The Kanto region is home to Japan's capital, Tokyo, a vibrant city that retains its history of centuries past, but is also in a constant state of renewal and progress. What kind of food culture can we expect to encounter in a region that combines tradition together with the newest trends?
In this article, we will introduce the characteristics of each of the prefectures in the Kanto region, their specialties, and famous dishes.
Nature and Industry of Kanto
Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Gunma, Tochigi, and Ibaraki prefectures are collectively referred to as the Kanto region.
The Kanto region is largely dominated by the Kanto Plain, the largest plain in Japan. Due to its topography, the inland areas are characterized by very hot summers and cold, dry winters due to monsoons.
The capital of Japan, Tokyo, is located in Kanto and is the center of economic activity in the country. Tokyo is home to the Supreme Court, government offices, and corporate headquarters from all over the world. In addition, 1/3 of Japan's population is concentrated in the Kanto region.
Agriculture is practiced mainly in the outer prefectures of Kanto and highland vegetables are grown in the mountainous areas. The transportation system to the city center is well developed, allowing for crops grown in areas far from the city center to be speedily delivered in fresh condition.
Because Tokyo dominates the economic and social scene, the Kanto region may project an urban image. However, there are also many natural sightseeing spots and delicious local cuisines that represent this region.
Specialty Products of Tokyo
Tokyo is a city that has developed tremendously since the Edo period. Many people may have a stronger impression of the building district over agriculture. Yet, in fact, 3.5% of the total area of Tokyo is arable land.
A group of vegetables produced in the area have gained notoriety as "Edo vegetables", accounting for the pride that the locals have for them. These vegetables include cucumbers, eggplants, turnips, udo (Japanese apricots) and daikon (Japanese white radish) that grow in the farmlands of Tokyo.
Edomae Sushi is a dish of sashimi, boiled shrimp and other delictibles that are served on a bed of vinegared rice. Sushi rice is a mixture of rice, vinegar, salt and sugar. A happy feature of sushi rice is that it does not harden after it cools down, whereas vinegared rice can lose its soft texture after it is left out in the open air for too long.
Edomae Sushi dates back to a time when Tokyo was known as "Edo". People in Edo are commonly portrayed as impatient, and that edomae sushi, which can be prepared quickly, was invented for them so that they could eat quickly. It is said that at that time, edomae sushi was twice the size of today's sushi.
Fukagawa-meshi is a dish of clams, green onions, tofu and other ingredients cooked and served over rice. There are several types of seasonings such as miso and soy sauce that flavor the dish. In the Edo period (1603-1868), the Fukagawa area of Tokyo was rich in shellfish, and the dish was first invented as a meal for fishermen in the Fukagawa area. Fukagawa-meshi may also refer to a dish of scallions and seasonings cooked with rice.
Specialty Products of Kanagawa
Kanagawa Prefecture is located to the south of Tokyo. The northwestern part of the prefecture is mountainous and this area gets a lot of snow in the winter. As the prefecture is located on the Pacific Ocean side, it is relatively warm and it rains a lot.
As for vegetables, Miura Radish and Miura Cabbage are famous produce. Vegetables grown in Kamakura, which is also well known as a tourist destination, are called "Kamakura vegetables" and have become a brand with a reputation for their rich flavor and delicious taste.
Shirasu-don is a dish of rice topped with shirasu, which is the young of ayu (sweetfish), sardines, herring and other fish. It is often eaten in Kamakura and Enoshima.
Shirasu is an ingredient that easily loses its freshness. Therefore, fresh shirasu can only be eaten near the fishing grounds. Therefore, this dish is only available in Kanagawa Prefecture, where shirasu is abundant.
When shirasu is boiled, it turns white. Raw shirasu, on the other hand, is clear and transparent. A bowl of rice topped with raw shirasu is often accompanied by egg, green onions and shiso.
Kankoyaki is a baked dish made by wrapping wild vegetables and mushrooms in a dough made of flour. It is a dish that has been eaten in the Tsukui area since long ago, even before rice was widely eaten.
