The bountiful harvest of the southern region where the sun rises
Miyazaki Prefecture is in the southeastern part of Kyushu. In Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, ancient texts compiled during the Nara period of Japanese history, this province was described as “a country on which the rising and setting sun shine directly” and “a country that faces directly toward the sunrise.” The former name of the area, Hyuga, or “country that faces the sun,” was derived from these descriptions. Since ancient times, the light shining down from the heavens has provided Miyazaki Prefecture with a bounty of food.
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“Japan’s place in the sun,” offering aspects of both mountains and seas
Visitors are enveloped in a southern atmosphere the moment they touch down at Miyazaki Bougainvillea Airport, the gateway to the prefecture. Miyazaki is subject to a warm, subtropical climate and has an average annual temperature of about 17°C (63°F). Well-placed in national rankings for hours of sunshine and number of pleasant days, the prefecture trumpets its catchphrase as “Japan’s place in the sun.” The warm sun nurtures a variety of crops and trees throughout the year, and residents are also said to have sunny and warm dispositions.
“Miyazaki is a distinct area within southern Kyushu. Due to the difficulty of travel and the independence of the small clans, each area developed its own unique culture. Compared to residents of the adjacent Kagoshima and Kumamoto prefectures, Miyazaki people are said to have a more leisurely nature. There is an expression, ‘a practice sword from a potato,’ which means that men of Miyazaki look rugged but are soft on the inside, like you might expect a practice sword made from a potato stalk to be,” said Mr. Yoshinobu Matsuda, who serves as section chief to the Miyazaki Brand Promotion Headquarters within the Miyazaki Prefectural Agriculture and Fisheries Department’s Coordination and Promotion section. He is himself a true native of Miyazaki, springing from Kiyotake, Miyazaki City
Divided into northern, central, western, and southern areas, the prefecture’s climate and food culture vary considerably between mountainous and coastal areas. Largely mountainous and with little flat terrain, the gradually-rising elevation from the seaboard in the east to the mountainous west makes the prefecture’s varied landscape distinctive.
The east-facing shore of the Hyuga Sea extends for a total of 398 km (approx. 247 miles). Beaches like Okuragahama and Sosanji are known as prime surfing destinations. Rice and vegetables are grown in flat areas, while the mingling of the Kuroshio and Bungo Channel currents offshore produce favorable fishing grounds for catches such as tuna, oceanic bonito, spiny lobsters, and horse mackerel. Meanwhile, the Kyushu Mountains extend through the western side, creating a precipitous terrain. Rich in mountain foodstuffs such as wild plants and wild boar, the area retains a food culture that is associated with the ancient lore of Japan, including the story of the descent to earth of the grandson of the sun goddess. As one of Japan’s rainiest areas, the region’s heat, humidity, and abundance of sunshine promote the growth of Obi cedars as a local specialty product.
Though Miyazaki appears to be a land of plenty, it has been plagued in the past by typhoons. Dubbed a “typhoon alley,” the region has seen annual landfalls of typhoons that have devastated crops, particularly in the years around 1960. Accordingly, farmers have poured their efforts into cultivation methods focused on disaster preparedness. They have developed strains of rice that can be harvested before typhoon season arrives, greenhouse cultivation, and indoor stock-raising techniques; now, the prefecture is a top producer in Japan of beef, chicken, and pork.
< Northern Area >
Festival dishes bestowed by numinous mountains
Takachihogo, located along the prefectural border with Kumamoto and Oita, is the site of the legend in which the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, descends from the heavens to rule over the earth. Spiritual hotspots surrounded by natural beauty dot this area; along with the Takachiho Gorge, a natural monument formed through the volcanic activity of Mt. Aso, there is also the Amanoiwato Shrine, dedicated to the cave where Amaterasu is said to have concealed herself. The everyday lives of the people are steeped in a culture of respect toward the gods.
An element of this culture is Yokagura, a ritual that is held from November through the middle of February according to Japan’s traditional lunisolar calendar. A home is chosen in each community to be the venue for traditional Shinto music and dancing, or kagura, that is performed throughout the night in supplication for a bountiful harvest. This ritual is so important to the people that the chosen home is sometimes renovated expressly for use on that day. During the Yokagura, a simmered dish called nishime is offered to visitors to the kagura home. The dish contains seasonal vegetables, locally-produced dried shiitake mushrooms, and dried daikon radishes, and it is often served for New Year dinners and ordinary meals as well.
