An inland food culture shaped by the prefecture’s dual character of the “urban” and the “rural”
Located within the Kanto Plain, Saitama Prefecture is a land-locked prefecture that measures approximately 103km from east to west and 52km from north to south, boasting a total land area of 3,800 square kilometers. While it is typically known as an urban prefecture adjacent to Tokyo, Saitama is home to the Arakawa River, which starts in the Chichibu Mountains; the Tone River, one of the largest rivers in Japan; and the Kanto Loam, which collectively create a set of extremely favorable natural conditions for the prefecture.
Reporting partner: Konsho Gakuen, Saitama Prefectural Culinary School
Saitama is hot and humid in summer and experiences dry seasonal winds in winter, in addition to its many sunny days and relatively lower risk of wind and flood damage as compared to other prefectures in Japan. Being part of the metropolitan area with a large consumer market, the prefecture ranks ninth in Japan for the production value of its vegetables (based on the “2018 Production and Agricultural Income Statistics” published by MAFF), including leeks, corn, sweet potatoes, and other crops. Moreover, Saitama Prefecture produces a wide variety of agricultural products ranging from rice to wheat, livestock, fruits, flowers, and plants, making it not only an attractive urban area but also a prefecture blessed with remarkable rural appeal.
In addition, Saitama is home to breweries that produce traditional Japanese seasonings such as soy sauce and miso, and it is well-known for its many thriving breweries that still harness traditional techniques. The prefecture has inherited the flavors of its local dishes from ancient times, even if they continue to evolve as the dishes are passed down.
Manju for breakfast and udon for lunch: A wheat-based food culture for everyday meals and special occasions
Although its planted area is declining year after year, Saitama Prefecture remains a major wheat production prefecture despite its location within the metropolitan area, boasting the sixth highest production value for wheat among prefectures in Japan in 2018 (based on the “2018 Production and Agricultural Income Statistics” published by MAFF). Northern Saitama and the Tone region are mainly responsible for the prefecture’s high wheat production. A two-crop system involving the cultivation of both rice and wheat has been practiced since ancient times, mainly by planting wheat as an off-season crop in paddy fields, which has resulted in wheat becoming a major ingredient in the diet of farmers. Udon and manju are two iconic items in Saitama’s wheat-based food culture, and even today, there is a popular saying that goes, “manju for breakfast and udon for lunch.” Both these items are not only enjoyed as part of everyday meals but also often served at special occasions such as weddings and funerals.
There are said to be over 20 varieties of udon in Saitama Prefecture alone, with each region having developed its own unique udon. It has become customary to serve udon to visitors, with the best example of this being “niboto/himokawa.” This warm udon dish is simmered with vegetables and flat, thick noodles, and it is usually enjoyed in winter. It is said that Eiichi Shibusawa, also known as the father of the modern Japanese economy, ate this dish every time he returned to his hometown of Fukaya. Chilled udon is commonly served in summer, with another traditional dish usually consumed when taking a break from agricultural work being “hiyajiru/suttate.” Chichibu has a unique food culture even within Saitama Prefecture, and udon is also an indispensable part of the Chichibu Night Festival, which is held every year in December to celebrate the harvest of crops. Widely known as a dish that is eaten during or after festivals held in the cold, udon has the power to help participants and tourists keep warm.
Manju has also evolved into many fascinating variations in different regions. As a prefecture that is not surrounded by the sea, agriculture in Saitama Prefecture mainly revolves around rice cultivation and field farming, giving rise to a vibrant “farmer’s snack culture” featuring items enjoyed by farmers during their breaks that has been passed down from one generation to the next. One such snack is manju, an item commonly served when hosting guests during the harvest season, village festivals, weddings, funerals, and other occasions when people gather together. For instance, “iga-manju” is a manju wrapped in red rice that was made as an auspicious dish during summer festivals and celebratory occasions. “Ude-manju,” on the other hand, is a manju stuffed with azuki beans and simmered instead of steamed, and it was often made by families for annual events. Although there are fewer people who make manju at home these days, the unique manju of each region is highly popular as local delicacies and continues to be sold at Japanese sweets shops, souvenir shops, and roadside stations.
For the rest of this article, we will share the distinctive characteristics of each region’s local dishes by dividing Saitama Prefecture into Chichibu and Northern, Western, Eastern, and Central Saitama.
The natural gifts of the satoyama and the “kojuhan,” the essential meal for farmers
As a region that still preserves its satoyama landscape today, Chichibu is home to residents who have long cherished the natural gifts of the mountains, such as edible wild plants. “Katemeshi” is a dish that has also been passed down in other parts of Saitama Prefecture, where it is made from dried taro stalks known as “zuiki,” but families in Chichibu make a unique version of the dish by adding royal fern and bracken fern that have been dried and preserved.
Another essential component of Chichibu’s food culture is the “kojuhan,” a meal with local dishes that is consumed when one is hungry, such as when farmers are taking a break from their agricultural work. One such dish is the famous “miso potato,” a classic dish that features a tempura potato topped with a sweet and salty miso sauce and served as a side dish or snack. Another dish is “tsumikko,” which was often eaten during the busy farming season. A dish widely known as “suiton” is also an essential dish for the cold season, as it can keep one warm with its generous serving of vegetables.
