Located in the Heart of Japan, at the Dividing Line Between Eastern and Western Culinary Cultures
Gifu Prefecture is located close to the center of the Japanese Archipelago. An inland prefecture bordering seven other prefectures, over 80% of its land area is occupied by mountain forests. The prefecture itself can be broadly divided up into the northern Hida area and the southern Mino area. The Hida area is a cool highland area ringed by 3000m tall mountains with little in the way of flatlands. The Mino area, by contrast, is made up of a mountainous region in the east and a warm belt of land called the Nobi Plain in the west, through which flow the Nagara, Kiso and Ibi Rivers. Gifu is also a place of historical importance. Sekigahara, in the prefecture’s southwest, was a key military and transportation juncture, widely thought of as one of the war’s decisive locations. It is also the dividing line between eastern and western culinary culture in Japan in matters such as whether to eat (round) maru-mochi or (square-cut) kaku-mochi at the New Year’s holidays. The culinary culture of Gifu is thus formed by a diverse geography, climate and culture that morphs from north to south and east to west, as well as a rich history of exchange with other regions of Japan.
With cooperation from: Ishii Gakuen School Gifu Culinary Vocational School
The Unique Seafood Culture of an Inland Prefecture
Japanese amberjack caught in the Hida area (Hida/Takayama region) are traditionally transported as shio-buri (salt grilled amberjack) and are eaten as a New Year’s dish in the Hida Takayama region. The transportation route they are carried on is called “Buri Kaido” (amberjack highway), along which they are carried in the direction of Shinshu as a preserved food. In the Mino area flow numerous rivers, chief among them the “Kiso Three Rivers” of the Nagara, Ibi and Kiso Rivers, which are famous across Japan for the tradition of “cormorant fishing” for ayu. As a rice-producing region, and hence a region dotted with rice paddies, a culture where ayu, carp and pond snails are raised in the paddies and rivers has developed.
Kaizu-shi, in the Seino region, in particular, is a notable riverside town, perfect for experiencing the Kiso Three Rivers, where a river fish culinary culture survives to this day, famed for its grilled catfish and carp soup, bitterling tsukudani (fish preserved by being boiled down in soy sauce) and more.
The local cuisines passed down in each region of Gifu Prefecture are the products of a seafood preservation and preparation techniques that are the unique developments of a landlocked region and give visitors a powerful sense of the areas seafood culture.
Gifu Prefecture is broadly divided into the northern Hida area (Hida/Takayama region) and the riverine southwestern Mino area, where the Nobi Plain extends (Tono, Chuno, Seino and Gifu regions). Let’s take a deeper look at them through the lens of the local cuisines that bind their different climates and features.
< Hida Area (Hida/Takayama Region) >
The Doburoku Festival: Calling on Mountain Gods for Plentiful Crops, Safe Homes and Peaceful Villages
Every year from late September through October, in the village of Shirakawa-go, famed worldwide for its traditional thatched roofs, the lively Doburoku Festival is held to call on mountain gods to grant bountiful harvests, safe homes and peaceful villages.
During the festival, unrefined doburoku sake is given as an offering, while festival-goers dance to traditional folk songs. People in attendance are then also offered doburoku sake to drink.
The Hida area is ringed by high mountains, and it experiences freezing colds and frequent snowfalls in winter. In 1918, Takayama-shi, a town in Hida, saw the discovery of a red, mutated strain of the hachiga turnip, which was cultivated as the “Hida beni kabu (red turnip),” with the pickled end-product called the “red turnip pickles.” In an era when it was difficult to get your hands on fresh vegetables, these were a valuable form of preserved food for getting through the long winters in snow country.
Gifu Prefecture has a plethora of over-100-year-old traditional vegetables, with distinctive vegetables including the moriguchi radish, the kobo potato and the kuwanoki mulberry bean passed down along with cuisine based on them, in addition to the Hida beni kabu.
The distinctive vegetables and fruit trees cultivated since long ago in Gifu Prefecture are certified as the “Traditional Vegetables of Hida/Mino” to promote the growing and sale of these unique products.
< Mino Area (Tono Region) >
Festive Foods Fed to Children During the Peach Festival to Pray for Their Healthy Growth
The Tono area located in the east of Gifu Prefecture is bordered in the south by Aichi Prefecture and in the East by Nagano Prefecture was a thriving commercial juncture along the Nakasendo highway in the Edo Period.
“Gandochi” is a rare customer practice in the Tono region on Doll’s Day, in which children gather around houses saying, “show the doll,” and receive sweets after seeing the dolls. In the past a sweet called karasumi kneaded from rice flour was a staple of the peach festival season. It is said that people formed it into the shape of Mt. Fuji while praying that “our children become the happiest in Japan.”
