Diverse forms of food culture in the “Land of the Gods”
Shimane Prefecture provides the stage for many of the mythologies recorded in “Kojiki,” the oldest surviving historical record in Japan compiled in 712.
Located in the northern part of the Chugoku region, Shimane Prefecture borders Tottori Prefecture in the east, Yamaguchi Prefecture in the west, and Hiroshima Prefecture in the south over the Chugoku Mountains. The prefecture is composed of the Izumo and Iwami regions on the mainland and out to sea, the Oki Islands located from 40 to 80km north of Shimane Peninsula. Its long history of exchanges with the Korean Peninsula across the Sea of Japan has led to the creation of a unique cultural sphere. Much to our astonishment, earthenware that can be traced to the Korean Peninsula is still being unearthed today.
The climate in Shimane is somewhere in between the climate in Hokuriku and in Kitakyushu with average annual temperatures ranging between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius. While regional differences in climate remain small during the warmer seasons, the eastern part of the prefecture experiences bitter cold during the winter due to air currents from the Sea of Japan.
Video provided in part by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture
Shop interviewed: Yushin
Unique local characteristics found in food culture, customs, language, and much more
Diversity is what characterizes Shimane Prefecture, from the Izumo region, the “home of the gods” where the Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine is located, to the Iwami region that features a harmony of life in the mountains and life by the sea in addition to the Oki Islands surrounded by the ocean. Enormous differences can be found even between Izumi and Iwami, the two regions connected by land, not to mention the Oki Islands. The three regions have taken their respective and distinctive path in history with regard to temperament, customs, and language.
The taste of Izumo, patronized by the 7th lord of the Matsue Domain
The Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine is a landmark that symbolizes Izumo City. Izumo Taisha enshrines the deity Okuninushi-no-Okami, known as the God that helps create ties among people. It has been said that the myriad of gods around Japan all gather to this shrine to conduct meetings once a year in the tenth month of the lunar calendar, known as “Kanna zuki,” the Month of No Gods, because all the gods are absent to attend the meeting. For this reason, that month is known as Kamiari zuki, the Month of the Gods, and not Kanna zuki, in the Izumo region.
Video provided by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture
One of the popular local specialties of the Izumo region is “Izumo soba” or Izumo buckwheat noodles. The delicacy is one of the best-known soba noodles in Japan, along with wanko soba of Iwate and Togakushi soba of Nagano. Izumo soba comes in two styles: “wariko soba,” served cold on a round lacquerware called “wariko” and warm “kama-age soba,” served in a bowl immersed in hot water that was used to boil the noodles. Izumo soba noodles have a darker and stronger buckwheat flavor as they are made from buckwheat flour produced by grinding the whole seed.
Izumo soba has its roots in the soba (buckwheat) culture that had taken root as a disaster-relief food in Oku-Izumi region in the eastern part of the prefecture. Matsudaira Harusato, the 7th lord of the Matsue Domain, also known as Matsudaira Fumai, is said to have been particularly fond of Izumo soba so much so that he took the noodles on takagari hunting excursions that use birds of prey.
“Lake Shinji,” which straddles the border between Matsue City and Izumo City, is a source of a wide range of delicacies that represent the Izumo region. Made up of brackish water where fresh water mingles with seawater, the lake’s seven major products are well known as ‘ Shinji-ko Shitchin,’ the Seven Delicacies of Lake Shinji: sea bass, whitebait, carp, clams, eels, moroge shrimp and amasagi (smelt).
In the mythologies of kuni-yuzuri, the transfer of the land, in Izumo Province as recorded in Kojiki, Okuninushi-no-Okami is said to have made an offering of a big sea bass to Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess.
Sea bass gains fat and becomes even tastier from late autumn through early winter. The fish used to be an everyday food for the commoners of Izumo. Then came Matsudaira Harusato, the 7th lord of the Matsue Domain, popularly known as Matsudaira Fumai, who is credited with reviving the Matsue Domain. The lord came across some fishermen roasting sea bass on a fire near Lake Shinji and wanted to try it out. Thinking they could not dare to present an ash-coated fish, the fishermen wrapped it in hosho (fine-quality Japanese paper) and offered it to him. Lord Matsudaira loved the fish, saying, “This is so delicious!” The dish, which came to be known as “sea bass broiled in hosho,” is still served as a treat on festive occasions.
“It’s the hearty flavor that makes the local cuisine in Shimane Prefecture so charming,” says Mr. Yu Morii who runs a vegetarian restaurant “Yushin” in Yasugi City.
“Dishes served to the lord like the ‘sea bass broiled in hosho’ is an important part of the food culture in Shimane Prefecture, but I see the goodness in home cooking that uses local produce that is closer to the ordinary people such as clams, ark shells and bamboo shoots,” adds Mr. Morii. “These days, I have less opportunity to eat these foods, but when I do have a chance to taste them, I feel a soothing sense of relief.”
