A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Miyazaki for Shochu & Nikumaki Onigiri

As the seasons bring cold weather, we travel to Miyazaki Prefecture, located in the southern region of Kyushu in Japan, for its relaxed pace and pastoral lifestyle. Miyazaki Prefecture borders the Pacific Ocean on the east and is surrounded by mountains–many volcanic–to the north, west and south. The central part of the prefecture is cattle country, where wild horses roam and prized wagyu beef is bred. And in its northwestern region, legends about the birth of Japan abound.

We start our tour this month in Miyazaki City, the political, economic, cultural and administrative center of the prefecture. Less than half a million people reside in Miyazaki City, yet the city offers numerous traditional and modern experiences. The city is fabled as the home of Japan’s first divine emperor, Jimmu, who was said to have lived during the 7th century BCE. The Hakko Ichiu Pillar was erected in the Miyazaki Culture Park in the 1940s to commemorate his rule and the “birth of Japan” and is a beautiful monument to visit along with art museums, science centers and museums focused on nature and history. Miyazaki City also boasts an impressive torii gate made entirely of cedar wood at the Miyazaki Shrine.

Takachiho gorge

From Miyazaki City, traveling north and to the west takes you into the Kyushu Mountains, where the Gokase River has carved the Takachiho Gorge through mountains and solitary forests. Going through the gorge, you see sheer red lava rock walls and Manai Falls, which drop water from 56 feet high to mist the passage along the river. Here, in the gorge, the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu escaped her brother to burst forth through the mountains, bringing the sun and life to the earth and founding the line of the emperors of Japan.

Traveling from the Takachiho area to the southwestern part of the prefecture takes us into the Ebino Plateau Area, where high lakes dot the volcanic highlands. From here, we go through the central part of Miyazaki Prefecture, where prized Japanese Black cattle, or Kuroge Washu, are bred for their succulent, marbled beef and where you can find hundreds of ancient kofun burial mounds from the 4th century BCE. The Nichinan Coast along the Pacific Ocean boasts beautiful beaches and is the launch point for Aoshima Island, famous for the basalt rock formations called the Devil’s Washboard. These rock formations hide under the sea until low tide, when their striped patterns can be seen far into the ocean.

The Devil’s Washboard in Miyazaki Prefecture

While Miyazaki Prefecture is slower-paced than areas with megalopolis like Tokyo and Kyoto, it is famous for its gourmet foods. Taiyo no Mango, one of Japan’s most exclusive fruits, is famous for being the most expensive mango in the world. These mangoes are cultivated on trees grown in greenhouses, where the fruit is ripened until it falls off the tree and sold for thousands of dollars! Shochu is also famously produced in this region, and the highly regarded distilled alcohol is paired with many local delicacies. Perhaps one of the most quintessential Miyazaki foods is nikumaki onigiri, a simple rice ball wrapped in thinly sliced pork. Cooked, salted rice is shaped into small balls and wrapped with raw, thinly sliced strips of pork. The rice ball is cooked until the meat is tender and juicy, and then basted with a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sugar, enhancing the savoriness of the meat.

We know you’ll love this dish as much as we do, and can’t wait to see your comments and photos below!

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Asakusa Area, Tokyo

We’ve waited many months, but our Food Lover’s Tour of Japan finally brings us to Tokyo!

The capital of Japan, Tokyo is a bustling megalopolis, housing millions of people and serving as one of the economic, industrial, governmental and cultural centers of Japan. The city of Tokyo consists of 23 wards and two island archipelagos, with world-famous locations such as Shinjuku, Ginza, Shibuya, Tsukiji, Akihabara, Harajuku and Ikebukuro for their unique open-air markets and luxury shops, arts, nightlife, architecture and of course, restaurants. Attractions such as the Meiji Shinto Shrine, the Imperial Palace, which is surrounded by a picturesque moat and breathtaking gardens, Edo Castle and the iconic intersection at Shibuya Station draw thousands of people every year.

