Blessed with a temperate climate, fertile soil, and plentiful seas, Chiba is a treasure trove of food
Located at the eastern edge of central Honshu, Chiba Prefecture is a peninsula extending into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Bordered to the east and south by the ocean and to the west by Tokyo Bay, it is almost completely surrounded by water. At the base of the peninsula flow the Edogawa and Tonegawa rivers. These class A rivers form Chiba’s borders with Tokyo, Saitama, and Ibaraki.
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The Temperate Climate of Boso
Chiba’s topography can be largely divided into hills, plateaus, and plains. In fact, Chiba is the only prefecture in Japan without any land elevation higher than 500m. The southern part of the prefecture is hilly, but the highest point, Mount Atago, is only 408.2m tall. Furthermore, the entire northern area is comprised of the Shimousa Highlands, formed by the accumulation of the Kanto loam stratum, while the Tonegawa river basin and Kujukuri coast are made up of plains. With small variations in elevation, surrounding seas, and the Kuroshio Current off the east coast, Chiba has all the conditions to provide a temperate climate all year round. In the Minamiboso region, frost almost never forms, even during the winter.
Chiba Prefecture is also called “Boso” (房総), which has origins tracing back all the way to the Kofun period. At that time, the entire prefecture was called “Fusanokuni” (総国). The character “総” meant “hemp” in the old language. This name came from the people who migrated from Awa in Shikoku and rode the Kuroshio Current to the Boso region where they began cultivating hemp.
After the Taika Reforms, Fusanokuni was divided into Kazusanokuni (上総国) in the south and Shimousanokuni (下総国) in the north. Awanokuni (安房国) split off from Kazusanokuni and became independent, thereby establishing the Three Provinces of Boso. The vestiges of these provinces remain to this day, with the characters “房” from “Awa” and “総” from “Kazusa” and “Shimousa” combining together to make “Boso” (房総), the current name of the region.
A Food Supply Base to Feed the Edo Shogunate
Fishing has been done since ancient times, when the people were blessed by the bounty of the sea. The bones of red sea bream, bluefin tuna, and squid have been unearthed from shell mounds from the Jomon period in various regions. In rare cases, traces remain from the hunting of marine mammals such as whales and seals.
Fishing first became a fully fledged industry in the Edo period. After Tokugawa Ieyasu designated Edo as the administrative center of Japan, the demand for fish skyrocketed. As the person responsible for supply, Ieyasu brought the fishermen of Kansai, who had superior fishing techniques, to Edo. Eventually, the fishermen expanded to Boso, which was an excellent fishing ground. They established large-scale sardine fisheries in Choshi and Kujukuri.
“At that time, the area around Funabashi City was called ‘Osaiura’, and they offered seafood to the Edo Shogunate. The Tonegawa and Edogawa Rivers were main arteries for transporting resources. Ieyasu put a lot of effort into river management works, paying particular attention to the ‘raging’ Tonegawa. He went so far as to build canals and embankments to divert the Tonegawa, which had originally debouched into Tokyo Bay, creating a watercourse which led to the Pacific Ocean.” These are the words of Sachiko Sugisaki, chairperson of the Chiba Nutritionist Society. She also holds the position of chairperson of the Chiba Traditional Local Cuisine Research Society and is active in spreading public awareness of local cuisines.
Ms Sugisaki is involved in the preservation of futomakizushi (lit. “thick rolled sushi”), which is characterized by the beautiful and colorful designs revealed in its cross-section. Birds, cherry blossoms, pandas, and butterflies are expressed through a variety of ingredients, making this sushi a favorite of children and visitors from abroad. “This local dish originated in Sammu, Isumi, Kisarazu, and other cities and was an essential part of community gatherings or family celebrations. Originally, it was the men’s job to make it, but after WWII, the women inherited the recipes through oral tradition.” In 1955, Ms Sugisaki’s mentor, Eiko Ryusaki, began visiting the households of her town to conduct a survey of the history of futomakizushi, its ingredients, designs, and methods for reproduction. She published a recipe book which contained her findings and held cooking classes and lectures in an effort to convey the appeal of this dish. “Now, people compete to make the best designs in the prefecture. They have a great degree of freedom in their choice of ingredients, so it’s important to make use of locally sourced ingredients.”
*The “崎” in Sugisaki is the tatsusaki form of the character: “﨑”
In addition to futomakizushi, Chiba Prefecture still has many local dishes. Below, you will be introduced to some of the cuisine from four areas: Higashikatsushika-Bay, Hokuso, Kujukuri, and Minamiboso.
