Tokyo: A treasure trove of culinary delights inspired by the many faces of Japan

Located roughly in the center of the Japanese archipelago, Tokyo is a metropolis that has continued to undergo development as the capital of Japan and is currently home to around 13 million people. Despite being the third smallest metropolis in Japan by land area, Tokyo is unique for its diverse terrains that encompass the Kanto Mountains stretching from east to west, the Tama Hills, the Musashino Plateau, the lowlands at sea level, and the islands of Izu and Ogasawara.

Reporting partner: Yanagihara Cooking School of Traditional Japanese Cuisine

The Tokugawa Shogunate lasted for around 260 years after Tokugawa Ieyasu established a military government in 1603. Under the Sankin-kotai system, people from various parts of the country began to visit Edo, and coupled with Japan’s isolationist policy at the time, a full-fledged Edo culture rapidly developed, which included ukiyoe prints, literature, and intellectual scholarship. Needless to say, a food culture also took shape in dramatic fashion among the townspeople of Edo as a culture of the common people and part of this Edo culture. With the advent of Western-style restaurants that accompanied Japan’s cultural enlightenment, Tokyo’s culinary repertoire was further expanded. Tokyo’s local dishes, which have continued to be passed down to the present day, bear the vestiges of these remarkable transformations.

Tokyo can be roughly divided into four regions. The Edomae/Shitamachi area has preserved the retro atmosphere of Edo, the Tama River basin and the Okutama area are located amid lush natural surroundings, while the Izu Islands area extends into the Pacific Ocean and boasts its own unique culture. Let us take a closer look at the distinctive features of each area and their respective food cultures.

Home to Edomae dishes that had evolved from food stands in the Edo period

Image courtesy of: Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

Edo cuisine began to evolve in a variety of ways after Edo, the junction between Musashino and Edo Bay located at the mouth of the Sumida River, became the seat of the shogunate. Rivers flowing into the innermost part of Edo Bay carried water from paddy fields around the river basin and flowed downstream as fish fed on the rich organic materials in this water. Because of this, fresh and well-fed eels and conger eels, as well as shellfish such as clams and trough shells, could be caught in large quantities around the Asakusa River and Fuka River during the early Edo period.

At the time, the common people preferred to cook eel by removing the backbone of the eel before skewering and grilling it, then steaming it, and finally basting it in a sauce and grilling it again. This Edo-style culinary technique came to be known as “Edomae.” Later, as the yatai (food stand) culture began to develop rapidly, various dishes such as sushi, tempura, and soba noodles that featured the use of Edomae fish started to emerge at these food stands. This led to the term “Edomae” being gradually adapted to refer to not only the culinary technique itself but also Edo’s unique culinary style.

Sushi and tempura are iconic dishes of not just Tokyo but Japan in general. Edomae sushi is unique for its use of rice that has been seasoned with red vinegar, as well as ingredients that have been variously prepared by simmering, steaming, boiling, soaking in a soy sauce marinade, wrapping with konbu, and seasoning with vinegar. Such ingredients include vinegar-marinated spotted shad and mackerel, cooked ingredients such as boiled conger eel and steamed prawns, and omelet. While tempura in the Kamigata (Kansai) region is made by deep-frying fish paste, tempura in Edo is prepared by first coating seafood in a batter before deep-frying it in sesame oil until it is golden brown in color.

Bukkake-meshi, a favorite among fishermen

Image courtesy of: Fukagawa-juku

The section of the Oyoko River than runs southward from present-day Eitai and Saga areas of Koto-ku used to be known as Fukagawa-ura, a fishing town where the sandbank came into view as the tides receded, allowing shellfish such as clams, Asian hard clams, and trough shells to be caught in abundance. Bukkake-meshi, a dish that fishermen in the town used to eat onboard their boats as a quick meal, has evolved into today’s “Fukagawa-meshi.” This was no doubt a simple and convenient meal, but the fishermen took it upon themselves to make the dish as delicious as possible. Fukagawa-meshi had vanished for a period of time due to water pollution in the river and land reclamation work, but thanks to the establishment of tourism facilities in the vicinity and the growing number of tourists visiting the area, the dish has been revived successfully and continues to be a well-loved local dish native to the Fuka River.