Akihabara at night

One of the most famous areas of Tokyo is the Asakusa Area, home of traditional Edo-era living and the Senso-ji Temple, which was built in 628 by two fishermen who saw the image of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in the Sumida River and sought to enshrine the area. To understand Asakusa’s significance, it’s important to understand Tokyo’s history. Tokyo is situated on an alluvial plain in the fertile Kanto Region of Japan, with many rivers and tributaries that drain into Tokyo Bay. In Neolithic times, this area was settled by fishers, hunters and gatherers, who thousands of years later learned to cultivate rice. They practiced an animist-based religion called Shinto. While ancient Tokyo remained a small set of villages, Japanese government and culture thrived in the Kansai Region, where Kyoto, the then capital of the Imperial State, flourished. Kyoto influenced Tokyo during feudal times, when the daimyo, or feudal warrior lords, were sent to the various regions of Japan to rule on behalf of the Divine Emperor. During this period, Tokugawa Ieyasu established a government in the area, drained the alluvial waterways and swampland, built Edo Castle and invested in the growth and development of the villages.

Over time, Edo grew, and absorbed the Asakusa Area into its city borders, and during the Meiji Restoration period, the city became the capital of Japan.

The Kaminari-mon Gate in Asakusa

Today, the Senso-ji Temple is still a prime destination for visitors to Japan. The Kaminari-mon Gate is a sight to see, with its bright red paper lantern adorned with the symbol for the God of Wind and the God of Thunder. Leading up to the temple is Nakamise-dori Street, where shops sell beautifully crafted paper artifacts as well as traditional snacks. And along with Sumida Park and a burgeoning entertainment district, Asakusa has many restaurants and eateries, and of course, a signature delicacy!

Kaminari-okoshi is a snack that can be purchased from street vendors along the route to the Kaminari-mon Gate of Senso-ji Temple. These snacks are made by roasting sweet rice until it pops, then mixing the puffy rice with sugar syrup and other ingredients such as peanuts. The mixture is formed into squares or rectangles for easy eating. The name of the snack stems from the Kaminari-mon Gate and “okoshi”, which means to establish a family or name, and is therefore thought of as a good luck item!

Kaminari-okoshi is hard to find in the US, but our Crispy Rice Bricks come close. Similar to rice crispy treats, our Crispy Rice Bricks are made with puffed rice and sweet additions…and we hope that as you make them, you’ll remember Asakusa and the good-luck souvenir kaminari-okoshi!

Be sure to share your comments and photos below!

 

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Tacorice in Multicultural Okinawa Prefecture

Sun, sea, nature, culture… Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture in Japan, and our destination this month as we continue our Food Lover’s Tour of Japan!

Comprised of 160 islands, 49 of which are inhabited, Okinawa was the ancestral home of the Ryukyu Kingdom and is a modern epicenter of Japanese tourism, trade and arts. Okinawa has been at the crossroads of trade with China, mainland Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia since the 15th century. From that time until the 19th century, Okinawa was known as the independent Kingdom of Ryukyu, where arts, crafts, architecture, food, culture and trade flourished.

Okinawa Prefecture consists of large islands and smaller archipelagos, including the largest and main island called Okinawa, the Yaeyama Archipelago, the Miyako Archipelago, Kerama Island and the closest inhabited islands surrounding the main island of Okinawa.

Shuri Castle in Naha City

Naha City is the largest city in Okinawa, and is located in the southern part of the main island. This city is where the ancient seat of the Kingdom of Ryukyu was based at Shuri Castle. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shuri Castle, along with Shikina-en, the residence of the royal family, the Enkaku-ji Temple and Tamaudon, the royal mausoleum, are well worth visiting. Today, Naha City is the economic, political and transportation hub of Okinawa, and tourists can enjoy visiting the cultural sites as well as Kokusai Street. Considered “the kitchen of Okinawa”, Kokusai Street is a bustling place full of shops and restaurants and the Makishi Public Market, where grandmothers called “obaa” work at the food stalls. Naha City is also the port town from where one can travel to other parts of the prefecture.

For those wishing to stay on the main island, the northern and northwestern parts of the island offer numerous and varied experiences. In the far north, the famous Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium displays abundant marine life, like whale sharks, tropical fish, rays and corals in some of the largest tanks in the world. The aquarium works to protect endangered species and cultivates approximately 800 colonies of coral from nearby waters. The waters themselves are crystalline blue, and beaches stretching from the north all the way down the western coast are home to luxurious resorts and deep sea water spas. Hiking trails that frequently run within streams along mountains and fruit plantations are also abundant in this area.

