Food culture of the Kai Province (Yamanashi Prefecture) formed by the Koshu Kaido route and the Fuji River boat transport

Yamanashi Prefecture is located almost in the center of Honshu. It is surrounded by mountains, with the Southern Japanese Alps stretching north to south in the western part, and the Kanto Mountains rising to the northeast in the northern part. To the southeast is located Mt. Fuji, which was registered as a World Heritage Site in 2013. To the northwest, the Yatsugatake Mountains stretch out their broad base as if facing Mt. Fuji. From there, three class A river systems (Japanese river classification), the Fuji River system, the Sagami River system, and the Tama River system, flow down into Suruga Bay and Sagami Bay.

Part of video material provided by: SHUN GATE, a Japanese food culture information website

The mountain climate that allows the “Eight Fruits of Kai” to grow

Because of its mountainous terrain, the region is dotted with beautiful scenic spots such as Shosenkyo Gorge in Kofu City and Nishizawa Valley in Yamanashi City. Due to the inland climate, there is a large daily temperature difference and little annual precipitation. In addition, the annual hours of sunlight are longer than in other prefectures. Hokuto City, for example, records 2,500 hours of sunlight, more than 500 hours above the national average. These natural conditions are ideal for fruit cultivation, and the prefecture produces a wide variety of fruits, including cherries, kaki persimmons, apples, and plums. Grapes, peaches, and plums are especially representative of the prefecture, and it boasts the largest harvest of them in Japan. (Source: “Statistical Survey of Crops (Crop Condition Survey – Fruit Trees); 2020 Fruit Production and Shipping Statistics (1st Report)” by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries)

Photo provided by: SHUN GATE, a Japanese food culture information website

It seems that in Yamanashi Prefecture, which was known as the Kai Province since the era of the Ritsuryo system, the foundations of the “fruit kingdom” were laid a long time ago, and records from the Edo period show the expression “the Eight Fruits of Kai.” This is a term that lumps together grapes, pears, peaches, kaki persimmons, chestnuts, apples, pomegranates, and walnuts (or gingko nuts, according to one theory), the famous produce of the Kai Province. Although it is not known who picked these eight fruits, people in the Edo period were just as familiar with Yamanashi fruits as they are today.

Distribution to Edo, a major consumption center, was carried out via the Fuji River boat transport and the Koshu Kaido road. Koshu Kaido was a road developed by the Edo shogunate for military purposes, starting from Nihonbashi in Edo, passing through Naito Shinjuku, Hachioji, and Kofu, and joining the Nakasendo road at Shimosuwa-shuku. The distance was approximately 208.5km, and 45 inns were established along the way. Goods were delivered to Edo by riding on horses provided by each inn.

One of the unforgettable local delicacies of Yamanashi Prefecture is stewed abalone. It is a dish of abalone stewed in soy sauce. How did it take root in Yamanashi, a prefecture without a sea? It is said that it was first made in the late Edo period when a fish wholesaler in Numazu Port sent abalone from the Izu Islands to Kai Province. First, raw abalone was processed with soy sauce and packed in barrels. It was then placed on the back of a horse and carried slowly along the road. By the end of the long journey, the abalone had soaked up the flavors and was at its best. The samurai of the shogunate who served as officials at Kofu Castle praised it. Eventually, its reputation spread to Edo, and it became widely known. Even today, stewed clam meat is often served at New Year’s, weddings, and other celebratory occasions, and it is also valued as a gift. Local manufacturers have also developed their own products with unique tastes. It continues to have a special place throughout the ages.

Flour milling equipment and water mills spread the custom of eating flour products

“Hoto” is a nationally known dish of Yamanashi Prefecture. It is a dish of wide, flat wheat-flour noodles simmered in miso broth with ingredients such as pumpkin, taro, and carrots. At first glance, it looks like stewed udon, but there is a big difference in the noodles. Udon noodles are generally made by adding salt to the dough and allowing it to mature in order to give them a resilient texture. Hoto, on the other hand, is placed in a pot of simmering water right after it is made without adding salt. The noodles then gradually fall apart while cooking and the sauce thickens. The sense of unity of the noodles, vegetables, and sauce is a charm unique to hoto which cannot be experienced with udon noodles.

