Yuko Matsuda: Keeping Japanese Food Culture Alive

By 16th December 2010 August 27th, 2013 Uncategorized

Matsuda-san is no ordinary 53 year-old woman. Her smile radiates, her eyes are vibrant and her skin is supple and like that of a woman many years her junior. She emanates warmth and expresses an open and honest outlook on life. These sought-after traits are a true reflection of her passion for food and how she wholeheartedly believes you are what you eat.

Matsuda-san can fondly remember a time when her mother would prepare fresh organic miso soup every morning with shavings of bonito and sea kelp. It’s this memory, amongst others, that helped shape Matsuda-san’s appreciation of good homegrown food. She explains, “In Japanese tradition, the food you eat is the person you are. If you eat good food you are healthy and happy.”

As a child, Matsuda-san absorbed a lot of the skills her mother would use in her family kitchen and the importance of cooking unprocessed and wholesome food. However, she alludes to a time during the 1960s when, “Things from overseas became very chic and fashionable in Japan and at that stage, a lot of the Japanese foods started to disappear. Daughters stopped learning from their mothers, and what was passed down was not what used to be passed down.” This simple idea of making home-cooked traditional recipes and passing them on is what sparked a life-changing idea for Matsuda-san 17 years ago: to create a situation where she could learn about traditional Japanese foods and the traditional Japanese way of doing things. “Things I hadn’t been able to learn because of the way society changed.”

This situation later transformed into a passionate Niseko cooking group – the Jyuugobaa (15 old ladies). Together they make it their mission to leave behind a part of the past and what they believe shapes the country.

The Jyuugobaa is for anyone able to join – young, old, Japanese or foreign. This set of charismatic ladies gets together twice a month at the local citizen’s hall in Niseko Town to learn how to make food through practice. The group started by cooking at local council events that aimed to bring the community together. One of the group’s catering events was cooking for some of the world’s most influential leaders at the G8 Summit in the summer of 2008. But Matsuda-san remembers the Jyugobaa’s greatest achievement as something far more humble. “An event that encompassed the whole Yotei-zan area. And we made food for 150 people – with just 10 of us – using all local ingredients.”

Globally, the importance of ‘going local’ is gaining momentum. The 100-Mile Diet, the Slow Movement, and organic farming are all efforts designed to shorten lengthy supply chains, boost local economies and reignite the importance of community farming.The farms at the foothills of Mount Yotei, although it might not be so obvious under a layer of winter snow, are a huge part of Niseko’s economic existence.These farms are most famous for producing potatoes (hence the skiing potato) as well as soybeans, which Matsuda San says, “can be transformed easily into everyday cooking items – miso, soy sauce, soy milk and tofu.”

As Niseko becomes increasingly international, the dilution of Japanese food culture would also presumably increase. Matsuda-s an expresses a differing opinion when asked about this: “Japan’s society saw a change in the way we processed food so it doesn’t really matter how many foreigners are in the area or how international it becomes, it’s more about being healthy.”

Being healthy and surrounding herself with happiness is Matsuda-san’s life-long ambition. From the moment she wakes and collects the water from the spring in her backyard, to when she finishes a day’s work at her busy café, Matsuda-san is working directly with the things of which she is most fo
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Her café is tucked away in the entrance of Niseko Town’s railway station and is filled with antiques that she and her husband use in everyday life. Looking around the café, Matsuda-san’s passion for plants is also apparent.

Tending to her garden is where she takes a break from her busy life. She has studied the art of making English flower gardens and in the summer, her vibrant flower creations and designs line the main streets of Niseko Town. Her involvement with the community and the offering of her skills to preserve her country’s traditions shows her genuine love of the district and the people in the district.

Matsuda-san has called Niseko home since moving here 27 years ago. She met her husband, then a pro skier from Kutchan Town, at Shirakaba Lodge, Yamada Onsen (Hirafu) – a long way from her hometown in Kyushu, and a long way from her mother’s home-cooked meals.

For those young Japanese people who now live far away from their hometowns, and anyone else wanting to learn more about home cooking, Matsuda-san has a few of wise words to share. “ Never underestimate the power of food. Food shapes the type of person you are, shapes your personality and your mood. By having good, healthy and wholesome food, you can shape your destination. You won’t suffer from anxiety and you’ll have a much more settled life.”

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