"Kanko" is the name of a drum, and because of the similarity in appearance, the dish came to be called Kankoyaki. Originally, the ingredients used to vary depending on the season, such as wild vegetables in spring and mushrooms in autumn. Nowadays, it is made by wrapping simple ingredients and is often eaten as a snack by the locals.
Specialty Products of Chiba
The Boso Peninsula, which stretches across Chiba Prefecture, is a land that faces the sea and is rich in fertile soil. Because of its low elevation, the prefecture is relatively warm all year round. Peanuts are very famous as a specialty, and many other crops can also be harvested. Vegetables and fruits of Chiba, such as leeks, spinach, and radishes are among the most harvested in Japan, and rice cultivation and dairy farming are also vibrant.
Futo-Makizushi is a dish made by spreading sushi rice on a sheet of nori (seaweed) and wrapping it with ingredients such as green vegetables and sakura-denbu. Sakura-denbu is roasted white fish that has been broken up, seasoned with sugar and other ingredients, and colored a cherry blossom pink.
When the sushi roll is cut, letters and pictures appear in the cross sections. It is served at festivals, celebrations, prayers and other events, with the consistency and seasoning of the rice varies from family to family.
Namerou is a dish of raw horse mackerel mixed with miso, green onion, and ginger, and pounded with a knife. It was originally invented by fishermen in the coastal areas of the Boso Peninsula as a dish to be cooked on board boats. It is mainly made with horse mackerel, but can also be prepared with sardines or saury. There is a similar dish called "Sanga-yaki". This is a dish in which Namerou is stuffed into a shell and baked. If you pound the fish until it becomes sticky and then bake it, the sanga-yaki becomes a delicious fluffy texture.
Specialty Products of Saitama
Saitama prefecture is landlocked, with no ocean or sea bordering it. In terms of climate, the region tends to be very hot in summer and very cold in winter. In Kawagoe, known as "Little Edo", you can still experience the streets as the Edo period once was, feeling as if you slipped back in time when things were less complicated.
Silkworm cultivation and weaving also flourish in Saitama, as do the cultivation of leeks, root vegetables, and fruits. Wheat flour is also produced in abundance, with many dishes making use of this ingredient.
Suttate is a dish of udon noodles dipped in a soup of miso paste, sesame, shiso and myoga. It has been eaten for a long time in Kawashima-cho, one of the largest flour-producing areas in Saitama Prefecture. It was prepared with quick eating in mind, so that farmers could quickly resume their farming duties. The sesame aroma stimulates the appetite and makes it refreshing even in the heat of summer. The refreshing aroma of shiso and myoga also pairs well with miso.
Soda Manjuu is a dough made of wheat flour, baking soda, milk and eggs. Anko (sweet bean paste) is wrapped in dough and steamed. Anko is an essential ingredient in Japanese sweets. Soda Manjuu is another food that can be quickly eaten during the busy farming season, providing a little sweetness to a hard day's work. Besides anko, figs and walnuts are also commonly wrapped in the pastry.
Specialty Products of Gunma
Gunma Prefecture is characterized by its large variations in climate. Summers can be extremely hot in some areas. Since pre-industrial times, sericulture and weaving flourished. The Tomioka Silk Mill, which is registered as a World Heritage Site, is a symbol of this. In addition, wheat is actively produced in the region helped by the long hours of sunlight and dry winters compared to other prefectures. Cabbage is the most famous vegetable. In areas of high elevation, there is a large difference in temperature between day and night, and this environment provides the perfect conditions for growing delicious cabbage.
Okirikomi is a dish made of dough similar to udon noodles, cut into pieces and stewed with vegetables. The dough is rolled out with a rice noodle stick and placed in a pot while cutting it with a knife. The noodles are thinner and wider than Udon. There are soy sauce-flavored and miso-flavored versions. Taro, leeks and other seasonal vegetables are also used in abundance to warm up the body during the cold winters. The ingredients and seasonings of okirikomi vary from family to family and village to village. It is a dish that has taken root since the Edo period (1603-1868) in Gunma, where some areas are very cold.