In the village of Shiiba, it is customary to eat nadofu, a variety of tofu with seasonal vegetables and shiitake mushrooms mixed in, during the kagura or on ceremonial family occasions. On New Year’s Day, nadofu is also placed on skewers and affixed to walls as a talisman to pray for sound health. Mr. Keisuke Kawano, a native of Shiiba, runs the Appare Dining Room in the city. He said, “Nadofu is food for a clear day. I’ve heard that the vegetables were added to bulk out the tofu in times when soybeans were valuable.” Nadofu, which is as lovely to look at as it is to eat, can be flavored with mild soy sauce or yuzu miso paste.
The Takachihogo and Shiibayama site is also designated as a globally-important agricultural heritage site (GIAHS). A traditional method of field-burning has been practiced in Shiiba for thousands of years; it involves setting fire to the mountain-side while performing chants to the gods of the mountain. Each year, a different parcel of land is burned. Grains are then grown there for four years, followed by a fallowing of between twenty and thirty years that allows the forest to regenerate. This valuable practice is said to be the only one still carried out in Japan today. The cyclical pattern of cultivation that has been handed down since ancient times has forged a coexistence between humans and nature.
Nobeoka City, which faces the sea to the east, was once the prosperous castle town of the Naito clan. Its location on the delta of four rivers, including the east-flowing Gokase River, means that it has access to fishing grounds of both river and sea. Sweetfish are an especially notable catch. From early October through December of each year, sweetfish weirs are placed in the Gokase River so that visitors can enjoy dishes made with freshly-caught sweetfish. Nobeoka is also the origin of the dish Chicken Nanban, which is regarded as Miyazaki soul food and is eaten throughout the prefecture. The dish was created as a staff meal by two cooks working in a famous western-style restaurant in the city. Now, it is also prepared by home cooks as well. Some restaurants use thigh meat for the dish, but the original used breast meat. The recipe was created as a delicious way to prepare the less fatty breast meat, which can become unpalatably dry. Mr. Matsuda says the people of Miyazaki eat not only Chicken Nanban but also many other chicken-based dishes. “In the past, many farmers kept chickens at home, and would slaughter them in the yard to eat for gatherings. The go-to combination is a glass of shochu along with chicken that’s been grilled almost black over charcoal, using a drum that has been cut in half with a mesh over it.”
< Central Area >
Chilled soup to withstand the intense heat of the plains
The central area of the prefecture, where its population is highest, includes the capital city Miyazaki, which spreads out over the Miyazaki plain; the Mera mountains, which are part of the Kyushu range; and the town of Aya, which engages in natural ecosystem agriculture. This area, which features the most convenient transportation in the prefecture as well as golf courses and surfing spots, is also home to the popular Aoshima, an island surrounded by a curious rock formation known as “the devil’s washboard” for its ridged surface.
Because the summer heat and humidity are especially intense on the Miyazaki Plain, a dish of cold soup that will perk up even the most lethargic appetite has become a staple of the diet. It is said to have originated as a dish of soup poured over rice, disseminated throughout the country by Buddhist monks during the Kamakura period. During breaks between farming tasks, farmers used to dilute barley rice leftover from the day before with water and top it with miso paste. The broth consists of dried sardines ground up with miso paste and thinned with dashi soup stock; ingredients such as perilla leaves, cucumbers, or tofu may be added, and the mixture is served over cold barley rice. The flavorful cold soup soothes the overheated body, making this dish a popular home-cooked meal in the heart of the prefecture.
Come winter, locals in Miyazaki City and Kunitomi make use of the cold winds from the mountains and the clear days to make dried radish strips, producing more here than any other place in Japan. The cut strips of daikon radish hung out to dry on trellises are a common sight during the winter. Tano, a town now part of Miyazaki City, is famous for its daikon radish yagura, roof-like constructions of bamboo used to dry massive quantities of daikon radishes whole. The daikon yagura were selected for a Good Design Award as an agricultural scene to be preserved for posterity. “The daikon yagura are about six meters [twenty feet] tall, and the best part is seeing them covered in radishes all in a row. Dried radish strips can be pickled with Japanese flying squid to make madakazuke or added to nishime. They’re a regular item on the dinner table,” said Mr. Matsuda. Dried daikon strips, with just the right amount of moisture removed naturally to concentrate the sweet and savory flavors, are a remarkable item.
