• 2022/02/07
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Ⅳ. Cuisine in Kyushu

Ⅳ. Cuisine in Kyushu

By:  Vicki L. Beyer


Even though many people think of Kyushu as a single region within Japan, when it comes to food, there is a wide variety from prefecture to prefecture and even within a specific area. The prevailing theme for food across Kyushu is fresh, top quality ingredients produced and prepared with love and pride.


Owing to its many volcanoes, Kyushu has especially rich, fertile soil in which just about anything will grow. The volcanoes are also a source of excellent pure water, both spring water rich in minerals and water from rivers rising in the mountains created by the volcanic peaks. Farmers are quick to attribute their splendid crops to this combination of soil and water, although their own passion for their work is also a key factor.


Vegetables: The Key Fresh Ingredient


As visitors move across Kyushu, whether by private car, train or bus, they are bound to see rice paddies, other fields of grain, groves of fruit trees and many fields of vegetables. Due to its relatively mild climate, vegetables can be grown year-round in this region, contributing to the freshness of the ingredients that go into the local cuisine.


Thanks to the fertile soil, many farmers across Kyushu are growing organic produce, using little or no chemicals in their vegetable patches. Hajime Nonaka, who is introduced in “Volcanoes”, is one example. Midori and Yoshinori Fujise, owners of Guza, a farmstay in the Saga Prefecture village of Mitsuse, are another couple embracing an organic lifestyle.


The Fujises farm, located halfway between the cities of Fukuoka and Saga, started to welcome overnight guests some 14 years ago. Originally “ordinary” farmers who sold their produce at local markets and through the local agricultural cooperative, they were looking for a new project. Midori explained, “I like to raise vegetables, I like to cook, and I like people, so starting a farmstay was a natural choice.”


They renovated one of their barns to create guest rooms and a common living-dining room with a rustic country look (complete with woodburning stove). They have also expanded the variety of vegetables they grow. The meals served to guests are made predominantly from their home-grown fruit and vegetables, which, of course, vary with the season. They grow not only fruit and vegetables, but also shiitake mushrooms as well as herbs and spices such as garlic, ginger, basil, and chili peppers. Their vegetable “patch” is about 3,000 square meters (3/4 acre) and they also have 1,000 square meters (1/4 acre) of blueberry bushes.


In addition, Yoshinori grows 17,000 square meters (4.2 acres) of rice. His annual yield is enough to feed the three generation Fujise household and his farmstay guests, and still have enough left over to brew his own sake too. Naturally, the water at Guza, the other key ingredient in sake-making, is also excellent.


Besides being the chief cook for the farmstay guests, Midori makes her own jam, pesto, miso paste and other condiments. She uses these in the wonderful home-cooked meals she prepares and also sells. While all of this sounds very busy, Midori considers this organic, make-your-own lifestyle to be a slow life, which the Fujises clearly find deeply satisfying, and their delight is contagious.


Guza has proven popular with both Japanese and foreign visitors. Japanese families with small children are keen to give their children the opportunity to learn where food comes from by planting seeds, picking vegetables or going into the forest to see how shiitake grow. Foreigners enjoy seeing what Japanese farm life is really like and generally experiencing life in rural Japan. The passion of the Fujise family for their farm work is an incredible component of the experience.


A stay at Guza is a wonderful opportunity to experience both Kyushu farm life and the farm-fresh vegetables that are integral to local meals. But even the vegetables served in Kyushu restaurants or sold in Kyushu grocery stores are amazingly fresh. It goes without saying that they are also bursting with flavor.


At Sozankyo, a Japanese-style hotel at Uchinomaki Onsen in the Mt. Aso caldera, a wide variety of fresh vegetables, prepared in various ways, is a notable feature of breakfast. Sozankyo makes a point of sourcing its vegetables from local farms to ensure freshness and flavor.


Sozankyo is not alone in this. Most Japanese-style hotels serve meals and take great pains to ensure that they include the freshest local ingredients, especially vegetables.


Taisenkaku, a Japanese-style onsen hotel in Fukuoka’s Harazuru Onsen, offers a specialty tofu made with kudzu (Japanese arrowroot) starch. The kudzu starch gives the tofu a deeper flavor and a springy stickiness that makes it fun to eat. Another interesting technique of chef Masayuki Uwafune is marinating satsumaimo (sweet potatoes) in orange juice.


Not all Kyushu cuisine is Japanese-style. At Unzen Kyushu Hotel, a modern onsen hotel with more than 100 years of history, the cuisine is more Western than Japanese. But here too, they take advantage of the local produce of the Shimabara Peninsula, producing such delights as red turnip and red beet soup, cauliflower panna cotta with edible Chrysanthemum sauce and roasted Jerusalem artichoke with rosemary. "The rich volcanic soil of this area produces such delicious vegetables, especially root vegetables in winter," says hospitality director Yukiko Shichijo.

