What food to enjoy while travelling in Japan

Quick sit down shops called yatai (photo by Justin C.)

Quick sit down shops called yatai (photo by Justin C.)

Travel has historically been difficult in Japan. In medieval times, one had to request a special travel permit from the governing authorities to be able to travel. Although travel was limited, snack shops for hungry travelers was an unmistakable part of the premodern landscape. Today this tradition endures. Japanese people can travel freely, yet they most often take very little time off work. In order to make the best out of a short vacation, Japanese tourists will take many pictures of their trip and purchase local food that can be eaten on the spot or at a later time. In this way, tourism and food are inextricably tied to each other in Japanese culture. While travelling in Japan, it is worthwhile to try to discover the different regional foods available.

1. Don’t forget to buy souvenirs

Food purchase on trips in Japan is not always for self-consumption. Proper etiquette dictates that one must purchase souvenirs called omiyage. Most of these souvenirs are consumable foods because of the lack of space in Japanese homes and the symbolic importance they carry.  Omiyage are often local artisan-made confections like okashi sweets. They can also take the form of famous produce of a given region which are then sold in attractive boxes. These souvenirs are purchased for friends, family and coworkers as part of an unwritten code of mutual obligation. It is customary to offer these gifts after trips and on first visits. Hence, bringing many omiyage from one’s home country is a must when visiting Japan.

City of Matsue omiyage confection (photo by jpellgen)

City of Matsue omiyage confection (photo by jpellgen)

2. The importance of food and place

In Japan, every region is associated with a typical food specialty. Some are solidly anchored in ancestral tradition while others are relatively recent inventions. Regions become famous because of these specialties which are the result of highly diverse environment. Seafood that thrives in cold water like snow crab is famous in the North of Japan while mikan mandarins grow best in warmer southern parts. Historically, trading ports in Japan were influenced by neighboring countries. For example, the island of Kyushu has had considerable Chinese influence and incorporates pork in its cuisine. After the modernization and homogenization of Japan, these elements appear as an enduring legacy of regional identity.

Hokkaido crabs for sale (photo by Yoshimoto Oda)

Hokkaido crabs for sale (photo by Yoshimoto Oda)

3. Know the elements of regional food

Among the various elements of regional food in Japan, three stand out. First, ekiben lunch boxes are available for purchase in most train stations. Initially sold on train platforms for long train rides, these lunchboxes developed into a highly diversified consumption items. These boxes are representative of regional specialties and much enthusiasm revolves around them. Second, meibutsu, translated as famous products, are emblematic regional products that can be purchased as omiyage souvenirs. These products can be locally crafted confections or can be famous produce of the region like Okayama Muscat grapes. Finally, Japanese people put a lot of importance in the regional cuisine of Japan which is called kyodo ryori. The cuisine of Nagano is for example famous for its handmade soba noodle.

Himeji station octopus ekiben (phot by 4563_pic)

Himeji station octopus ekiben (phot by 4563_pic)

4. Travelling through food

So if you ever visit Japan, take the time to do as the Japanese do and grab a bite to eat. Every region of Japan is packed with local specialties from traditional styles of dried fish to regional KitKat snacks. You can enjoy these regional foods yourself or you can buy them packaged for the people you know. If you have the chance to live in Japan, get to know the local products and cuisine, locals will be delighted to tell you what food is best. Besides, food is always an excellent way to engage new people in a conversation. In a nation where conformity is encouraged, regional food variety is a potent reminder that Japanese are attached to their various regional identities. Engaging with the regional food of Japan is in effect engaging with the diversity the country has to offer.

A typical Edo sushi stall

A typical Edo sushi stall

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