Exercising out in the park yesterday, in the middle of a set of stretches, I realized that I had not addressed the issue of natural foods versus commercial supplements that are available in Japan and what they are good for. In my opinion, Japan is a treasure trove of healthy food and there is so much of it that people should be making pilgrimages here in a form of health tourism, much the same as expats from Tokyo go to Thailand to do high colonics (a body detoxification program). The following is just a smattering of my favorite Japanese healthy foods – in fact there is so much information on the subject that you could fill a book with the full spectrum available.
Natto: There is a lot of debate among health circles as to whether foods derived from soy beans processed with modern technology are really good for you or not. There is some evidence that modern processing causes a concentration of isoflavones, which contain a form of estrogen that could have a drug-like effect in the body. Traditional Japanese food processing, however, focuses on using soy in a holistic way, ensuring all parts of the food are kept together as nature intended. Thus, eating Tofu is probably OK.
But more than tofu, one whole food version of soy beans that is particularly good for you is natto. This fermented food is rich in an enzyme called Nattokinase, which has been found to be excellent for improving heart health and stroke prevention by reducing the likelihood of blood clots. Natto is also very high in Vitamin K, which is essential for the proper formation and health of your bones. Research has found that areas of Japan where the consumption of natto is high, there is a low incidence of osteoporosis.
Genmai (Brown rice): While a steaming bowl of white rice is the perfect accompaniment to a Japanese meal, the fact is that it is white because it has had all the nutrients in the bran layer taken out of it. All you have left is carbohydrates. Instead, try switching to brown, unpolished rice, which is loaded with vitamins and minerals.
Brown rice has 400% more vitamin B1 than white (B1 converts carbohydrates to energy); 300% more fiber, for bowel health; and you can also receive various essential oils through consumption as well. Many people complain that genmai is hard to digest. The trick is to cook it with some crushed barley, which is sold for the purpose, and causes the grain to soften up and become almost puffy. The resulting rice tastes great.
Kaiware (Horse Radish sprouts): Vegetables out of season can be extremely expensive in Japan, so it’s easy to forgo your salads in the winter and wait for prices to come down again, but that is not a healthy option. Recently in Japan, hydroponic produce has become popular, and in particular hydroponically grown vegetable sprouts. My favorite is Kaiware (horse radish sprouts), which you can buy at any large supermarket for just one hundred yen a serving, which is loaded with vitamins and minerals. Some researchers say that sprouts are in fact the best form of fresh vegetable that you can eat, because they are so bioactive.
Macha (Green Tea): On a recent visit to the USA, I was surprised to find that green tea has taken on an almost mythical status as an anti-aging super food, due to its high concentration of antioxidants. The active ingredient in green tea is catechin polyhenols, which have been proven and documented (see Wikipedia.com on the subject) to inhibit certain types of cancer, reduce cholesterol levels, and generally boost your immune and nervous systems. Ideally you should try to drink at least a cup or two of green tea daily, but remember that it contains caffeine, so drinking later in the evening may give you insomnia – unless you’re working on a deadline, in which case it’s perfect!