Wakayama city, Shirahama Hot Spring, Yuasa, Minabe, Koyasan (Mt. Koya).
Foodies Look Out For:
Ume sour plums, Wakayama ramen, fresh sea fish, Yuasa shoyu, hot spring cuisine, mountain cuisine, soba buckwheat noodles.
For most visitors Wakayama means a visit to the sacred mountain of Koya-san. The rest of Wakayama often gets overlooked on tourist itineraries, perhaps as its most distant mountain reaches are only accessible by car. However, its proximity to Kansai International Airport - especially the city of Wakayama - makes it a very viable destination, and its foodie attractions are many, not least on its Western coast.
Foodies Go Wakayama:
Wakayama's coastline has, along with that of neighboring Mie, a long history of supplying the finest fresh fish to the Imperial courts in Nara, Nagaokakyo and Kyoto, the Shinto high priests at Ise Jingu Shrine, and currently to the huge urban populations of the Kansai region as a whole. (FYI, Kansai consists of Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Wakayama and Mie prefectures).
Thus you can expect to find fish and shellfish high on the menu, especially in areas near the coast such as Wakayama city, Shirahama and Yuasa. In the Spring look for madai sea bream, shirasu whitebait, katsuo bonito and isaki grunt. The Summer months bring tachiuo swordfish, hamo pike conger, surume-ika squid, awabi abalone, and the delicious, wholly ugly kue longtooth grouper.
In Autumn, saba mackerel, kamasu barracuda, ibodai butterfish, tobiuo flying fish and aori-ika squid are all in season. The cold Winter months offer various types of bonito, sanma Pacific saury, buri yellowtail and Ise ebi spiny lobster abound.
One signature seafood dish is kue nabe, a hotpot in which longtooth grouper and local, fresh vegetables are simmered, and served with grated daikon radish and ponzu citrus dipping sauce. This can be extremely expensive if the fish has been caught in the wild, but the farmed versions are inexpensive and nearly as good. The Hotel Seamore at Nanki Shirahama Onsen is especially praised for its kue sashimi and hotpots.
Visitors to Wakayama should be aware that the town of Taiji has long been a center for Japan's whaling industry, and the butchery of dolphins as depicted in Louie Psihoyos' film 'The Cove', and it is not unheard of for whale meat to appear on Wakayama menus.
Foodies Go Local editor-in-chief, John Ashburne, writes, "I would really hope that visitors do go to Wakayama, but don't partake of dolphin or whale meat. Naturally the choice is up to each individual, and I am not presuming to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't put in their mouth. I am however including here the Japanese phrases not from a desire to support the practise of killing and eating these creatures, but in the hope that you will may avoid such dishes, should you wish, if they are offered".
The standard Japanese word for whale, both the mammal itself and the foodstuff, is kujira, and it appears in phrases such as kujira-ryori, whale cuisine. When it is served raw, it is generally called kujira sashimi, when deep fried, kujira no tatsuta-age. Tatsuta-age simply means deep-fried, so 'chicken tatsuta', 'beef tatsuta' are quite normal phrases, but one should proceed with caution at the mention of that word in Wakayama. Kujira bacon, kujira steak, kujirakatsu and even kujira salad all exist.
The whales taken in Wakayama are pilot whales, or blackfish, which in Japanese is gondo kujira. In the Southern part of the prefecture, in and around Taiji, a dish of whale guts is termed udemono. Elsewhere the same thing is called hyakuhiro. Obaike is another phrase for whale meat, and iruka is dolphin. If you are offered harihari-nabe, a specialty of Osaka, it is a whale meat hotpot.
On to happier topics. Koyasan (Mt. Koya) is the name of the sacred mountain and its temple complex that is home to the Shingon sect of syncretic Buddhism founded by the great patriarch Kukai, also known as Kobodaishi, twelve centuries ago. Even today, once the tour buses have left, and the mists descend on the high mountain, it is a place of some mystery. Staying overnight at a Mt. Koya temple - this is called shukubo in Japanese - is highly recommended. It gives you the opportunity to try the sophisticated vegetarian temple cuisine known as shojin-ryori, and the monks' specialty, goma dofu sesame tofu.
Wakayama is famed nationwide for three products in particular: umeboshi sour plums, Wakayama Ramen, and Yuasa shoyu soy sauce. The most-prized plums are known as Kishu-ume, 'Kishu' being the name of the former province before the area became known as Wakayama. When dried and salt-pickled, often with akajiso red shiso, and sometimes with the addition of hachimitsu honey, ume are known as umeboshi, and in Wakayama they are ubiquitous, particularly in the town of Minabe, which produces more plums than anywhere else in the country. The Umekan is a small 'museum' dedicated to everything sour plum.
The tiny town of Yuasa, thirty minutes South from Wakayama city by train, is said to be the birthplace of shoyu-making in Japan. Yuasa Shoyu have been making top class soy sauce using traditional techniques - no machines - for around 750 years. The soy sauce is fermented for between one and two years, and uses kuromame black soya beans shipped in from Tanba in Kyoto, resulting in a smooth, rounded deep flavor. Well worth picking up a bottle to take home.
Yuasa is pleasant well-preserved old town, well worth exploring on a half-day trip from Wakayama city. You can take a self-guided tour of the factory. Just ask for the 'kengaku' (observation) entrance. Displays are in Japanese, but if your phone has a barcode reader, you can access English explanations of the brewing process.
The Wakayama Budget Gourmet
Meharizushi is an onigiri rice ball wrapped in a takana mustard leaf. Look out also for sechi yakisoba, Kishu Yosakoi Pork Burger, shirasu whitebait and tobiuo flying fish donburi rice bowl, tenkake ramen.
The Ramen Professor Recommends
The mild but pleasantly deep broth makes Gantare in Ide city a favorite stop off when in town. Try their excellent tonkotsu chuka soba that they proudly claim is 'just made with water, bones and fire', no less. Near the Wakayama entrance/exit of the Hanwa expressway, Maruhana blends salt and pork broth in its shio tonkotsu ramen, especially good on a cold winter's day. Ide Shoten, right in town, is a Wakayama ramen legend, though not necessarily for the right reasons. It is alleged that they were caught 'recycling' undrunk ramen soup!
FGL Favorite Tipple
Definitely the drink of choice in Wakayama is umeshu plum wine. The prefecture has relatively few sake breweries. Kiku Mio and Kuroushi, Ki no Tsuru, Sekkai Ittou and Nihonjo, Takagi Shuzo's Junmai Kiseitsuru and Ozaki Shuzo's Kumano-Sanzan Ginjo-shu are the pick of the bunch.
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