“Hareshoku”: A tradition passed down through annual events
Since long ago, Okayama has been a unique cultural region, and today it has developed into an important waypoint for transportation in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions. Located in the southeast of the Chugoku region, it is called the “Sunny Country” for its large number of sunny days. With three great rivers—the Asahi, the Yoshii, and the Takahashi—providing abundant water and fertile soil, the region thrives on rice, grain, and fruit production. In particular, it leads Japan in the production of white peaches, Muscat of Alexandria grapes, and peonies, offering high quality products which fetch high prices both domestically and overseas.
Additionally, Okayama Prefecture’s coastal seas are located in the heart of the Seto Inland Sea, where the nutrient-rich waters flowing from its three great rivers create a fertile and diverse environment. In addition to fishing boats and fisheries, cultivation of nori and oysters is also plentiful.
Footage obtained in cooperation with the Hiroshima Prefecture Council of Dietary Improvement Promoters
A Food Culture Born of the Seto Inland Sea’s Temperate Climate and the Mountains of Chugoku
Okayama Prefecture can largely be divided into the regions of Bizen in the south along the Seto Inland Sea, Bitchu in the west, and Mimasaka in the north, each of which has its own food culture. Furthermore, being located along the Setouchi coast, Bizen and Bitchu have particularly unique food cultures. With paddies and fields spread across its plains and the hilly countryside of its southern regions; the food culture crafted with ingredients from the Seto Inland Sea; and the various annual event-related foods handed down through the generations, Okayama’s proud and abundant food culture is like a microcosm of Japan’s. Below, you will be introduced to the foods of the Setouchi coast and the Bitchu, Mimasaka, and Bizen regions in order.
< Setouchi Coastal Region >
Flavors of the Seto Inland Sea Born of Abundant Fishing Grounds
The Setouchi coastal region was the first national park designated in Japan in 1934. The many islands dotted across the calm sea and the terraced fields displayed a unity of nature and civilization, creating the unique archipelago scenes of the Seto Inland Sea which so captivate people’s imagination. The Seto Ohashi Bridge, which seems like it was constructed to tie together the islands of Setouchi, is 9.4km long, the longest road-rail bridge in the world.
In addition to providing beautiful scenery, the seas of Okayama also provide great benefits to the people of Okayama as fishing grounds. The nutrient-rich waters of the three great rivers—the Yoshii, the Asahi, and the Takahashi—flowing into the sea cause a cornucopia of fish species to gather there, allowing fisheries and aquaculture to thrive. There are also many local foods which use the seafood caught in the nearby waters.
One well-known local dish uses mamakari (Japanese sardinella). Mamakari, also called sappa in the Kanto region, is a small fish from the family Clupeidae which comes into season in Setouchi around October, when it has the highest fat content and is at its most delicious. In addition to being used for sushi, it is prepared in various ways in Okayama, including pickling, sashimi, and cooking in salt. Mamakarizushi was selected by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as one of the top 100 local dishes from rural areas and is an integral dish at any festival or family celebration. It is a popular dish for Okayama’s Hare no Hi, or “Sunny Day”, on par with matsurizushi, or “festival sushi”.
In addition to mamakari, the allure of Okayama Prefecture’s local cuisine is in its use of the bounty from the Seto Inland Sea. In the spring and summer, a small fish called ishimochijako is caught in the Seto Inland Sea and used to make “fried ishimochijako”. A small shrimp called akiami, which is a member of the same family as sakura shrimp, comes into season in early autumn and is used to make “ami and daikon boiled in soy sauce”.
< Bitchu Region >
Buckwheat and Assorted Grain Dishes Born from the Cleverness of the Ancestors
Located in the west of Okayama Prefecture, the Bitchu region borders the Seto Inland Sea to the south while in the north it is surrounded by the abundant nature of the Chugoku Mountains. The fertile Takahashi River flows through this region, cultivating a diverse food culture since long ago.
Kurashiki is a well-known town on the Seto Inland Sea side of the prefecture. During the Edo period, it was designated as tenryo, which were lands under the direct control of the shogunate, and it became the center of trade where resources would gather from all over Bitchu. With white-walled earthen warehouses, townhouses with latticed windows standing side-by-side, and rows of willows along Kurashiki River, the traditionally beauty of the town scenery is endless, and in 1979 the town was selected as an “Important Traditional Architectural Preservation Area”.
Located in Takahashi City at the center of the northern region, Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle connects San’in and Sanyo and is an important location along the main east-west highway. As a result, the fighting in this area was interminable during the Warring States period, and the lord of the castle was constantly changing. It is the only mountain castle in Japan with an existing castle tower and is one of the 100 most famous castles in Japan. When it floats above a sea of clouds in the autumn and winter, it is known far and wide as the “The Mountain Castle in the Sky”.
The soil in the north of Bitchu is not suitable for rice crops, and since olden times the region has thrived through the cultivation of assorted grains. Using one such grain, buckwheat, is the local dish kenchinsoba. This dish consists of kenchin soup—tofu, daikon radish, carrots, burdock, and other vegetables in a soy sauce-based chicken broth—poured over warm soba noodles. It is said that during the Edo period, in order to provide nutrition during the winter, people used kenchin soup which went well with their soba.