Konnyaku is a plump, chewy food made from konnyaku potatoes. Gunma Prefecture produces about 90% of all konjaku in Japan. It is often included in a dish called oden, in which many ingredients, including vegetables such as daikon and eggs, are boiled in broth. Konnyaku is also delicious when sprinkled with dengaku-miso, which is made by mixing miso with sugar and other seasonings. There is also a konnyaku called sashimi konnyaku that can be eaten as is with the feel of fish sashimi.
Specialty Products of Tochigi
Tochigi is another prefecture with no sea around it. The region is cool in the mountains and experiences heavy snow in the mountainous areas. Nikko Toshogu Shrine, dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun of the Edo period, is one of the temples and shrines in Nikko registered as a World Heritage Site and is well worth a visit.
The famous Tochiotome variety of strawberries, grapes, and carrots are the most prized fruit and vegetable produce of Nikko. Another well known food plant is the Kanpyo, which is made by peeling the long, thin fruit of a plant called the Yugao. Ninety-nine percent of all kanpyo in Japan is produced in Tochigi Prefecture.
Soba is a type of noodle made by grinding buckwheat seeds, adding water, kneading, and cutting into thin strips. There are various types of soba, such as "Chitake soba", "Kate-soba", and "Nasu soba". Chitake soba is a type of soba that contains a summer harvested mushroom called the chitake. Kate-soba is a cold soba served with chives in spring and summer, and with daikon in winter.
Shimotsukare is a dish made by stewing salmon heads, soybeans, radishes and carrots. It is made by adding sake lees, which are produced in the process of making Japanese sake. Shimotsukare is served at shrines on a certain day in February every year, with the hope that it will bring good health. This custom is said to have continued since the Kamakura period. It is also eaten at home as a side dish.
Specialty Products of Ibaraki
Ibaraki Prefecture is located in the center of the Japanese archipelago. It is a watery region with about 200 rivers flowing through it. Agriculture thrives in this region, taking advantage of the pristine water quality. Ibaraki has one of the highest agricultural output figures in Japan. Facing the Pacific Ocean, the Oyashio current, which flows from the north, and the Kuroshio current, which flows from the south, collide in the vicinity of Ibaraki Prefecture. As a result, many kinds of marine products can be caught off its coast.
Monkfish is one of the most beloved in Ibaraki Prefecture. The skin of the fish is so slimy that it is difficult to handle on a cutting board, so it is prepared while hung up vertically.
Ankou-nabe, a dish of monkfish stewed with vegetables, is a winter delicacy of the region.
There is also a dish where not only the flesh of the monkfish is eaten, but also the stomach. One such dish is the "Ankou no Tomozu". It is served with a mixture of monkfish liver, vinegar and miso.
Soboro Natto is a dish of fermented soybeans and dried daikon mixed together and dipped in salt or soy sauce. Natto was invented in the Edo period (1603-1868) as a tasty way to eat small, quickly harvested soybeans. Natto is traditionally made by wrapping steamed soybeans in rice straw and letting them sit for a day to ferment.
Kiriboshi-daikon is made by drying thinly sliced daikon in the sun. The crunchy texture of kiriboshi-daikon accentuates the flavor and is delicious on top of rice. Kiriboshi daikon can be bought at supermarkets, but is also made at home. When preparing at home, it is easy to season with the soy sauce that comes with commercial natto.
Historic Local Cuisine in Kanto
The Kanto region is not only the economic center of Japan, but a place that boasts many dishes that have been handed down from as far back as the Edo period. Each region has developed agricultural techniques that make use of the unique characteristics of the plains and mountainous regions.
When you visit the Kanto region, be sure to enjoy the local cuisine that is full of the wisdom of Japan long past.