Cuisine developed within the Tateyama Mountain Range and Toyama Bay
Toyama looks out on central Honshu on the Sea of Japan side. It is surrounded by mountains on the east, south, and west. The topography of the area is dynamic, and includes the Tateyama Mountain Range in the Northern Alps, with its 3,000-meter-high mountains, to Toyama Bay, a natural fish preserve with water going approximately 1,000 meters deep, giving the landscape a total height difference of 4,000 meters. The land was formed into a fan shape by several rapid rivers that flow down from the mountains. The magnificent Shinkawa Plain, Toyama Plain, and Tonami Plain spread out from the east, embracing Toyama Bay. The varied climate fostered a cuisine that is rich in variety.
Reporting cooperation: Tomoyuki Imajo（Toyama Chef’s Association)
Undersea valleys and layers of seawater form a treasure trove of seafood
Toyama Bay, often called a natural fish preserve, is the symbol of the prefecture. The seafloor consists of an undersea valley called "Aigame," and is made up of multiple valleys, providing an excellent habitat for fish and shellfish. There are three types of seawater are layered within the bay: low-salinity coastal surface water, created with the help of the rivers, the Tsushima Warm Current water beneath that, and a layer of cold deep ocean water near the seafloor. Fish that prefer each type of seawater gather here, with as many as 500 of the 800 species of fish found within the Sea of Japan live in here.
Among the fish found here, the yellowtail, the "King of Toyama Bay," white shrimp, the "Jewel of Toyama Bay," and firefly squid, the "Mystery of Toyama Bay," are among the many fish that are Toyama Brand certified and form important parts of the local cuisine. More recently, genge a deep sea fish that once often thrown away, have gained popularity due to their good flavor and rich nutritional content, with their consumption now possible with modern distribution networks and freezing technology.
Toyama Bay's is wonderful for more than just its rich fishing grounds. The scenery is also spectacular, so much so that Otomo no Iemochi wrote a poem about it in Japan's oldest poetry anthology, the Manyoshu, and includes the magnificent, beautiful panorama of the Tateyama Mountain Range looking out over the ocean is overwhelming to behold.
The environment provides delicious water to nurture crops
When you turn your attention to the land itself, you cannot help but notice the bounty of the water here. The Tateyama Mountain Range is an important source of water, which comes from the snow that accumulates on the mountains during the winter, which eventually melts and flows into the rivers. Forests occupy 02/03 of the prefecture's land, and act as green dams, with the melted snow and rain is filtered into clean water. The steep slopes of the terrain help this process along. The Oyabe, Jinzu, and Kurobe Rivers, along with the remainder of the seven major rivers that flow through the prefecture, boast high water quality due to the speed their water flows at, which helps to reduce pollution, and the high turnover of oxygen. Sixty-six springs, rivers, and parks in the prefecture were chosen to be on the Toyama Famous Water list, eight of which are also registered on the 100 Best Waters in Japan list.
The high quality water has also contributed to the abundance of crops grown there, resulting in flourishing rice production. This is why many local dishes include rice, like the Toyama specialties masuzushi and osezushi, and a variety of rice cake sweets for special events.
The nature-rich Goto and the Kanazawa-scented Gosei
The east and west of Toyama are culturally different. Bordered by the Kurehakyuryoku Hills, which runs through the center of the Toyama Plains, it is split between Goto in the east, and Gosei and the west.
Kurobe, located in the eastern part of the prefecture between Toyama Bay and Tateyama, is rich with mountains, rivers, and the sea. It is famous for its pristine spring water, which extends out along the edge of the Kurobe River. In Ikuji, which faces the bay, this spring water is called "shozu", and has been used for drinking, cooking, and washing clothes for ages. The high quality water is also perfect for making tofu. Himi City is located in the western part of the prefecture, and is at the eastern base of the Noto Peninsula, bordering Ishikawa. Once part of Kanazawa after the abolition of the Kanazawa Domain (once known as the Kaga Domain), it went on to become part of the Nanao Prefecture, Shinkawa Prefecture, and on to being a part of Ishikawa Prefecture. In 1883, it separated from Ishikawa to become part of Toyama Prefecture. This history has resulted in a shared cuisine with Kanazawa.
Below, we will introduce the details on the food culture and local cuisine in Toyama around the Toyama Bay and Tonami/Gokayama areas together with mochi and zoni cuisine.
