One of the best agricultural prefectures in Kanto, blessed with fertile land and fresh, clean water.
Located on the northern edge of the Kanto plain, Tochigi Prefecture is bordered on the north by Fukushima, the east by Ibaraki, the west by Gunma, and on the south Gunma, Ibaraki, and Saitama Prefectures, making it the one of the few landlocked prefectures in the entire country. The prefecture is warm year-round, with hot and humid summers. Winter days are cold and dry, with relatively long hours of daylight. The landlocked climate and the large differences it creates between summer and winter, the warmth of day and cool of night, and variable levels of humidity make the prefecture ideal for cultivating a diverse range of agricultural products
Featured Contributors: Yuuji Kashiwamura, Kumiko Takahashi, Hisae Handa
More than half of Tochigi is covered in forests. With the Yamizo Mountains in the east, and the Nikkou Mountain Range, Taishaku Mountians, Nikkou Mountain Range, and Ashio Mountains stretching from north to west, the prefecture is surrounded on three sides by mountainous terraine, and all of these mountains serve as headspring for the Naka, Kinugawa, Omoi, and Watarase Rivers, among others, with the broad expanse of the Kanto Plain opening up in a river basin woven through with volcanic ash plateaus and alluvial soil.
With this fertile soil and its rich complement of water resources, Tochigi is known throughout the country as an agricultural prefecture. Having produced the most strawberries nationwide for over fifty years running and producing more than 90% of the national share of dried gourd ('kanpyo'), Tochigi clocks in among the top producers in Japan for a raft of produce including mountain asparagus ('udo'), green onions, tomatoes, and taro root. Not only that but it is known for one of the best areas for wheat production, producing top-class volume for wheat and barely in the past and two-row and six-row barely more recently.
Outside of agriculture the Naka, Kinugawa, and Omoi Rivers are famous for their clear clean waters, and fishing and farming flourishes, mainly for sweetfish and trout.
In this way, with the natural beauty one can only find inland and a rich variety of terrain that produces a harvest for every season, a corresponding variety of local cuisine has sprung forth, with ingredients and preservations methods centered on the use of ingredients such as vegetables, grains, mountain forage, and river fish.
Shimotsukare, a Local Cuisine brimming with the Wisdom of Our Ancestors
We'd like to start by introducing a dish that stands out even among the variety of local cuisine in Tochigi as representative of the cuisine. Shimotsukare, which is still made today in most parts of Tochigi, was once made from the salted salmon heads left over after New Year and the beans, radish, sake lees, fried tofu and various other leftovers from Setsubun all stewed together. It's said that it was first concieved as an offering to the fox deity Inari on the first day of the horse in February on the lunar calendar. A meal so nutritious that it was also said that eating it while walking was protective of health, in a time without refrigeration and with few methods of transport available, it gave people a way to re-use leftovers and avoid letting precious food go to waste, a dish filled with the wisdom and ingenuity of the people who went before us.
As we explain in more detail below, we'll be dividing Tochigi Prefecture broadly into four regions for the purposes of introducing local cuisine: a greater mountainous region centered on Nikko and the Nasu area, a lower mountainous region covering the Yamizo Mountains in the east and the Ashio Mountains to the southwest with their comparatively gentler peaks, the plateaus and alluvial soil of the plains regions, and the river basin where a culinary culture centered on freshwater fish has flourished.
<The Greater Mountains>
The Taste of Home, Born from the Blessings of Mountain and River
The mountainous area stretching from the north to the west of Tochigi Prefecture is a region of rich natural beauty that has been designated as Nikko National Park. The Shrines and Temples of Nikko have also been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and together with Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls, formed from the eruption of Mount Nantai, and various hot spring locales such as Nasushiobara and the Kinugawa River, the area is also rich in resources for tourism. (Photograph: A view of Nikko Mountain from Shinoi Pass)
In the greater mountainous region of Tochigi, barely and millet rice were once a staple food, part of Nikko cuisine, and eaten with ingredients such as vegetable foraged from the mountains and char and trout caught from mountain streams. On the other hand, if there's one sort of dish that comes to mind as the quintessential sunny day cuisine it would be dishes made with soba and mochi.
Bandai-mochi is a dish that's been pased down from long ago in the Kuriyama district of Nikko City, made with mochi (rice cakes) shaped into round discs and grilled before being coated in a miso sauce made with wild sesame called sweet miso yajune, and grilled once more. In some cases, the rice cakes are dressed with sweet red bean paste or 'zunda' made from crushed and sweetened soybeans. Although such rice cakes are typically made with glutinous rice, these are unique from being made with non-glutinous rice that's been cooked to be on the firm side. It's said the name originated from the way small craftspeople in the mountains would make the mochi at their workbenches, pounding the rice with the handle of an ax or other handy tool. These mochi are also sometimes eaten in a broth made from char caught in mountain streams, in a variation on the dish that lets you savor the bounty of mountain and river alike.
