A vibrant and diverse culture alongside an agriculture, forestry, and fisheries industry shaped by the seas and the plains
Saga Prefecture is located in the northwestern part of the Kyushu region, bordering Fukuoka Prefecture to the east and Nagasaki Prefecture to the west. To its north lies the Genkai Sea, which boasts a scenic coastline that has been designated as the Genkai Quasi-National Park, and to its south the Ariake Sea with its vast tidal flats with a maximum tidal range of 6m. Blessed with the natural gifts from these two seas, the local fisheries industry has flourished. The Ariake Sea is particularly known for its seaweed, and it also produces the largest volume of dried sea laver in Japan (based on the “Fisheries and Aquaculture Production Statistics” published by the MAFF in 2019). Agriculture thrives in the prefecture as well, with the Saga Plain overlooking the Ariake Sea home to a diverse range of rural landscapes, making the prefecture the second largest producer of asparagus, onions, and lotus root in Japan (based on the “Crop Statistics” published by the MAFF in 2019)
Reporting partner: Nishikyushu University Saga Cooking & Confectionery Vocational School
Located approximately 200km from the Korean Peninsula, Saga Prefecture has played an important role as a window to continental culture. Among the most famous products of the prefecture is the pottery produced in Arita, Imari, and Karatsu in northwestern Saga. Historic kilns still remain in the area, and their pottery techniques continue to be passed down from one generation to the next. Autumn festivals known as “Kunchi” are held in northern Kyushu, with the Karatsu Kunchi Festival being one of the three major Kunchi festivals in Japan. The stunning and dynamic floats featured during these festivals attract countless visitors from all over the prefecture and beyond. To the west of Saga Prefecture are two of its iconic onsen towns, Takeo Onsen and Ureshino Onsen, both with a long history and offer visitors a relaxing experience not only through their hot springs but through their atmosphere as well.
The Genkai Sea and Ariake Sea: Two different culinary histories shaped by the sea
Saga Prefecture’s fisheries have thrived on the natural gifts from these two seas. However, each sea has its own unique characteristics that have shaped their respective fisheries and food cultures in different ways. The Tsushima Current flowing through the Genkai Sea, also regarded as one of the world’s richest fishing grounds, gave rise to a flourishing whaling industry in the area from the Edo period to the postwar period. There used to be a saying in the past that a single whale could bring to life fishing villages across seven beaches. Since whales were a valuable source of nutrition in those days, everything from its meat to its organs and fat was consumed without any waste. In addition to serving as a source of food, the baleen plates of baleen whales were also used to make fishing rods and balance springs, while whale oil was used to fuel lamps and make soap to support the lives of people. Now that whaling has been banned, Genkai Sea has become well known for the squid and red sea bream of Yobuko.
On the other hand, the Ariake Sea is rich in nutrients channeled from the rivers, making it a prime location for seaweed cultivation. The Ariake Sea is also home to a variety of unusual fish and shellfish collectively referred to as “Maeumimon.” While the most well-known of these is the mudskipper, other species also landed in this area include the “warasubo” (a species of eel goby), mantis shrimp, and the javelin goby. Fishing methods practiced locally, such as a traditional pole-and-line technique known as “mutsukake” as well as the “four-armed scoop fishing” method, are unique for the ways in which they take advantage of the tidal variation here.
For the rest of this article, we will explore the vibrant culinary culture of Saga Prefecture by taking a closer look at the Saga Plain, the Ariake Coast, the Sefuri Mountains, the Genkai Coast, Arita, and the foothills of Mt. Tara.
