Experiencing Japan’s Culture Through a Japanese Cooking Class
Japan has a fascinating culture that is so different from anywhere else in the world. During my one-month trip in Japan, I sought out as many cultural experiences as I could to try to understand this unique culture a bit better.
I participated in a tea ceremony in Kyoto, attended a sumo wrestling tournament in Fukuoka, and soaked in a hot spring (onsen) with naked Japanese grannies on the Izu Peninsula.
These were all fascinating experiences. But as a food lover, the one thing that was missing from my Japan experience was a Japanese home cooking class.
So, when I heard about AirKitchen, a new service where Japanese people invite visitors into their home to cook an authentic Japanese meal and eat it together, I jumped at the chance to try it.
Vegan Japanese Cooking Classes
And not just in big cities, either. There's a class in a beautiful traditional Japanese home with a garden in rural Wakayama prefecture, not far from where I walked the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. That one would be worth doing just to visit the house and garden!
While not all the classes are vegan, there are plenty that are. On their website, just in the Tokyo cooking class section alone, there are 35 vegan cooking classes.
These include a ramen cooking class, a Japanese curry cooking class, and an omurice (Japanese omelet rice) cooking class, just to give you an idea of the many types of Japanese dishes that can be made vegan.
Offerings range from street food like udon and gyoza to refined Buddhist temple cuisine (shojin ryori). To learn more about shojin ryori, check out this article on vegan food in Kyoto.
There are plenty of chances to cook local specialties from the particular city you're visiting. For example, in Hiroshima you can make the local version of okonomoyaki, which features fried noodles. Find out more out this dish in my vegan dining guide to Hiroshima.
Oh, and there are lots of vegan sushi making classes too. Did you know that traditional Japanese sushi doesn't necessarily contain fish? What makes sushi sushi is not the fish but the rice. Sushi rice is a particular type of short-grained Japanese rice that's mixed with vinegar, sugar and salt.
Of course, most sushi classes in Japan do use fish. And in Tokyo, they sometimes even include a Tsukiji fish market tour, which is a place most vegans will want to avoid.
But it's very easy to adapt a sushi class to be vegan. And you can get really creative with vegetables, tofu and seaweed. Some of the photos on the AirKitchen website look too beautiful to eat!
While AirKitchen does not offer a food tour, some of their cooking classes do include a market visit. Before the class, your host will take you to the local market to pick out the ingredients you’ll cook with.
My Japanese Cooking Class Experience
I chose a class in the historic city of Kamakura with a lovely host named Naoko Tsunoi and her mother. Naoko offers classes featuring different types of Japanese cuisine, including sushi, donburi and shojin ryori.
But what attracted me most to Naoko's page on AirKitchen was her series of dinner meetups. Each month, she hosts a themed dinner featuring regional specialties from a different part of Japan.
This was the only offering I saw on AirKitchen that didn’t really involve cooking, and that was exactly why it appealed to me. To be honest, I'm not much of a cook. So, while I adore eating Japanese food, I wasn't so keen on preparing it myself.
What I really wanted was a Japanese cultural experience where I could share a meal with Japanese people and learn from them about their food and their culture. Unfortunately, the date of the dinner meetup didn’t fit my schedule.
But when I explained this to Naoko, she was very understanding and adapted one of her other cooking classes to suit my interests. I got to hang out with her and her mother in their kitchen and learn all about Japanese food (and eat it, of course!) without having to do much of the cooking myself.
Visiting a Japanese Home
Nick and I met Naoko and her mother at her apartment in Kamakura. One of the things I loved most about this experience was the chance to visit a Japanese home and see how people there live.
Although Naoko lives in the heart of the historic city of Kamakura, her apartment is pretty modern. We took our shoes off at the entrance and were welcomed inside.
The apartment was furnished with Western furniture like tables, chairs and couches, but was decorated in a minimalist style that was typically Japanese.
In the kitchen, the tools being used were a mix of traditional and modern. For example, even though there was a modern food processor on hand, Naoko taught us how to crush walnuts using a traditional Japanese mortar and pestle. It was the biggest pestle I’ve ever seen!
Japanese Cultural Exchange
Naoko speaks fluent English (and French), so I was able to ask her lots of questions. She also acted as interpreter for her mother, who speaks only Japanese.
Oh, and did I mention that her mother is 88 years old?!
Naoko’s mother is not a professional chef or cooking teacher, but she worked for more than 30 years in an elderly people's association, where she prepared lunches and was in charge of menu composition, presentation and all the preparation.
Her specialty is traditional homemade Japanese cuisine. Naoko and her mother love sharing their knowledge of traditional cooking and introducing foreign visitors to Japanese ingredients and seasonings.
During our conversation at the dinner table, I discovered that Naoko’s mother is also a trained tea ceremony hostess, and that she was hired by a prison to host tea ceremonies for the prisoners. It was fascinating to hear about this elder Japanese woman’s many life experiences.
The Menu for Our Japanese Cooking Class
The theme of our cooking class was ofukuro no aji, which in Japanese literally means “Mother’s flavor”. In other words, the traditional homecooked dishes that mothers in Japan make for their families.
What a perfect theme for our dinner with Naoko and her mother!
In my month of eating my way across Japan, one thing I noticed is that Japanese meals are usually made up of a number of small dishes.
Each one has a unique flavor, texture, color and/or cooking method, and together they create a balanced meal. And when I say “balanced”, I mean not just nutritionally but also aesthetically.
That was certainly the case with the meal that we cooked together at Naoko’s house. In total, there were eight different dishes
And on the handout Naoko gave us, each dish was categorized by the cooking method used to make it. For example, there was a stir-fried dish, a pickled dish, a simmered dish, etc.