In modern times, the staple dish on Doll’s Day is tsubo jiru or tsubo in vinegar and miso. “Tsubo” is a local term for pond snails, while in times gone by were often caught in the waterways in the rice paddies and are thought to have been used in place of shells used to pray for sunny days. Tsubo jiru is a pond snail miso soup widely eaten from Yamanashi Prefecture to Nagano Prefecture. In Gifu, it is often eaten in the Tono region, which borders Nagano, making it an example of the rich exchange of culinary cultures in the area.
< Mino Area (Chuno Region) >
A Culinary Culture Inheriting the Wisdom and Skill of Our Ancestors in the Modern Age
The Chuno region, located in the central part of Gifu Prefecture, is a region ringed in mountains and blessed with a rich natural environment. The town, with its atmosphere unchanged since the Edo period, has been designated by the national government as a Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.
Appearing in pastoral poems depicting the bright early summer greenery ringed in mountains, hoba sushi is a local dish made with vinegared rice wrapped in magnolia leaves that originated as a form of portable food for laborers working in the fields and mountains during the agricultural busy season. Magnolia leaves have anti-bacterial properties, making them precious in a warm, humid period when concerns over food rot were prominent, in addition to which the sushi being wrapped in leaves meant that it could be eaten without dirtying one’s hands, even without chopsticks. This made hoba sushi a key piece of folk wisdom in an era without means of preserving food such as refrigeration, and when handy utensils were unavailable.
Coming into fall, another popular local dish in Gifu is hoba miso, which is said to have begun when people grilled miso on fallen magnolia leaves. This is not the only use people put magnolia leaves to, however, with people also using them in place of plates, making them something that supported people’s lifestyles the whole year round.
Around the Chuno area, boiled kumoji pickles and pickles boiled in miso are examples of local dishes that involve boiling foods that were pickled as a means of preservation. These dishes, which let people boil pickled foods that had grown cold in winter so they could be enjoyed warm, are examples of local cuisine born of local people’s attitude of wanting to fully value their food by eating every last bit of the blessings of nature and their carefully cultivated crops in an era when raw ingredients were hard to come by.
With changes to the environment and people’s way of life, it is sometimes said that local cuisines are becoming harder to pass on across Japan. But hoba sushi, boiled kumoji pickles and pickles boiled in miso are still valued by the people, as they continue to be passed on from parents to children and person to person and continue to be made in each household.
< Mino Area (Seino Region/Gifu Region) >
Ayu, a Symbol of the Clear Streams Connecting History and Food Culture
The Nagara River is a clear stream that runs 166km, dividing Gifu Prefecture from north to south, before emptying into the Ise Bay. Since long ago the river has sustained the lives of many people and been home to many creatures.
The cormorant fishing practiced on the Nagara River has a proud, 1300-year long history known across Japan. An art appreciated by such historical figures as Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the ayu caught by the cormorants have been served to the emperor and offered at the Ise Grand Shrine. The ayu of Nagara River, with their deep ties to the history and culinary culture of the region, were officially recognized as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems in December 2015.
Speaking of ayu dishes, while the common practice is salt-grill ayu, ayu nare zushi (sushi) is another local dish made as a way to preserve ayu in Gifu-shi, made by stuffing fresh rice into the stomach of salt-cured ayu, then placing them in a barrel for two months to ferment. During the Edo period, ayu nare zushi was presented to the Tokugawa Shogun, with the road it was transported on now called the Ayu Zushi Kaido or the O-Sushi Kaido. This preparation method shows a resemblance to the nare zushi culture of preparing freshwater fish seen in the areas around Lake Biwa in neighboring Shiga Prefecture.
The miso carp dish passed down in the Seino region, a famous riverside district of Gifu, is a freshwater fish dish made by boiling unseasoned grilled carp with miso, brown sugar and soy beans. The staple winter dish is boiled for a long time until the even the bones can be tasted, so that the fish can be eaten with no part wasted.
Another river fish dish is moroko sushi. The dish is prepared by laying out vinegared rice in a special sushi box, then arranging sweetened, boiled moroko (a freshwater fish in the carp family that grows to around 10cm in length) then pressing it to make pressed sushi. The dish is served at festivals and in the New Year’s holidays, as well as memorial services where many people gather.
All of these dishes are also traditionally eaten in parts of Aichi Prefecture, which shows how there is a rich history of exchange with the surrounding areas that share the custom of using river fish as a valued source of protein.