It often seems almost every place in Japan is famous for SOMETHING. Over the years, regional cultural quirks have combined with geographical features to produce a surprisingly wide variety of local specialties. Though many outsiders often mistake Japan as homogeneous, the country is actually comprised of forty-seven prefectures that are spread across eight to eleven distinct districts (depending on who you talk to). Ranging from Hokkaido in the snowy north to the warm islands of Okinawa in the far south, each of Japan’s diverse areas is home to its own dish or handicraft.
Known to the Japanese as meibutsu (lit. famous thing), these concoctions are the most corporeal form of pure cultural expression that you’ll come across in your travels. While not all of them are edible, the ones that are have distinct flavors that are like nothing you’ll encounter elsewhere in your travels. As such, when traversing the prefectures, I have always tried to make it a personal rule to sample the meibutsu whenever possible. It is my belief that in doing so you’ll end up having incredible authentic experiences and connect more deeply with the local culture.
Meibutsu are always deeply ingrained in the historical and cultural areas from whence they came. After all, it is this specific set of unique geo-cultural circumstances that gave rise to the vast array of meibutsu! For example, the Kamakura area sits on Sagami Bay and is famous for their whitebait shirasu fish that are harvested daily. Though these delicious little fish can be purchased just anywhere, the area’s notoriety, coupled with its proximity to the ocean, culminate in Kamakura’s legendary meibutsu.
Each of Japan’s prefectures officially has their own individual meibutsu. Furthermore, even within a given prefecture, many towns and villages also have their own local speciality. In days gone by, the only way one could enjoy a meibutsu was at its place of origin or perhaps by being the recipient of a souvenir. Nowadays, regional specialty shops are popping up around all over major cities. Thanks to the internet, even the meibutsu hailing from the most remote destinations are but a few clicks away. Nevertheless, this increase in accessibility has had little impact on the unique travel experience of indulging in a local delicacy.
Many of the meibutsu can be pretty tame but there are some others that might make those with a weak stomach feel a tad uneasy. For starters, consider the castle town of Matsumoto which proudly prepares basashi or thinly sliced pieces of raw horse meat. I would never suggest that you consume something that makes you feel ill! Nevertheless, I have found that pushing through your comfort zone usually results in an uniquely delicious and memorable experience. Please, just don’t go making yourself sick though!
A few meibutsu that I would keep an eye out for are Tochigi Prefecture’s yuba (pictured above), Hiroshima’s Okonomiyaki, and the aforementioned shirasu in and around the Kamakura area. As hinted at previously, most areas are well-known for a local cultural dish so muster your courage and ask! I promise that the experience will be worth it. If you’re still curious, here’s a longer read on the different types of cuisine across the country.
To recap, just stop making excuses and eat the damn meibutsu already. Creating an immediate connection between local delicacies and your tastes buds is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to add a layer of authenticity to your stay in Japan. Trust me on this one. You’ll definitely be thanking me later!