The food culture of Ibaraki Prefecture, one of the best “agricultural prefectures” in Japan, which is the pride of Kanto

It is located in the center of the Japanese archipelago. Located in the northeast of the Kanto region, Ibaraki Prefecture faces the Pacific Ocean to the east, borders Fukushima Prefecture to the north, Tochigi Prefecture to the west. It borders Chiba Prefecture via the Tone River to the south, and its capital, Mito, is within 100 km of the capital city of Tokyo.

About 200 rivers, including the Tone, Naka and Kuji rivers, which are class A rivers, flow through the prefecture’s land. It is a water district centered on Japan’s second largest lakes, Kasumigaura, which also incorporates Lake Kitaura.

The Joso Plains, which are part of the Kanto Plain, and the high quality water of the region has been used for agriculture since ancient times. It is one of the top agricultural prefectures in Japan in terms of agricultural output. Having a coastline 190 km long, it is also a “fishing prefecture” as the offshore area is a rich fishing ground where the Oyashio and Kuroshio currents intersect, and a variety of seafood is landed each season. In particular, high-quality winter anglerfish has become a luxury food in recent years.

Cooperation place: Cooking Club of Nakagawa Cooking Art College

The food culture of Ibaraki Prefecture fostered by agriculture and fishing

The food culture of Ibaraki Prefecture, which is based on agriculture and fisheries, has evolved in various ways in accordance with the climate of each region. It can be divided into the northern, central, southern, western and Rokko regions by the regional characteristics.

< Northern region >
Konnyaku production that supported the Mito domain’s finances

Image source: Kanko Ibaraki (Ibaraki Guide)

The northern region is known for its konnyaku. Konnyaku production began in the mountains in old times, but since konnyaku is perishable, it was difficult to be distributed. In the Edo period (1603-1867), it was a farmer, Toemon Nakajima who introduced a turning point in konnyaku production. Toemon established a method of preserving konnyaku potatoes by drying them. The quality of konnyaku was also highly regarded, and it became the exclusive product of the Mito domain and supported its finances.

The method of preserving the konnyaku itself has been passed down, and “frozen konnyaku,” which is a type of konnyaku from which the water has been dried out of, is a traditional food made in the northern region.

Image source: Sales and Distribution Section, Sales Strategy Department , Ibaraki Prefecture

The “frozen konnyaku” is made during the severe winter season from December to February. Arrange the konnyaku one by one on the straw spread in the field and pour water over them. Then the konnyaku is completely frozen by the cold air at night. The next day, when they are thawed by daytime temperatures, pour water over them again at night. This process is repeated and will be completed in about half a month. As it requires great care, it has been in decline in recent years and has become an extremely precious ingredient.

Kitaibaraki and Hitachi Cities in the northern part of the prefecture are famous for the specialty of anglerfish, which is a typical foodstuff of Ibaraki Prefecture. Except for the closed season in July and August, fishing is carried out throughout the year, and in winter, “Anko nabe (anglerfish hot pot)” is at its peak.

Image source: Kanko Ibaraki (Ibaraki Guide)

Besides “Anko nabe,” there is a local dish called “Anko with tomozu.” In this dish, people eat boiled anglerfish meat, skin, and stomach, with “tomozu,” which is made by combining the liver with vinegared miso. It is still served in local restaurants and is one of the most popular anglerfish dishes among tourists.

< Central region >
The center of Ibaraki Prefecture, the birthplace of Mito natto

The Central region is the administrative, economic and cultural center of the prefecture. It has become an important transportation hub, with railroads, highways, and Ibaraki Airport.

Image source: “SHUN GATE,” the Japanese food culture information website

Mito City is famous for its natto (fermented soybeans). Locals say it originated with Minamoto no Yoshiie, a warlord of the Heian period (794 - 1185). When Minamoto no Yoshiie visited Mito, his retainer wrapped boiled beans, which were used as horse fodder, in straw, and it became stringy. Yoshiie was wary about trying it, but raved about its taste. “Beans served to the Shogun,” or “natto,” quickly spread to farmers in the area. Each grain of natto wrapped in rice straw is soaked in the aroma of straw and has a rich flavor. Local businesses, from the oldest to the newest, have elaborated their own tastes and pursued their own unique flavors.

“Soboro Natto” is a local cuisine in this area. It is a dish of seasoned Kiriboshi daikon (dried Japanese radish) and natto with soy sauce and mirin, which has a crunchy texture. By seasoning, it also served as a preserved food. It is popular not only as a side dish for rice, but also as a snack for sake and an ingredient in ochazuke (rice with green tea).

In addition to the above, many other local dishes are still rooted in the central region. The one who recommends “Komo Tofu” is Ms. Kazue Nakagawa, the representative of the Cooking Club, Nakagawa Cooking Art College in Mito City.

“‘Komo Tofu’ is tofu wrapped in straw like natto and boiled. When you wrap a piece of tofu in straw, it leaves a mark that is unique to the world. The cut of the tofu was also beautiful. It's one of the local dishes that should be passed on to future generations,” she says.

