Japanese Cuisine and the Nakasendo

Everywhere you go in Japan, there is one thing that you will notice – food. Everyone’s heard of sushi, but that’s just the tip of a delicious iceberg. Japan has the most top-rated Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, but good food is actually everywhere, and at very reasonable prices: convenience store bento boxes, backstreet ramen (noodle dish) stands, conveyor-belt sushi restaurants and traditional izakaya (pubs) to name just a few.

Everywhere in Japan, where ever it may be, is famous for something. There is usually a food of some description that is very special to that region. This is known as meibutsu in Japanese - a famous product associated with a particular region. In relation to food you can think of it as prized dishes of regional cuisine that are often brought as omiyage (souvenirs) by Japanese people.

Obviously, there is an amazing amount of meibutsu available in Japan. Here are a few examples. Hiroshima is famous for okunomiyaki (a savoury Japanese style pancake), Kagawa, located on Shikoku is famous for udon (sanuki udon). Kanazawa, located on the Japanese Sea is famous for its sea food and Tokyo is well known for its tempura dishes.

After a day of walking or activities browsing through post towns, museums or galleries, you will undoubtedly find a hot bath and a good meal very welcome. These extravagant looking meals produced by Japanese Inns (ryokan) at first glance may appear to be a lot, but you will find that they are carefully and perfectly balanced in terms of calories and nutrition. I've noticed that Japanese tend to think it is highly important to produce healthy and wonderfully tasting food - as a point of pride (face).

If you are looking forward to trying Japanese home style or authentic cooking, you will not be disappointed staying in a Japanese ryokan or minshuku, however, it may be somewhat different to what you expect. As rice and miso are generally considered to be important staple foods in Japan, you may be surprised to find them dished toward the end of the meal unless you specifically ask otherwise.

The owners of these establishments produce local foods using seasonal ingredients. As the seasons change, so does the menu, naturally enough. For example during the spring months you may be treated to 'takenoko' bamboo shoot, myoga, belonging the ginger family, while during the autumn you will most likely come across kampachi (yellow tail), matsutaki mushrooms, kaki (similar to persimmons) and sunma - a fish usually caught around Japan's north eastern shores.

The large number of small Japanese dishes that miraculously appear in front of you are known as okazu in Japanese. Typically consisting of small dishes of seasonal sashimi, buck wheat noodle (soba), tempura, spinach, ayu which is a grilled fish (often on a skewer over charcoal) or a small sukiyaki or hot pot depending on the season. Luckily for me I enjoy all these foods and could think of nothing better than a spending a whole week dinning on ryokan prepared food.

Shishamo (smelt) is a small saltwater fish that holds its own special place as a popular Japanese autumn food. Due to its diminutive size, shishamo has such fine bones that it can be eaten whole, including the head and tail. It’s typically grilled as an appetizer, side dish, and even as an entrée, and is considered a particular delicacy when the smelt fish is harvested with its roe, as the eggs fill the entire fish adding to the flavour.

An aspect of Japanese cuisine that I find particularly appealing is how the flavours on the pallet are clean and vibrant. Effort is taken to present the original flavours of ingredients in an unblemished fashion. The food is presented as naturally as possible even although it may have been through a cooking process.

Two dishes that reoccurred a number of times on the nakasendo were ayu, a fresh water fish and carp. The carp was accompanied by a thick sauce that imparted most of the flavour to the dish. I noticed that this dish tasted rather different depending on who and where the sauce had been prepared. It also has a lot of bones and can be tricky to eat, especially if you are not used to using chop sticks.

Ayu is an annual fresh water fish common to Japan, Taiwan, parts of China and the Korean peninsula. It is a cousin of the smelt fish. Ayu no shioyaki (salted ayu) is a popular way of serving this dish; the freshly caught fish is grilled with a smattering of salt to flavour the fish, then skewered and grilled or baked over hot ash and cinder.