Tracing the taste of home-cooked meals to the flavors of Japan’s cultural enlightenment

Image courtesy of: Ningyocho Imahan

After Emperor Tenmu issued the so-called “meat consumption ban” in 675, the public consumption of cattle and horses became prohibited in Japan in view of these animals’ vital role in manual labor. This ban was only lifted after the Meiji Restoration. Since cattle and horses were valued as part of the workforce, it was believed that eating them would bring bad karma. Beef stew, or sukiyaki as it is known today, was created as a delicacy for the people who were finally liberated from this ban on meat consumption.
With the opening of the port of Yokohama and the establishment of the British Legation in Takanawa, Edo, a beef processing plant was built in Shiba-shirokane. This was followed by the gradual popularization of beef stew as a delicacy among the common people of Edo. Even today, we can find many long-established restaurants in the Asakusa neighborhood that date back to that period, with beef stew still being enjoyed as an iconic delicacy in many families.

Western cuisine was gradually introduced into Japan under the auspices of its cultural enlightenment doctrine. Western-style dishes were first served in the foreign settlement area of Tsukiji during the early Meiji period, and by 1897, around 40 Western-style restaurants had been established in the area. Dishes that are now often prepared at home, such as croquettes, cutlets, and omelets, were only served at restaurants at that time. In fact, it was not until the Taisho period that these dishes found their way into the repertoire of homecooked food. A variety of dishes along the spectrum from Japanese cuisine to Western cuisine were invented in Tokyo during the Meiji and Taisho periods.

<Tama River Basin>
Unique ingredients nurtured by the distinctive traits of the land

The western part of Tokyo is bordered by the Tama River, with the Musashino Plateau and the undulating Tama Hills extending from the Kanto Mountains. As Tokyo’s population grew, this region has developed into a residential area that doubles as a commuter town, but even today, it has preserved its natural features from the past in the form of nature parks and greenery, giving it a distinctive townscape that sets it apart from Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Since the land around Chofu City was unsuitable for rice production, tenant farmers during the Edo period used it instead for the production of buckwheat flour, an item often offered to the Jindai-ji Temple. This practice is believed to have been the origin of the “Jindaiji soba.”
Buckwheat flour is ground using a millstone and is unique for its vibrant aroma, superior texture, and elegance. Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, had praised the soba he ate at Jindai-ji Temple during a falconry trip, causing soba cultivation to take root in the area. With the subsequent development of bus routes, more people started to visit the greenery around the Jindai-ji Temple and the Jindai Botanical Gardens. The area around the Jindai-ji Temple has become a popular tourist spot that remains famous for its soba to this day.

Meanwhile, the land around Nerima was ideal for field cultivation, allowing it to flourish as a production area for daikon radish, a key ingredient for making Japanese pickles. With Edo’s population continuing to grow, few households in Edo made their own pickles, a product that was usually storebought. Daikon radish cultivated in Nerima became essential for making pickles, especially takuan and bettara-zuke, and this ingredient was eventually recognized as a key Edo Tokyo vegetable. Even today, bettara-zuke pickles made using Nerima daikon radish are showcased as a feature of the Bettara Market, a traditional event that has continued to be held since the Edo period. The wonderful texture and unique sweetness of this daikon radish are exquisite, making it an indispensable ingredient for pickles made in Tokyo even today.

The ability of local cuisine to breathe new life into an area

Okutama has evolved into a bustling tourist destination today. The mountains of Okutama are among the steepest in Tokyo, making it a challenge to cultivate rice on the land there. Instead, the cultivation of wheat and buckwheat has flourished in Okutama. Most households in the area had worked in the mountains in the past, making the simmered udon dish of “noshikomi udon” a treasured dish during the cold season. The Okutama-style of eating this udon is to crank up the heat and enjoy it while it is piping hot. This dish can be regarded as the fruit of the wisdom of ancestors, who had coexisted with nature while safeguarding the unique features of the land here.