Seasonal fresh fish and kelp cuisine from Kitamaebune in Toyama
Toyama Bay is home to several fishing ports, including those in Himi City (Himi Fishing Port), Imizu City (Shinminato Fishing Port), Toyama City (Iwase Fishing Port), Namekawa City (Namekawa Fishing Port), and Kurobe City (Kurobe Fishing Port). Each ports is close enough to the fishing grounds to be able to land the freshest fish. Namekawa has the prefecture's largest harvests of firefly squid, which is in season in spring, and the famous firefly squid with vinegared miso is a familiar family favorite that heralds the arrival of spring.
The clear, pale pink white shrimp is in season in summer, is only fished in Shinminato and Iwase, and used to be used exclusively in soup stock. More recently, it has gained attention for its flavor, and is being used in sashimi, sushi, and fragrant kakiage tempura.
The red snow crab is in season in autumn, and it is caught in Shinminato, Namekawa, Uozu, and Kurobe. Its flavor is exceptional due to it taking 8 to 10 years to reach maturity in the deep sea. It has thick and fleshy meat, and the miso in the shell is popular for its melt-in-your-mouth texture.
The yellowtail is in season in winter, and has long been a favorite of the prefecture's residents. It is known as being a herald of success, which has made it an indispensable part of New Year's menus, with yellowtail radish being popular dish. In the Edo period, yellowtail was carried inland as far as Hida, Shinshu, and Suwa, where it was highly prized, with the road it was carried on being called the "Buri Kaido" (yellowtail road).
From the Edo period to the Meiji period, the Kitamaebune that operated on the Sea of Japan carried local specialties from region to region, and would stop at ports along Toyama Bay. One of the most purchased items at the time was kelp (kombu) from Hokkaido. This led to the creation of dishes such as "kombu jime" and "kombu maki", and spread kombu cuisine throughout the prefecture, making Toyama the kelp central that is known as today.
Hoonko Ryori – The Shinshu Okoku cuisine that takes a year to prepare
Tonami and Gokayama are located in the southwestern part of the prefecture, and are rich with nature. The run along the Shogawa River, and are surrounded by deep, and beautiful mountains. The snowfall in the winter is very heavy, and is known for having particularly heavy snowfall. Gokayama in Nanto is registered as a World Heritage site along with Shirakawago in Gifu, and its atmospheric gassho-style houses in the Ainokura Gassho and Suganuma villages still retain a nostalgic, classical Japanese style.
Toyama is known as the "Shinshu Okoku" due to the deeply rooted Jodo Shinshu culture in the region, and is especially religious. On November 28th every year, they hold an anniversary of the death of the founder, Shinran Shonin, which includes a Buddhist memorial service called Hoonko Ryori held at temples, and where Hoonko Ryori cuisine is served with boiled and seasoned dishes and soups. Their custom of saving the best of the year's vegetable and wild plant harvest for these dish has been passed down for generations
The dishes differ from region to region, but here the Gokayama Tofu Nimono is made using a firm tofu rumored to retain its shape when tied with rope, and Itoko Nimono is cooked with azuki beans, a favorite food of the Shinran Shonin, and root vegetables
The low temperature and high humidity of the unique snowy climate is ideal for making fermented foods. The production of Toyama's winter delicacy, kaburazushi, has flourished since the Edo period. White turnips are indispensable for year-end and New Year's dishes, so cultivation begins after rice crops are done with, and harvesting starts in late October. Kaburazushi is at its peak in households and manufacturers in December.
<Mochi and zoni – Toyama-wide cuisine>
A variety of mochi dishes decorate the milestones of the lives of the locals
Toyama is known for its rice production, and has the largest number of purchases of mochi and glutinous rice in the nation. Cooking and confectionery using mochi and glutinous rice makes frequent appearances in the important event’s of the lives of the people. The culture and customs revolving around mochi in the area are plentiful. Korokoromochi is given out to neighbors to pray for the birth of a cute baby, Mikka no dango-jiru is said to increase a mother’s milk if eaten on the third day after childbirth, Hari-seigo is given by a bride's parents to her husband at the end of the year of their wedding year to help with needlework, and Kuromame okowa is given out for funerals and gatherings.
Zoni, a common dish at New Year’s, is also worthy of attention. The square shaped mochi are seasoned with a soy sauce based sauce, with considerable variety in amounts a recipe ingredients across the prefecture. The dish is rich in ingredients like seafood and root vegetables in the east, and simple with sparse use of ingredients in the west. The differences in preparation reflect the regional characteristics of both, and incorporates local specialties from both regions.