The majestic Kii Mountain Range and the Kuroshio current. The seasonal blessings of nature

Wakayama Prefecture was once called the “land of trees.” The climate is warm and rainy, and greater than 80% of the prefecture is covered in deep forests. Clear water flowing down from the mountains forms the Kinokawa and Kumanogawa rivers, and eventually flows into the sea. This rich natural environment offers blessings in each of the seasons. Each of the northern, central, and southern regions in Wakayama Prefecture has built its own unique culinary culture.

Assisted with research: Japanese Dining KIRA

“Okaisan:" Wisdom from the “land of trees" where arable land is scarce

“Okaisan,” a regional dish that is popular throughout the prefecture, is eaten in a variety of ways depending on the area and season. “Okaisan” is a tea rice porridge made by cooking rice with “bancha” or “hojicha” tea. In the land of trees, where arable land was scarce, this dish was a creative solution designed to increase the amount of rice eaten.
It is said that the preferred style of “okaisan” in the northern and central regions of Wakayama is one containing “usuiendo” peas, which are in season in spring, while in the southern region, it is “mukago” rice porridge, which is made from yam stalks. In the hot summers, cold “okaisan” with pickled plums or “kinzanji miso” stimulates the appetite.

Local cuisine born from tales from the “land of trees”

Wakayama Prefecture is home to the sacred sites Mt. Koya and The Three Grand Shrines of Kumano, “ World Heritage Sites that are “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.” In the past, many trainee monks and worshipers criss-crossed the area, traveling its pilgrimage routes.

Part-time lecturer at Wakayama Shin-Ai Women's Junior College, Fujisawa Sachiko, explains: "The Kii Mountain Range runs through other prefectures too, and they say it was a route used by fugitives who retreated to remote regions to hide away after being defeated at war. Many regional dishes were born from a tale of local villagers sending the fugitives on to the next place.”

A typical example is “narezushi.” Taira no Koremori, a fugitive of the Taira clan who had shut himself up in Arida, asked the villagers for food when leading his army out of the village. Rice was scarce, so the villagers gave the fugitives a small amount of cooked rice and salted mackerel wrapped in leaves. A few days later, when the fugitives unfolded the leaves to eat the food, they found it had fermented and was giving off a unique aroma, making it very delicious. This is said to be the origin of “narezushi.” After taking a big bite, it is truly delicious to chew the ginger soaked in sweet vinegar.

The Oto area in Tanabe is also home to an interesting story. At New Year, the custom here is to eat not “mochi” rice cakes, but “bori,” a tuber formed from the underground stem of taro. It takes two days to cook them and they are served on a lacquered plate.Around the 14th century, a group of “yamabushi” mountain ascetics visited Oto Village, and asked for “mochi” rice cakes. The villagers refused, in accordance with the rules of the village. Later, however, they discovered that one of the “yamabushi” was Imperial Prince Otonomiya Moriyoshi, son of Emperor Go-Daigo. Apologizing for their impoliteness, the villagers stopped making “mochi” rice cakes at New Year and started eating “bori” instead.

Here, we will divide the prefecture into three regions—northern central, and southern—as we introduce the culinary culture of each area.

< Northen Region >
Wakayama Prefecture's rice-producing region, local sushi of the northern region

The city of Wakayama is home to Kishu Wakayama Castle and one of the three branches of the Tokugawa clan. Centered on the city, the northern region of Wakayama experienced urban development from early times, as it was the core of the prefecture’s political, economic, and cultural life. As urban areas developed, waterways were also improved, the Kinokawa River basin became the most productive area of the prefecture. Regional dishes made from rice are plentiful for this reason.

“Kakinoha sushi” is said to have originated in the city of Hashimoto, a persimmon production area. Shrimp and salt-pickled mackerel are placed on top of rice and wrapped in persimmon leaves, which are astringent. “Kakinoha sushi” was served as a treat during fall festivals. Wrapping precious mackerel, which was transported north on the Kinokawa River, in persimmon leaves, which have antibacterial properties, in order to make them less susceptible to spoilage, is an example of the wise ways of the people of old. In modern households, “kakinoha sushi” is enjoyed on a daily basis, with everyday ingredients such as cooked shiitake mushrooms and “kamaboko” fish cakes used as ingredients.

Hashimoto also has a local food known as “maboroshi no hatagombo.” It is a large burdock, as much as 1 meter long and 5 to 10 cm in diameter. The variety is not a special one. Regular burdock grown in the red soil of the Nishihata area at the foot of Mt. Koya grows thick and big. Due to its size, it was difficult to both plant and harvest, and has been produced in lesser quantities since the late 20th century, but is seeing a renaissance in recent years. Soft and fragrant, it goes well with simmered dishes. Recently, a new way of eating it has been thought up: “hatagombozushi,” in which vinegared rice is stuffed inside the hollowed-out centers of round slices.

