They are so conscious of seasonality of food that they are willing to pay a high price to the first harvest of a particular food item, a tradition that began in the late 17th century. For instance, the first catch of the fish katsuo (bonito) on the opening day of fishing in May will command a huge price. These katsuo will mostly end up in the most expensive Japanese-style restaurants, where affluent customers praise and enjoy the first-of-the-season katsuo; later shipments will begin to filter down to local supermarkets at more reasonable prices. Conversely, asking for katsuo in September or oysters in summer months in a restaurant will gather a scornful look. When eating out, patrons also expect, and cooks happily comply, to eat perfectly pristine food at the very prime of their season.
Thus, it is not before long that one begins to see Japanese people's passion for food and taking pleasure in seasonal food are inextricably enmeshed with deeper currents in their life. Aesthetics, religion, land and season, and history get woven into the people attitude about food.
After a period of gathering and hunting lifestyle, the introduction of rice prompted a sedentary way of living. Rice was introduced to Japan from the continent in prehistoric times during the Yayoi era (ca. 300 B. C. to A. D. 300). Diets until then were based on seafood, animal meat (deer, fowl, boar, rabbit, and such), and other foodstuff gathered or cultivated around the settlement (chestnuts, indigenous fruit, melon, and the like). By the end of the third century A. D., rice and salted food were established as common fare. As mentioned earlier, Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century and became the state religion. In observance of the Buddhist doctrine that prohibited eating the meat of animals and fowl, the Japanese stopped eating meat, at least publicly and in larger towns. Because of this, people began using less animal fats to make sauces, which in turn resulted in milder, more subtle method of cooking.
As the samurai class rose to power, they embraced more frugal styles of cooking, in place of more formal Chinese-style meals eaten in the court. With the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century, shōjin ryōri, a vegetarian cooking for Buddhist monks and introduced to Japan in the 6th century, became popular and began to filter into cooking methods used by the general public. This influence was long lasting; a number of dishes the Japanese eat today date from shōjin ryōri. Examples include tofu, nattō (fermented boiled soybeans), yuba (sheet made from soy milk), ganmodoki ("fake" duck made from tofu and other vegetables), and aburaage (deep fried tofu squares).
The most influential style of cooking that lay the foundation of Japanese cooking is honzen ryōri. Honzen ryōri refers to formal meals served to the nobles in the imperial court in the Muromachi period (1333-1568) and became fully established as a culinary tradition in the Edo period (1604-1868), which then influenced the cooking of the general populace. Honzen in this context referred to the main low four-legged tray called zen, on which food was served. Food served in this way has its roots in ceremonial cooking of the Heian period. In the Muromachi period, honzen ryōri was served on as many as five zen, which were placed in front of the guest. In addition to rice and soup, a minimum of three side dishes but sometimes as many as eleven side dishes were served on a single tray, on up to five trays, depending on the formality of the occasion. There were strict rules to be observed about how and in what order foods must be eaten.