Nurturing Nature: Expressing Satoyama through Food

Narisawa Yoshihiro, the owner and head chef of NARISAWA, a Tokyo restaurant, spoke about his origins in satoyama culture, which he promotes in his "Innovative Satoyama Cuisine."
Expressing satoyama scenery through essences extracted from cedar and oak trees, this dish symbolizes NARISAWA's ethos.

Approaching Social Issues through Cooking

Japan is surrounded by forests and seas. In this limited space, people cultivate the land and grow rice, living and working hand in hand with nature, calling these landscapes satoyama. This collaborative lifestyle, responding to natural change, is called satoyama culture. Narisawa creates a scene reminiscent of satoyama landscapes with a dish inspired by soil, moss, and branches, displayed on a carved wooden plate. This dish reflects the respect that Japanese people have cultivated for satoyama. While his restaurant has become established as a popular staple in Tokyo, for more than 20 years Narisawa has been visiting forests and coastal areas himself to continue engaging in dialog with producers. "I think that a lot of people probably think that protecting nature, including forests and the ocean, just means leaving it alone and doing nothing to it, but that's not true. If we don't protect the natural environment, taking appropriate measures, it will continue to deteriorate."

Narisawa (left) and his mentor, a chef in Nagano Prefecture who goes into the forest every day to forage.

Narisawa has been feeling changes in the natural environment firsthand. "There are a lot of foods that can no longer be found because of environmental deterioration. Seafood in particular is easily affected by the environment, and there are many instances where types of seafood that were able to be caught at the same time last year simply can't be caught this year. Once the balance of the environment has been disturbed it is difficult to restore. Nutrients that are contained in water carried from forests eventually flow into rivers and oceans, showing how everything in nature is a cycle."

For nearly 20 years Narisawa has been expressing the spirit of satoyama through his food. "Satoyama refers to a place where people and nature exist together in harmony. There are many different ways in which people interact with nature, and crafts and even lifestyles themselves can be considered part of satoyama. I want more people to know about this culture, which reduces the burden on people and nature through harmonious collaborations between ecosystems and longstanding local knowledge. I'm a chef, so I do this through the medium of cooking. I am constantly in contact with farmers and fisheries and have maintained a long relationship with them. They also keep me informed about local conditions and new ingredients."

Dish recreating a temari (a small traditional Japanese cloth ball) using colorful root vegetables.

Sharing and Renewing Culinary Knowledge for Futures, Together

He also actively interacts with chefs overseas. "The Basque Culinary World Prize, which was established by the Basque government of Spain, is an initiative whereby top chefs from around the world get together every year and discuss various social issues related to food, whilst also recognizing up-and-coming chefs. In June 2023, it was held in Japan, and I was a host chef, and welcomed chefs from all over the world. It motivates me to know that there are many chefs who are engaged in tackling social issues and putting in great effort to come up with ideas."

Narisawa exchanging ideas with fellow participants at the Basque Culinary World Prize held in Toyama Prefecture (5th from the back).

Narisawa would like to share forgotten ideas and knowledge through his cooking, both within Japan and overseas. From the rhythm of nature that weaves through the four seasons, to the ecosystems of animals and plants, and the crafts that make use of natural materials, there is a wealth of traditional and environmental knowledge to express. "At NARISAWA, guests are able to enjoy great seasonal ingredients sourced from Hokkaido to Okinawa. I want people to visit Tokyo from around the world to experience the charms of Japan more broadly." Narisawa believes in the importance of telling people about Japan's satoyama from his restaurant in Tokyo. Indeed, it could well be said that Tokyo is becoming a base for sharing the charms of Japan's satoyama to the rest of the world.

Guests can have a one-of-a-kind dining experience at NARISAWA restaurant in Aoyama, Tokyo.

Narisawa Yoshihiro

Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1969. Opened a restaurant in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture after training for eight years in Europe. Moved to Aoyama in 2003, and changed the name of the restaurant to NARISAWA in 2011. The restaurant has received high praise from all over the world, being recognized for 14 consecutive years since 2009 as one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.
Interview and writing by Kubodera Junko
Photo: courtesy of NARISAWA
Translation by Amitt