Due to its location near the sea and mountains, Japan is blessed with a wealth of fresh ingredients that change on a seasonal basis. Its cuisine places rice at the center and incorporates the feeling of each season in each meal. Seasonal ingredients whose menus change almost weekly are not only fresh and delicious, but also full of nutrition. In order to maintain their look, fragrance and color ingredients these ingredients are handled as little as possible, with seasonings that bring out their flavors---dashi broth made of katsuo or konbu, soy sauce, or miso, seasoning whose depth and saltiness balance well with the rice.
We can't forget that the flipside of the sublime taste of Japanese food is due to high-quality water. Japanese water is low in calcium and magnesium, and tends to bring out the natural tastes and fragrances of its ingredients exceptionally well. Rice cooked with this water adds one more layer of depth to the meal.
A typical main meal in Japan is made of rice and soup, accompanied by one main and two side vegetable dishes. The plate is arranged with rice, the most important item, on the left accompanied by the soup to its right. There may be more vegetable side dishes on a lavish occasion, but an odd number of dishes is deemed to be lucky. Meals that are presented on special occasions like tea ceremony, the many-coursed feasts called kaiseki or other banquets that have precise orders in which dishes appear.
But whatever meal is being served, tasting is done with the eyes as well as the palate. A small mound of rice arranged to the very edges of a small plate makes a sculpture with a seasonal flair, a feast for the eyes that amplifies the joy of eating even more. The dishware also plays a key role in this drama. A plate mounded with rice might be made of lacquerware, pottery, or porcelain, each with different materials, shapes and colors. Part of the pleasure of eating is choosing what dishware to use and fitting it to the season or occasion, with drawings of plums that mark the first glimpse of spring, or sketches of the sprigs of barberry-like nanten that mark festive events. Because in Japan, people raise these small plates up to eat, the shape and heft of the dishware is also key making them easy and pleasurable to use.
The original purpose for serving food in this way was to give a ritual form of thanks for a bountiful harvest. It's thought that the custom for serving rice began roughly in the eighth century when people began to use hollowed-out wooden plates. The custom of enjoying a meal by giving nature its due reverence as well as taking pleasure from it began with rice and has continued to be an important part of Japanese food culture.
In Japan, special occasions and festivals such as the new year or the boys' festival are seen to possess a quality of ritual, called "hare." These ritual events also have special foodways that accompany them. In contrast, everyday meals are seen to have the quality "ke," a mundane-ness or ordinary quality. Rice is at the center of each repertoire, but hare cuisine features dishes that are expressly not eaten every day because they are saved for auspicious occasions. Two such dishes are red-bean rice and the chewy treat known as mochi.
Red-bean rice (seki-han) is a rice dish made of fine-ground mochi rice flour mixed with little red beans and steamed. The red color is festive and is rumored to have the power to drive out bad spirits, fending off natural disasters and illnesses when you eat it. The name also recalls the name of the red rice that was used in quasi-religious court rituals in classical times because it was believed that rice had a special capacity to connect to the worlds of ghosts and spirits. On new year's day, people eat soup called ozōni (literally, mixed simmered things) filled with mochi rice cakes and vegetables in order to pay homage to the ruling god of that particular year and receive in return another year of life force and spiritual power. The particular contents of the soup vary from place to place, as do the seasonings and shape of the mochi.
The everyday "ke" meals maintain the focus on rice, while also containing the locally-found vegetables and seafoods that are strongly tied to the daily life and culture of each particular region.