Since the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the sixth century until the mid-nineteenth century, food has generally been cooked without any animal meat or fats. To the palate, cooking in this way resulted in milder, more subtle flavoring that preserved the color and taste of the ingredients. If an "insipid" dish needed a culinary lift, they would top it with little daub of grated yuzu (citron), wasabi (Japanese horseradish used as a condiment to sushi), sliced myōga (a kind of ginger), or a sprinkle of sanshō pepper (Japanese mountain pepper), and the like, a practice which is still done today. A preference for mild seasoning over the centuries in turn may explain why many dishes from abroad now abundantly found in Japan (and this includes Chinese and Korean cooking, which can be quite spicy) have become milder. Such changes also occurred when original ingredients were substituted with local materials and cooking methods were adapted to suit the Japanese kitchen. Thus an American visitor to Japan may be surprised by delicate and refined steaks, different from American steaks that are more robust and hearty. Such changes are common to all forms of food adaptation, whenever there is a mingling of food cultures.
Preparing and eating Japanese food goes beyond just staving off one's hunger. Food must be set out to please the eye. Customers of Japanese restaurants often marvel at the beautiful presentation of food. In every dish, cooks go to a painstaking length to present food of contrasting colors, texture, and shape to appeal to the eye and the palate. Japanese food, especially in fine restaurants, is served in very small hors d'oeuvre quantities. Food is never served in large quantities, for doing so would be unaesthetic, although eating at home is a welcome exception to this rule. Moreover, a suitable container, a ceramic bowl for instance, would be chosen to suit the food, season, and balance with other containers on the table. A cook's skills are measured not only by the food they prepare, but also by a careful selection of plates, bowls, and other eating utensils. In the end, one may say that the Japanese people are quite sensitive to eye-appeal; to stay in business, restaurants must pay attention to presentation.
Japanese cooking must also use perfectly fresh food at its prime. Although ready-to-eat food is available ubiquitously in small shops and convenience stores, home and professional cooks alike still prefer to prepare meals from fresh ingredients, avoiding the canned, frozen, or packaged variety. In fact, visitors to a Japanese supermarket will be surprised by a relatively meager choices in these departments. This fact does not mean that Japanese people do not eat fast food-they do in a huge variety. Japan has a long tradition of making fast food, such as bentō (traditional Japanese boxed lunches), noodles, onigiri (rice balls), and the quintessential fast food sushi for people on the go. Using freshest ingredients means that they must be in season, a dictum that underscores a philosophy that food must also embody the season. The Japanese are very attuned to the seasonal nature of food; for instance, home cooks know which fish, vegetables, or fruit are in season before deciding on the menu and shopping at the market. They shop for food at markets frequently (usually every day) and buy food in small quantities.