Visitors travelling by car should keep a lookout for roadside rest areas known as “Michi no Eki”. These establishments are great for stopping to take a short break and perhaps some refreshment. What makes them really fun though, is that they are outlets for all manner of local produce and locally-made items, namely foodstuffs. One can quickly learn what types of fruit and vegetables are grown in a particular area just by dropping in to a Michi no Eki. Usually the clerks are friendly locals, perhaps even the very people who prepared the produce. They are happy to tell you all about their products and even give advice on how to use them.


Fish: so important to do it right ??


As an island bounded by several different seas, including the Genkai Sea, the East China Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the Seto Inland Sea, it stands to reason that fish would be an important feature of Kyushu’s cuisine. Each sea has its own currents, salinity, and ecosystem. This impacts the type of fish caught in different parts of Kyushu and the flavors of the fish.


Another key aspect of flavor is how the fish are caught and handled.


At the Saganoseki fishing port on Kyushu's Oita coast, strict standards ensure that the fish processed through the port are nothing but the best and most flavorful to be had, and they are branded to show this. In particular, their famous mackerel (saba, in Japanese) is known as "Seki Saba". Other varieties of fish also carrying the "Seki" brand include horse mackerel (aji) and amberjack (buri).


For a fish to merit the Seki brand it must be line-caught in an area off the coast of Oita known as the Bungo Strait. This is where the Seto Inland Sea meets the Pacific. Swift currents and an undersea trough combine to stir up food for the fish. The same swift currents require the fish to be quite strong, which contributes to their excellent flavor.


Only a limited number of accredited fishermen work these waters and they must adhere to strict requirements. Even the bait used is a particular kind of small fry, as any other form of bait will cause the fish to become smelly and ruin its quality. The line-caught mackerel go into a tank on the fisherman's boat and are brought to the Saganoseki port. They are kept alive in net enclosures in the water of the bay for a few days to de-stress them before they are processed. They can't be fed during this time, as doing so would ruin their "wild-caught" status.


Although Seki branded fish doesn't look different from its ordinary counterparts, the taste gives it away. It has a richer, deeper flavor and a melts-in-your-mouth texture. According to Daisuke Takase of the Saganoseki Branch of the Oita Fisheries Cooperative Association, "Seki Saba is best as sashimi. It is so tasty that it would be a waste to cook it." True aficionados will surely agree with him.


At the Munakata fishing port in Fukuoka Prefecture, the fishermen are similarly strict in their methods, predominantly line fishing. But the wild fish caught in the waters of the Genkai sea are entirely different. Munakata is particularly known for its fugu blowfish which, if not handled properly, can become poisonous. Several varieties can be found in the waters near Munakata. Fugu fishermen tend to go out around two or three in the morning and return by 11:00 am, or they might go out in the evening at roughly 5:00 pm and come back at around six o’clock in the morning. The fish are quickly slaughtered, gutted and cleaned by licensed technicians. The resulting fillets must then rest for about three days to partially dry out, otherwise the flesh turns to mush and is no good to eat.


A local speciality of Munakata is a fish they call "mackerel", but in fact it's shark. It is only available during the winter months and became popular with locals as an economical substitute for kazunoko (herring roe) as part of their New Year's meals.


Abalone is another catch Munakata is well known for. Abalone are caught by ama, free divers who swim down to the bottom of the sea to cut abalone from the rocks or catch crustaceans such as crabs. They harvest seaweed as well, especially wakame, which has recently gained popularity as a superfood. 


There have been ama divers since at least the 8th century and the ama of Munakata lay claim to having originated the practice and spread it to other coastal communities of Kyushu. Originally a female profession (women are thought to have a bit more subcutaneous fat which would keep them warm in the cold ocean water), these days, with the benefits of wetsuits, there are also male ama. Like many traditional occupations, the number of qualified practitioners has been on the wane. Munakata, as a community, was so concerned about preserving its ama tradition that it launched a nationwide campaign two years ago to bring in apprentice ama on a three year training program. One of two women to gain an apprenticeship is 35 year old Yukari Hayashi, a native of Gifu Prefecture who is enjoying her new life by the sea and hoping she can successfully become an ama by the end of her training.

Kyushu fishermen are adamant that the way in which fish are caught and handled is very important to the final flavor, and they take great pride in their work. Sushi masters have similarly strict standards that make Kyushu's sushi meals even more memorable.