In the soft, sandy areas that stretch out along the Kinokawa River, ginger has been cultivated since the early 20th century, taking advantage of the warm climate. The main production is new ginger, which is planted in the winter and harvested in the summer. This is one of Japan’s leading production areas for new ginger. Less pungent than regular ginger, and because it contains water, its juicy texture is very pleasant. “Shogahan” is a dish created from this fresh ginger cooked with rice. Its refreshing aroma makes it an appetizing dish. It is eaten mainly in the city of Wakayama.

< Central Region >
Hometown of Japanese flavors, the birthplace of miso, soy sauce and “sansho” pepper

In the city of Arida, where even the winters are warm, mountains have been terraced to create fields. In the fall, mandarins grow abundantly. Coming down the mountain, you find are very small area of open plains, and the big open sea just beyond.

Minoshima Fishing Port, which faces the Kii Channel, enjoys one of Japan’s largest catches of largehead hairtail, a common fish. Because the fish swim out into the bay as they chase after small fish, local fishermen catch it using lures. In the fall, family dining tables fill with sashimi, tempura, and simmered dishes created from this fish. Large fish, which are four fingers wide, are salt-grilled, while thinner fish that are two fingers wide are delicious chopped raw and eaten with vinegared miso.

Yuasa-cho, located to the south of Arita, is the birthplace of “kinzanji miso.” At the beginning of the 13th century, a high priest from Kokoku-ji Temple in Yura taught the people of Yuasa-cho how to make this kind of miso, after having learned the production method in China. In addition to ingredients such as soybeans and “koji” yeast, ingredients such as finely chopped eggplants, cucumbers, and perilla leaves can be added according to one’s tastes to create a one’s unique “shop flavor” or “home flavor.”

“Yuasa soy sauce” was discovered in the process of making this miso. Originally, it was a reddish-brown liquid deposit found in the miso tubs. Today’s Yuasa soy sauce is an improved version that worked with the liquid’s deep flavor and aroma and its mix of sweet and salty flavors. Even these days, it is made as traditional handmade soy sauce according to a manufacturing method that has been handed down from the past.
Neighboring Aridagawa is a well-known production area for Japanese pepper. In 2014, large-sized, fleshy “budo sansho” pepper grown in Shimizu district became a hot topic when it was used in chocolate by a world-famous pastry chef. These days, soy sauce, miso, and “sansho” pepper are must-have ingredients in Japanese cuisine. The flavors of Kishu are spreading all over the world.

< Southan Region >
A unique food culture created through the ingenuity of the ancestors

The Kumano Nada Sea offers an abundance of fish with lovely firm flesh thanks to the rough waters of the Kuroshio Current. A range of varieties, include tuna, bonito, horse mackerel, and mackerel, are caught. In addition, traditional whaling and tuna longline fishing still continue in Taiji-cho and in Nachikatsuura-cho, respectively, today.

Japanese parrotfish caught in winter are tasty. The fish lives in rocky coastal waters, and in the summer, has a characteristic fishy smell, but in winter, this smell disappears because the fish turns to seaweed as its staple diet. At New Year in Tanabe, rather than sea bream, it is customary to eat Japanese parrotfish served whole, braised in soy sauce and sugar.

Plum cultivation is plentiful in Tanabe and Minabe-cho, thanks to the warm climate. During the Edo period, the farmers of Tanabe were burdened with heavy annual taxes, so they started growing plums on infertile lands that could not be used for growing rice, and were thus exempt from taxation. With Tanabe feudal clan also encouraging their endeavors, plum cultivation started up in earnest. After a long search for excellent strains, the Nanko Ume variety was registered in 1965. It is characterized by its moist and soft flesh.

In olden times, the farmers of the Kumano Mountains were engaged in fishing, agriculture, and forestry. Bento boxes, which were easy to eat in the gaps in their busy work-lives, were very convenient for them. “Mehari-zushi” is a dish of rice wrapped in lightly pickled leaf mustard leaves. Originally, it was prepared astonishingly large, but these days, it is small and easy to eat. Inside, you will find a wide variety of ingredients: chopped pickled mustard greens, pickled plums, dried bonito flakes, and the like.

According to Ms. Fujisawa: “The dishes that were born from the daily diet of people in the past have a variety of ingredients and vivid colors these days. I suppose that regional dishes change a lot with the passage of time as they are also passed down to the next generation.” In the same the way that these flavors came into being thanks to the ingenuity of our ancestors, contemporary people also add their own ingenuity as the rich full flavor unique to the land of trees is handed down.

Wakayama's main local cuisine