Japanese Food Culture at Vitra

Photo by Vitra

Food Shaping Kyoto

Our Japan correspondent Chieri Higa wrote about the Vitra exhibition "Food Shaping Kyoto" about Japanese food culture, exhibited at Weil am Rhein during Art Basel. She is currently finishing her research residency in Okinawa with her grandmother, learning the traditional recipes, ingredients and ways of cooking of the old Ryukyu kingdom, and its changes up to present day.

Japan has always had a great respect and appreciation for food as a central tenet of its culture. The direct effect of this on the shaping of public space and the lives of Japanese people has been researched since 2015, and was presented during Art Basel at the Vitra Design Museum. This research took place in Kyoto, one of the food capitals of the world and the old imperial capital of Japan. Well-known for its deep historical roots and traditionalism, Kyoto could be thought of as a historical anchor that keeps long-ago Japanese architecture, customs, and craft alive and well.

Video installation of a Japanese fish market

"Located in a valley, the city’s food and drink are shaped by the groundwater and subtropical climate"

Food Shaping Kyoto presents research on how the city was shaped by its food culture, presenting immersive video projections of historical food markets and how they shaped Kyoto city. In turn, it shows how Kyoto’s food culture is still being shaped by geography and access to resources. Located in a valley, the city’s food and drink are shaped by the groundwater and subtropical climate, and its geographical positioning to this day impacts the food culture and habits of its inhabitants. By investigating Kyoto, the exhibition and researchers also shed light on the more general questions of the possibilities and effects of food production, distribution, and consumption in a city.

Built in collaboration with architects Shadi Rahbaran and Manuel Herz and the KYOTO Design Lab, Food Shaping Kyoto took place in the Buckminster Fuller Dome at the Vitra Design Museum. The architecture integrated references to the specificities of the city’s food culture such as yuba, or tofu leaves, which originated in Kyoto.

At present, food culture all over Japan is shaped by time, work culture, and convenience. Supermarkets are armed with large selections of pre-made foods for busy people working long hours, and convenience stores stand on every block, ready to cater to your immediate needs. Regions such as Okinawa once known for their long life spans have been influenced by changes in Japanese society and their food cultures have shifted away from the strictly regional, seasonal fare that was once the only food available. In order to keep a rich and vibrant culture around food, it is paramount to to allow food culture to stay connected to the local region and not just to the global food flow. By continuing to foster a connection with the past, and to continue to investigate regional influences like they have done in Kyoto, we can work to keep region-specific diversity alive and well.

This article was written by Chieri Higa from annals of food.