Flour products have played a part in the food culture of Yamanashi Prefecture, including hoto. All kinds of variations have been developed, from common dishes such as udon and soba to local cuisine such as “usuyaki” pancakes, “mimi” short pasta, and the firm “Yoshida udon.” Behind the entrenchment of flour products in daily life lies the unique geography of Yamanashi. Seiji Nakayama, a visiting professor at the Teikyo University Research Institute of Cultural Properties, analyzes the situation as follows. “About 80% of Yamanashi Prefecture is covered by mountains and forests. Until flood control was established in the Edo period, rice could only be harvested from a few flat areas. Because of that, the main crops were wheat, minor grains, buckwheat, and other crops grown in hills and foothills.

During the Yayoi period, grain was commonly eaten without grinding it into powder. However, in the Kamakura period, samurai and monks began to use flour milling equipment, and the proportion of flour products gradually increased. In the Edo period, water mills were established in villages, and a stable supply of flour became possible. Flour thus became a staple in the diet of the general populace. “The power source for the water mills were streams running down slopes. In the Meiji period, more than 3000 water wheels were in operation within the prefecture. In other words, the development of flour milling equipment and the spread of water mills fostered a culture of eating flour products.”

“The eastern and western areas between Mount Daibosatsu and the Misaka Mountains have their own culinary histories,” says Prof. Nakayama. Let us introduce the local cuisine of the Kuninaka area in the west and the Gunnai area in the east.

< Kuninaka area >
A unique culinary culture flourished in this important center of the Edo shogunat

The Kuninaka area can be further divided into Kyochu, Kyohoku, Kyosai, Kyoto, and Kyonan.

Kofu City, the center of Kyochu, is known as the birthplace of Shingen Takeda, a famous general of the Warring States period. The city is dotted with places associated with him. The word “Shingen” can be seen everywhere in the city, including his state in front of Kofu Station and Takeda Shrine, which enshrines him as its deity. During the Edo period, Kofu was regarded as an important center, and its castle town became home to officials of the shogunate. The language, performing arts, and entertainment of Edo also flowed into the city through the Koshu Kaido route. Kofu Station, where the Chuo and the Minobu lines converge, can be called the gateway to the prefecture. The area around the station is lined with restaurants offering local cuisine such as hoto and torimotsuni (stewed chicken gut), allowing tourists to casually experience the local flavor.

Kyohoku consists of Nirasaki City and Hokuto City. Hokuto is surrounded by mountains such as the Yatsugatake Mountains to the north, the Southern Japanese Alps from Mount Kaikoma to the southwest, Mount Kaya to the east, and Mount Mizugaki to the northeast. Three locations in the city have been selected as one of the “100 Best Springs” and “100 Best Springs of the Heisei Era,” and among them, the “Yatsugatake Southern Foot Plateau Spring Group” has more than 50 springs scattered around 1000m above sea level. On New Year’s, Bon Festival, and village festivals, “azuki hoto” is eaten. Azuki beans are boiled up and sweetened and hoto is added to it. In the days when food was not as plentiful as it is today, sweet hoto was the best feast of all. Every year in July, the Miwa Shrine in the city holds a Hoto Festival, where azuki hoto is served.

Minami-Alps City, the center of Kyosai, consists of the Southern Japanese Alps and the alluvial fan of the Midaigawa River, which flows at the foot of the mountain range. Sericulture reached its peak from the Taisho era to the early Showa era, and mulberry fields spread throughout the alluvial fan area. In the late Showa period, most of the mulberry fields were transformed into orchards, and the area has since become known as a production center for plums, peaches, and cherries. Flour dishes made from wheat harvested in the fields were eaten in spare moments from farm work. One such dish is the aforementioned usuyaki. Because it is quick and easy to make, uzuyaki is still eaten as a snack or light meal in many places even today.

The Kamanashi River, where the “Shingen-zutsumi,” a dike built by Shingen Takeda, still remains, joins the Fuefuki River in the south of the Kofu Basin to form the Fuji River, one of the “three most rapid rivers in Japan.” Kyonan, consisting of the towns of Fujigawa, Ichikawa-misato, Hayakawa, Nanbu, and others, spreads around the river basin. In the Edo period, the area was actively involved in exchanges with Suruga through the Sunshu Okan route and the Fuji River boat transport. According to Prof. Nakayama, “the annual rice tax was brought to Edo through Kyonan, while salt was brought in from Sunshu. Also, tuna and fresh fish was brought to Edo via the Nakamichi Okan route, which runs along the western foot of Mount Fuji.” In addition, the custom of eating sharks and dolphins still remains at the site of the former Kajikazawa riverbank, which was a hub of water transportation. In Minobu, the temple town of the Kuonji Temple, there is a custom of eating namayuba (raw tofu skin).

