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!