Kyushoku: The Familiar School Lunch for Japanese Kids
What is Kyushoku?
Kyushoku is lunch provided by the school system in Japanese elementary and middle schools. It is served at a specific time of day and the homeroom teacher and classmates all eat together. When the system was initially implemented, the objective was to improve nutritional health of children in the post-war period. Nowadays the kyushoku system also has the added purpose of teaching healthy eating habits and to provide better understanding and education of food culture. https://www.flickr.com, Top: https://www.flickr.com
When and Where did the Kyushoku Lunch Start?
It is said that this lunch system started in 1889 at the private school, Chuai Elementary school. The school offered classes and even the kyushoku lunch free of charge to the children of poor families. Eventually, the kyushoku system spread to various other areas in Japan. In 1932 the government stepped in to help fund the school lunch system to support children of poor families.
It was after World War II that the children all over Japan were eating kyushoku at school, as they do currently. It was around 1952 when kyushoku was served all over Japan and the parent or guardian of each student became responsible for the full cost of kyushoku.
The Changing Kyushoku Menus
The menu from the first school kyushoku of 1889, had onigiri (rice ball), salted grilled salmon and pickled vegetables. When the kyushoku system was implemented all over Japan in 1947, milk (nonfat powdered milk) was offered with the kyushoku lunch. The nonfat powdered milk was served as a drink with powdered milk dissolved in hot water. It was not easy to drink and it was not a popular drink among children. It was served until 1964 when the drink was replaced with actual milk.
Around 1950, the kyushoku started seeing a larger variety of dishes. In 1976 rice started being served in the kyushoku. Nowadays, a well balanced diet of bread or rice, milk and other side dishes are offered at most public or private schools.
Additionally, not only are there standard menus but depending on the region, they will offer regional dishes using local ingredients. So there is an extremely wide variety to the dishes served.
Top Two Kyushoku Dishes that You Should Try in Japan
1. Age Pan (Fried Bread Rolls)
This is a sweet dessert roll – it is a fried bread roll that is flavored with sugar, kinako (ground soy) or cocoa powder. It was a favorite dessert menu when I was a student in elementary and middle school.
The age pan is also sold at ordinary bakeries, or age pan specialty stores. It is a classic dish offered for kyushoku and is favored by children and grownups alike.
2. Soft Noodles
It is a type of noodle that was developed for school kyushoku lunches. In the 1960s, it was developed to offer a larger variety of staple dishes in the school kyushoku. The noodles come in a bag, which is split into portions of 2 or 4, and it is eaten dipped in a broth/dip that comes on the side. Depending on the region, there are different types of seasonings such as the standard type of broth for noodles (men-tsuyu), curry, Bolognese sauce, etc.
3 Stores in Tokyo Where You Can Eat Kyushoku
So now you must be wondering… “I’d love to try the Japanese kyushoku but is there a place where I can try it?” Of course, there are places where you can eat the kyushoku. Even among Japanese, there are adults who feel nostalgic for the past and want to eat kyushoku. For such individuals, the restaurants below will grant those wishes, although they are not actual schools.
If you visit, you will surely get the feel of a Japanese elementary school student.
1. Kyushoku Toban (Kyushoku Duty)
You can have a full course meal of kyushoku with dishes like “age pan” and “soft noodles” that will really take you back to your school days. Within the restaurant they have a party room that is designed like a class room. If you have 4 or more people in your party, you can have a private party. Official: http://kyusyokutoban.jp/
2. 6 Nen 4 Kumi (6th Grade Class 4)
This is an izakaya that replicates the class room environment. There is the headmaster’s room, the music room, science room and variety of rooms, furniture, props, and even details like sound effects that accurately replicate a Japanese elementary school. You can surely get the full experience of a Japanese elementary school student if you visit this restaurant.
The restaurant has several locations around Japan such as Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka. Official: http://www.6nen4kumi.com/
3. Dagashi Bar (Snack Bar)
This is a bar with all-you-can eat dagashi (cheap and popular Japanese snacks) with a Showa Period (1926-1989) style retro interior.
There are several locations in Tokyo, and in Kanagawa Prefecture as well. Official: http://www.dagashi-bar.com/
Places to Go to Learn More About Kyushoku!
Historical Museum of Gakko Kyushoku
The place we recommend for those of you that want to learn more about the kyushoku is the Gakko Kyushoku Rekishi Kan (Historical Museum of Gakko Kyushoku) that opened in 2010 in Saitama Prefecture. Here you will see posters and replicas of past kyushoku foods on display. You will get to see information and the history on kyushoku. Information: Map
If you come to Japan, we invite you to go to the restaurants introduced above to experience kyushoku, a type of unique food culture to Japan. It may be interesting to make a comparison with the type of lunch you eat in your home country.