Gunma’s food culture: A treasure trove of agricultural and livestock products nurtured by the prefecture’s vibrant nature and climate
Gunma Prefecture is home to the Jomo-sanzan trio of Mt. Akagi, Mt. Haruna, and Mt. Myogi, as well as Mt. Tanigawa and other majestic peaks rising over 2,000m above sea level. Among its vibrant water bodies are the Tone River and other iconic rivers of Japan, the wetlands of Oze, and magnificent lakes and marshes such as Lake Haruna and Onuma. Gunma Prefecture also enjoys one of the longest hours of sunshine in Japan. Steeped in the wonders of nature, the prefecture’s abundant agricultural land ranges from flat lands located 10m above sea level to cool highlands that are 1,400m above sea level and produces a wide variety of agricultural and livestock products throughout the year. Its sumptuous cabbages, cucumbers, dairy cattle, pork, and konjac taro are ranked among the very best in Japan (based on the “2019 Production and Agricultural Income Statistics” published by MAFF). The production of unique agricultural, forestry, and fishery products such as wheat, Shimonita leeks, shiitake mushrooms, and rainbow trout is also thriving in Gunma Prefecture.
Reporting partner: Kyoai Gakuen Junior College
Harnessing its abundant agricultural produce, Gunma’s local cuisine features a diverse range of dishes. While regional variations exist, many dishes are familiar to locals in the prefecture. One such example is sukiyaki, a dish made with carefully selected vegetables and meat sourced directly from the prefecture that has become a favorite among many Gunma residents.
Another attractive quality of Gunma is its lush nature despite its relative accessibility, being located roughly around 100km from Tokyo. Since many people visit Gunma from downtown Tokyo for sightseeing, the areas frequently visited by tourists not only offer homemade local delicacies but also dishes specially prepared to welcome guests from outside the prefecture. Restaurants in the prefecture serve dishes that incorporate the use of freshwater fish freshly caught from rivers, wild vegetables picked from the mountains, and pork, an ingredient produced in large quantities in Gunma.
Gunma’s flour-based food culture
Gunma’s winters are unique for their long hours of sunshine and powerful “karakkaze,” or dry, cold drafts blowing from the mountains along the northern border shared with Niigata Prefecture. The dry climate and well-drained soil are ideal conditions for wheat production, a thriving industry in Gunma. In particular, farmers usually practice a two-crop system, where wheat is planted as an off-season crop after rice is harvested in the fall. This has led to the birth of many local dishes made with wheat flour such as “okkirikomi,” “suiton,” and “tansan-manju,” and over time, a flour-based food culture has gradually developed and taken root in Gunma.
Today, Gunma Prefecture still produces a large amount of wheat, and it has even gone on to develop and cultivate its original wheat varieties in recent years. “Kinu-no-nami” is a kind of flour for making Japanese noodles that was developed in Gunma in 1998. This flour is produced from a wheat variety unique to Gunma and is used to make a wide variety of udon such as “Mizusawa udon,” “Himokawa,” and “Tatebayashi no udon.” In addition, 2008 saw the development of “Sato-no-sora,” a wheat variety that is known for its use in making not only Japanese noodles but confectionery as well. The constant development of new original varieties has allowed Gunma’s flour-based food culture to continue evolving even today.
Konjac taro, the base ingredient of konjac (konnyaku), is believed to have been brought into Gunma during the Muromachi period. Cultivating konjac taro was a challenging task, as the crop is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and disease and requires several years before it can be harvested. Moreover, it is more suited to a milder climate with good drainage, which limits the area in which it can be grown. However, Gunma is blessed with mountain ranges such as Mt. Akagi and has abundant soil that is rich in volcanic ash. Coupled with its moderately dry climate and lush natural surroundings, the prefecture possesses the ideal conditions for growing konjac taro, which has gradually become more widely cultivated. Today, konjac taro is known as a local specialty of Showa Village, Shibukawa City, Numata City, and other semi-mountainous areas in Gunma Prefecture, which has made Gunma the prefecture with the highest yield of konjac taro in Japan, boasting over 90% of its total market share (based on “Matters Concerning Konjac Taro, June 2020” published by MAFF). Out of Gunma’s countless agricultural and livestock products, konjac taro has become an ingredient that is especially close to the hearts of local residents.
While most konjac sold in supermarkets is made from powder, konjac in Gunma is made from fresh konjac taro due to its status as a major production area. The result is konjac with a unique firmness, crunch, and an exquisite depth of flavor. Many local dishes are prepared with konjac as their star ingredient, such as “konnyaku miso oden” and “konnyaku no shira-ae” (konjac dressed with tofu), with other local dishes such as “okkirikomi” and “suiton” also featuring the use of konjac as an ingredient.
In the rest of this article, we will discuss the variations in the prefecture’s food culture and traditions by dividing Gunma Prefecture into the four regions of Hokumo, Chumo, Seimo, and Tomo, with a focus on the two major food cultures outlined above.