< Southern region >
Sailing boats on Kasumigaura, marking the arrival of summer

With the opening of the Tsukuba Express, the southern region is easily accessible from Tokyo. It has made great progress in urban development, and in recent years it has shown remarkable growth.

Surrounded by Kasumigaura, the country’s second largest lake area, and the Tone River, it is a breadbasket region with a long history of rice farming. Particularly in the lakeside area of Kasumigaura, the cultivation of lotus root is flourishing. Tsuchiura City is the largest producer of lotus roots in Japan, both in terms of area planted and quantity. The lotus root of Tsuchiura is characterized by its thick flesh and fine fibers, and is shipped throughout the year.

Lotus root is eaten in various ways, such as “kinpira” (cooked in soy sauce and sugar), “tempura,” and “dumpling soup,” and is also used in the local cuisine, “Ogura lotus root,” a sweetened version of lotus root simmered with red beans.

The sail-propelled fishing boats that are deeply connected to the food culture of Ibaraki Prefecture are a popular feature of Kasumigaura. The sail-propelled fishing boat is a method of fishing that uses the wind from the sails to propel the boat, and was used to catch smelt and whitebait. It was once defunct around 1970, but it was revived as a tourist sail-propelled fishing boat. You can see them running gracefully from July to November. The “sail-propelled fishing technology of Kasumigaura” has been designated as a national selected intangible cultural property .

< Western region >
An agricultural area where an Edo-style atmosphere still lives on

Image source: Kanko Ibaraki (Ibaraki Guide)

During the Edo period (1603-1867), Ibaraki Prefecture was the territory of the Mito domain as well as Kasama, Tsuchiura and Koga domains. Castle towns and jinyamachi (town around the feudal load’s residence) were established in various locations, but as the times change, the scenery is disappearing. In the western region, however, there are still streets that retain the atmosphere of Edo. The “streets of Makabe” in Sakuragawa City and the “ruins of samurai residences” in Koga City are very popular as sightseeing spots. It is also a region where many traditional crafts such as “Yuki Tsumugi” (high-grade silk textile) and “Makabe stone lanterns” have developed and traditional local industries have also developed.

The west side of Mt. Tsukuba, a famous mountain, is covered with farmland, which includes lettuce, leeks, Chinese cabbages and watermelon. They are representative fruits and vegetables in Ibaraki Prefecture. The agricultural output is one of the highest in each region.

“Sumitsukare” is a local cuisine from the western region. It is a dish of beans, daikons, carrots, salted salmon heads, etc., simmered with sake lees.

The origin of this dish is said to date back to the Heian period (794-1192). It is said to be a “sumutsukari” that is recorded in the “Kojidan,” a collection of stories about ancient events. It is said to have originated in the country of Omi and the capital of Kyoto, and was eventually introduced to northern Kanto. In the western region of Ibaraki Prefecture, it is a popular festive food eaten at the beginning of February. There is still a tradition of using leftover beans from Setsubun as an ingredient.

There is a saying that “if you eat ‘Sumitsukare’ from seven houses, you won’t get sick,” so local people were in the habit of sharing it with neighbors.

< Rokko region >
Good fishing grounds where the Kuroshio and Oyashio currents intersect

Rokko is a region located in the southeast of the prefecture. Kashima City, included in the region, was the base of the Yamato Court’s eastern military strategy. The town developed as a shrine town of Kashima Shrine, the highest-rank shrine in Hitachi Province. Kashima Shrine is one of the three shrines with high imperial status in the eastern part of Japan, together with Ikisu Shrine in Kamisu City and Katori Shrine in Chiba Prefecture. This is the headquarter of Kashima Shrine, which has 900 shrines all over Japan. The name of the town “kyuchu” in the city is influenced by this historical background.

The Sea of Kashima, which faces the region, is a good fishing ground where the Kuroshio and Oyashio Currents intersect, and supports the prefecture’s fishing industry. “Kashima octopus”, boiled whole, is an indispensable New Year’s food item for the locals. Flatfish caught off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture are recognized as high-quality fish “Joban mono”.

Image source: Sales and Distribution Section, Sales Strategy Department, Ibaraki Prefecture

In recent years, “clams of the Sea of Kashima” have become famous throughout Japan. Its Japanese name is “Korean hamaguri (Asiatic hard clam)” and they live on the sandy bottom of the sea up to a depth of 10 meters. They can be more than 10 cm in size and the shells are shiny and beautiful. The area accounts for about 60% of the country’s clam production, and at the beginning of the Heisei period (around 1990), it boasted a catch of about 1,000 tons. However, the number has been decreasing and is currently less than 100 tons. Local fishermen’s cooperatives systematically fish and protect the clams by setting up protected areas.

The food culture of Ibaraki Prefecture provides a glimpse into the traditions and people’s lives that are deeply rooted in the region. Ibaraki Prefecture, seen through the filter of “food,” is still full of hidden charms.

Ibaraki's main local cuisine