An agricultural area with abundant leeks and other crops
Saitama Prefecture’s northwestern region and its northern region that borders Gunma Prefecture have an undulating terrain with mountains in the west and lowlands in the east, as well as fertile land and abundant water resources such as the Tone River. These features make this region one of the prefecture’s leading agricultural areas, where vegetables, wheat, and other crops are cultivated in large numbers. A famous local specialty is the Fukaya leek of Fukaya City, which had flourished as a post town along the Nakasendo Road during the Edo period. Fukaya leek is harvested throughout the year, but its prime harvesting season is in winter, when its sweetness is enhanced by the cold temperature. The sweet and soft “negi-nuta” that everyone will enjoy is a highly popular homecooked dish that is commonly served as a chopstick rest or an accompaniment to sake. It is also incorporated into school lunches in the city.
Since wheat has been cultivated since ancient times, udon is also enjoyed in many regions, with one of the most famous examples being “niboto/himokawa.” Unlike “hoto” in Yamanashi, which is made with pumpkin and topped with miso, “niboto/himokawa” is made by incorporating the use of seasonal vegetables. This is a dish that keeps one warm during the cold winter months as families gather around the dinner table. This dish is still often made at home today, and the version in Fukaya usually includes a generous amount of Fukaya leeks.
Field farming using traditional farming techniques continues to thrive in the Mitomi region
Western Saitama has an undulating terrain that extends from the outer perimeters of the Chichibu Mountains through the Koma, Kaji, and Sayama Hills to the Musashino Plateau in the east. The region’s favorable terrain and the presence of rivers such as the Iruma River and the Koma River make it an ideal site for field farming where a wide variety of crops have been produced. Sprawling across the cities of Kawagoe, Tokorozawa, Sayama, Fujimino, and Miyoshi and occupying an area of approximately 3,200 ha, the Mitomi region was cleared from 1694 to 1696 and remains one of the largest mountainous areas for outdoor vegetable cultivation today. 50% of this area is farmland, while 20% is forest and the remaining 30% used for other purposes. The trees in the forest are utilized as materials and firewood while their fallen leaves are used for compost, allowing a sustainable agricultural system to be set up. Vegetable farming is still thriving here even today, including the cultivation of Kawagoe’s famous sweet potatoes, as well as spinach, taro, turnips, carrots, etc.
Tokorozawa, Sayama, and Iruma had served as stopover sites for highway transportation and logistics during the Edo period, and they eventually developed into towns where agricultural products and firewood were stashed. Rice has been cultivated in this region since ancient times due to its superior logistics and the presence of rivers. “Katemeshi,” a traditional dish from Chichibu, is also enjoyed in Western Saitama, where it features the use of dried taro stalks known as “zuiki” as an essential ingredient.
Wheat was also a staple ingredient in Western Saitama, a region known for its rice production. In fact, wheat has often been planted as an off-season crop in paddy fields and is highly valued by farmers as an everyday ingredient. While “hiyajiru/suttate” is sometimes poured over rice, it is typically used as a dipping sauce for udon noodles in this region. Summer, the period from the time rice is first planted to its eventual harvest, is a busy time for farmers who spend most of their time working in the fields. “Hiyajiru/suttate” is a dish valued for how easy it is to eat even when one’s appetite is suppressed by the heat and its hassle-free preparation.
A food culture nurtured by the natural gifts of rivers
Large swathes of Eastern Saitama are lowlands that stretch across the midstream and downstream areas of the Naka River, and these areas are blessed with abundant water resources with rivers such as the Naka and Edo Rivers as well as irrigation channels running through them. Because of these features, this region suffered from more floods than other areas and had served as a hub for the transportation of various goods by water in the past. The abundance of water made this region a breadbasket, and its rural landscape remains intact even today. Rice used to be cultivated in the area, but glutinous rice was expensive in the past. This is said to be the reason why “iga-manju” was invented by incorporating the use of a small amount of red rice to give volume to the manju.
Rivers large and small also brought a large amount of seafood, which was a valuable source of protein for the people. Eels, sweetfish, and even catfish and carp, were eaten by commoners after the fish was grilled or simmered. Loaches could also be caught in the flooded paddy fields during summer. Compared to other species of river fish, loaches were easier to catch and were a common ingredient for everyday meals. Thin loaches were eaten with vegetables in miso soup or deep-fried tempura-style, while fatter ones were stewed and served as “dojo-ni.”
The central region of Saitama Prefecture where the atmosphere of its post towns lingers
The Nakasendo Road was built over a period of seven years starting from 1601 as a highway connecting present-day Gunma Prefecture to Kyoto Prefecture. The Nakasendo Road ran through the central part of Saitama Prefecture from Kawaguchi to Honjo, with various areas along the route developing into post towns. The prosperity enjoyed by the region in the past can still be experienced through its vestiges in the area’s buildings, shrines, and festivals.
While Central Saitama was home to many commercial lodging towns known as post towns, its proximity to the metropolitan area and its large consumer market has led to the development of agriculture. Saitama City remains one of the prefecture’s leading production areas for vegetables. Wetland rice cultivation is practiced in the basins of the Ayase River and the Motoara River in the eastern part of the city, while Japanese mustard spinach and Shantung vegetables are grown in the surrounding areas. The middle section of the Ara River in the city’s western part is a production area for early rice, while fruit trees such as pears and grapes are grown in the northwest, and shrubs, saplings, and vegetables in the central zone.
Japanese mustard spinach and sweet potatoes are the most widely produced crops throughout the various regions, while arrowhead remains a famous local specialty. Although the number of producers has been declining in recent times, the cities of Saitama, Soka, and Koshigaya are still major production areas, with Saitama Prefecture boasting the second largest production volume in the entire Japan (based on the “2018 Agricultural Statistics” published by MAFF). Arrowhead is an essential vegetable featured in osechi dishes for its auspicious connotations of “sprouting” and “joy” due to the distinctive manner in which it sprouts and grows, with “kuwai no fukumeni” (simmered arrowhead) having been served since ancient times.