Unesco recently added Japanese cuisine – known in Japan as washoku – to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This puts it equal to French cuisine, the only other national culinary tradition to be so honoured. A journey around Japan reveals the wisdom of Unesco’s decision: every corner of the country boasts something special to eat or drink. Join our tour of Japan’s top 10 gourmet destinations to discover the many flavours of washoku.
For at least a century before Japan’s capital snagged more Michelin restaurant guide stars than any other city in the world, Tokyo has been playing at the top of its food game. The dish that the world knows as sushi – tantalising cuts of raw fish draped across pads of vinegared rice – was invented here, where it's known as Edomae-zushi, after Edo, the old name for Tokyo. And where better to sample sushi than at the stalls within Tsukiji (www.tsukiji-market.or.jp). Hurry, though, as the famed fish market will move to a new location across Tokyo Bay in 2015.
A visit to Japan’s beguiling ancient capital isn’t complete until you’ve treated yourself to kaiseki-ryōri, a multi-course banquet of seasonal delicacies that’s a feast for the eyes; try it at the 400-year-old restaurant Nakamura-rō in Gion. You can also dig into a vegetarian version of the banquet, known as shojin-ryōri at Izusen (http://kyoto-izusen.com), which faces on to a serene garden in the temple Daiji-in. The subtle mixture of tastes and textures and the artistry of presentation will linger long after you’ve cleared the exquisite lacquerware and china bowls in which the food is served.
Takoyaki - octopus balls - is probably not what Unesco had in mind when it honoured washoku. But these unpretentious globes of seafood and veggies bound in batter are as emblematic of Japanese cuisine as sushi and ramen, and Ōsaka is where the recipe hails from. The nation’s second largest city is also famed for okonomiyaki, a batter pancake topped with meat, squid, shredded vegetables and garnished with sweet brown sauce, mayonnaise, powdered seaweed and wafer thin flakes of dried tuna. Head to the Dōtombori area of this food-crazy city to try these dishes.
Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaidō is a gourmet destination in its own right, famed for several different takes on the noodle dish ramen, as well as a lamb barbecue known as jingisukan (after Genghis Khan, a reference to the Mongolian-warrior-helmet-like shape of the convex table grill on which the meal is prepared). But it’s fish and seafood that is special here, particularly crab and salmon. At Hakodate’s atmospheric morning fish market, the Asa-ichi (www.hakodate-asaichi.com), spoil yourself with bowls of noodles or rice topped with cuts of super fresh seafood.
Unagi (grilled eel) is one of the most delicious of dishes in washoku’s repertoire, and Nagoya is the place to try it. Atsuta Hōraiken (www.houraiken.com) is the city’s most famous restaurant for hitsumabushi, in which savoury sauce-basted strips of eel are eaten in three different ways: first in the traditional style atop a bed of rice; second with a sprinkling of dried seaweed, spring onion and wasabi (horseradish) paste; and third mixed in with soup.
Soba noodles made from buckwheat are the pride of Nagano prefecture. In the attractive castle town of Matsumoto there are several famed vendors, such as Nomugi, where the handmade noodles have such a reputation that customers line up early to make sure they get a serving before it shuts at 2pm or the shop sells out. More adventurous epicureans may want to sample basashi – thin slices of raw horsemeat – served at Kura (www.mcci.or.jp/www/kura), a restaurant in a replica of a traditional storehouse.
Another Central Japan destination favoured by foodies is this appealing town known for its sake breweries. Sansai-ryōri – dishes made from local mountain vegetables, ferns and wild plants – are among the meals to try along with hoba miso – vegetables or beef mixed with miso paste and roasted on a magnolia leaf above a small charcoal brazier. These dishes are served at the family-run Suzuya, which also specialises in the premium local beef Hida-gyū.
Fugu (blowfish) is one of the speciality foods of the main city of the southern island of Kyūshū – the potentially poisonous fish is best sampled during the winter. But great at any time of year is a steaming bowl of tonkotsu ramen, a rich pork broth noodle dish also known as Hakata ramen. The best places to slurp these nourishing noodles are at yatai; these street stalls are dotted all over Fukuoka, but the greatest concentration is at the intersection of Tenjin Nishi-dōri and Shōwa-dōri on Nakasu Island.
Sanuki udon – chunky white wheat noodles – are associated with this city on the north coast of Shikoku, Japan’s fourth main island. They are traditionally served plain to be dipped in a separate flask of stock that you can flavour with condiments such as wasabi. A great place to try them is Waraya, a restaurant set in a thatched-roof farmhouse, a short journey outside Takamatsu, next to Shikoku Mura, a park of traditional architecture.
The far southern islands of Okinawa prefecture are home to Japan’s highest percentage of centenarians, testament in part to the health properties of the local Ryūkū-ryōri cuisine. All part of the pig are used in cooking here, from tibichi (trotters) to mimi (ears) and, as you’d expect, seafood is also key to culinary mix. Tuck into dishes made from these ingredients at the stalls above the lively food market Dai-Ichi Kōsetsu Makishi Ichiba in the Okinawan capital of Naha.