Bringing Back Neolithic Japanese Food

Bringing Back Neolithic Japanese Food

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Jomon era hut
How did people in Japan eat 15,000 years ago? One museum in Iwate Prefecture seeks to bring the culinary joys of ancient Japanese food to life.

Anyone who reads us regularly knows of my love for Japanese food. (And Japanese sake. And Japanese whiskey. But, uh, I digress.) I can’t say, however, that I’ve ever eaten the way they did in Japan 15,000 years ago. But now, a museum in Iwate Prefecture offers visitors the chance to discover what that might have been like.

The Rich Diet of the Jomon People

The period in question is Japan’s Jomon Era (縄文時代; joumon jidai). The Jomon came after Japan’s Neolithic era. While experts debate the exact dates for the era, it started some 16,000 years ago and lasted until around 3,000 years ago. This makes the Jomon by far the longest era in Japanese history.

The Jomon marked the people of Japan’s transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to a settled society. It also marked a significant change in diet. Pots and tools for heating food were created, which enabled people to eat nuts and plants that were too hard to eat raw. Additionally, raised sea levels from the end of the Ice Age brought the ocean closer inland than it is today. This gave the locals access to over 70 types of fish and over 350 varieties of shellfish. (Japan’s historic shell mounds date back to the Jomon era.) There’s even evidence that the people of the Jomon cultivated certain plants and trees. Rice cultivation, however, would not start until the Yayoi era which succeeded the Jomon[1].

Eat Like a Jomonian

In short, the Jomon diet was rich and diverse. But what is it like to eat the way the Jomon people did? While we can never know for sure, one museum is doing its best to re-create the experience. The Sakiyama Shell Mound Forest Museum in Iwate Prefecture’s Miyako City has held several events recently where kids and adults can not only get a taste of ancient Japanese food, but help prepare it themselves.

At the most recent event held on September 23rd, 14 participants got a chance to wrap apples and pineapples in leaves and cook them down the Jomon way – on top of hot stones. The participants also made acorn pancakes, grinding down acorns and walnuts to a powder and mixing them with a meringue that they then roasted on hot rocks[2].

Unfortunately, this event doesn’t seem to be a regularly scheduled offering. The last scheduled event was the one on the 23rd. Additionally, the English translations for museum information are…well, not the greatest. That doesn’t inspire confidence that the Museum offers events in anything other than Japanese.


It would be great to see more events like this that give tourists a wider understanding of Japanese history, and particularly the history of Japanese food. Most visitors to Japan are eager to see the country’s samurai past and set eyes upon modern-day geishas. But Japan’s pre-historic past is equally fascinating – and worthy of more attention than it gets.

Acorn Cookies FTW

We’re nuts about マテバシイ。(Picture: kari / PIXTA(ピクスタ) )

In the meantime, if you want to try some down-home Jomon cooking yourself, Shukatsu Net (linked above) provides a link to a Cookpad recipe for a “metabashii cookie.”[3] Matebashii is a type of acorn tree in Japan. You can also make your own acorn flour[4]. You can also find it online (affiliate link; UJ earns a commission if you make a purchase.) Or you may find it at select Asian groceries in your country. OR, you can do it the hard way like this recipe does and make your own from about 170 grams of acorns!

A quick translation of the recipe follows:

  1. Soak the acorns in water for a week to kill any insects, or eggs laid by insects.
  2. As the shells crack in the water, start to peel them off.
  3. For the shells that don’t crack, fry them in a frypan until they start to crack apart, then peel them.
  4. Toast the peeled nuts a little.
  5. Grind those suckers down “in a Jomon spirit.”
  6. Grind them MORE, dammit!
  7. When it’s suitably ground (use your Jomon common sense here), add a large egg, about 70 grams of Japanese yam, and a pinch of salt. Add water as appropriate to make a congealed mixture.
  8. Divide into 20 round balls, and squish them down on a baking sheet into cookie form. Bake at 190 degrees Celsius (375F) for 20 minutes.

In Japan, Says Survey, Food Matters (Way) More Than Sex


[1] Link no longer active

[2] Link no longer active

[3] マテバシイcookie. Cookpad

[4] How to Make Acorn Flour. Mother Earth News

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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