Whet your appetite for travel and good food by exploring Japan’s new and old food traditions. From onsen cuisine to Japanese whiskey, the taste of terroir varies from region to region, valley to valley. Discover the history of wine-making and how beer got its start in Japan and how a small town in Aomori preserves its culinary heritage one dish at a time.
BY Joan Bailey
While Japan may at first appear to be a small set of islands, the variety of culinary charms is immense. From sea to mountains, from the farthest southern reaches of Okinawa to the northern tip of Hokkaido, there is something delicious to enjoy. Those exploring the elements that harness Japanese craftsmanship along with the culture’s attention to detail and seasonality will discover new culinary angles. In this article, we introduce some of the lesser-known delights to be explored and savored.
Japanese cuisine is based on core ingredients like fish or rice and national beverages or dishes, but each region also has their own take on these culinary essentials. Sometimes, simply traveling to the next valley or being closer to the coast results in a significant change in custom, climate, and subsequently, terroir. Exploring these is a gastronomic adventure that combines history, climate, geology, and ingenuity all in one menu.
It is exactly this kind of unique food heritage that Akatsuki no Kai* in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture aims to preserve. Established in 1995 by Ryoko Kudo, Akatsuki no Kai was born out of the dual desire to make the most of excess harvest and have healthy food options. Kudo noticed that the older generations in her town were incredibly healthy and long-lived, while members of her generation had a plethora of health issues. Recalling some of the old Tsugaru recipes, Kudo and a handful of friends made some. She realized the resulting dishes were unique as well as healthy. She began interviewing older residents to learn these recipes before they were lost.
Kudo also reasoned that the best way to preserve Tsugaru’s unique culinary heritage was to make and eat these dishes. One example, izushi, is an assortment of herring, sandfish, and salmon salted and fermented in a mixture of salt, malted rice, and regular rice. Another, sudako, is a Japanese-style ceviche of octopus, chrysanthemum petals and spinach. A third dish, a vegetable potage called kenoshiru, uses finely chopped root vegetables, wild plants, and freeze-dried tofu. Using recipes like this, the group, about 30 members strong, ranges in age from 20 to 80. They meet regularly to cook for each other as well as visitors and are happy to share the recipes, food, and stories that go with them.
Wine is a relatively recent arrival in Japan, although there are some records that state grape growing began in 718 A.D. in the Koshu Valley of Yamanashi Prefecture. Historians believe the variety dubbed the Koshu grape, came via the Silk Road about 1,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that Japan’s wine industry truly began to take shape.
The historic and current center of Japanese viticulture remains in Yamanashi Prefecture in Koshu where the grape first arrived. From its days as a stop on the Silk Road to a station on the Edo Period’s Kiso Kaido, it has long been a hub of activity, commerce, and ideas. The Koshu Valley is the beating heart of Japan’s viticulture industry and home to the handful of wineries growing and producing wine solely from their own grapes.
One such winery is Grace Wine. Founded in 1923 by Chotaro Misawa, Grace focuses on the Koshu grape for the nine types of wine it produces that range from a series of whites to rose to reds. Currently helmed by the seventh generation of the family, Ayane Misawa, who trained at vineyards in France and South Africa, the winery has begun to receive international recognition for its work. Their Cuvée Misawa Akeno Koshu 2013 garnered a gold medal at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards, an event billed as the world’s largest and most influential wine competitions.
For an overview of Japanese wine, look for tours departing from Tokyo or those run by local places to stay in Yamanashi. The Yamanashi Wine Taxi Tour offers personalized trips around the Koshu Valley while Japan Private Tour takes visitors from Tokyo to Yamanashi by train to visit wineries and historic sites.
While grapes may be one of Yamanashi Prefecture’s claims to fame, apples are part of the heritage of Nagano Prefecture. The mountainous terrain and home to the Japan Alps, the prefecture has been an ideal place for apples to grow since the mid-1850s. Primarily eaten fresh, the transition from eating apples to producing hard cider is relatively new to Japan. However, Lee Reeve, founder and owner of inCiderJapan, an importer, retailer, and distributor of all things cider in Japan, firmly believes the beverage has delicious potential here. To that end, Reeve runs regular tastings and events and publishes a bilingual magazine to help spread the word and encourage interest in this exciting new beverage.
Reeve’s work also highlights domestic producers, like Nobuko Takemura, Co-founder and President of VinVie Winery & Cidery* in Matsukawa, Nagano Prefecture. Moments after taking her first sip of hard cider at an event in 2014, she sensed the potential. Takemura cites its sweet flavor range as one that appeals to the Japanese palette and pairs well with the cuisine. Hard cider’s relatively low-alcohol level also indulges those with a penchant for long sessions of chatting and eating with friends and family. VinVie started brewing cider under its own label in 2018 and added 30 cider apple trees to the family’s two-hectare orchard. An on-site taproom lets visitors sample and purchase their range of ciders while enjoying sweeping views over the orchards to the mountains and clear flowing rivers of this beautiful valley.
Japan’s mountains and rivers were part of what drew Shinjiro Torii to establish Japan’s first large production whiskey distillery in Yamazaki, an area just outside of Kyoto renowned for the quality of its water, in 1924. Torii, the founder of what is now Suntory, hired Masataka Takestsuru as his first distiller. Taketsuru had spent five years in Glasgow, Scotland learning how to distill whiskey all with an eye to bringing this skill back to Japan. He helped Torii establish the Yamazaki distillery and then left in 1934 to set up his own operation, Dainipponkaju in Yoichi, Hokkaido. Later, it would become Nikka, which along with Yamazaki, is one of the country’s most revered and established whiskey brands.
