Travelers making their way to Ise, the people of Mie who sustain the local seafood, and the sights and traditions of each season
Mie Prefecture is situated in central Japan, and from a geographic perspective the shape of it closely resembles a hawk spreading its wings. The inland section of the prefecture is home to mountain ranges, which have vast plains that extend out from the foot of each mountain. The eastern section spreads out to about 1,000 km till it hits the ocean. The small towns that dot the coastline there have been carrying on fishing businesses with long-standing historical roots, coupled with advancements in maritime transportation.
Coverage provided in cooperation with “Kotobuki-tei” Yunoyama Hot Springs
As the intersection between the east and west of Japan, it has given rise to five food cultural spheres, earning it the name “Umashikuni,” or “Delicious Country”
At the time of Japan’s Ritsuryo period (mid 7th to 10th centuries), Mie Prefecture was split into Ise, Iga, Shima, and Kii provinces. As an assembly of these four provinces, there was a political backdrop with scattered enclaves running all throughout Mie, including the Kishu Domain and other feudal domains, Jingu Shrine, and Todai-ji Temple. Currently, Mie borders five other prefectures and a metropolitan center, and each of these areas around Mie have old highway roads that extend to Ise Grand Shrine. This has given Mie Prefecture a religious backdrop to its history as well, since it has been a long-standing nexus for travelers making their way to Ise Grand Shrine using the old highway system. The climate, geography, and economy shaped the prefecture’s food culture, eventually leading to the formation of these five distinct food cultural spheres situated in different regions: Hokusei, Chunansei, Ise-Shima, Iga, and Higashi-Kishu.
This complex historical background, along with all that’s offered by the abundant nature showcased throughout the area, have all combined to lend Mie Prefecture a richly diverse food culture, earning it the moniker “Umashikuni,” which literally translates to “Delicious Country”. While each of Mie’s regional food cultures all influence one another as well, what sort of local cuisine takes root alongside a lifestyle dedicated to gathering produce and ingredients from the surrounding area?
< Hokusei Local Food Culture >
A glimpse of “Ahodaki” reveals the shared wisdom gained by the locals who value their ingredients
The Hokusei region, which is made up of expansive plains, brings in harvests of rice and wheat from the spring season into autumn. Then the winter season brings in a local rapeseed oil called "Ise Water." Mie Prefecture lays claim to being the 3rd in national tea production (Citation: “Unprocessed Tea Production for 2020“ Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries), and among that is the “kabuse-cha” style tea fields, a type of covered growing method that gives the tea a well-rounded aroma and flavor by shading the tea intermittently to keep its astringency from becoming too potent.
There is also Ise Bay, which offers young lancefish and conger eel, gizzard shad, as well as giant clams and swimming crabs, together with nori seaweed cultivation. Then on top of those diverse offerings, there is the “Kiso Three Rivers,” which carry a variety of shellfish, including hamaguri clams. With the area’s abundant rivers, not only is there access to freshwater fish, but the rivers and brackish waters are also home to a tradition of Japanese eel farming, which is close behind that of Tokyo and Shizuoka. All of this brings about a wealth of food culture, which pairs this region together with Chunansei.
Miyo Narita, a professor emeritus at Mie University, remarks that, “From Japan’s Edo period (1603 to 1867) till around the middle of the 20th century, there were ships that traveled the rivers to connect Kuwana with Higashi-Kishu and Ise-Shima, with Higashi-Kishu primarily centered on Gifu Prefecture and Kumano upstream from the Kiso Three Rivers.The “Komebune” sailing routes traveled to the south from Kuwana to bring rice and clothing, as well as soap and other goods, then on the return trip they brought back mikan oranges, katsuobushi (dried bonito), and more. Then the “Namabune” sailing routes carried raw fish it seems.” Mie Prefecture has a particularly long distance between its north and south, so each area features differing produce and weather, but travel along the waterways is what brings it all together.
During the winters this region brings in heavy snowfall and intense seasonal winds that make their way through the Suzuka Mountains. The winds are known locally as the “Suzuka Oroshi.” This has made body-warming dishes an essential to have at the dining table for winter here, with cuisine that includes soups and hot pots.
Furthermore, the low temperatures and dry weather are very conducive to making noodles, making the area well-known for thin noodles like somen and hiyamugi. In this area in particular, the ends of the somen noodles are clipped at the ends, referred to as “bachi” and “fushi,” before being boiled and then paired with other ingredients to create a local dish called “Somen-nuta.” Originally it was served during special ceremonial occasions, but nowadays it's served more casually. The dish itself resulted from a creative way to eat without wasting the parts of ingredients that typically can’t be sold.
