If I were to tell you, that once, no other country, save India, revered the cow as much as Japan, I could understand your disbelief. Today, we think of Japan as a meat-eating culture. However, this image is a product of the last 150 years of American influence. The traditional Japanese culture held the cow as the most sacred animal. What follows next is the true story of among the greatest protectors of the cow – the Samurai.
The Japanese also made a distinction between animals reared in the household and wild animals. To kill a wild animal such as a bird was sinful. However, to kill an animal raised from birth was considered abominable – tantamount to killing a member of the family. As such, the diet of the Japanese was mostly rice, noodles, fish, and on occasion wild fowl.
During the Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.), the Engishiki, a book of law and customs, required a period of fasting for up to three days as penance for eating meat. During this period of penance one was not to look at the deities of the Buddha as a sign of shame.
In subsequent centuries the Ise Shrine passed even stricter rules – one who ate meat must fast for 100 days, while one who ate with someone who ate meat must fast for 21 days, and one who ate with someone who ate with someone that ate meat must fast for 7 days. In this way, three layers of pollution were accounted for through penance due to the violence inherent in meat.
Among the aristocracy there is some evidence of milk consumption. There were instances where cream and butter were used for the payment of taxes. However, for the most part cows were protected for their own sake and allowed to roam around the royal gardens at peace.
One milk product we know the Japanese used was called ‘daigo’. The modern Japanese word ‘daigomi’ meaning “the very best part” is derived from this milk product. It is meant to evoke the feeling of deep flavor and pleasure. Symbolically it was seen as the final stage of purification towards enlightenment. The first mention of daigo is found in the Nirvana Sutra with the following recipe:
“From cows to fresh milk, fresh milk to cream, cream to curdled milk, curdled milk to butter, butter to ghee (daigo). Daigo is the best.” – Nirvana Sutra