< Higashikatsushika-Bay Area >
“Torimeshi”: An Essential Dish for Koyasuko and Hazumi
The Higashikatsushika-Bay Area functions as the urban center of the prefecture. Relatively soon after WWII, residential development proceeded apace, and soon approximately 70% of the prefecture’s population was concentrated here. Spreading from the prefectural capital of Chiba City all the way to Tokyo Bay, Makuhari Shintoshin, Japan’s largest new urban center, is home to Makuhari Messe, a large convention center which hosts international conferences and events. Urayasu City is packed with hotels and commercial facilities centered around its large theme parks, forming a resort area. Tega Marsh, a scenic area which spans the cities of Abiko, Kashiwa, Inzai, and Shiroi, is designated as part of the Inba Tega Prefectural Natural Park, along with Inba Marsh in the Hokuso area. It is a long, thin marsh with an area of 6.5km2 and a perimeter of 38km well known for its birdwatching.
Soy sauce brewing is a traditional industry around Noda City. It is said that it all started when a man named Ishirobe Iidaichi began making tamari soy sauce during the Eiroku era (1558-1569). Before long, he overwhelmed Kansai soy sauce makers, who had held most of the market share, and grew to supply all the demand of Edo. In the mid-nineteenth century, the houses of Hyouzaemon Takanashi and Saheiji Mogi were chosen as the official soy sauce suppliers of the shogunate.
*The “高” in Takanashi is the hashigodaka form of the character: “髙”
In the past, the fishing grounds around Funabashi City were so blessed by the bounty of the sea that they were able to supply fish and seafood to the shogunate. The tidal flats remaining in Tokyo Bay known as Sanbanze are still used for cultivating nori seaweed and production of shellfish such as Manila clams and quahogs. These are deep-rooted in the flavors of the region in dishes like fukashi, clam soup flavored with miso.
Yoshihide Kaibe, managing director of the Chiba Chef’s Association, suggests that a dish representative of the area’s local cuisine is Takazu torimeshi. This dish of rice mixed with chicken has been handed down in the Takazu area of Yachiyo City and is eaten at events such as Koyasuko and Hazumi. “It is a simple dish made by stir frying chicken in soy sauce and mixing the meat and its juices into rice. This simplicity allows one to fully enjoy the ingredients’ own flavors. I think it’s a very reasonable dish which doesn’t take much time to prepare.” Mr. Kaibe plates the dish by arranging daikon leaves atop the torimeshi, much like a dish called hibazoni. He uses soy sauce from Noda to finish the dish’s flavoring.
< Hokuso Area >
Boiled Peanuts: An Irresistibly Soft, Flaky Texture
The Hokuso area is comprised of the plains along the Tonegawa river basin and the neighboring Shimousa Highlands. In addition to Inba Tega Prefectural Natural Park, which includes Inba Marsh and Tega Marsh, scenic views of the waterfront can be seen from Suigo-Tsukuba Quasi-National Park and Otone Prefectural Natural Park. The area is further characterized by scenery from the halcyon days, such as the mountain settlements near Inzai City or the Sawara area in Katori City, which thrived as a waypoint for water transport along the Tonegawa.
Located at the downstream end of the Tonegawa River, the coast near Choshi has a large continental shelf with a depth of 200m, where the confluence of the Kuroshio and Oyashio Currents as well as the outflow of the Tonegawa combine to form one of the best fishing grounds in Japan. The Kansai fishermen who came here in search of fish during the Edo period established Tokawa Fishing Harbor and contributed to the development of the fishing industry. Choshi Fishing Port is a fishing base large enough to harbor fishing boats from across Japan, bringing in annual catches of 200-300 thousand tons of fish. As many as 200 types of fish are caught here, including mass-caught fish such as mackerel, Japanese sardine, Pacific saury, skipjack tuna, and flounder, as well as migratory fish.
Japanese sardines caught during the rainy season from June to July are commonly known as nyubai sardines. They have the highest fat content at this time of year, and when eaten as sashimi they are melt-in-the-mouth delicious. They are prepared in various ways—salted and grilled, boiled in soy sauce, preserved—which shows what an indispensable food they are for the region.
Choshi is also a famous producer of soy sauce on par with Noda. Tanaka Genba, a dried sardine trader, began making soy sauce in 1616, which he transported to Edo by flatboat.
Another product unique to this area are the famous peanuts from Yachimata City. Cultivation began in full swing around 1907. The land cleared in Yachimata had soil suitable for cultivation, and the Sobu Railway opening in the area meant that shipping was also favorable. As a result, the area developed into a producer of the local specialty in the early Taisho era. According to records from 1949, approximately 80% of all arable land in the area was dedicated to the cultivation of peanuts.