Different lifestyles in areas along the river, coastal areas, and mountainous areas
The Gono River, a class-A river running through the Iwami region, flows through the Chugoku Mountains and into the Sea of Japan. Mountainous areas and sloping basins are not suitable for farming, so people who lived there depended on barley and millet for their staple food instead of rice. Still, rivers in the region were a source of abundance as people caught different kinds of river fish such as crucian carp, eel, tsugani (Japanese mitten crab), and ayu (sweetfish) from early summer to autumn. Sweetfish was particularly popular among the common people. Sweetfish was used to make a variety of dishes including sushi and grilled fish coated with dengaku-style miso, not to mention the standard fare of grilled fish with salt. When there is a large catch, some of the sweetfish were dried and preserved for use as a fine dashi (soup stock) for New Year's dishes.
The coastal areas facing the Sea of Japan experience a relatively mild climate, thanks to the influence of the warm Tsushima Current. Coastal and offshore areas where warm and cold currents intermingle are excellent fishing grounds. Hamada City, which used to be the seat of the prefectural office of Hamada province, has also been a fishing community since ancient times. The city opened a fish market in 1887; the haul of sardines, horse mackerels, mackerels, and other types of fish grew after World War Two with the deployment of seine-haul fishing.
One of the local dishes remaining in this area is "heka," a sukiyaki-style dish with seafood served on a flat iron pot called "heka-nabe." It is said that “heka,” a word that was used to refer to the metal tip of a plow, an agricultural tool, was used in place of a pot, and that is how the dish came to be known. Seafoods of the season including tilefish, righteye flounder, and rosy seabass are used as ingredients in the “heka.” Fresh seafood cut in big chunks is another feature that makes it unique.
Heavy snowfall during the winter season is not an unusual sight here in the mountains. The Hikimi district experiences the largest snowfall in Masuda City, which extends into the Chugoku Mountains in the south. With much of the area covered in forested mountains, Hikimi is known as the westernmost area to have heavy snowfall in Japan. Prior to the establishment of critical infrastructure, women got down to plaiting straw bags for charcoal and paper making while men started making charcoal with the arrival of the severe winter. People depended on rice, grains, and beans that had been stored to make meals throughout the winter. It was a dish named “uzume-meshi” that was appreciated as a hot food during the cold season.
With “uzume-meshi,” what seems like a simple bowl of white rice conceals a bed of stir-fried and simmered carrots, shiitake mushrooms, burdock roots, and other ingredients at the bottom of the bowl. There are many theories as to how this unusual recipe came into being. Some say that people made this dish to hide the ingredients they thought were meager while others say it was done to bury items that would have been considered indulgent at a time when people were told to lead a frugal and humble life. This representative dish of the region was selected as one of “Japan's five best rice dishes” in 1939.
Islands with a unique food culture floating in a sea of abundance
The Oki Islands, consisting of four main islands and about 180 smaller islands, are broadly divided into “Dozen” and “Dogo.” A collection of islands clustered in the southwest, Dozen consists of two towns and one village: Nishinoshima Town in Nishinoshima, Ama Town in Nakanoshima and Chibu Village in Chiburijima. The term Dogo is used to refer to Okinoshima Town on the largest island Okinoshima.
The population of all the islands totals about 20,000. These small islands feature a history and culture that differ from those of Izumo and Iwami regions, which may be attributed to the fact that these islands had once been islands of exile. During the Ritsuryo era, many people were shipped to the islands including some famous men and high-ranking officials who were out of step with the times. By the mid-18th century, merchant ships and Kitamae merchant ships began to make frequent calls at the islands. Folk songs from different parts of Japan that sailors brought to the islands at the time have survived and are still sung on the islands to this day, making Oki Islands famous as a “treasure house of folk songs.”
The areas around the Oki Islands are rich in marine resources, thanks to the complex ocean currents and islands, and freshly caught seafood has been part of the diet of people in these areas for a long time. A wide range of seaweed including arame, iwanori, wakame, jinba (young leaves of hondawara), mozuku, tengusa and hijiki is harvested in these areas. By the Meiji era, people were eating rice and barley as their staple food and “sazae-meshi” (rice with horned turban), “ika-meshi” (rice with squid), and “takikomi rice,” rice cooked with seaweed were part of their daily diet. “Bakudan onigiri,” or big rice balls resembling a bomb, wrapped in iwanori steeped in soy sauce, is the soul food of locals on the islands. Everyone, young and old, loves to take a big bite and enjoy the flavor of seaweed.
An environment that is surrounded by the sea promoted the development of a unique seasoning culture. One example is the “kojoyu miso,” a fermented food that is somewhere between miso and soy sauce that contains fragments of soybean and barley grains. It is said that the use of soy sauce on the islands spread only after the Meiji era, and even after the large-scale production of soy sauce began, people continued to make “kojoyu miso” at home. Kojoyu miso is an essential ingredient for “yakimeshi,” or grilled barley onigiri rice balls. Legend has it that yakimeshi was the favorite food of the Emperor Go-Toba, who spent 19 years on the island.
The diversity of Shimane extends from the Izumo region, which has the former castle town of Matsue where the elaborate cuisine for the lords took root, to the Iwami region, characterized by a great diversity backed by its geographical environment, and the Oki Islands where cultural influences and customs in and out of the prefecture intermingle. The dietary habits differ widely according to regions, even for seafood. By visiting the places in person and tasting the local cuisine, you will start to discover the hidden charm of Shimane that cannot be summed up simply by the phrase, “Shimane, the Land of the Gods.”