This same simple creativity and wisdom that the local populace showed in crafting dish can also be found in “Ahodaki,” a dish featuring steamed pickled daikon radish. The dish is made by first extracting all of the salt content from pickled daikon radish after its flavor has dulled in the span of a day, then from there it’s seasoned and cooked. The meaning of the dish’s name is said to stem from the fact that the pickled radish is neglected at the height of its delicious flavor, only to let out all of its salt content. In other words a “foolish” thing to do, which is what the word “aho” refers to. Along with that name, it’s also called “daimyo cooking,” a reference to its lavish preparation style that’s fit for a feudal lord. Japan’s culture of “mottainai” and not wasting any ingredients can be felt vividly here in this dish. To add to that, another dish that showcases this same art of not wasting ingredients is the “hone senbei” snack cracker, which is made from frying the bones that are left behind after taking apart a Japanese eel.
< Chunansei Local Food Culture >
The largest grain-producing area in the prefecture that puts forward the rice used in a variety of Japanese-style sweets
The Chunansei region centers on the cities Tsu and Matsusaka, and it forms the central section of the expansive Ise Plain, offering a home for the prefecture's largest grain-producing area. This same area used to have countless highway paths to visit Ise Grand Shrine from all across the east and west, and post station towns also sprouted up along these roads as well.
Among the highways is the Ise Kaido, which splits out from the Tokaido highway to make way to Ise. The section stretching from Hokusei to Ise is called the "Mochi Kaido", as it’s home to a large assortment of teahouses that serve a variety of mochi rice cakes, and this particular section of the region vividly highlights its status as a rich grain-producing center.
Mochi is a beloved food that is eaten while traveling, as well as at home too. Here in this region of Mie they make a variety of Japanese-style sweets using glutinous mochi rice and non-glutinous rice, as well as the flour made from these. A simple, offhand rice cake called “Naisho mochi” is made by mixing both glutinous and non-glutinous rice together in a pot, and then the “Ohagi” rice cake features a coating of red bean paste and kinako soy flour. Then there is “Ibara mochi,” made from rice flour, and the simple rice cake referred to as “Hokoro mochi” as well as “Futokoro mochi”, a snack that is said to warm your body up just right when it’s kept in your breast pocket as you go about your day, and when the winter season brings in the cold, “Arare” and “Kaki-mochi” are prepared as “kanmochi,” mochi snacks made during the winter to store up for the whole year.
One of the undeniable essentials of Japanese-style sweets is green tea. The cultivation space used for the production of Ise-cha green tea takes up about half of the Hokusei region, but the Chunansei region is primarily involved in making “fukumushi-cha”, a deep-steamed green tea with a full-bodied, mellow flavor that never becomes excessively astringent. When it comes to Mie Prefecture, there is Hokusei’s kabuse-cha, Chunansei’s fukumushi-cha, and then regular sencha green tea as well, all of which combine to make the prefecture the 3rd in national tea production here in Japan (Citation: “Unprocessed Tea Production for 2020“ Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries).
The old highway system was a nexus for many types of travelers, bringing with them culture from the east and west, as well engaging in scholarly interactions and contributing to new advancements. Scholars of Japanese literature and culture often frequented this area to engage in academic pursuits, including Kotosuga Tanigawa, who compiled the “Wakun no Shiori,” the first 50-syllable Japanese-language dictionary in Japan, as well as the scholar Motoori Norinaga, who wrote the “Kojiki-den,” a study and commentary on the Kojiki. Tsu Castle and the area around it were renovated when Todo Takatora arrived in 1608, and the Ise Kaido highway was newly attached to the castle town area, which became foundational in leading the region toward prosperity. Matsusaka Castle was developed when Gamo Ujisato relocated in 1584 from Matsugashima. The castle was completed in 1588, and the castle town around it was built up as a primary driving force of the local economy. Gamo Ujisato built Matsusaka Castle during Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s reign, and he was later relocated to Aizu following that. The Kishu Domain then took over the castle site during the Edo period. Historically this castle town contributed greatly to the emergence of wealthy merchants that traded cotton.
The Daiko Sanmyaku mountain range has clear rivers that flow to Chunansei, which offers river-based ingredients like ayu sweetfish and zukani crabs, so the local cuisine here makes thorough use of these river delicacies as well. The eastern coastline facing Ise Bay provides fish and shellfish from the ocean, as well as a wealth of seaweed to harvest, and there are many local dishes that make use of this seafood, including “Asari gohan,” a rice dish with clams, and “Arame gohan,” a rice dish prepared with kelp.