Long ago, Nikko was seen as a holy place to the mountain faiths, and many ascetic monks made their home there. One of the dishes of Buddhist cuisine to be passed down from them is known as yuba. In general, yuba, or dried tofu sheet, tends to be written '湯葉,' with the character for hot water, 'yu,' and the character for leaf, 'ba,' but because of the waves on the surface of Nikko's particular variety, a quirk of a unique manufacturing process, in Nikko the second character is written as '波,' with the character for wave. Raw yuba is layered and then rolled up before being sliced and deep fried in oil to create the yuba rolls that are used in simmered fried yuba rolls, one of the archetypal dishes of this region.
Another feature of this region and others is cuisine that uses wild game and fowl from the mountains. Because it is a region with a relatively small rice harvest, its culinary culture is characterized by this liberal use of the bounty of mountain and stream.
<The Lower Mountains>
The Foothill Culinary Culture of Flour-Based Cooking and Taro Root
The comparatively gentle peaks of Tochigi's eastern and southern regions are home to the blessings of both mountain and plain, which has given rise to a unique culinary culture. Both the climate and soil in this region lend themselves towards the cultivation of wheat-based foods, soba and taro root, and a culinary culture centered on foods such as soba and udon noodles which are made from flour, as well as a culture surrounding taro root, has established itself. (Photograph: A buckwheat field.)
Batto-jiru springs first to mind, thinking of a food representative of the mountain villages of the eastern Yamizo Mountains. The soup is made with hearty portions of potatoes, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and more, simmered in miso soup with flour dumplings in a dish that is generally called suiton, but more locally referred to as hatto-jiru and dango-jiru among other names. In the past there weren't many rice paddies in the regions, and it was a food that helped make up for the relative lack of rice.
Taro root is a crop that was brought over to Japan from more tropical regions in Asia during the Jomon Period. Its area of cultivation is widespread, from the area surrounding Utsunomiya to the volcanic plains and Nasu alluvial fan, taro root can be found throughout the prefecture excepting regions such as the rocky foothills of Mount Ashio with cold climates. When it comes to local cuisine that uses taro root, known as 'satoimo,' dishes such as the nishime served at festivals and various annual events and the imokuji grilled and eaten around a fire come to mind.
Kanuma, a city on the western side of Utsunomiya, is settled on a combination of mountain and plain, and this, combined with temperatures that vacillate greatly between day and night mean that the cultivation of buckwheat (soba, both the noodles and their main ingredient) has long flourished in the area. Not only that, but in order to make their soba go farther, to increase the portions ('kate'), the people of the region devised methods such as mixing in green onions and radish, incorporating these into the local cuisine. Thus, the distinctive local cuisine is known as katesoba. These days nira-soba, or green onion soba is favored in Kanuma city and daikon-soba or Japanese radish soba is favored in Sano city, with many a shop offering the dish on its menu, and the dish remains a popular dish with everyday people.
In parts of the Kuzuu district of Sano City, located in Tochigi's southern Ryomo Mountains, and the Kogashi district of Utsunomiya City, the dish mimi-udon is an unconventional udon dish where the udon is kneaded into a shape resembling ears ('mimi').
In Sano there's a local New Year's custom to wish for good fortune in the coming year by saying "Listen with your good ear," while holding such ear-shaped udon up to one's own ear. It's a dish that was primarily eaten during the New Year's holidays, but nowadays it's one of the dishes Sano is famous for and eaten regularly, even in restaurants. This region is also known for senba-soba, made from the locally harvested buckwheat flour.
When it comes to foods representative of Tochigi, udon and kanpyo are the two stars of the show.
From the central region of the prefecture stretching down towards the south, the terrain is characterized by plateus and alluvial soil, with farms and rice paddies spread atop the plateaus providing a variety of agricultural products including rice, fruit, and vegetables. In particular, the cultivation of vegetables such as green onion, taro root, and kanpyo, and grains such as rice, wheat, and two and six-row barleys is flourishing. (Photograph: A rural landscape in Takanezawa.）
A second planting, in fields made from drained rice paddies, is even possible in this region, especially utilizing the comparatively dry climate of the prefecture's south. Because of this, wheat cultivation has proliferated, and with it, so have dishes using wheat such as udon and steamed buns (manju).
