When we say ‘Japan’, we know what you’re thinking: big city action of Tokyo, the cherry blossoms of Kyoto, Lost In Translation-style karaoke and neon overload. And, of course, the main event itself: an array of incredible, tantalising food.
The popular tourist centres in Japan offer amazing culinary experiences, but it’s actually the country’s regional specialties that are really worth writing home about. From the seafood perfection of Hokkaido, to the wanko soba of Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture, to the goya champuru of Okinawa, dig a little outside the major hubs, and incredible off-the-beaten taste-chasing adventures await.
Here’s our guide to some of Japan’s lesser-seen regions, and the food you really shouldn’t miss.
If Japan looks geographically kind of like a seahorse, then you’ll find the Setouchi region where its tail begins to curve southward.
A region of incredible natural beauty, art and history, Setouchi is considered Japan’s ‘Mediterranean’, a huge area known for lush national parkland and the Seto Inland Sea.
As expected, the seafood, vegetables and game in this region are rich and varied – in Hiroshima, be sure to sample a kaiseki ryori course at Hiroshima’s Kaiseki Hanao, not to mention the fresh sushi, oysters and ‘spindle snails’ of Kappo Hakutaka; in Okayama, try the delicious halfbeak and Okayama-style seabream in the classic atmosphere of Sushi Yamamoto; in Matsuyama, lap up the tantalising artistry of suburban Sawada; while in Hyogo, be sure to place Michelin-star Setsugetsuka high on the list: the place to be for the region’s most succulent Kobe beef steak.
Because the landscapes of Koshinetsu are so gorgeously mountainous and coastal (not to mention proximate to the capital), this central region remains one of Japan’s most sought-after resort getaways.
Comprising Yamanashi, Nagano and Niigata prefectures, Koshinetsu is home to an array of must-see spots, not least of all: Mt Fuji and the Japan Alps.
Food-wise, you’re in for a treat in Koshinetsu: Niigata prefecture grows superb quality rice, so the local rice dishes and saké are one of a kind here. Leave the choices to the chef (omakase) and try the Michelin-star dishes at Sushi Nakahisa Hoshino (possibly the best in Niigata City). Try Nagano specialties like Shinshu soba noodles at renowned restaurant Soba Dokoro Monogusa, have a delicious ramen fix at Ramen Hachi, and check out the Gochisoya Hitsuke Tozoku izakaya for mouthwatering beef tendon. Wine aficionados, on the other hand, would do very well to savour the region’s most delicate Koshu wine at the renowned Chateau Mercian in Yamanashi Prefecture.
In short, Tohoku is beautiful. It boasts the ancient Buddhist Yamadera (Mountain Temple); the traditional samurai village of Kakunodate; the UNESCO World Heritage Shirakami Sanchi mountain range and the 17th Century Hirosaki Castle, which is well-known in Japan as being one of the most amazing spots to enjoy cherry blossoms.
Sure, the winters can get especially chilly, but the historical feel, cultural legends and idyllic landscapes remain as enchanting here as they are pleasantly free of tourist crowds.
Wanko soba and a steamed fish paste known as sasa kamaboko are two of the main culinary drawcards here. Additionally, be sure to try the cold ramen at Yamagata’s Sakaeya Honten, the mouthwatering Yonezawa Beef at Bekoya, and the soba noodles with nishin no nitsuke (herring with soy) at the historic Araki Soba restaurant. Cherry lovers should also take heed: from mid-June to mid-July, Yamagata prefecture is Japan’s number one spot for picking sweet, delicious cherries.
Mix volcanoes, tropical coastline, lush green countryside and ubiquitous onsen (hot springs) and you get Kyushu: the epitome of ‘unseen Japan’, the third largest and south-western-most island, and without doubt one of the most appealing and stunning.
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the east and the East China Sea to the west, you’ll find incredible coastal views here, as well as some of Japan’s most popular surfing hotspots.
Make sure to get in a bowl of tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen noodles in Fukuoka Prefecture, the local-caught clams and shrimp of Saga Prefecture, and the succulent kurobuta (Berkshire) pork of Kagoshima Prefecture.
No trip to Kyushu is complete without a stint in Nagasaki: rich with culture, architecture, and amazing food, the city is home to important historical sights, the world’s first robot-staffed hotel, and nearby Huis Ten Bosch, the incongruous Netherlands-inspired amusement park that approximates an entire Dutch town, replete with canals, windmills, and even a haunted toilet. In Nagasaki City, head for the shippoku ryori style small plates at Shippoku Hamakatsu, Japanese savoury egg custard (chawanmushi) at the 140-year-old Yossou, and for something visually spectacular, the 360-degree panorama dining experience of Hikari no Restaurant on Mt. Inasa (a verifiable date winner).
It’s to be expected that Japan’s northernmost region would deliver its most rugged winters, though year-round, no matter the season, Hokkaido proves its worth.
Firstly, there’s space factor: it might take up just over 20% of the country’s landmass, but less than 5% of the population lives here. Needless to say, there’s a fair bit of room to move (and it’s nothing short of spectacular).
The UNESCO-protected Shiretoko National Park at the ‘end of the world’ on Hokkaido’s easternmost point is one of the richest and most untouched ecosystems on the planet. The ubiquity of mountains, volcanoes, forests and lakes dotting the island, meanwhile, serve up a dose of truly mesmerising hiking, canoeing, skiing, and endless outdoor exploits.
Or simply gravitate here for the eating – some of the best seafood in the country is dished up here: delectable crab, squid, scallops, and salmon, fresh-caught from the region’s plankton-rich waters. Try ishikari nabe, a traditional salmon and vegetable stew that is a mainstay of Hokkaido cuisine.
Or sample the evocative Genghis Khan (aka Jingisukan), a barbecued lamb or mutton dish popular at bars and beer parlours like Jingisukan Daruma Rokuyon. Speaking of beer, Hokkaido also happens to be the birthplace of world-famous beer brand Sapporo, so be sure head to the local Sapporo Beer Garden for a crisp tipple or two of Japan’s finest.
Japan is a must-visit land of endless discovery. Find out more here.
Cam Hassard is an international penman, sax-wielder and rogue wayfarer who writes for Junkee, Carryology, Huckberry, Caddie, Fairfax Media, Carryology, Intrepid, Peregrine Adventures and Europe Up Close. He’s eaten ant salad in Laos, hauled trucks from NYC to Vegas, and destroyed himself on the Camino de Santiago. Originally from Melbourne, he currently calls Berlin home.