Niigata is arguably Japan’s home of rice and nihonshu, or as many of us like to call it, sake. You see, sake really refers to any liquor, whereas nihonshu more specific to rice wine.
Last month, I traveled to Niigata to check out the food scene for a long weekend. Unbeknownst to me, there was a particularly unique spot to indulge in the region’s most famous alcohol. It’s called Ponshukan, and it’s a place to try a variety of nihonshu from throughout Niigata prefecture.
Shimonoseki isn’t shy about its most famous resident. I had never tried fugu before visiting that city, but a visit to one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, called konbini, changed all of that:
Do Japanese convenience stores keep humans in mind? Fugu, bread stuffed with chocolate and margarine and pocket-sized cans of sake really make you wonder if we are their main source of revenue. Then again, have you ever had the displeasure of breathing in at a 7-11 in the US? Those stores must be one of the many layers of Buddhist hell.
For a short history lesson, immediately following the end of the Meiji Era (~1868-1912), Shimonoseki was the first city in the country to allow legal consumption of fugu. It’s not even the region where most fugu are caught; yet, due to its trend-setting stance on allowing people to eat blowfish, Shimonseki became the venomous fish’s main distribution port.
Anyway, let’s take a brief tour of Shimonoseki.
Japan’s most famous fish/wholesale market is undoubtedly Tsukiji Ichiba (市場/いちば/ichiba = market), located in Tokyo. However, for a much more relaxing yet equally delicious market visit, check out Karato Ichiba in Shimonoseki.
For which marine product are they most famous?
Take a wild guess.
That’s English for fugu, and Japanese for fugu.
Someone went a little overboard here. Fugu (Japanese-style) curry, boiled fugu in a can, raw fugu in a can, even whale curry tags along…who says Japan and China aren’t alike?
Would you try fugu? What if it were a birthday gift?
You may be familiar with Japan’s legendary Kobe beef. The lofty bovine must be of the Tajima breed, have spent its entire life in Hyogo prefecture, and be treated to massages and a round of Sapporo beers to increase its appetite. That last part may only be a half-truth, but if you’re into eating meat… I might recommend Sendai beef instead. Slightly less marbling, but it still leaves you with a melt-in-your-mouth 食感 (shokkan), or mouth feel.
But if you want to dig deeper into the history of prized wagyu (和牛), or Japanese beef, you may want to start with Omi (Oumi/近江) beef. Omi is the historical name for present-day Shiga prefecture, which also hosted the Japanese capital, in the city of Otsu, for five years.
For centuries, the consumption of meat in Japan had been taboo (especially after Buddhism had spread there in the 6th century), or consumed only by aristocrats and imperial leaders. Moreover, given that much of Japan is mountainous and/or characterized by long winters, and that seafood was much more readily available (and took up no land, to boot), meat-eating wasn’t a particularly common sight.
Since Japan was effectively shut off to most of the world between 1603 and the 1850s, It would be almost 300 years until meat consumption flourished. Once the Meiji period began in 1868, as Western countries started cultural exchanges with Japan, so, too were the Japanese introduced to Western clothing, scientific advancements, and food.
If you have ever traveled to East Asia, visited a Chinatown, or studied Chinese and/or Japanese, you likely have come across the character 酒. In Chinese, it is pronounced jiǔ, and in Japanese, generally it is さけ (sake) or しゅ (shu). The character originally referred to wine, but now encompasses all liquor. Harking back to when pubs doubled as places to spend the night, in China, 酒店 – jiǔdiàn – means “hotel,” although it literally means “liquor store.”
Referring to the above photo, 甘酒, or amazake, can be translated as sweet liquor, or sweet sake. Yet, written right below that word in the picture is the phrase ノンアルコール, meaning non-alcoholic. How can that be?
A bit of backstory: the full name of the drink is 米麹甘酒 (こめこうじあまざけ) komekouji amazake, or malted rice sweet sake. The key element of the name is the character 麹, aka 糀, which is koji/kouji, a fungus primarily used to ferment soybeans, in addition to aiding in the creation of rice vinegar and alcoholic beverages.
Kouji was first discovered in China more than 2, 300 years ago., and introduced to Japan around 300 A.D. To create kouji, spores of a fermentation culture, called Aspergillus oryzae, are injected into rice that has been steamed and then cooled. After a couple of days of being stored in a warm place, as A. oryzae begins to break down the proteins and carbohydrates of the rice, the fungus begins to form. Finally, the kouji is separated from the decomposition, ready for their task in preparing our favorite soy sauces, mirin, and liquor, among other products.
More importantly, what does Shenzhen have to do with this?…
Once settled in there, in order to spice up my daily Chinese meals, I went looking for Japanese food. After stumbling upon a vertical “Japantown” in Luo Hu, the old commercial center of Shenzhen, I started to explore different floors of the building. Seedy stuff – with discounts for Japanese businessmen – was located on the top floors, whereas just below those were restaurants.
Hungry, I alighted to find something that had been making me chuckle since watching the sushi video above:
Just what am I pointing to?
Salt. Right outside of a Japanese restaurant.
The mound of salt is known in Japanese as 盛塩 (morishio). Why was it there? I asked the manager, and she didn’t know. Though, one theory says that it was placed out front by the door sill in the event that your meal wasn’t salty enough. Other possibilities include a nobleman being present in the restaurant, or that when you pass through the door you’ll be purified. Another two mention that salt is placed there for good luck for the owner, or to keep evil spirits away from one’s abode (in Japanese).
Imagine at your own discretion, but please, the next time you reach for a bit of salt, think of your kidneys.
Have you noticed this when you’ve gone out for Japanese food? Have you taken advantage?