< Ise-Shima Local Food Culture >
The ria coast here offers a direct source to ocean ingredients, and the fertile plains offer up vegetables to harvest, all of which come into play here in the local cuisine
The local food culture of Ise-Shima is primarily centered on the Shima Peninsula, and the cuisine itself was originally referred to as “Miketsukuni,” which were seafood dishes presented to the Imperial Court. This particular region is considered to be Japan’s premier spot for traditional divers who gather seafood ingredients from the local waters. The seafood gathered here, including abalone, as well as sazae sea snails and seaweed, all go hand-in-hand with the many of the local dishes. The city of Shima, which faces the outer part of the bay, is first in Japan when it comes to supplying Japanese spiny lobster, or “Ise ebi” (Citation: “Fishing and Aquaculture Industry Statistics 2022“ Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries). Although it was originally associated with Shimonoseki for some time, at present Anorifugu is a widely established local brand in the area, and the deep-sea fishing industry is thriving here as well.
Despite the fertile land, the actual space available for cultivation is relatively low, which has given vegetables here a high sense of value. Included in this is the “Misono daikon” radish, which is well-suited to traditional pickling. When the fall season arrives in Ise City, daikon radishes are laid out on racks to dry, and while there aren’t very many makers who still pickle using traditional methods these days, the fact that the farm roads used to be packed at the sides with drying radishes has made it so that dried daikon radishes are still a hallmark of the fall season here. This same region was also home to aviation schools prior to World War II, so as you might expect the weather here tends to provide lots of clear skies, which lends to there being many industries that work with seaweed. These help put forward the ingredients for a wide variety of seaweed dishes, which include “hijiki” seaweed strips and arame kelp, as well as agar jelly and more.
The “Sakishima Hanto” section of the peninsula is known for producing snacks made from dried sweet potatoes. These snacks are called “kinko,” which refers to a type of dried sea cucumber that they resemble once they are finished.
“Ise Udon” is a well-known dish that travelers seek out during trips to Ise. The noodles are already boiled, which means that they can be warmed up and added to a bowl together with dipping sauce for immediate eating. Children in Ise even eat it as a casual snack due to its immense popularity.
< Iga Local Food Culture >
As a basin surrounded by mountains, Iga has reared its own unique food culture
This region has a climate and geography that makes it distinct from the others. This is due to the Nunobiki-sanchi mountains that tower over at the edge of the south-east. This particular region is surrounded by mountains in every direction, which has led to the development of a plain, simple culture when it comes to local farming practices. The basin landscape here provides for a unique inland climate. Furthermore, the Yamato Kaido and Hase Kaido highway roads that run between Kyoto offered even deeper connectivity, and even now the connection to Todai-ji in Nara remains strong. This provides a continuous link for the culture and lifestyles in Kyoto and Nara to influence the local food culture here.
When the New Year would come around, the court nobility in Kyoto would make sea bream decorations called “nirami-tai,” and in Iga too they would take two dried sea bream together and tie them with straw to decorate their shrine at home or the near the stove. There is a phrase in Kyoto about having a snack between meals, which seems to have made its influence here known through the simmered dish “noppei,” which is light in both its flavor and color. Just by looking at this dish you can catch a glimmer of Kyoto’s food culture and the influence it has carried to local food culture here.
The Iga Kaido, one of the old highways leading to Ise, was renovated by Todo Takatora when he became the ruling daimyo of both Ise (Tsu) and Iga. This would be an important administrative link between Tsu, the main castle, and Ueno, the auxiliary castle. It wasn’t just travelers on religious pilgrimages that would make their way to Ise either, as seafood and salt were both transported from Tsu, and on the other end from Iga there were transports of seed oils and lime for fertilizers. Both Iga and Tsu relied on these transport lines for their economies and local ways of living. Given Iga’s large distance from the ocean, seafood as a source of protein was fairly scarce and not practical for everyday eating, so deer and wild boar were relied on intermittently for meat. Tofu and other soy products were also a major source of protein. “Tofu dengaku” is one such dish that has its origins here in the local area. By making use of the Iga Kaido and Hase Kaido highways, fresh seafood could be transported in from Chunansei to prepare specialty dishes. The Ebisu Shrine festival, celebrated as a way to bring in the spring season, would provide a gathering point for ingredients from the mountains and those from the ocean at the so-called “Clam Market,” and fresh sardines would also come into play here to make sardine sushi when special occasions called for it.
Iga nowadays is also very well-known for “Iga ware,” a style of traditional Japanese pottery. In years past it was used to craft seed pots, and when Todai-ji Temple was still in service as a manor a culture sprouted up as everyday items needed to be made, including sake containers for offerings during ceremonies. This culture grew in tandem with the rising popularity of the tea ceremony, which helped rear this traditional pottery craft. During the slower seasons and winter when farmers were inside more, “kumihimo” cord making was the side activity of choice. Originally the cord making style called “karakumi” started in the Nara period (710 to 784) for use in Buddhist and Shinto practices, and these cords also found their uses for warrior helmets and sword belts. Then in the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) when the sword ban came into place, Edo (present day Tokyo) adopted these cord making techniques, and then for Kyoto, the home of Japanese clothing culture, these cords came into use for kimono sashes, traditional Japanese haori coats, and more as the art of Iga cord making was built upon. This is yet another aspect where Kyoto’s close cultural ties to the area shine through vividly.
