Shōjin ryōri, written as 精進料理 in Japanese, is made up of the terms “devotion” (shōjin, 精進) and “cuisine” (ryōri, 料理). This type of cuisine, known in English as ascetic cuisine, is also thought to advance enlightenment. Traditionally eaten by Buddhist monks in Japan, this type of food grew more popular even among laypeople as Zen Buddhism propagated throughout the country in the 13th century. Buddhist tradition forbids the killing of animals for human consumption as it is believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation. As such, a typical ascetic meal is prepared without meat, fish, or other animal products, and is instead centred around soybean-based foods such as tofu, as well as seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants.
Preparation of ascetic cuisine follows the ideas of simplicity and harmony. Dishes feature a balance of colours and flavours: every meal offers 5 different colours (green, yellow, red, black, and white), and are prepared in 5 different ways (raw, boiled, baked, fried, and steamed), in order to achieve a delicate balance of 5 different flavours (sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami), which are drawn out naturally from the ingredients rather than additional seasoning. Partaking in a carefully balanced meal is thought to provide nutritional balance, as well as alignment of the body, mind, and soul with the seasons. As ascetic cuisine uses seasonal ingredients and locally sourced vegetables, dishes served periodically and vary in different regions of Japan.
Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa
Tsuruoka is backed by the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa (Dewa Sanzan): Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, said to represent birth, death, and rebirth respectively. These mountains have held great spiritual significance to Tsuruoka’s residents for over 1400 years, and are thus sacred to followers of Japanese mountain asceticism (Shugendō). This religion is a combination of beliefs, philosophies, doctrines, and rituals drawn from local folk religion, Shintoism, Buddhism, and ancient mountain worship. Every year, practitioners from all over Japan gather at the Three Sacred Mountains to pay reverence and reconnect their bodies with Mother Nature. The pilgrimage happens over the span of one week, during which practitioners retreat into the mountains and live as one with nature.
Since days of old, mountain priests (yamabushi) have only eaten ascetic meals served at temple lodgings. They believed that eating meals sourced from the mountains they wandered would help them form better connections to their natural landscape, as well as absorb the mountain’s spiritual energy, ultimately allowing them to appreciate nature’s blessings more fully.
Ascetic dishes reflect the natural environment from which its ingredients are sourced, thus differing from temple to temple, and region to region. Ascetic cuisine from the Three Sacred Mountains, in particular, is known for the use of native seasonal ingredients in its dishes, which give their meals a distinct, savoury flavour. This cuisine is also notable for its use of unique preservation techniques to help ingredients to last through Tsuruoka’s harsh winters.