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!

A Food Lover’s Tour of Japan – Hiroshima’s Famous Okonomiyaki

May is a beautiful time to visit Japan. The air is fragrant and the mild, sunny weather makes it perfect for sightseeing. One of the most famous places in Japan is Hiroshima, and this month we explore its signature dish, Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, along with some history and culture about the area.

Hiroshima Prefecture is located in the Chugoku Region of Japan, at the western-most end of Honshu Island, which is Japan’s main island. On the west coast, the Chugoku Region is bound by the Sea of Japan, and on the east coast, by the Seto Inland Sea. Hiroshima Prefecture lies in the center of this region, bordered by the Seto Inland Sea on the east and the Chugoku Mountains along the northern border of the prefecture.

Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima

Five areas comprise Hiroshima Prefecture, including the Hiroshima City area, the Miyajima Area, Onomichi/Fukuyama Area, Northern Hiroshima Prefecture and Bihoku Area. Each of these diverse areas offer travelers and foodies much to experience!

Known as the “City of Water” because of the six rivers that flow through it, Hiroshima City lies at the coast of the Seto Inland Sea and serves as the administrative center of the prefecture. The city was originally founded by Terumoto Mōri in the 16th century as a feudal town, and served as gateway through the mountain passes in the north and an important trade center along the sea coast. Hiroshima City is famous for many things–from the fresh oysters that have been cultivated there since ancient times, grilled to perfection, to the rich cultural diversity brought by traders. Visiting Hiroshima City today means visiting Hiroshima Castle, Shukkei-en Garden and the red Taho-to Tower at Mitaki-dera Temple, as well as the Genbaku Dome and Peace Memorial Park.

A street vendor selling hiroshimayaki sits among other food stands

Miyajima Island, formally known as Itsukushima Island, is famous for the awesome sight of Mt. Misen and the glorious Itsukushima Shrine. Mt. Misen is considered one of the most beautiful spots from which to view the islands of the Seto Inland Sea and from which to enjoy the virgin forests that are designated as a national natural monument.  When not climbing the peak, visiting the Itsukushima Shrine and the accompanying Ōtorii or Grand Gate are a must. Both were built in 593 and to this day, seem to float in the waters of the sea itself! Depending on when you travel, don’t miss the Water Fireworks extravaganza.

Miyajima Island is a ferry ride from the coast, and when returning to the mainland, visiting the Onomichi / Fukuyama area provides a wonderful trip to a scenic port town and temples from which to enjoy the view. And in autumn, when the maple leaves dramatically change colors, trekkers flock to Northern Hiroshima Prefecture and the Bihoku area to climb in and out of the valleys and ravines, catching glimpses of the sea and mountains.

Making Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki

Traveling all over Hiroshima Prefecture is sure to whet your appetite! Along with fresh, grilled oysters, Hiroshima is famous for its okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a portmanteau from “okonomi” which means “as you like it” and “yaki” which means “grilled”. The Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, also known as hiroshimayaki, was conceived of in the 1950s, during which time it provided inexpensive food for the population recovering from World War II. Hiroshimayaki is made by layering ingredients, as opposed to mixing finely chopped ingredients into the thicker pancake-like batter as is popular in the Osaka area. The traditional form of hiroshimayaki is a thin layer of crepe, dried bonito powder, shredded cabbage, tempura scraps, thinly sliced green onions and bean sprouts topped with pork belly and another layer of crepe. Once that has cooked, it’s further topped with yakisoba noodles stir-fried in okonomiyaki sauce and a fried egg. All of which is further topped with more sauce, mayonnaise and dried green seaweed powder.

Want to make the resulting goodness? Try out our recipe for Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-Style! It’s easy to make using our electric griddles and so very satisfying!

As always, share your pictures with us…and tell us how you like to top your okonomiyaki!