Foodie hotspots: Kiryu, Maebashi, Takasaki, Isesaki, Shibukawa, Shimonita, Minakami Onsen, Takaragawa Onsen, Ikaho Onsen, Hoshi Onsen, Tatebayashi, Ota.
Foodies Look Out For: Udon noodles, Joshu beef, Shimonita negi scallions, pork, sauce katsudon, torimeshi, Daruma ekiben bento, hot-spring cuisine, mountain cuisine, charcoal ramen, sake..
The Basics: Gunma is a few hours North from Tokyo, in Kita Kanto, where the flat, alluvial Kanto plain meets the great mountains of Akagi, Haruna and Myogi. In its Northern area, it is remote alpine country, with areas virtually inaccessible; in the South, productive, easily approached farmland. Everywhere there are onsen hot-springs. Along with Nagano, Yamanashi, Gifu, Tochigi, Nara, Shiga and Saitama, it is a nairikuken or uminashiken 'a prefecture without a coastline', in part a euphemism for somewhere where the food life is poor. Don't you believe it.
Foodies Go Gunma: In many prefectures, if truth be told, there’s a noticeable split between the food image put out by local government, and the ‘on the ground reality’ of what people actually eat. Gunma is no exception.
On the one hand, you have the quality, often traditional, farm produce that the region has historically, and some times recently cultivated. On the other hand you’ve got the appetite-satisfying, daily ‘soul food’ that characterizes the place and its people. Of course there’s overlap. A prefecture, like Gunma, that produces wheat will also have udon noodles. Only by looking at the old skool and the new skool do you get a true picture. Gunma fits this description to a tee.
Cattle and pigs have been carefully raised in Gunma – perhaps ironically, as the name Gunma means ‘many horses’ - for many years. The clean waters of the Tonegawa and Watarasegawa rivers, and the quality feed grown in the surrounding farmland, mean that quality is especially high.
The marbled meat of the Prefecture’s star Joshu beef is said to be on a par with Kobe and Matsuzaka, and these days it is found on many high-class restaurant menus, especially those seeking a slightly leaner cut than traditional Wagyu beef provides. Locally it is often consumed in tandem with the prized, enormous Shimonita-negi scallion, grown in the foothills of Mt. Myogi, in an upscale version of the Japanese staple, sukiyaki.
The locally produced pork is equally prized, Akagi pork, Agatsuma Kogen pork, Joshu Kurobuta, Gunma Hirasawa Buta, Queen Pork and Joshu Mugibuta are just some of the dazzling array of breeds reared here. Many find there way into the local specialty dish, tonkatsu. This is where you may find ‘the real Gunma’.
Breaded pork cutlets are hugely popular nationwide, and indeed when well done, with good pork, good oil, they are superb. In Gunma, the star dish is so-su katsudon, i.e., ‘Sauce’ katsudon. Especially popular in the cities of Kiryu and Maebashi, so-su katsudon has achieved some national fame. It is simply several cuts of pork cutlets, covered in a brown Worcester-style sauce, atop rice, but the locals are deeply proud of it nonetheless.
Another local source of pride is yakimanju. These are rice cakes with a spicy miso filling, grilled on skewers over charcoal, and often served at festivals and street stalls, as well as specialist shops. Isesaki city is famed for them. Neighboring Takasaki is known for its Daruma festival, and its ekiben ‘station bento’ lunchbox, shaped like the jovial red Buddhist saint himself. Open up the Daruma bento, and you’ll find torimeshi, which is chicken cooked in chameshi, rice boiled with tea.
Passengers on the Agatsuma train line buy Daruma bento before heading up to the high mountains of North and West Gunma, such as Tanigawa-dake, Shirane and Hotaka, and the beautiful wetlands of Oze. It is in the mountains where you’ll find feasts of bear, wild boar, venison, occasionally sanshouo giant salamander, mountain vegetables, konnyaku devil’s tongue and, best of all, onsen ryori hot spring cuisine. Dining at a rural inn is one of Japan’s great foodie experiences, and Gunma offers some of the finest. We recommend, in no particular order, Ikaho, Sarugakyo, Hoshi (consider a night at Chojukan), Manza (the highly rustic Yunohana Ryokan dinner is a feast, and what great value), Takaragawa (Osenkaku), or Minakami hot springs. All are easily within a half-day access from Tokyo.
Back down on the plains, the most commonly eaten ‘daily food’, after sauce katsudon perhaps, is udon. Gunma loves its wheat noodles, which they eat at Oshogatsu New Year celebrations. In fact, they are the nation's second largest consumers of it (after Kagawa prefecture), and third largest producers (after Kagawa and Saitama).
The fat, sheet-like Himokawa udon from Kiryu is extremely popular. Fujiya Honten and Furukawa are especially famed. Tatebayashi udon, Mizusawa udon (in Shibukawa, with a goma sesame dressing) and okkirikomi, a homemade udon/stew are some of the many varieties on offer. Gunma people often eat udon at home. One favorite dish is kenchinjiru hotpot, into dishes of which cold udon noodles are dropped. Kinpiru gobo is a favorite addition.
In case you hadn't guessed, I lived in Gunma for six years, and could fill this page with thousands of recommendations. Here's just three, for now, all in Kiryu: Yukinoya (go for the tenzaru udon) out in rural Umeda-cho next to the dam; the tiny, no frills izakaya Jidaiya, accommodating 9 people at most from super-sophisticated, but I love it; and Basho, the 'Westernised Japanese' curry and korokke place that looked like it was about to physically collapse in 1986, and still does. Don't let appearances fool you. Tastes great.
Fans of soba buckwheat noodles will wish to try Soufuuan Nagaya Honten on the slopes of Mount Akagi above Maebashi city.
The Gunma Budget Gourmet
Try if you dare Kimuto yaki-udon (kimchee and tomato); Joshu Ota yakisoba; yakisoba with potatoes; Oranda ‘Dutch’ korroke; Ota city’s nasu no kabayaki-ju in which broiled eel is replaced by eggplants.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: Brave and intrepid souls might like to trek out into the real boonies of Kanra-gun, to Nanmoku village, to sample sumi ramen at Chitoseya. Yup, that’s ramen containing charcoal. It’s jet black. We must confess we haven’t tried it, yet. It’s on Route 45, and open from 11.30am to 2.30pm. Rather more mainstream is Tozai Hanten in Kiryu city’s Nakamachi. We’ve been ordering miso ramen, gyoza and beer here since 1986. Evenings only.
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