Photo provided by: Yamanashi Prefecture

Agriculture has flourished in the Kyoto area since ancient times, and according to one theory, grape cultivation has been practiced there since the Nara period. This area, especially the Matsuzato district of Koshu City, is famous for its “Korogaki” persimmons. These dried persimmons are made from the “Koshu Hyakume” variety, which can weigh up to 500 grams, and its production is said to have begun at the recommendation of Shingen Takeda. It is produced from November to December. Smoked astringent persimmons are dried in a well-ventilated place for about a month, and then dried on shelves while being shaped. The “persimmon curtains” hanging from the eaves of farmhouses are the autumn scenery of Kyoto that conveys the traditional way of life to the present day.

< Gunnai area >
Potato cuisine, once a measure against famine, has become everyday food in modern times

Gunnai consists of the cities of Fujiyoshida, Tsuru, Otsuki, and Uenohara, and the Minamitsuru and Kitatsuru districts. It contains the Fuji Five Lakes, such as Lake Yamanaka and Lake Kawaguchi, and the southern border of the prefecture borders Shizuoka Prefecture across Mount Fuji.

During the Edo period, sericulture and weaving were valuable sources of income in the area, as rice production was difficult due to a lack of rice fields. Mulberry trees were planted along the village banks to feed the silkworms. The “Gunnai-ori” fabric made from these yarns crossed the Koshu Kaido to the common people of Edo. It was so popular that merchants from Edo set up “buyers’ lodges” in the village to purchase it. The ruins of the Suwa-bansho guard post, located on Otome-zaka in Uenohara City, convey a glimpse of the old days. This guard post was located near the border with Kanagawa Prefecture to control the flow of goods and passersby along the Koshu Kaido. There were four post towns in the vicinity, and those inns and teahouses were crowded with travelers.

However, famines often occurred on a nationwide scale in those days, and this area was no exception. Once a famine occurred, the inhabitants would eat “seida-no-tamaji” to overcome their hunger. This dish consisted of small potatoes stir-fried and boiled in a miso-flavored sauce. “Seida” comes from the name of Nakai Seidayu, a local governor who introduced potato cultivation to the area. “Tamaji” means small potatoes, which “reflects the modesty of the people of the past, who were determined not to waste even the smallest potato,” says Keiko Fujisawa, president of the Yamanashi Prefecture Dietary Improvement Promoters Liaison Council. Through cooking classes and events, she works to pass down food culture and local cuisine rooted in the area.

She also told us about the potato and hijiki (a type of wild seaweed) stew, which is also traditional in Gunnai. “This is a festive dish eaten on July 1, the day of the beginning of the mountaineering season of Mount Fuji. The dish, made with produce from the mountains and the sea, was offered to pray for safe mountaineering in Mount Fuji. Today, it is eaten on a daily basis, and it is not unusual to find it in the side dish section of supermarkets.

There are many dishes in Yamanashi that have transformed from festive foods to everyday home meals, such as rice with sweetened azuki beans and oshaka-kogori dumplings.” The key to making the potato and hijiki stew is to keep the potatoes from breaking down. The taste is exceptional when you eat it freshly prepared. The strong yet simple taste that fills the mouth overlaps with the scenery of mountains and villages of Gunnai.

In 1841, Utagawa Hiroshige, the ukiyoe artist well known for his “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” series, visited Kai Province to create a new work. He recorded the events that occurred on the way to Kofu and during his stay in his “Koshu Diary,” along with sketches. He ate four or five meals a day, meticulously recording what he ate for each meal. The dishes that appear are diverse, including udon, sweetfish sushi, manju buns, tofu, dumplings... He drank and ate his way around Kofu Castle day after day. It’s fun to imagine that the local cuisine that Hiroshige enjoyed so much may have been passed down to the present day.

Yamanashi's main local cuisine