Images Sourced From: Japanese Home Cooking, the Traditional Cuisine of Utsunomiya by Yuuji Kashiwamura and Hisae Handa
A dish called chikake-udon hails from the forests of Tochigi's plains region. Mushrooms are generally harvested in the autumn, but Chikake sprout up around August, so they were once gathered in large numbers by the mountain villages living so close to the bounty of nature. These mushrooms are the source of a characteristically fragrant white liquid which is used in making broth for soba and udon noodles.
In terms of ingredients, when one thinks of Tochigi Prefecture, one thinks of kanpyo, or dried gourd. Hardly surprising, as Tochigi makes up over 90% of kanpyo production nationwide. Three centuries ago, Torii Tadateru from the Mibu Domain (currently Mibu, Tsuga), procured seeds of the bottle gourd, the base ingredient for kanpyo, and spread them throughout the land when he was forced to move there from the Omi province (currently Shiga Prefecture). It's said that the growth of the gourds was encouraged by the area's good drainage and summer thunderstorms that cooled the ground and provided ample hydration for the growing vegetables. Because the soil and climate conditions were so suited to bottle gourds, their cultivation became established in a broad area centering on Mibu. (Photograph: Bottle gourd, the ingredient from which kanpyo is made.）
Kanpyo has a distinctive texture, and goes well with a wide variety of flavors, leading it to play both leading and supporting role in a number of recipes. It is used in the archetypal kanpyo sushi roll and inari sushi, as well as in marinaded salad dishes such as kanpyo goma-ae and even as a common ingredient in soups and stews.
One of the most representative kanpyo dishes is a kanpyo tamago-toji (a dish topped with fluffy eggs, pictured) which was originally a dish made with the excess kanpyo farmers had left over after harvest and production, but nowadays it's a well loved bit of local cuisine popular as a casual meal and even known to appear on school lunch menus.
Gyoza have also come to be known as a regional dish in Utsunomiya in recent years. In the past, soldiers dispatched to China learned of gyoza while they were there, and the dish spread as those who returned sought to recreate the dish they'd had in China back home. There are currently more than 200 gyoza shops in the city, and no discussion of Tochigi culinary culture would be complete without a mention.
<The River Basin>
Flourishing Riverfish Cuisine, from some of the Clearest Rivers in the Nation
Mount Nikko-Shirane, Mount Nantai, Mount Nasu and others make up the springhead that feeds the Naka (pictured) and Kinugawa Rivers, designated as among the 100 best rivers in the country for catching wild sweetfish, with clear waters that are a true treasure trove of river fish. Despite being a landlocked prefecture, Tochigi's river fish provide a valuable source of protein starting with sweetfish and Japanese dace and including many more varieties such as crucian carp, catfish, eel, loach, salmon, and trout.
In terms of sweetfish, in particular, Tochigi's catch is one of the best in Japan. During the summer months, fishing weirs are set up along the Naka and Kinugawa Rivers to catch sweetfish, and large numbers of tourists traditionally visit in the summer to take in the catch.
Sweetfish dishes are especially loved, even among the panoply of river fish cuisine available. Sweetfish shio-yaki and sweetfish rice (pictured) are but two such dishes, and you can find a wide variety of sweetfish cuisine in restaurants throughout the Tochigi river basin. Sweetfish has been a valuable ingredient since ages past, inspiring people to use the parts they weren't able to eat right away in dishes such as fermented sweetfish sushi, made by wrapping sweetfish, rice and salt in straw bundles and hanging them next to the hearth to ferment. Not only that, but other clever methods were devised, such as uruka, a preserved food made by pickling the offal.
Images Sourced From: Japanese Home Cooking, the Traditional Cuisine of Utsunomiya by Yuuji Kashiwamura and Hisae Handa
Karoni is another archetypal bit of river fish cuisine, a sweet and spicy dish made by simmering the fish in sugar and sake. Young Japanese dace fish gather to spawn, gaining a characteristic red striped pattern on their bodies and a tender texture to their flesh. They're eaten in a variety of dishes, from shio-yaki to nanban pickles, but among all of them, a karoni made with Japanese dace, where the fish is simmered down to its bones is a regional dish and method of food preservation that's been passed down to this day.
Tochigi is home to many places across the prefecture where local cuisine survives to this day, complete with their local color, and recipes that use unique local methods and ingredients. The way people live has gradually changed across the years, but even though the original culinary traditions, flavors, and ingredients have slowly changed over the years as well, the wisdom and ingenuity of the people who came before, the ones who gave us these recipes, still comes through loud and clear.