The collection of islands called Japan spans nearly 7,000 landmasses; the four largest, called the home islands, make up 97% of the country’s land.
Nevertheless, as this Land of the Rising Sun extends from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Philippine Sea – more than 3,000 kilometres, climate, soil type and tradition have a lot to do with what people eat in any given region.
‘Region’ is a tricky word when applied to Japan.
This word does not apply to administrative divisions or seats of government. To wit, there are 47 prefectures throughout Japan; several in each region save Hokkaido, the name of both the region and the prefecture.
Furthermore, while there are eight High Courts in Japan, they are not assigned one to each declared region.
And then, there is even more confusion: should Okinawa, the southernmost island, be counted as a part of the Kyushu region as has traditionally been done, or does it deserve its own regional designation?
How are regions declared if not by land features or politics?
If you look at a map that marks out the regions, you’ll see that the Chubu region extends north, past the Kanto region and well into the Tohoku region.
The factors that define a region are environmental: weather and geography, as well as cultural and linguistic – each region has it’s own dialect.
Most importantly, because there is a heavy emphasis on freshness in Japanese cuisine, it is also an indicator of region: what might grow well in the northernmost island may not take at all in more southern latitudes.
Superprof now goes on the hunt to bring you iconic dishes from each of the regions of this most exotic country.
Get your chopsticks ready; from north to south... here we go!
Traditional Food in Hokkaido
Japan’s large northern island is home to about 5.5 million people and consists mainly of farmland and mountains.
The population is dotted throughout in small towns, with the bulk of citizens living in two major cities: Sapporo and Asahikawa. What do they like to eat?
The cold waters around this island are perfect for seafood and marine vegetation, so a visit there would treat you to some excellent sashimi and soups containing seaweed.
The expansive countryside permits extensive dairy operations so, should you go for a bowl of ramen – another regional favourite, don’t be surprised if it is served with a pat of butter on top.
Ramen is popular in every region of Japan but in Sapporo, you will likely enjoy them in a miso soup while in Asahikawa, you’ll find your noodles swimming in a soy sauce based broth.
As for produce, again the farmland is a trump card. Its soil and climate allow for a variety of vegetables; most famous are corn, potatoes and onions. Melons grow well there, too.
If you are looking for a memorable dining experience, find a place where you can sample Jingisukan: thin strips of meat and hearty veg straight off the grill.
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The Infamous Tohoku Region
Please don’t misunderstand: this area is beautiful; harsh in her weather and scenic with her wide vistas.
Sadly, most people don’t know the name of this region but they do know the name of one of its major cities: Fukushima, struck by an earthquake in 2011, which caused a nuclear disaster.
It is too bad that there is no focus on the foods in this region because, among all of the regional specialities, Tohoku foods are indeed outstanding.
Take, for instance, the dish called Salmon Child Rice - harako meshi; it underscores this region's most important culinary element. Nowhere else in the country does salmon feature as prominently as it does in Tohoku.
Another popular way to enjoy salmon is kelp-salmon rolls. are generally included in New Year oeshi boxes - those 'segregated' trays filled with delicious offerings.
Not all is salmon in Tohoku. You can also enjoy hearty stews and hot pots or perhaps the complex blending of flavours stuffed persimmons provide.
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The Kanto Region: Do You Know It?
Most Japanese people from that region do not necessarily identify themselves as Kanto.
Instead, Tokyo is the big name and the identification of the area’s authentic Japanese cuisine. Other areas include Chiba, Saitama, Tochigi and Gunma.
What can you find to eat in Tokyo? Just about anything!
As this city, formerly called Edo, was the country’s political centre for more than four centuries, most of the foods that originated in the Edo period have become standard fare throughout the country and certainly throughout the region.
Local food creations are called Edo-mae; a nod to Tokyo bay from which the city’s seafood historically came from.