Here is the complete menu of eight different dishes:
Rice cooked with kombu seaweed and soy sauce and then mixed with grated ginger and ginger juice
Burdock and carrot cut into matchsticks and stir-fried in sesame oil and konbu stock
Eggplant fried and then soaked in kombu, soy sauce, mirin and sugar
Walnut Paste with Green Beans
A mix of walnuts, miso, soy sauce, mirin and sugar blended together. This delicious paste is then mixed with green beans
Mushroom Miso Soup
The mushrooms add an interesting twist to the usual miso soup that's so common in Japan. Instead of katsuo dashi (broth with fish flakes), either water or a kombu-based dashi can be used.
Vinegared Daikon and Persimmon
Peeled and sliced daikon radish soaked in a mix of vinegar and sugar and decorated with persimmon
A mix of vegetables, konjac and fried tofu cut into bite-sized chunks of various shapes. These are simmered until tender and cooked in soy sauce, mirin and sugar
A block of tofu that is covered in a paste of miso and sugar or mirin. The paste is left on overnight so that the tofu can soak up the flavors.
Every dish was delicious, but my two favorite were the walnut paste with green beans and the misozuke tofu. And they were both so simple that even I should be able to recreate them now that I’m back home.
Before we arrived, Naoko had asked me if we drank sake. I said we sure did, so before dinner we were served sake poured from a traditional ceramic bottle.
Naoko’s mother taught us the proper way to accept sake from your host. You’re supposed to hold your cup up to the bottle, like this.
Japanese etiquette involves a lot of rules, and you are sure to break some of them unknowingly as a foreigner in Japan. But don’t worry, Japanese people are very patient and kind, and they really appreciate it when you make an effort to learn about their culture.
We ate the kinpira and the misozuke tofu first while we drank, because those dishes are said to go very well with sake.
See how those two dishes are placed out in front, so that they’ll be eaten first? There’s always a reason behind everything in Japan, even if the reason is not immediately obvious to an outsider.
Presentation in Japanese Cuisine
Aesthetics are very highly valued in Japan, and this is no less true when it comes to food and its presentation.
Whereas in China the dishes are placed in the middle of the table and shared by everyone, in Japan each person has their own plate with small portions of each dish carefully arranged.
I was fascinated as Naoko’s mother used chopsticks to place each bit of food in exactly the right way on her plate. She taught us to make the green beans stand up straight inside their tiny cup, in order to give the dish more texture and depth.
And the rice, of course, was not just scooped up and dished onto the plate. Naoko and her mother taught us how to use molds to form the rice into attractive shapes, like fans and gourds.
A few days later, in Tokyo, we would visit Kappabash Street, known as the kitchenware capital. There, we would see lots of these molds used for shaping rice, as well as lots of little cookie cutters.
Except, in Japan, these cutters are not used for baking cookies, but rather for cutting vegetables into pretty little shapes. You can see this technique used in a couple of the dishes from our dinner as well.
See at the top the carrots cut into stars, which are then placed inside a hollowed-out orange peel with daikon and persimmon? Actually, they are not stars but rather maple leaves. Another feature of Japanese cuisine is that it is heavily influenced by the changing of the seasons.
This can be seen not only in the use of seasonal ingredients, like persimmon, but also in the use of shapes appropriate for the season. And since our cooking class took place in November, we got carrots in the shape of maple leaves!
Final Thoughts on Our Japanese Cooking Class
I thoroughly enjoyed everything about our experience at Naoko’s home, including the food, the hospitality, and the many things I learned that night about Japanese cuisine and culture. It was absolutely worth going out on a cold and rainy November night.
In fact, Naoko’s cooking class really salvaged our stay in Kamakura. Up until then, we’d had pretty good luck with the weather in Japan, but in Kamakura, it rained the whole time we were there.
While I was disappointed not to be able to explore the city like I’d hoped, thanks to Naoko and her mother I still have very fond memories of Kamakura. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return one day and see the beautiful temples and other sights that I missed.
And of course, I can also just prepare these scrumptious dishes at home and pretend that I’m back in Japan! Or, more likely, I’ll convince Nick to prepare them for me.
Choosing the Japanese Cooking Class That’s Right for You
One thing I really appreciate about AirKitchen is that there are so many different kinds of classes, including vegan-friendly ones. There are literally hundreds of cooking classes in Tokyo alone!
And while that might sound overwhelming, it’s easy to navigate the site to search for the class that’s the perfect fit for you.
You can filter your search to see what kind of Japanese dishes you'll learn to cook, which days on the calendar it's available, and where the venue is located on a map.
The latter can be especially important in Tokyo, since it's such a huge city. And if you’re not too familiar with where places in Tokyo are on a map, there are also links to all the classes in specific popular areas. So, for example, if you want a cooking class in Shinjuku, you can find one easily.
And there’s even a filter to show only the most affordable classes. So if you’re looking for a really cheap cooking class in Tokyo, you can find that too.
Most of the classes in the cheap category range from 3,000 to 4,000 yen per person. I did see one sushi class for 1,200 yen, though, which is an incredible steal!
Most classes take place in the host’s home, but there are a few that are in a venue that’s not a private home. This is also clearly indicated by an icon at the top of the page.
With so many classes to choose from, you’re sure to find one that fits you to a T. Or if you have a hard time choosing, you could always do more than one!
Sponsorship Disclaimer: Many thanks to AirKitchen for providing this experience in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and as always I only review products and services that I genuinely like and think you will too.