Another local dish is takakibi dumpling soup, which uses takakibi (sorghum), a type of great millet introduced from China, also called morokoshikibi. Sorghum was said to be farmed in Japan before the country was able to harvest enough rice as a sort of “rice helper” in case of crop shortages. Sorghum has a pleasant aroma and its smooth texture when made into dumplings made it a favorite food for many people. Japan’s ancestors had to be clever to create a dish which addressed both the soil unsuitable for rice production as well as the seasons when food was not plentiful; this is one of the wonders of local cuisines.
< Mimasaka Region >
A Variety of Annual Event-related Dishes Handed Down through the Generations
The Mimasaka region in the north of Okayama Prefecture includes cities such as Mimasaka, Tsuyama, and Maniwa. According to “Shoku Nihongi”, which was compiled in the early Heian period, 6 counties split off from the north of Bizen Province in year 713 and formed Mimasaka Province. This is one of the few times in ancient Japanese history that the founding of a province can be found in historical records. With 1300 years of history and culture passed down through the ages, people have been drawn to the region by its abundant nature, and it is a popular destination for both tourism and immigration. Additionally, the Three Onsens of Mimasaka—Okutsu-onsen, Yubara-onsen, and Yunogo-onsen—have an extensive history and are some of the few onsens located in western Japan. The entire region is a mountainous inland area away from the sea, and in the past it did not benefit from rivers or highways.
In the Mimasaka region, sabazushi is a treasured dish served at feasts during autumn festivals. It is a cylindrical sushi made with salted mackerel which was conceived of by using the salted fish brought from the San-in region. Being far from the coast, it was difficult to transport fresh fish to Mimasaka before it went bad. The dish is made in most regions during the autumn festival or at the end of the rice paddy planting season. During the autumn festival, one household would make copious amounts of sabazushi and give it out to friends and relatives or serve it to guests.
Another dish is kenbikiyaki, which was eaten at the end of the rice paddy planting season. Long ago, farmers waited for the rainy season to end on June 1st of the old calendar, calling it “rokkasshite” or “rokkahite” and designating it as a holiday and an important juncture during the year. On this day, one’s unlucky year would end or begin, paddies would be warded against insects, prayers would be made for the crops through hyakumanben (“one million prayers”) or amakooi (“chasing away bugs”), and various events would be held. On each of these occasions, kenbikiyaki would be made and eaten.
Kenbikiyaki is made by kneading wheat flour, covering it in red bean paste, forming it into a dumpling ball, wrapping it in ginger leaves and grilling it. It is said that when farmers overwork themselves during the busy farming season, they often get stiff shoulders, also called kenbiki. Tradition says that by grilling and eating kenbikiyaki, they can relieve the burning sensation in the muscles of their shoulders caused by farm work, as well as prevent weight loss in the summer. Okayama’s local cuisine thus presents a variety of annual event-related dishes which have been passed down alongside agricultural traditions.
< Bizen Region >
Flavors of Okayama Essential for Hare no Hi
The Bizen region is located along the Seto Inland Sea coast in the south of Okayama Prefecture. To the north lies a hilly region called Kibi Highlands, while to the south lies the expanse of the Seto Inland Sea, well known for its beautiful archipelago scenery. The center of the prefecture’s administration, Okayama City, is also located here. The southern plains which spread out from the lower reaches of the Asahi and Yoshii Rivers were once a sea of shoals which were formed by the alluvial sediment flowing down from the Chugoku Mountains and Kibi Highlands upstream. This natural process combined with intermittent land reclamation by the region’s ancestors transformed the Okayama plains into one of the most fertile and vast regions in Western Japan today.
In the Bizen region, the local dish of matsurizushi (lit. “festival sushi”) is presented at festivals, celebrations, and when welcoming guests. Also called Okayama barazushi (lit. “sprinkled sushi”) or Bizen barazushi, it is an extravagant sushi packed with vegetables, seafood, and all the plentiful ingredients of the Seto Inland Sea.
It is one of the most well-known “sunny” dishes in Okayama, with a variety of ingredients used depending on the season: Japanese Spanish mackerel, butterbur, and bamboo shoots in the spring, and matsutake mushrooms in the fall. Each region and household has its own unique flavor and different method of preparation, from how the cook the sushi rice and how much vinegar to add, to how to stew the toppings.
In Hinasecho, located in the southeast part of the Bizen region and bordering Hyogo Prefecture, the iris festival, other seasonal festivals, and ship launches are always accompanied by Japanese Spanish mackerel kokozushi. During the spring spawning season, many fish enter Setouchi, spurring activity in the fishing grounds. Said to have started in the mid-Meiji era, the dish uses the Spanish mackerel which were caught and celebrates a big catch while also praying for safe fishing. Bizen and the other regions in Okayama all have various sushi dishes which have been passed down as “sunny” cuisine, and that tradition continues to be passed down today.