If you are a sushi lover, you have to try nigiri-zushi – a fresh slice of fish laid over a small ball of rice. Originally served at fast food outlets, it has graduated to being a menu item in the finest sushi restaurants in the city.
Tempura also got its start there. Initially, only vegetables were so breaded and fried; it was much later that seafood received its golden, crunchy coat. Today, everything can be battered in tempura.
Other regional specialities include:
- Soba: these buckwheat noodles are popular all over Japan but Tokyo’s dipping sauce is a bit different than the norm.
- Chankonabe: a protein-rich hot pot; the staple of sumo wrestlers!
- Tsukudane: small morsels preserved in soy sauce and sweet sake; served as an accompaniment of rice.
- Wagashi: small cakes filled with red bean paste, often in the shape of something cute – the Japanese love their sweets almost as much as they love their cute!
Is this what could be considered traditional Japanese food?
Japanese Cuisine in Chubu: The Middle Region
“… a concept you should really become familiar with; it’s called unagi” – Ross Gellar, Friends
The Chubu region is bookended by two historic and ancient cities: Tokyo and Kyoto. Unlike other regions, its 9 prefectures have little in common with one another.
Also unlike other regions, this part of Japan has borrowed little in the way of culinary expression from its neighbours, making the food there unique.
Nagoya is the largest city of the region and its cuisine is more hearty; in line with what we would consider comfort food. Take, for instance, Misokatsu.
It starts out as an ordinary tonkatsu dish – the panko coated, deep-fried cutlet typically served with cabbage salad and rice. But, rather than the delicate sauce traditionally served with this meal, the offering is covered in a thick miso sauce.
This region’s cuisine is also identified by its soups.
Misonikomi is a hearty hot pot creation replete with thick noodles more reminiscent of dumplings than udon, the most popular type of noodle in Japan.
Kishimen noodles are flat and broad like udon and are served in a fish-based soup or chilled and accompanied with a dipping sauce.
Are you wondering about the unagi reference above?
Nagoya is the country’s largest producer of unagi (freshwater eel); thus it comes as no surprise that it is the centrepiece of this region’s signature dish.
Hitsumabushi is grilled eel covered in a rich, dark sauce and served with rice and various condiments. A small pot of broth accompanies the meal.
On the other hand, if all you want is an ice-cold beer and something to nibble on, you might prefer tebasaki: unbattered, deep-fried chicken wings that are salty, spicy, crispy and crunchy.
Look for the ones that are dusted with sesame seeds for an unforgettable taste sensation.
Kansai By Any Other Name
This region is blessed with two names, the other being Kinki. Because many visitors to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Shiga tend to giggle at the second appellation, it is often more formally designated as Kansai.
What can you find to eat there?
As this region includes the city of Kobe, fabled for its high-quality beef, you would be in for a treat to sample any dish prepared with certified genuine Kobe beef – either from a street vendor or in a Japanese restaurant.
The way to recognise whether you are eating authentic Kobe beef is to look for official certification; it should be prominently displayed.
Kobe is just one third of the story; Osaka and Kyoto join in to form a legendary regional cuisine.
Obanza Ryori is what is generally served in households throughout this area; it consists of many small, simply prepared dishes that emphasise local seasonal produce.
Shojin Ryori is fare that reflects a monk’s austerity.
Because of the Buddhist tenet of not harming any living beings, these meals are vegetarian. Protein is derived from tofu and other soybean creations such as bean curd. Far from its bland reputation, these foods are quite tasty and filling.
At the high end of the dining experience comes Kaiseki Ryori, whose origins stem from the traditional tea ceremony. Subtlety is the key factor in this cuisine; seasonal produce is delicately flavoured and elegantly presented.
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Traditional Japanese Food from Chugoku
Here again, people may not be as familiar with the region’s name as they are with its principal city, Hiroshima.
It is rather interesting that this region’s name, written in Kanji, is Middle Kingdom... exactly the same as China’s. For that reason, this area is also known by an alternate name: Sanin-Sanyo.
