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KYOTO, Japan—The meal begins simply, almost religiously: a bowl of rice, a plate of pickles, a pot of green tea. Pour the tea over the rice and take a sip, then pinch a half moon of daikon between your chopsticks. Later comes a plate of tofu scraps dressed with green onions and dried fish, a seaweed salad, and a small bowl of miso soup.
This is obanzai, Japanese home-style cooking, but the cook is no ordinary homemaker: Setsuko Sugimoto is the matriarch of one of the oldest families in Kyoto, a city where everyone knows exactly how far your family goes back. Her home is older than the United States and protected by the Kyoto government. Tonight’s dinner stretches back to the Edo period, and to prove it she drops before me a telephone book–thick copy of the original recipes her family has preserved for 10 generations. “These are the traditions that we are starting to lose,” she tells me.
Not more than a few blocks from Sugimoto’s centuries-old home is a thicket of unwelcome invaders: Starbucks slinging monster soy lattes, a pizza delivery chain prepping seafood pies, a rainbow array of 24-hour convenience stores, portals of warmed-over carbohydrates and general gastronomic mischief. It’s a familiar tale: waves of brutish Western culture crashing on the shores of foreign countries and encroaching upon their long-held traditions. But the phenomenon is all the more striking here in Kyoto, in the heart of one of the world’s richest culinary cultures, with cooking traditions that stretch back millennia and more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in the world.
But Kyoto and the rest of Japan are not prepared to see their food yield to the mitigating forces of the modern world. Sugimoto is a part of a formidable coalition of government officials, nonprofit organizations, scholars, and food luminaries who have been working for two years on a proposal to include washoku—the traditional dining cultures of Japan—on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s list of “intangible world heritages.” On Thursday, they received word that their bid had advanced to the final stage, making Japanese cuisine all but certain to win this prized UNESCO designation in early December. It may seem a benign marker, but the UNESCO program is itself not without controversy. Moreover, it begs the question: Can a U.N. body’s imprimatur do anything to protect something as intangible as a style of cooking?
Most people know UNESCO as the cultural arm of the United Nations dedicated to protecting important landmarks and features in the physical world: Angkor Wat, the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal. But in 2008, they expanded their heritage protection program to include intangible cultural artifacts—as they describe them, “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.” To date, they’ve added 257 items to their list of safeguarded customs, from well-known cultural staples like Brazilian Carnival to more obscure traditions like the gong culture of the Vietnamese highlands. Along with the petition to safeguard Japanese cuisine, there are 31 other proposals being examined this fall by the world body, including Korean kimchi-making, Turkish coffee culture, and the Belgian tradition of shrimp fishing on horseback.
UNESCO’s world heritage program has long been a magnet for controversy. Critics are quick to point out that the increased attention caused by a UNESCO distinction often threatens to undermine the very thing it seeks to protect. (A $1.6 million trip to all 962 sites offered by a luxury travel agent will do little to quell those concerns.) Others wonder if UNESCO has the funding and the organizational might to handle such a diverse and ambitious range of sites and traditions. The expansion into the intangible world can only make matters more complicated for an underfunded and overly bureaucratic organization.
To date, there are officially four UNESCO-designated cuisines: Mexican, Turkish, Mediterranean, and French. By any measure, if there is a distinction for the world’s most important, unique, or vital cuisines, Japan deserves to be at the top of the list. The depth and breadth of Japanese cuisine is stunning. In Hokkaido, you can feast on salty orbs of salmon roe and golden mountains of sea urchin for breakfast and plates of charcoal-grilled lamb for dinner. In the mountains along the Sea of Japan, you’ll find families that ferment their own soy sauce and miso and old men who have done nothing their entire lives but turn ground buckwheat into soba noodles. And in Tokyo, thousands of ramen bars and subterranean izakaya share cement with hushed temples of raw fish run by Jiro Ono, Japan’s most famous sushi master, and a crew of single-minded fish whisperers.
But no city is more important in representing and protecting the traditions of Japanese cuisine than Kyoto, capital of the ancient empire for more than 1,200 years and ground zero for Japan’s greatest culinary achievements.
Over the past week of eating here, I’ve talked to a lot of people about UNESCO: knife makers, sake brewers, line cooks. It’s a topic everyone in this food-obsessed town wants to discuss, and everyone I spoke with firmly believes that Japanese cuisine deserves the recognition, though the reasons why are as varied as the cooking itself.
“It’s the water,” says Setsuko Matsui, owner of the elegant Matsui Honkan inn who believes the mineral-rich water of places like Kyoto makes for better rice, better sake, better everything. “Japanese cuisine is dedicated to reflecting nature,” says Hisao Nakahigashi, one of Kyoto’s most respected chefs whose Michelin two-star kaiseki restaurant fills up six months in advance.