Foodie hotspots: Nagasaki, Sasebo, Shimabara, Goto Retto islands, Iki-no-shima.
Foodies Look Out For: Champon noodles; sara udon; kasutera sponge cake; shippoku banquet cuisine; guzoni soup; fresh seafood; uni meshi rice; Nagasaki wagyu beef; Kujuku island oysters.
The Basics: Historically the entry point for Western influence in Japan, via the Portuguese traders who lived there between 1580 and 1586 before the nation closed its borders to the outside world, Nagasaki has long welcomed foreign visitors, as it still does today. The main city, Nagasaki, is a must-visit, and if you've time, head out to the prefecture's many islands for some of the best seafood around.
Foodies Go Nagasaki: Nagasaki’s best-known dish owes its existence to a homesick Chinese merchant who created Nagasaki chanpon, a stew of seafood, vegetables and pork in a thick pork and chicken 'double soup' broth, most famously served in Nagasaki’s Chinatown. Champon is boiled in the broth, rather than in plain water, and traces its roots back to Fukien, in China. Expect the ingredients to be pre-fried with lard, so despite external appearances, this is not a low calorie noodle dish at all. Sara udon, also called kata-yakisoba, uses the same ingredients as chanpon, and uses crunchy, hard noodles. Shikairo, in business since 1899, is reportedly the venerable originator of Nagasaki champon and sara udon. However local sara udon fans swear by Gunraiken in Edocho, and Kouzanro in Chinatown.
Shippoku-ryori, a mix of southern Chinese and Japanese cuisine, is Nagasaki’s celebratory feast dish, which takes its name from the red lacquerware table on which it is served. Kaku-ni sweet stewed pork, often on the bone, is a typical ingredient. Shippoku Hamakatsu is best known. If you want to try the shippoku experience without the huge quantities, drop by for lunch.
Coastal Shimabara - traditionally a Christian society - boasts guzoni a colorful, rich soup combining chicken, mochi glutinous rice, various vegetables, and, sometimes, Kori-dofu.
370 years ago, climatic conditions induced a rice famine, and the starving local farmers, Christians, being persecuted and enraged by the necessity to pay tribute to central government, rose up in a revolt known as 'Shimabara no Ran'. The farmer-warriors had to develop a nutritious dish to keep them strong enough to fight. Thus guzoni was born. It means the 'fully guarded, armored and helmeted' dish. One should probably eat with respect. Himematsuya, next to Shimabara castle, is the place to go.
The typhoon-prone Goto Retto islands are renowned for hako-fugu, grilled blowfish stuffed with miso. Serious gourmands, however, will head to Iki-no-shima off the coast near Fukuoka for the exquisite uni-meshi, plain white rice with sea urchin and shoyu. The Kujuku islands are famous for their kaki oysters, in season during the fall and winter, and 'oyster festivals' take place in Sasebo and Saikai city.
Back in Nagasaki it is de rigeur to try the moist sponge cake – the kasutera (Castella) from ‘Castile’, a legacy of the Portuguese. Sugitani Honpo and Fukusaya are the places to go. Nagasaki is also famous for its delicate early-summer loquats, and kara-sumi, the splendid, and splendidly expensive dried mullet roe - like the Sicilian bottarga - a favourite accompaniment to sake. We are constantly told that tempura originated in Nagasaki, though Japanese food historians have long offered alternative origin stories, including one that has it being created in India (!).
The Nagasaki Budget Gourmet
Check out Nagasaki hatoshi. It's surimi shrimp paste or fish paste, sandwiched in bread, and deep-fried. It seems to be a Meiji period import from China, and is undoubtedly a cholesterol bomb, but if you are in the mood (under the influence?), it's just the job.
Then there's a Sasebo Burger. Its key feature is that it is filled to bursting, with... something. This may reflect its purported roots in the US Navy, and Sasebo is a full on military-naval city with US and Japanese warships in attendance 24-7, as a burger that will fill even the hungriest seafarer. Sasebo Burgers are always cooked to order. Sasebo Burger Big Man gets the local plaudits.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: The pickings are pretty slim here in 'Champon central'. Shianbashi Ramen's bakudan ramen (it means 'the bomb') is more tasteful in character than naming, but basically we recommend you eat ramen in Fukuoka, champon in Nagasaki. Horses for noodle courses.
FGL Favorite Tipple: The Iki islands, especially Iki-no-shima, is where barley shochu was originally created. Today there are seven breweries there. Pick of the bunch is Ikinokura, in Ashibe Iki. You can tour the plant and sample its Ikinoshima and Muichibutsu shochus free of charge.
Call to Action: If you liked this information about Nagasaki, click here to get all the best information about Fukuoka.