This area accounts for around 70% of Japan’s total oyster production. A typical donburi (rice bowl) in this area consists of oysters on a bed of rice.
You can also taste your share of oysters on the Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki, a grilled battercake topped with cabbage and Yakisoba noodles as well as oysters.
If you’re looking for a spicy meal, tsukemen would suit perfectly.
These noodles are served cold, the perfect vehicle for the sauce, of which you get to choose the degree of spiciness. They are accompanied by sliced meats, eggs, cabbage or leeks.
Momijimanju are small cakes shaped like a maple leaf and filled with red bean paste.
They were originally hand-crafted to celebrate the local maple tree viewing; today they are mass-produced and available with a wide assortment of fillings.
Shikoku: Udon Paradise
This region’s major food is the udon noodle; in its simplest incarnation, they are served in a dashi broth with scallions for garnish. You may choose to top it off with prawn tempura or deep-fried tofu. Often, a thin fish cake accompanies the meal.
Seared bonito, a type of mackerel, is also a regional favourite.
What this area is really renowned for is its citrus fruits. The yuzu, in particular, enjoys great popularity, with everything from juice to sweets being so flavoured.
Because this area is sparsely populated, there is little in the way of remarkable in this regions culinary repertoire but, if you’re feeling really adventurous, you could try udon ice cream! Yes, it is topped with spring onions.
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Kyushu, North and South
The third-largest and southernmost of the Japanese islands is home to several distinctive cuisines, one of them indigenous to Kagoshima.
This style of cooking is also known as Satsuma-ryori after that area’s former name, what we call a certain citrus fruit that comes from there.
One of the area’s signature dishes is called satsumaage; it consists of deep-fried fish paste, perhaps served with vegetables or pickled ginger.
Keeping with fish as a staple food, you may also find a sashimi called kibinago, served with a vinegar-soybean paste.
From there, we leap to torisashi, a sashimi of chicken... including the heart. Naturally, as this meat is eaten raw, it must be very fresh.
If you prefer to eat cooked flesh, kurobuta or kuroushi would probably satisfy. They are pork and beef, respectively. The pork’s ancestry is particularly remarkable; the animals were imported from Berkshire!
You can eat this pork as tonkatsu or in a hot pot. The beef is generally served as a western-style steak.
On the northern end of the island, Fukuoka enjoys a more diverse cuisine due to its proximity to the Asian mainland.
Therefore, you will more commonly find ramen dishes and gyoza, or pan-fried dumplings.
Thin circles of dough encircling ground pork, cabbage and spring onion, these dumplings are Chinese in origin, as is the motsunabe, a hot pot made up of tripe (beef or pork), cabbage, chives and peppers.
Unlike Chinese food, most Japanese cuisine uses little garlic but this dish does include it, giving further testament to this region’s melding of other cultures’ tastes into their own.
Okinawa, a Melting Pot of World Cuisines
Nowhere else in Japan are you likely to find taco rice or yaga sashimi – raw goat’s meat presented in the same manner as the more popular raw fish dish.
Umibudo, meaning ‘sea grapes’ is the type of seaweed that does look like grape clusters. It is usually served as a side dish and takes little to prepare; only tossing it with vinegar and a bit of salt.
Mimiga and rafute, two pork dishes make use of that animal’s parts that aren’t typically considered in the gastronomical mainstream, namely the ears and the belly.
While rafute (boiled pig belly meat) originated in the Ryukyu royal court, the crunchy pig ears most likely came from another Asian country as the dish is overwhelmingly popular throughout the continent.
Finally, there is tofuyo: aged, fermented tofu. As it is very pungent, it is only served in very small portions and generally speared and eaten with a toothpick.
What is absolutely amazing about Japan is her culinary diversity.
While the Japanese people may worship in the same way and live their lives according to the same cultural mores, what they eat breaks with that overarching sameness to give each region its own, distinct flavour.
Surely they are all tastes worth exploring...
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