Local dishes prepared with runner beans, azuki beans, and other locally harvested crops
Centered on the Agatsuma area that includes Nakanojo and other towns, Hokumo is a region where local dishes are mainly prepared with local ingredients. One example is “hana-ingen no nimame,” a simmered dish featuring the use of “hana-ingen” (runner beans) grown in the Agatsuma area. Runner beans are broad beans similar to kidney beans that only grow in cool climates in summer at altitudes of 900m to 1,300m above sea level, and those grown in the Agatsuma area are especially popular and have been named “kogen hanamame” (highland flower beans). “Nimame” is a simmered bean dish often made at home, but in recent years, it has also been processed as canned products that have become popular as souvenirs among tourists.
“Amaneji (also known as ‘amadango’)” is a zenzai-like snack eaten mainly in Shibukawa City and Kawaba Village that is made by mixing wheat flour with water before the dough is kneaded and torn apart by hand. This local dish incorporates the use of azuki beans cultivated in the Hokumo region and was often enjoyed at “kojuhan,” a meal eaten during breaks from agricultural work.
Sauce katsudon: A comfort food in one of Japan’s most renowned pork production areas
Located at the foot of Mt. Akagi, Chumo is an area centered on Maebashi City and Isesaki City. This area produces a large number of agricultural and livestock products, with pork being one of its most widely distributed products. As a prefecture famous for its pork, there are over 30 different kinds of branded pork in Gunma alone, and many producers of branded pork are extremely particular about the way the pigs are raised. One such example is “mugi-buta,” which is only fed specialty wheat. Maebashi City, in particular, boasts one of the highest production values for pork throughout Japan, with pork dishes often served there.
Tonkatsu is a local delicacy that is especially close to the hearts of Gunma locals. In addition to katsu curry and katsu sandwiches, “sauce katsudon” is regarded as a comfort food of Gunma Prefecture and is wildly popular both inside and outside the prefecture. Sauce katsudon is said to have been invented at a restaurant in Kiryu City, located in the Tomo region of Gunma, before eventually spreading to Maebashi City and Isesaki City. Each region has also developed its unique local dishes, such as “yakimochi,” which is made by rolling up pieces of wheat dough and grilling them, and “zakuni,” a dish similar to “kenchin-jiru.”
Home to Shimonita leeks, konjac, and the Tomioka Silk Mill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A well-known area throughout Japan, Seimo refers to the southwestern part of Gunma and encompasses Tomioka City, home to the Tomioka Silk Mill, as well as Shimonita Town in Kanra District, which is famous for its Shimonita leeks and konjac. Various local dishes have been created in this region under the influence of local culture as well as the prevalence of silk mills here in the past. Tomioka City used to be an area where sericulture had flourished, making it a major production hub for silk products. As time went by, however, the consumption of silk products declined, leading to a drop in their production as well. Agriculture took the place of sericulture and began thriving by taking advantage of the region’s mild climate.
The konjac taro, shiitake mushrooms, and leeks (negi) cultivated as agriculture gained traction were used to make a dish called “koshine-jiru,” which is named by taking the first character of each of these ingredients. The local tradition of valuing cocoons, which are essential for sericulture, has also given rise to a culture of offering “cocoon balls” made by rolling up pieces of dough comprising rice flour, ground millet, and corn flour.
Another simple side dish that can be enjoyed in Kanna and other areas is “shime-tofu,” which is made by seasoning boiled tofu with a mixture of soy sauce and sugar. Soybeans were a valuable source of protein in the past when meat and fish were in short supply due to food shortages, during which tofu-based dishes became popular.
A region steeped in tradition and history that welcomes tourists with its ethos of “local production for local consumption”
Tomo is a region centered on Kiryu City, Ota City, Tatebayashi City, and Midori City. In addition to its reputation as a textile production area since ancient times, Tomo is steeped in tradition and history and is home to historical sites such as the Iwajuku archaeological site and temples such as the Daikoin Temple. Even today, this area is not only visited by many tourists but has also thrived as a company town, with many factories of major companies located in its vicinity. In addition to simple dishes usually prepared at home, many dishes invented by restaurants have also gradually evolved into comfort food here due to the sheer number of tourists visiting the area.
“Gojiru” and “sumitsukare” are two of the many familiar local dishes in Tomo. Gojiru is a soup dish mainly served in the town of Oizumi, where soybeans are mashed and added to miso soup. The name “gojiru” is derived from the word “go,” which refers to the mashed soybeans used to make the soup. On the other hand, sumitsukare (also known variously as “shimotsukare,” “sumitsukari,” and “shimitsukare”) is made by simmering the leftovers of feasts, such as salmon heads that are eaten during the New Year and soybeans that are left over from the Setsubun festival. This event dish has become highly popular not only in Gunma but also throughout the northern Kanto region, including Tochigi and Ibaraki.
Some dishes that can be enjoyed at restaurants include “sauce katsudon,” which is said to have been invented in Kiryu City; “catfish tempura,” a dish served in Itakura Town, which is famous for its freshwater fish dishes; as well as “Himokawa udon,” “Tatebayashi udon,” etc. Many people from outside Gunma Prefecture often visit the prefecture just to get a taste of these dishes.