Regional cuisine makes up a large part of the identity of Japan's cities and prefectures. Here, Japan specialist, Katherine Welland has put together some of her favourite dishes and places to eat.
Japanese Local Cuisine
If, like me, you're a real food fanatic and love to sample local delicacies, then Japan will certainly not disappoint. With Tokyo having just landed the title of the Michelin food capital of the world (boasting an impressive 191 Michelin stars), Japan has been internationally recognised for its gastronomic splendour. But it is not just Japan's capital that is home to outstanding food.
Regional cuisine makes up a large part of the identity of Japan's cities and prefectures. When I was living and travelling in Japan, friends would always advise me to try the speciality dishes of the many areas that I visited. These area-specific speciality dishes are widely televised on Japan's many cooking shows, meaning that most Japanese people are very knowledgable about the fantastic variety of cuisine available and often automatically associate cities and prefectures with the food that they are famous for.
There are plenty of authentic Japanese dishes to try so what better way to explore Japan than to eat your way around it! Here are some of the famous specialities dishes from some of my favourite food-spots in Japan:
Hiroshima & Miyajima Island
Hiroshima is famous for its take on okonomiyaki, which is a speciality in Osaka. Okonomiyaki literally means 'cook what you like', and that's exactly what you do! Usually you can choose from a selection of fresh fish, meat and vegetables to put into a savoury pancake, which you then cook yourself on a hotplate at your table. In Hiroshima, udon or soba noodles are added to your pancake to make hiroshimayaki. On Miyajima Island, you will find various varieties of momiji manju, small maple leaf shaped sponges traditionally filled with sweet red bean paste (anko). Nowadays you can find fillings such as custard, green tea, chocolate, black sesame and even cheese.
People associate the northern island of Hokkaido with its unusually large and succulent crabs, which are often cooked with vegetables in a traditional Japanese-style hotpot (nabe), or bataa ramen, a buttery noodle soup containing tender cuts of pork, plenty of sweet corn and a sprinkling of finely chopped spring onions.
Kyoto, Japan's cultural capital is famed for its matcha, green tea powder used in traditional tea ceremonies. Nowadays it is also used to flavour cakes, ice creams and other deserts. Particularly noteworthy are Kyoto's matcha parfaits - delicious desserts packed with layered vanilla and green tea ice-cream, green tea sponge and different varieties of wagashi - another of Kyoto's specialities. Wagashi are traditional Japanese confectionary usually served with matcha green tea to balance the slightly bitter taste. Typically, wagashi consist of mochi, soft floury rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste, though there are many different varieties of sweets including youkan - sweet jelly cubes made from bean paste, agar and sugar.
Obuse, in the Japanese Alps, is the town in which the wood block artist Hokkusai spent his last days and is famed for its chestnut dishes. I recommend trying the delicious chestnut ice-cream and the steamed chestnut rice, both fine examples of how versatile the chestnut is, in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Osaka, in Japan's Kansai region, is famed for its takoyaki; octopus encased in a light, ginger and onion batter, rolled into balls and topped with a rich, dark sauce.
Located in the Hida region of Japan, Takayama is famous for its beef. The fat which is marbled through the cuts of meat makes Hida beef notoriously flavoursome and succulent - especially in a steak or in bite size pieces cooked on a coal grill (yakiniku). Takayama also boasts a dish called hoba miso, a soy bean miso paste packed full of fresh vegetables and meat, which is cooked on a leaf over a coal grill and then served on top of steaming sticky rice.
Tokyo is famous for its sushi. Home to the world’s biggest wholesale fish market, it is the city where the best cuts of fish are carved, auctioned and sold. You can sample some of the freshest fish inside the market at one of the famous sushi restaurants, amongst the hustle and bustle of morning trade. A fantastic experience and a breakfast not to be forgotten in a hurry.
The traditional post-town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley is renowned for its locally sourced food. Rice from the nearby rice paddy fields, wild trout caught daily from the river that runs through the town, and the local delicacy of bee larvae! The food served at the many ryokan inns in Tsumago is fresh, seasonal and full of variety - an absolute delight!