< Higashi-Kishu Local Food Culture >
Making use of fresh fish for a variety of sushi to be served up during special occasions
The steep mountainous area along the west and the Kumano Nada Sea on the edge of the east border this region, with the ria coast leaving little room for flat land. Coupled with the warm rain that comes in heavy downpours, the north of Higashi-Kishu provides a rich selection of “owase hinoki” mushrooms in the mountain forests, and then in the south of Higashi-Kishu there are mandarin orange fields and rice paddies that expand across the mountain slopes. These mountain forests have various trees to make charcoal and the sort, but the Kishu Domain put a restriction on wood cutting that left many of the many of the trees protected. The Owase-Kata forest with tochi Japanese chestnut trees is one of Japan’s largest, with tochi trees so wide that even three people can’t encircle them completely. Even after the previously-mentioned restrictions were lifted in the Meiji period, the locals here continued to cherish these trees and ensure to protect them. The locals in Kata find it difficult to take out the astringent quality of tochi chestnuts, but they do enjoy “tochi mochi” chestnut rice cakes, just as the Jomon people did in Japan’s ancient period.
The coast along the east that faces out toward the Kumano Nada Sea is rich with marine products, and the locals here have lived with close ties to the nearby waters. In particular, the harbor in Owase has fishing boats that come in from deep-sea fishing to unload skipjack tuna and fish caught in other areas nearby, making for an immensely wide variety of fish to choose from. Some of the fish found here are so rare that you won’t even find them on nutritional labels here in Japan. Hard-to-find fish like these are often not put up for sale at the markets, but rather left for the locals to enjoy in special regional cuisine, which includes grilled dishes and stews.
An example of this can be found in “Sakana no jifu,” a sukiyaki-style hot pot dish made with fish. Another example is the dish “Oshiki-jiru,” which is a miso soup that features an extensive use of seafood. It was originally conceived of by fishermen who brought in fish using large “oshiki” nets. “Kajika no aburi” is a dish that has gained traction as a product lately due to it being an exemplary model of how you can eat and enjoy small fish at home, even when these ingredients are typically impossible to sell on their own.
As you might expect after seeing the terraced rice fields, space for rice paddies here in this region is fairly limited. Since this makes rice all the more valuable, tea flavored rice gruel would be eaten on a daily basis, while cooked rice dishes would be saved for more special occasions. To name some examples, “Kokera-zushi” has a beautifully arranged lineup of colors featuring five rectangular ingredients, with the final product resembling “kokera” shingled roofs. Then there is “Sanma-zushi,” which is a sushi dish made using an entire Pacific saury fish. Another of these dishes is the “Kobumaki-zushi,” which takes well-cooked thin white kombu strips to wrap the same way nori seaweed is used. “Kashimae-zushi” takes the skin-side of a largehead hairtail and tops it on sushi rice to form rod-shaped sushi. Lastly there is nigiri-zushi made with watari oysters, and then nare-zushi, which is a fermented sushi that uses lactic fermentation rather than vinegar to achieve its acidic quality. With these dishes and many more you can see how the local area here puts a high level of value on rice and utilizes it for a vast succession of varied sushi dishes utilizing the local fish.
Here is an anecdote about the kombu used for Kobumaki-zushi. The kombu that makes up the local dish Kobumaki-zushi isn’t actually native to the Higashi-Kishu area, which leaves the question of how exactly it made its way here as an ingredient. During the Edo period, Zuiken Kawamura, who was from Mie Prefecture, pioneered an east-to-west sea route under command of the shogun. An assembly of large-scale boats made their way southward from the Sea of Japan, then crossing from Shimonoseki through the Seto Inland Sea to arrive in Osaka, and then pass through the Kumano Nada forest. The weather made it necessary to wait out in anticipation of better wind conditions to continue their journey, and there were several ports to help accommodate them in this. Then in one such port they traded a variety of goods that were stacked together with rice. As an aside, when making Kobumaki-zushi, the kombu is the same size as a sheet of nori seaweed, and it has to be boiled in order to soften it. The stiffness will be left in if it’s not boiled long enough, but it will dissolve away if it’s boiled for too long. It’s up to the talent of those cooking at home to know by sight when it’s been boiled just right. The way that this ingredient has made its way here to take root in the local cuisine is a remarkable showcase of the way things happen to be at the right place at the right time.
“The culture around food changes as novel techniques are developed by chefs and homecooks, as new advancements in ingredients come and improvements are made to planting, as well as enhancements in processing and much more, but nonetheless there is a desire to maintain the fundamentals of cooking.” Climate and geography, religion and politics, it’s all intertwined and left ever-present in the variety of regional dishes found here in Mie. The more context and background there is to take in, the more depth and delight there is to be found in the local cuisine.