Okinawa’s famous Churaumi AquariumThe southern part of Okinawa Island lends itself to agriculture, especially the cultivation of sugarcane, and to cave exploration, especially in the Gyokusendo Caves. In ancient times, this area was the religious center of the Ryukyu Kingdom and in present time, is home to peace memorial parks and museums dedicated to those who lost their lives during World War II. The Cornerstone of Peace, located at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Park, lists the names of all who were lost, regardless of nationality and age, in the hopes that today’s generations work to prevent war.

The central part of Okinawa Island is the most multicultural of all. The United States still maintains military bases there, and trade with China and Southeast Asia continues in the region. The culture here is “chanpuru” or mixed, and the cities showcase shops, restaurants, movie theaters and entertainment complexes with signs in English as well as in Japanese. Central Okinawa is also said to be the birthplace of karate, and many martial arts dojos are open for extensive training. Eisa dancing, sanshin music, and traditional architecture also flourish in this part of the island. One of the most unique things about Okinawa, especially in this region is its signature dish–taco rice.

Zojirushi’s Taco Rice Bowl

Legend has it that taco rice was invented for American military men when restaurants in Okinawa didn’t have the wherewithal to make taco shells. They sautéed ground beef with taco seasonings and piled it on top of cooked Japanese white rice. Toppings such as cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and rarely salsa, completed the dish. Matsuzo Gibo is credited with the invention of the dish, and founded two restaurants–King Taco and Parlor Senri–both of which claim ownership of the dish. Original taco rice may be hard to find in the US, but our recipe of preparing it at home is easy. Check out the simple way to make a Taco Rice Bowl, Zojirushi-style. All you need is ground beef, seasonings, rice and toppings!

We hope you enjoyed reading about Okinawa Prefecture and as always, share your comments and photos below!

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Hokkaido Prefecture with Rich, Savory Genghis Khan

We’re exploring Hokkaido Prefecture this month on our Food Lover’s Tour!

Hokkaido Prefecture is the northernmost prefecture in Japan, covering the entire island of Hokkaido. Hokkaido Prefecture is home to incredible natural landscapes, thriving metropolises and the ancestral home of the indigenous Ainu people.

Sapporo is the largest city in Hokkaido, and serves as the prefecture’s capital. Sapporo is located on the island’s west coast, serving as a center for the academia, finance, government and trading companies in the northern part of Japan. More popularly, Sapporo is known of its beer and festivals. One of the highlights of a visit to Sapporo includes Odori Park, which stretches from east to west along the city center. Odori Park is the perfect representation of Sapporo, and Hokkaido as a whole, full of art, nature and culture.

One of the best ways to experience Hokkaido is to travel around the island, and in our post this month, we take a virtual trip along the coast. The natural landscape has defined Hokkaido Prefecture for hundreds of years. One of the most volcanic areas in Japan, lakes that never freeze and onsen hot springs abound, along with fertile areas inland and off the shores. Traveling up the west coast of the island leads us to Wakkanai, the northernmost city in Japan. Wakkanai is sandwiched by the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk, serving as a port city and launching point to Hokkaido’s outer islands of Rebun and Rishiri, as well as Cape Noshappu and Cape Soya. These areas, all the way southeast to Mombetsu and Abashiri, are where ice floes float in the ocean. Inland is Asahikawa, where both traditional and modern arts and crafts are practiced, and where travelers can launch their explorations into the surrounding Furano and Sounkyo Gorge areas, is lush with wildflowers, forests and mountains. Japan’s unique fauna can also be experienced in the Kushiro area, along the eastern coast of the island. And as we travel to the southern areas, visitors can view seals frolicking along foggy and windy Cape Erimo. The southern coast of Hokkaido is an area full of volcanic activity, especially onsen hot springs, and the Noboribetsu Primeval Forest. Visiting Hokadate is a must when in Hokkaido, as this trading port is a showcase of Japanese, British and Russian culture and architecture.

If a trip around the coast isn’t possible, then visiting the Matsumae area, where feudal history abounds, and the Shakotan area, where you can see down to the sea bed, are highlights. The Notsuke Peninsula offers ghostly landscapes of fir straw woods, and the central region of Biei, famous for landscapes full of multicolored flowers, trees, and hills.

