In praise of the local
Regional delicacies to be savoured across the islands
FOR years I have ridden my bicycle past an udon noodle shop called Men-me, in the castle city of Himeji in western Japan. Sometimes Tanimoto-san, the owner, waves to me, his hands powdered white with rice flour, his forearms knotty and sinewed from rolling dough for more than three decades. Black-and-white woodblock prints adorn the walls of Men-me, some depicting the nearby 500-year-old samurai castle to which tourists troop past his shop daily. Tanimoto-san pounds, presses and cuts his dough into delectable, firm and silky-smooth noodles every day to feed these visitors. In winter, his udon comes in steaming bowls of bonito broth with seaweed, tempura and tofu toppings; in summer, it appears on bamboo platters with a tangy dipping sauce and chilled beer.
Japan is filled with such small and unexpected gourmet adventures, though I would have never thought so when I arrived in Himeji 17 years ago; failure to understand a menu used to result in the likes of raw chicken hearts being delivered to my table. These days, many more English-speaking staff and English-language menus mean visitors can order with confidence. Also be aware local cuisine differs markedly throughout the islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa, and is strongly influenced by the seasons. So, as winter fades to spring, here are eight dishes that offer a taste of the archipelago.
NABE-MONO, ACROSS JAPAN: Versatile, easy-to-prepare and healthy, this is Japan’s favourite winter dish. Nabemono simply means hot pot food and, with regional differences in climate and availability of ingredients, visitors usually are pleasantly surprised. By region, expect salmon and miso broth in Hokkaido; udon, chicken, squash and Chinese cabbage in Tokyo; venison, burdock, shiitake mushroom and tofu in western Honshu; blowfish with citrus soy in Kyushu; duck or wild boar and dumplings made from buckwheat in Shikoku. Or, in the case of chanko-nabe, which is what sumo wrestlers eat to fatten up, all of the above. More: jnto.org.au.
TAKO-YAKI OCTOPUS DUMPLINGS, AKASHI: This is a specialty of the Kansai region, which takes in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and surrounding areas. Octopus dumplings are best sampled in Akashi, a small port city a short train ride west of Kobe. It is home to octopus cuisine and the world’s longest central-span suspension bridge, connecting Honshu with the island of Awaji. My favourite is Izumo, a busy daytime-only restaurant where defthanded cooks pour endless jugs of smooth batter into hot iron moulds, inserting each with a chunk of fresh octopus. When they are crisp and golden, they are whisked to your table in sets of 12 with steaming bonito soup and a dark savoury sauce as condiments. Izumo is a local favourite and would-be diners are sometimes forced into nearby Uo-no-tana (Fish Shelf Street), a lively seafood market, where many other tako-yaki restaurants can be found. An octopus sometimes escapes its monger’s tubs and makes a quick getaway across the street. The sea lies preciously close. More: feel-kobe.jp.
YATAI DISHES, FUKUOKA: In Fukuoka, capital of Kyushu island, small mobile restaurants known as yatai open along the banks of the Naka River each evening. Dining often means sitting down as a stranger but leaving feeling like a local — conversation with fellow diners is an integral part of yatai dining. Hakata ramen in pork bone broth, grilled squid (ika-yaki) and Chinese dumplings (gyoza) are popular standards. The small, tented Ipei, which overlooks the river, serves wonderful blowfish (fugu) tempura and you can enjoy watching the fish jump on the incoming tide as the chef prepares your order. To drink, try Black Mist Island (Kurokiri-shima) shochuu, a spirit distilled from sweet potato and popular among Kyushu residents. Edamame beans are the perfect accompaniment. More: visitkyushu.org/fukuoka-yatai.
WAGYU BEEF, KOBE: At the equivalent of about $130 for 500gm, no one disputes that the insanely tender, heavily marbled meat, with a melting point far below others, is the world’s most expensive. The cost lies in the conditioning. Wagyu cattle are raised in carefully controlled environments, grain-fed, and given beer in summer to stimulate their appetite. Sake is also brushed into their coats to soften their skin, and regular massages are given to produce a “happier, more contented” beast. The truth lies in the tasting, and at Wakkoqu (“Japanese black”), a popular steakhouse in downtown Kobe, you can savour a 130gm steak lunch with side dishes for about $50. More: wakkoqu.com.english/.
KAISEKI, KYOTO: Steeped in the ancient traditions of the tea ceremony, kaiseki-ryori defines Japanese haute cuisine and is best experienced in the old capital of Kyoto, where atmospheric ryotei, tea houses and ryokan inns abound. While the number of elaborately prepared dishes can range from eight to 15, depending on the establishment, they will almost always include an aperitif (shokuzen-shu), soup (suimono), sashimi (otsukuri), and lacquered dishes containing tasty morsels that have been simmered (nimono), grilled (yakimono), deep-fried (agemono), steamed (mushimono) and vinegared (sunomono). Miso soup, rice and pickles (tsukemono) are served towards the end of the meal, with a seasonal fruit or sorbet to finish. Authentic kaiseki commands prices between $100 to $400 for dinner, but lunch represents better value. Wakuden, inside Kyoto train station, serves kaiseki lunches from about $30. Stay at a Kyoto ryokan and a kaiseki-style dinner is usually provided. Seryo, perched in the misty northern foothills next to Sanzen-in temple, is my recommendation. More: wakuden.jp; seryo.co.jp/english.
OKONOMIYAKI, HIROSHIMA: Half pancake, half pizza, this humble postwar snack has evolved into one of
Street stalls along the river bank, Fukuoka, top; cooking okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, above right; kaiseki food in Kyoto, above