Edo), for example, depicts meibutsu through the lens of bijin mitate (transposing them through the likeness of beautiful women). The prints in the series each portray a famous item, mostly foods, from areas around Edo: pumpkins from Sunamura, eggplants from Komagome, ceramics from Imado, shellfish from Fukagawa, wisteria from Kameido. The primary focus is on the woman either holding the famous product or performing some action related to its preparation or enjoyment. In the print for Komagome, we see a woman lovingly peeling a local eggplant, draped in a matching purple garment with a backdrop of the neighborhood inset in the shape of the artist’s paulownia seal.
Consumers could also play their way through a landscape of famous foods that traveled as keepsakes, gifts, souvenirs or meals during a journey, all without leaving home. Sugokoru board games, a genre of printed travel games similar to Life or Candy Land, allowed players to be transported to a land of delicacies. In the Tōto meibutsu yūran sugoroku (A Board Game Excursion to the Famous Products of the Metropolis), published in 1861, the specialty dishes of the districts of Edo are arranged in a whimsical itinerary displaying the diverse wares and flavors that the city had to offer. Products meant to be taken home like rice cakes, crackers, sweets, and preserved foods are shown in the packaging in which you would find them. Local delicacies like grilled eel and noodles are arranged as if on a dining table or shown through the exterior of a famous teahouse or restaurant.
To this day, eating remains among the greatest pleasures of travel in Japan and around the world, and every town throughout the country has a near inexhaustible supply of delicious local products, many of which are making their way to America as well. Why not try a few? Stay tuned for the next installment of Flavors Past.
Josh Schlachet is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese cultural and culinary history at Columbia University, with a focus on the history of food and health in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He got his start in food at the Culinary Institute of America and followed his passion to Kagoshima and Tokyo, Japan. The Gohan Society’s mission is dear to Josh’s heart, and he wants to thank every one of you for your interest and support.