< Saga Plain >
The leading rice-producing region in the prefecture and home to many freshwater fish dishes
Saga Prefecture is blessed with a temperate climate, and rice cultivation has been practiced in the prefecture since ancient times. The best evidence of this is the Nabatake archaeological site, which is the relic of the oldest-known paddy field in Japan. In particular, the Saga Plain, which was formed by the reclamation of a vast tidal flat of the Ariake Sea, is packed with fertile and mineral-rich soil, making it one of the best rice production areas in Japan. Saga produces a variety of original rice brands, including the “Saga-biyori” rice, which is so delicious that it has been awarded the highest rank of “Special A” (based on the Rice Taste Rankings published by the Japan Grain Inspection Association) for 10 consecutive production years from 2010 through 2019.
The Saga Plain used to suffer from chronic water shortage, which led to the construction of artificial creeks for irrigation. These creeks have not only supported rice cultivation but also served as a habitat for various freshwater fish. For this reason, a culinary culture centered on freshwater fish such as the crucian carp and common carp has evolved locally, with a standout dish being the “funankogui” served in Hamamachi of Kashima. Crucian carp is wrapped in kelp and braised with daikon radish and burdock root to make this local dish, which is believed to have been invented to use crucian carp in the place of sea bream, a species that is more expensive and not commonly caught in the Ariake Sea.
Moreover, grains are also commonly cultivated across the Saga Plain, with Saga Prefecture ranking third in Japan for the production volume of wheat and first in the production volume of two-rowed barley (based on the “Crop Statistics” published by the MAFF in 2019). Saga also boasts the fourth largest yield of soybean in Japan (based on the “Soybean Yield by Prefecture” published by MAFF in 2020).
< Ariake Coast >
The unique food culture of Ariake Sea, home to the largest tidal flats in Japan
Surrounded by the prefectures of Saga, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Kumamoto, the Ariake Sea experiences both low and high tides twice a day and has a tidal range of 6 to 7 meters, the largest variation in Japan. The total area of its tidal flats at low tide is also the largest in Japan. Fed by as many as 112 rivers, both large and small, the Ariake Sea contains seawater of moderate density that is packed with nutrients. The tidal variation allows seaweed to alternate between absorbing plenty of sunlight and being immersed in seawater, making this the ideal place for seaweed cultivation. The seaweed produced here is shipped as dried sea laver and used in the preparation of dishes such as seaweed tsukudani.
These fertile tidal flats are home to a variety of fish and shellfish collectively referred to as “Maeumimon” that can only be found in the Ariake Sea. While the most well-known of these is the mudskipper, other species include the “warasubo” (a species of eel goby), which looks like an alien even to those in the local community, and the “kuchizoko,” a species of common sole. Each species is familiar to the locals as an ingredient often featured on dinner tables at home and on restaurant menus as part of local dishes such as “mutsugoro no kabayaki” (grilled mudskipper), “warasubo no misojiru” (warasubo miso soup), and “kuchizoko no nitsuke” (boiled kuchizoko).
< Sefuri Mountains >
A steep mountainous region famous for its dried persimmon with superior flavors
Mt. Sefuri rises to an altitude of 1,055m above sea level and offers panoramic views of the coastline of the Genkai Sea. With Mt. Sefuri as its highest peak, the Sefuri Mountains also encompass other peaks such as Kizan, Kusenbuyama, Ishidaniyama, and Raizan from east to west. Famous for its gentle mountains with relatively flat terrain, the Sefuri Mountains have become a popular spot for mountain climbing and hiking. An iconic item is the “kaki no ren” (persimmon curtain), a feature of autumn that can be seen in this area for over 300 years. It is named after the way in which persimmons are dried by first being peeled by hand one by one before they are hung up to dry in rows that resemble curtains of persimmons. This process of drying persimmon takes around 30 to 40 days starting from late autumn, and the result is soft and chewy dried persimmon made possible by the dramatic temperature variation in the Sefuri Mountains.
Some farmers had used to make these “persimmon curtains” as a family business in the winter in the past, but there are fewer families making them privately these days. However, these “curtains” are sometimes hung up at train stations and roadside stations as part of events. Dried persimmon is also a common ingredient served during meals. One such dish is “hoshigaki namasu,” a side dish where dried persimmon is served with daikon radish in a vinegar dressing.