Their bodies are deliberately curved and contorted as their scaleless skins are pierced through to mimic them swimming against the rapid water currents. Again this is reminiscent of how food is presented in a natural and evocative manner. Incidentally, I noticed an ayu vendor set-up on Yume-Kobayashi Dori in front of Hikone Castle. The fish looked so delicious and cost about 300yen each from memory.

If you are a little more discerning in what you eat you should keep in mind that these establishments are often in 'difficult to reach places' in the mountains and the country side and subsequently, the owners of these establishments are unable to make the several hour round trip for produce to provide alternative foods.

If it is known in advance that you have a particular allergy (sea food) and therefore unable to eat the food an alternative might be possible, but it depends on the establishment and what they have on hand. Generally you should expect it almost impossible for these establishments to cater to special requests.

If you come across something that you would prefer not to explore, just subtly leave it, but I recommend not making a fuss as it would become very awkward for the owners of these establishments who would be horrified if they have prepared something you cannot eat, a possible loss of face.

Like many things in Japan cuisine is also carefully ranked in terms of quality. This will become noticeable as you stay in various types of accommodation as we travel along the nakasendo. Bessho Onsen is a special experience as these ryokans strive to provide a dining experience, namely kaiseki - an elaborate eating experience that can consist of 14 or more small, but sublime dishes.

The standard of food on the nakasendo is impressive, but a highly ranked ryokan employ chefs who consistently turn out high quality eating experiences. I look forward to discovering what you think about this class of Japanese dinning.

Aside from fine dining, from time to time as we pass along the nakasendo you may come across wooden booths set-up on the road side selling various vegetables, omeboshi or local meibutsu. It works on an honour system, usually with a box to deposit your 100 yen coins.

In the 1990s sashimi was a very strange food for the western pallet, but now this has become standard fair and is available in many shopping malls and asian food restaurants across Australia. It drives a never ceasing health craze and it makes sense as Australia has some of the best seafood around.

Now that we are accustomed to this food, perhaps as foreign visitors to Japan we are now ready to delve deeper into Japan's rich cultural and gastronomical history by trying these experiences and foods found on the nakasendo that are out of the ordinary for us.

The post towns harbour all sorts of tantalising treats for you to explore, from dango, osembei (rice crackers), beans and delectable hand-made soba noodles for your eating pleasure. You will have several opportunities to try fresh soba as we pass along the nakasendo. Japan seems a country obsessed with snacks and some of them contain rather challenging ingredients and some that you may think should never be put together but somehow and very surprisingly seem to work.

For example, everyone loves curry, right? And you’d have to be mad not to like doughnuts. So why not combine the two into a delicious, artery-clogging treat? Well, you might encounter this in one of the many convenience stores.

Examples of some finer foods that are somewhat strange to us include; uni or sea urchin that is genuinely thought by many as one of the greatest foods in the world, though it might not look like it. A complex medley of flavours – sweet yet bitter, salty yet delicate – if the golden brown of the sea urchin appears on your plate you know it’s going to be a good meal.

Large, succulent and sweet, Tori Gai are extremely rare and so rather expensive. But indeed they are good! These are cockles that appear briefly in April and usually unavailable by the time May rolls around. This delight was developed around the Edo Period or a little earlier. You have to have a special license to catch them and it’s a good thing too, otherwise everybody would be doing it.

Dobin sushi (see picture) is another dish that you may encounter on the nakasendo that is interesting in concept and full of flavour. It is a traditional Japanese seafood broth that’s as fun as it is tasty. It’s steamed and served inside a tea pot with shrimp, chicken, soy sauce, lime, and matsutake mushrooms. You pour the broth into a saucer and drink it, before eating the goodies inside. I encountered this at Tautoro Ryokan in Ena and it was delicious!

And finally, saving one of the weirdest for last - shirako. This is the sperm sac of a fish that is a popular bar snack in Japan, though regarded by many as an acquired taste. It’s served hot or cold and the name literally means “white children”. You will be unlikely to experience this one on my tour but alas you've been warned!

So, do you like Japanese food?  Let us know in the comments below what your favourite or weirdest Japanese food is.