A unique, traditional way of eating peanuts around Yachimata is yuderakkasei, or “boiled peanuts”. Freshly harvested autumn peanuts are boiled, giving them a soft, flaky texture and delicate sweetness even better than normal roasted peanuts. Not long ago, these were eaten only locally and were known to very few people. Now that preservation methods and distribution have developed further, they are shipped around the city and beyond and have become very widely known.
< Kujukuri Area >
A Sardine Dish Created in the Birthplace of Seine Fishing
The Kujukuri area is comprised of Kujukuri Township, Togane City, and Sammu City. The area’s most famous location is the 60km coastline of Kujukuri Beach, which stretches along the Pacific Ocean from Iioka in Asahi City to Taito Beach in Isumi City. Since the Meiji era, the coastal area of Ichinomiya has seen the establishment of many swimming beaches and villas, resulting in it being known as the “Eastern Oiso”. The area was favored by literary figures of the Meiji era such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Sachio Ito, and Kotaro Takamura.
Because Kujukuri Beach is a wide shallow beach free of rocks, fishermen there employed the technique of “seine fishing”, whereby more than 100 people would cast and pull in a large net of up to 2km long. This practice began when Kyusuke Nishinomiya drifted ashore from Kishu to Sorigane Village (present-day Shirako) in 1555. He saw the opportunity for catching the plentiful sardines and began to use the Kishu fishing method of seine fishing. In addition to being a source of food, sardines were dried and used as fertilizer or processed to make oil cakes, which were shipped all across Japan. They were an important source of revenue for the local populace.
Due to this rich history, Kujukuri is home to many sardine-based dishes. One such dish is iwashinodangojiru, which uses sardine paste. The fish paste dumplings are cooked in a clear broth, giving them a light and fluffy texture so that they melt on the tongue and leave a lingering aftertaste. The dish called seguroiwashi no gomazuke was developed to preserve sardines over long periods. The head and innards are removed from Japanese anchovies, which are salted and then pickled for 2-3 days with sesame, ginger, yuzu, and red chili peppers. Popping an anchovy into your mouth gives you a taste of the fish’s umami as well as a tartness and aroma which slowly emerge.
< Minamiboso Area >
Dairy Farming, Agriculture, and the Sea’s Bounty Fostered in a Temperate Climate
The Minamiboso area in the south of Chiba Prefecture is a resort area full of tourist attractions. The soft northern winds make for a temperate winter climate, allowing visitors to enjoy a variety of seasonal flowers, such as the riotous daffodils of Kyonan or the “Nanabatake Road” of Kamogawa. Coastal cities such as Minamiboso, Kamogawa, and Tateyama have many popular resort hotels looking out over the ocean.
The area engages in agriculture all year round, and during the Edo period it was responsible for supplying fresh food products such as dairy, fruit, and seafood to the shogunate. Nowadays, local products are certified with the Minamiboso brand mark. 20 products have been certified, including spiny lobster, splendid alfonsino, hijiki, edible nanohana, broad beans, and celery, as well as famous brands known nationwide, such as Nagasamai rice and Boshu loquats.
The area also has many traditional local dishes which use seafood. The area’s plentiful horse mackerel and sardines are used to make namero, which can then be grilled to make sangayaki, both of which are offered at izakayas and roadside stations.
The Mineoka Dairy Research Center in Minamiboso City contains the “Japan Dairy Farming Origins Monument”, which tells the area’s history. The story begins with the Satomi clan, which controlled the entire region during the Warring States period, establishing a ranch on Mount Mineoka. The Edo shogunate inherited the ranch, and the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, imported three head of white cattle from India in order to manufacture butter. Afterward, during the Kansei era (1789-1801), they succeeded in breeding those three cows into a herd of more than 70 head of cattle. The dairy farmers of Mineoka have long eaten chikko tofu as a source of nutrition. In this region, cow’s milk is called chikko. The first milk given by a cow to its calf is heated and vinegar is added, forming something akin to cottage cheese. First milk cannot be sold on the market, so this method was invented to avoid wasting it. Currently, it is called chikkokatametano, and recipes which use store-bought milk are taught in cooking classes.
Chiba Prefecture is included in the national capital region and its cities are quite well established, making it difficult to imagine “local dishes” being produced there. If one looks at the lifestyles of its communities, however, one sees a living food culture passed down in an unbroken chain since ancient times. Chiba Prefecture remains full of unknown and delicious flavors.