< Genkai Coast >
Preparing lavish Kunchi festival dishes using ingredients sourced from the Genkai Sea
Off the coast of northwestern Kyushu, the Genkai Sea was once a key route for maritime traffic between the continent and the Korean Peninsula. As a result, many of the cultures that were introduced to this area still remain today. The Genkai Sea also borders Saga Prefecture, with Nanatsugama having become a popular scenic spot. The area has also benefited from the Tsushima Current flowing from the southwest to the northeast, making it into one of the richest fishing grounds. Home to a thriving whaling industry in the past, the wide variety of fish species landed at the Genkai Sea today includes the sea bream, squid, horse mackerel, mackerel, yellowtail, pufferfish, and chicken grunt.
In addition, the area facing the Genkai Sea is the site of a Kunchi festival, a traditional autumn festival held in northern Kyushu. The ingredients sourced from the Genkai Sea are used as key components of dishes served during the Kunchi festival. One of the main dishes often enjoyed is a lavish dish known as “ara no sugatani,” which features longtooth grouper (known locally as “ara”) braised with daikon radish and boiled egg. In the past, merchants would make this dish as a way of making the fish look bigger and more presentable as a symbol of their status. Sea bream is another indispensable ingredient for celebratory occasions and is commonly grilled or salt-crusted and steamed.
< Arita >
“Yuki no tsuyu,” an essential soup dish for the famous pottery town
Saga Prefecture is so famous as a pottery production area that it has become virtually synonymous with pottery, with Arita ware, Imari ware, Karatsu ware, and Wajima ware among its most popular pottery styles. Especially famous is Arita ware crafted in the town of Arita, with production having begun in the early 17th century and its ancient kilns still in use today. Firing ceramics in a kiln is carried out by raising the temperature of the kiln to over 1,000℃ and adjusting the oxygen content in the kiln. Pottery takes around 30 to 50 hours to be fired, during which a traditional soup passed down from previous generations known as “yuki no tsuyu” is served as a late-night snack to the craftsmen taking turns to supervise the firing process. This dish is made by mixing coarsely grated daikon radish and mochi rice cakes into miso soup and is said to have been consumed by those tending the fire on cold nights. Another local dish that has been handed down in Arita is “godofu no gomashoyu-kake,” which is made by adding arrowroot and starch to soy milk and curdling it.
The local cuisine of Arita goes beyond simple dishes such as “yuki no tsuyu” and “godofu no gomashoyu-kake,” however. In fact, it is often said that Arita was an extravagant town with an insatiable appetite for delicacies, and there is even a traditional saying that locals would be willing to pawn their belongings to get a taste of delicious food. It was customary for the residents of Arita to enjoy sumptuous meals, especially on special occasions such as New Year’s Day and Kunchi festivals.
< Foothills of Mt. Tara >
A food culture that substituted barley for rice as an indispensable staple for the locals
The foothills of Mt. Tara are located along the border between Saga and Nagasaki Prefectures. In the early Edo period, the Saga Domain had built the Tara Kaido, a 48-km road extending from Eisho-juku (Isahaya City, Nagasaki) to Shioda-juku (Ureshino City, Saga). Rice cultivation, a common practice in Saga Prefecture since ancient times, was also carried out in the foothills of Mt. Tara, but there were fewer paddy fields there than in the Saga Plain. This led to the popularity of consuming rice in the form of rice gruel or in combination with other ingredients, especially barley and sweet potatoes.
Barley cultivation was especially popular, and in times when staples such as rice or porridge were unavailable, “tsunkidago-jiru” was often served. This is a soup dish made by simmering dumplings made of wheat flour with a generous amount of seasonal vegetables, and its name varies depending on the shape of the dumplings and the specific region. In other parts of Kyushu, this dish used to be eaten to keep one warm on cold days and as a light meal when farmers take a break from their agricultural work.