What emerged was not merely an imitation of Scottish whiskey, but rather a unique industry with strong roots in the techniques and practices Taketsuru learned. Of the eleven distilleries currently operating in Japan, each has its own unique flavors, blends, and techniques. Master distillers at each one experiment with different mashes, varying sizes and styles of stills, diverse yeasts, and assorted levels of peat for each batch. This innovation cultivated a strong domestic following until 2001 when Nikka’s 10-year-old Yoichi Single Malt won Whiskey Magazine’s “Best of the Best” award. Since then, Japanese whiskey has garnered more awards and international attention and the innovation continues.
Creativity and innovation also lie at the heart of another beverage enjoying a quiet revolution in Japan. Beer is believed to have first arrived with the Dutch in Nagasaki sometime during the Edo Period (1603-1868), but it was not until 1869 that the nation’s first brewery was founded. William Copeland, a Norwegian-American, set up Spring Valley Brewing in Yokohama, which was eventually taken over by the company that would become Kirin. Other breweries also soon began to appear in Osaka and Hokkaido, and the nation’s taste buds came to appreciate this beverage brewed using a process not so dissimilar from sake.
A tax law change in 1994 heralded the emergence of small, craft breweries in Japan. Those who could brew up to 60,000 liters of beer a year were suddenly able to get a license, and the number of breweries around the country grew exponentially, despite fierce competition. Those like Baird Beer in Shuzenji, Shizuoka Prefecture, Y. Market Brewing* in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Minoh Beer* in Osaka, and Yoho Brewing Company in Nagano Prefecture, have weathered the storm and fostered a steadily growing following by combining Japanese ingredients such as shiso, mikan, or yuzu with classic ale, IPA, or porter recipes for unique and award-winning brews.
More recent arrivals on the Japanese beer scene have focused their creative energies closer to home. Those like Kohachi Beerworks*, a self-described nano-brewery in Kamiseya, Kyoto Prefecture strive to use only locally grown ingredients, including citrus, rice, and even wild plants such as kuromoji (spicebush) for their small batch brews. The results are intensely seasonal and utterly delicious.
There is no better place to begin an exploration of a region’s cuisine and terroir than at one of its farms. Agritourism in Japan is growing in popularity for its ability to offer visitors a unique experience outside of the usual tourist routes. From Hokkaido to Okinawa, travelers can immerse themselves to varying degrees in rural life and see not only how ingredients for favorite dishes literally come to life, but also gain insight into the source for many of Japan’s most beloved traditions.
Niseko Green Farm lies at the foot of Mount Yotei in Niseko, Hokkaido and offers farm tours and farm experiences from June through September. Visitors can come for a day to help on the farm and then enjoy making pizza in a wood-fired oven from items harvested that day.
Other areas like Tono in Iwate Prefecture offer visitors a variety of activities to choose from for their stay. Visitors can stay at a farm or simply visit for a meal and tour or even book an extended working holiday for a deep dive into rural life. For more information on short stay options, visit Tono Travel Delicatessen. For longer visits, visit Tono Natural Life Network.
To learn about the wide variety of agritourism options around the country, check out Countryside Stays Japan or the farming and fishing experiences and stays available via Stay Japan.
One of the most unique sources of culinary delights in Japan are its onsen. Onsen, or hot springs, have been a mainstay of Japanese travel for centuries. Domestic and foreign travelers alike are drawn to the healing waters often bubbling up in stunning natural settings. Just as important and unique to a stay in these locations is the cuisine. Onsen ryokan, traditional hot spring inns, invariably serve their guests carefully crafted seasonal fare designed to showcase the abundant harvest from local growers and producers.
Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in Yamanashi Prefecture is considered Japan’s oldest and longest operating onsen ryokan. Established in 705 A.D., it has been run by the same family. Keiunkan’s storied guest list includes Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would eventually found Japan’s longest running shogunate, and Takeda Shingen, a famed warlord from Yamanashi. While the menu and recipes have changed somewhat over time, the fare at Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is still served in a formal kaiseki style that emphasizes the seasons. The multicourse meal is formal, but it remains one of the best ways to enjoy the taste of place.
Travelers seeking a slightly different take on onsen cuisine will want to head south to Beppu in Oita Prefecture. There the landscape literally steams with natural onsen and has long been acclaimed as one of Japan’s healing places. The onsen, varied in mineral content and style, inspired the creation of tojiba or long-stay onsen. Visitors would travel far distances to bathe in the waters in hopes of curing or at least tempering an illness. The area’s natural steam vents provided an easy and inexpensive way to prepare food during their stay and perhaps absorb more of the healing minerals. The resulting method, jigoku mushi, or hell-steamed food, became an attraction in itself and remains a mainstay of tourist activities. Visitors can still experience this way of cooking for themselves at Jigoku Mushi Kobo Tetsuwa.
For more information about onsen cuisine tours, visit Onsen Gastronomy.
The delights and flavors of Japanese cuisine are wide and varied and ever evolving. From the newest beer to the oldest recipe at an onsen ryokan, visitors will find passion and inventiveness underscored with the thoughtful craftsmanship that has characterized food culture here since the beginning. Come travel and eat, talk and drink to taste its pleasures for yourself!
Joan Bailey is an American writer living in Japan where her work focuses on food, farming, farmers markets, and travel. When she isn’t out exploring and eating, she can be found at home with her husband and two cats.