Image courtesy of: Tokyo Development Foundation for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Another noteworthy product of Okutama, an area blessed with pristine waters, is the Okutama wasabi. As an ingredient used in Edomae sushi and an essential component of Tokyo’s food culture, wasabi cultivation has flourished here since the Edo period. The spring water of Okutama is highly oxygenated, which provides the perfect environment for the cultivation of wasabi, while the water’s cold temperature makes the wasabi firmer and more pungent. The result is wasabi of exceptional quality, a gift of Mother Nature.

As part of plans to boost tourism in Okutama, efforts are underway to popularize new local specialties on the menu, such as “Jisuke-imo no negi-miso,” which is made with Jisuke potato, a local specialty, as well as “Okutama wasabi no Tokyo-X maki,” a dish featuring a combination of branded pork and Okutama wasabi. One of the most fascinating aspects of local cuisine is the way in which it transcends existing boundaries and breaks new culinary ground while passing on traditional flavors to future generations.

<Izu Islands>
Products shaped by the wisdom of these picturesque islands

Image courtesy of: Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Izu Islands comprise over 100 individual islands, and it takes at least six hours to travel from Takeshiba in Tokyo to Oshima. There are currently nine inhabited islands in the Izu Islands: Oshima, Toshima, Niijima, Shikinejima, Kozushima, Miyakejima, Mikurajima, Hachijojima, and Aogashima. With a pleasant warm climate, the Izu Islands’ sapphire waters draw many surfers and divers, while the volcanic islands attract a large number of hikers.

Image courtesy of: Hajijojima Tourist Association

“Shima-zushi” and “kusaya” are two iconic local dishes of the Izu Islands. Zuke (soy sauce-marinated tuna) is a classic ingredient in Edomae sushi, but this preparation technique was originally introduced from the Izu Islands, whose warmer climate required sushi ingredients to be soaked in marinade so that they could be kept fresh for consumption. Tuna swimming in the open sea used to be regarded as low-quality fish during the Edo period as it spoiled so quickly that it would already have deteriorated in quality by the time of its arrival in Nihonbashi. However, the zuke technique gained traction in Edo as the production of soy sauce flourished, which quickly made tuna a popular delicacy among the natives of Edo and boosted its value.

Perhaps because of its distinctive smell, “kusaya” is another item often mentioned when the topic of Edo specialties is raised, but few people probably know that kusaya had originated in the Izu Islands. As volcanic islands that are unsuitable for agriculture, the Izu Islands had paid its land tax in the form of valuable salt that could be harvested from the sea. To conserve salt when preparing dried fish, the brine in which the fish was soaked was reused many times in the past, which gave the dried fish its distinctive flavor. “Kusaya” is believed to have been named after “kusayamoro,” another name for muro-aji (mackerel scad), the species of fish originally used for making kusaya. However, some people have suggested that “kusaya” was named as such by Edo fishmongers because of its pungent (kusai) smell. There are few things more interesting than to imagine how Edo natives would have debated subjects like that.

By exploring Tokyo’s food culture in this way, we can better understand how people in the Edo period led their lives and enjoyed their food, which reminds us of the profound depth of Edo cuisine once again.
Traditional vegetables that have been passed down from the Edo period across regional borders have contributed greatly to the food culture of Edo natives and continue to play a vital role in present-day Tokyo, as in the case of Nerima daikon radish for bettara-zuke and Okutama wasabi for Edomae sushi.
Indeed, Tokyo’s local dishes are as diverse as its terrain. It is certainly worth keeping an eye on how Tokyo’s food culture continues to evolve as it seeks to carry on its past traditions.

Tokyo's main local cuisine