Spending time in Hokkaido means enjoying the bounty of nature… and of eating well. Ramen, cod roe and other dishes are expertly prepared in this prefecture, but it is also famous for its signature dish, the Genghis Khan!

The Genghis Khan is a grilled lamb or mutton dish, made in dome-shaped grills reminiscent of Mongolian warrior helmets. The meat is sliced and cut to grill well, and is basted in a special sauce. Onions are usually grilled with this dish, and all of it is washed down with pints of beer.

Summer is a great time to for barbeque, and we highly recommend adding the Genghis Khan to your repertoire. Check out our recipe, which can be easily made using our indoor electric grills.

We hope you enjoyed learning about Hokkaido Prefecture and as always, share your comments below!

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Gifu Prefecture and Savory Gohei Mochi

Our Food Lover’s Tour continues this month in Gifu Prefecture, home of the famous gohei mochi!

Located in Central Japan, Gifu Prefecture represents so many facets of the Japanese landscape and the diverse culture of this area.

The northern part of Gifu Prefecture is mountainous, covered by large swathes of alpine forests, ideal for skiing in the winter and trekking in the summer. The central area of the prefecture boasts clear, fresh springs, caverns and local traditions. And the southern part of Gifu Prefecture is famous for traditional cormorant fishing, modern industry and the confluence of powerful rivers.

One of the most famous sights in Gifu Prefecture is Shirakawa-go, situated at the base of Mt. Haku-san. Shirakawa-go embodies ancient Japanese alpine life, with a river running through the village, nourishing rice fields, a temple, coalhouse and paddock to preserve the old village scenery and 114 traditional thatched roof homes, still occupied along with the more modern residences. Locals continue to practice traditional industrial arts such as weaving, dyeing and culinary arts such as making soba noodles and sake. UNESCO designated Shirakawa-go as a World Heritage Site in 1995.

When not enjoying the snow, visitors to Gifu Prefecture enjoy the onsen, or hot springs, predominantly found in Gero and Okuhida. The hot springs at Gero have been active since the 10th century, and are said to be effective in treating ailments. They’re even nicknamed the “springs for the beautiful” because the smoothness of the water is said to aid in beautifying skin tone and complexion. The Okuhida area also boasts hot springs, five of which are famous in Gifu Prefecture. These onsen–Hirayu, Fukuji, Shin-Hirayu, Tochio and Shin-Hotaka–are scattered along the base of the Japanese Alps, and are surrounded by incredible frozen waterfalls in winter and teeming rivers and white birch forests during warmer months.

The southern part of Gifu Prefecture is widely famous for cormorant fishing along the Nagara River, near Gifu City. This area prospered as a castle town during the 13th century, and to this day, the annual Tejikarao Fire Festival, when portable shrines are carried among a shower of sparks and paraded through the city in the spring. Also in the spring, traditionally beginning on May 11, cormorant fishing takes place along the river, a practice that has been taking place here since the 8th century. Cormorants are aquatic birds that have been trained to catch sweet ayu, a type of river trout. The fishing masters are recognized by the Japanese Imperial Household and showcase this type of fishing until the middle of October.

For those who crave more nightlife, the Okumino Area hosts the Gujo-odori, a dance festival that lasts for 32 nights, within this period, four days are termed “All-Night Dancing” and the participants dance the whole night from dusk until dawn! The Takayama Festival and Furukawa Festival also provide ample opportunity to party, with both festivals showcasing the craftsmanship and artistry of this area–including the production of washi paper and wood carvings—in the floats that are designed for the processions.

But Gifu Prefecture isn’t just about tradition. Many modern industries thrive in this area, from the serious aerospace business to the more whimsical production of plastic food displays. No matter what your interest–skiing, trekking, museums, architecture, onsen, or outer space–Gifu Prefecture has everything to offer…

… Including pleasure for your taste buds! Gohei mochi is a signature dish of this area and is made from cooked short-grain white rice, pounded and shaped onto a flat stick. The rice is then grilled and once crispy, coated with a walnut-miso paste and grilled again. The resulting snack is warm, savory and delicious… and best of all, easily made at home! You may try out this simple recipe!

We hope you enjoyed learning about Gifu Prefecture and as always, share your experience with us… and don’t forget the pictures of your gohei mochi!