< Western Area >
Sweet potato culture rooted in the backyard of Kirishima
The western area of the prefecture is a rich natural area with flourishing animal husbandry and rice cultivation. Here, you’ll find Kirishima, a complex group of over twenty volcanoes. Sekinoo Falls, which spans the Oyodo and Shonai Rivers, is a waterfall with one of the rarest sights in the world: an assemblage of small potholes in the rocky riverbed that extends for 600 m (approx. 2/5ths of a mile) upstream and reaches up to 80 m (approx. 262 ft) in width. This scenic site has been designated as a national natural monument and as one of Japan’s hundred best waterfalls.
Because the western part of the prefecture was once a part of the Satsuma domain, it has many similarities in dialect and food culture with Kagoshima Prefecture. Among these is the deep-rooted culture of eating sweet potatoes, which locals call karaimo rather than the more common word satsumaimo. The volcanic soil particular to this area, a geological formation known as the Shirasu-Daichi, nurtures especially delicious sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are shredded, battered, and deep fried to make gane, a local dish that is common to Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures. In the Kagoshima dialect, the name of this dish refers to how it looks like a crab while it is being fried. But in Miyazaki Prefecture, sugar is added to the batter to make it even sweeter.
Another dish made with sweet potatoes is nerikuri. The name varies from place to place, with some calling it nettabo and others calling it sweet potato mochi. It is a snack made by kneading together mochi and sweet potato and dusting it with roasted soybean flour. “In my house, we steam stale mochi in a rice cooker, smash it up with some sweet potato, and scoop it out with a rice paddle. We don’t make it into balls; we just eat it the way it is,” said Mr. Matsuda. This treat is also sold in supermarkets and is a favorite of locals.
< Southern Area >
Sweet obiten is a sensible way to enjoy cheap fish
The southern area of the prefecture, which is made up of the two southernmost cities of Nichinan and Kushima, has a warm and humid climate fueled by the Kuroshio current that circulates in the Hyuga Sea. The coastal area is an especially hot tropical area known as the frost-free belt. This warm climate nourishes the magnificent growth of fruit trees such as citrus and mango, sweet peas, and supple Obi cedars suitable for processing. In fact, the area is the number one producer in Japan of sweet peas (Ministry of Agriculture, 2018, Forestry and Fisheries “Income Statistics for Agricultural Production”, “Survey of Flowering Tree Production”). From the sea comes a bountiful harvest of line-caught oceanic bonito and tuna from famed deep-sea fisheries. In Miyaura of Nichinan City, there are a number of unique sightseeing spots such as the park Sun Messe Nichinan. Here, moai statues restored with permission from Easter Island loom over the backdrop of the magnificent Hyuga Sea.
In the central area of Nichinan City is the Obi district, which flourished as a castle town under the Ito Obi clan during the Edo period. Stone walls and old buildings still remain in the town, which is designated as a preservation district for nationally-important traditional structures. Marine products brought ashore at Aburatsu Port were distributed in Obi, but common people were only able to afford inexpensive fish like pilchards, horse mackerel, mahi-mahi, and flying fish. The dish obiten came about as a flavorful way to enjoy these kinds of fish. It is made by deep frying a mixture of minced fish, tofu, brown sugar, and miso paste. Though it is similar to the famous Kagoshima dish, satsuma-age, obiten is an even sweeter dish. Likewise, soy sauce brewed in the southern area is said to be the sweetest of any made in Miyazaki.
In mountainous Kitago, Japanese mitten crabs, which are nicknamed “Yamataro” and are caught from the river, serve in place of marine products as a valued source of protein and calcium. The large-shelled and flavorful crabs descend to the clear stream of the Hirose River to spawn from the middle of September until the end of October. The kanimaki soup traditional to Kitago is a richly savory miso soup made by grinding the meat of these Yamataro crabs together with miso paste and straining it through a colander. It’s an autumn dish that is special to this area.
“The ability to make use of the warm climate to grow such a variety of crops year-round— even in the winter—is Miyazaki’s strength. There may not be any one strong trait that says, ‘This is Miyazaki!’ But I think that the free and amicable spirit of the people here is really great,” said Mr. Matsuda of his love for the local community. The food of Miyazaki is packed with the power of the sun and will surely give energy to those who eat it.