In a school classroom in Japan, is time for kyushoku, or school lunch. Each of thirty pairs of tiny hands joins together in a gesture of grace, followed by a unified chant of gratitude for the food they are about to eat together. Then, everyone, including the teachers, digs into the freshly prepared, nutritionally-balanced meal cooked for them that day. A student stands in front of the classroom and reads the daily menu, citing nutrition facts about the ingredients used, or perhaps acknowledging which farms the vegetables came from that day. As each person finishes, he or she utters another phrase of thanks, "go-chi-sou-sama-deshita," and cleans up his own tray before going to brush his or her teeth.
I worked as an assistant language teacher for three of the most formative years of my life in a small Japanese town called Fukusaki. Such a lunch ritual is the norm for the schools I worked at and for schools all across Japan. Before I had ever heard of Ayurveda and food sadhana, I was learning guidelines for healthy eating from my elementary school students.
In Ayurveda, it is said that how we eat our food is just as important as what we are eating. How we eat something can greatly affect how readily our bodies digest it, and in Ayurveda, proper digestion is key. Therefore, engaging in proper food sadhana, or daily discipline/spiritual practice, is paramount. Engaging in sadhana cultivates sattva, also known as clarity, balance, or harmony. The more we can operate from a state of sattva, the more in-line we are likely to be with our higher selves, the less likely we are to regret our actions, and the more healthy we are likely to be - in body, mind, and spirit. Visit here for more of my reflections on sattva.
Looking back at my years in Japan, it never ceases to impress me how the Japanese school system has made school lunch one of the most wholesome, sattvic experiences I have ever witnessed. An entire national population is educated on nutrition, healthy eating habits, economics, cooperation and coordination, and personal hygiene all through its school lunch program. In my town each day, the school lunch was prepared from fresh ingredients at the town's kyushoku center, then distributed to the six elementary and junior high schools just before noon each day. The nutritional breakdown of each meal is listed on the month's menu for each meal, emphasizing local ingredients, and a diverse variety of dishes.
When the lunch arrives at each school, the principal eats it first to ensure it is safe. Then, it is picked up by students from each classroom donned in hygienic serving gear, and set up in the classroom. Students take turns being kyushoku servers, so that they may learn to be a process of distributing the food, as well as cleaning it up. Only after each student and the teacher has been served do they all sit down together to say one collective "Itadakimasu!", a simple prayer of gratitude for the food. Students are taught to focus on eating the food, and other distractions such as toys and books are not allowed until the meal has been finished. Light conversation is okay, although I have sat through my share of silent lunches, especially in the middle schools, where sometimes, quite frankly, the students aren't in the mood to talk (a conversation for another day). At the end of the meal, students are again responsible for clean-up before heading to recess.
For a real-life example of what kyushoku looks like in Japan, I highly recommend watching the video below. It is not mine, but the experiences depicted and explained are strikingly similar to the ones I had in my local town.
All in all, there is much to be learned from the practice of Japanese school lunch. The ritual of saying grace and eating without distractions are practices I encourage everyone to adopt. By doing so, we are also cultivating a mindset of gratitude and intention. When we take the time to break bread with our friends and our colleagues, we honor each other's humanity and acknowledge our connection to each other. When we take part in serving food to others, we humble ourselves and also get to know generosity. When we all take part in the clean-up process, we realize that we are not responsible just for ourselves, but for everything around us.
May all beings live with grace, comfort, and ease. Thank you for reading.
For more information, check out Nourishing Japan for an in-depth look at Japanese school lunch and all the care that is put into it. If you are interested in a scholarly view on early childhood education and socialization, I recommend reading Preschools in Three Cultures Revisited. For those interested in my personal experiences in Japan, you can visit my (very old) blog A Cat in Japan. Please reach out or comment with any thoughts or questions!