Hiroshi Iwasa is an excellent example of a Kyushu master sushi chef. Chef Iwasa has more than five decades of experience making sushi. His restaurant, Nishiki-zushi, in Oita's Saiki city, is warm and welcoming, with customers guaranteed a fine meal. As much as possible, Chef Iwasa uses fresh fish locally caught in the nearby Bungo Strait, including flounder, squid, sardine, halfbeak, salmon, mackerel and shrimp. One of his specialties is sea bream ham sushi served with a sour plum sauce. He also uses locally grown rice and serves tea made with locally grown leaves.


A little over a decade ago, Chef Iwasa was given a chance to really get creative with his sushi when he was asked by the Japanese ambassador to Dubai to create something special for the embassy's Emperor's Birthday celebrations. Chef Iwasa created a dish that was both a feast for the eyes and the palate, producing sushi that looked like ornamental carp swimming in a pool. He achieved this look by putting small pieces of salmon, sea urchin and nori seaweed onto the rice ball and covering the entire ensemble with a thin slice of squid cut to look like a carp. With little black sesame seeds for eyes, and even pectoral fins, the end result is so charming, it’s almost too pretty to eat. He also produced other celebratory shapes and even created a sunflower.


This "designer sushi" proved to be so popular that Chef Iwasa was invited back the following year to reprise his masterpiece. He then began to market plates of his bespoke sushi online. He uses a special technique of vacuum sealing the product so that it retains its shape and can be shipped either refrigerated or frozen. This makes it possible for anyone to enjoy his delightful creations, which are particularly in demand for special occasions.


Of course, there are plenty of delicious ways to cook fish too. Often the method of preparation is calculated to bring out the best flavor. For example, in the dead of winter, ara, a kind of perch found in the Genkai sea, is particularly flavorsome, so simply steaming it is regarded as the best way to prepare it. This same fish is popular to serve simmered in a soy sauce-based soup at the Karatsu Kunchi festival held each November (See "Matsuri"). Presumably the flavor of the fish in November is not the sameas just a little later in the winter. Even if the flavor changes seasonally, there are many who say ara is the tastiest fish there is.


Not all of the fish popular in Kyushu come from the sea. There are a number of delicious river fish as well, including rainbow trout and ayu (sweetfish). Both are particularly tasty grilled. Ayu has a lot of small bones that effectively melt or crumble if the fish is marinated properly before cooking.


Despite all the delicious fish that is available, apparently Japanese people aren’t eating as much fish as they used to. This was a matter of some concern for a group of housewives in Saiki in Oita Prefecture. They were looking for a commercial enterprise they could do together as a group, and they wanted their project to encourage young people to eat more fish. In the end, they decided to make and sell “goma dashi.” 


Goma Dashi is a flavor paste made of fish, ground sesame seeds and seasonings. It is particularly common in Saiki, where it seems every household once had their own special recipe for it (a bit like ketchup in the United States before Henry John Heinz started bottling his version and selling it as a convenience food in the late 19th century). Apparently Goma Dashi is so flavorful that a popular home-made fast food in Saiki has long been a bowl of udon noodles in hot water seasoned by a dollop of Goma Dashi. But Goma Dashi is more versatile than a mere flavouring for soup. It goes well with tofu, on steamed vegetables, even in pizza sauce. “It can be used in any western dish calling for anchovy paste,” says Masako Kuwahara, the group's representative. Mrs. Kuwahara's daughter, a Fukuoka-based chef, has developed a cookbook of recipes using Goma Dashi to expand its appeal. 


Even though this is a very local product, it has developed a following nationwide and is sold in specialty shops in Tokyo as well as online. It's safe to say the ladies have achieved their objective of getting people to eat more fish.

Meat: A Speciality for Each Region 

The people of Kyushu also enjoy their meat, and different regions of the island specialize in different kinds of meat.


The Mt. Aso area is especially known for its beef. Sometimes brown Akaushi cattle can be seen grazing on the grass-covered flanks of the volcanoes, although even the grass-fed animals are "finished" with grain before slaughter. One particular feature of Akaushi beef is that it doesn't contain as much fat as some completely grain-fed varieties. The flavor of the meat is also different due to the different diets, which perhaps explains the fact that some people prefer Akaushi beef, while others find the meat of black beef cattle more to their taste.


Beef is such a major part of Mt. Aso culture that many people have adopted an American-style "cowboy" persona, complete with hat and boots. Barbecue is a popular way to enjoy your steak in Aso, although there are also various Japanese ways of serving, including thin slices of medium rare marinated beef served on a bowl of rice, donburi style, and topped with an egg poached in onsen water.

Over dinner in an Uchinomaki Onsen izakaya (pub) one night, I struck up a conversation with a local man who was also dining alone. He told me his family had lived inside the Aso caldera for generations and that he had just taken over his octogenarian father’s cattle breeding business after a long career working for the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA), a farming support organization. While he ate his sushi and I tried grilled chicken and an enormous salad of locally grown vegetables, he patiently explained to me JA’s key role in giving farmers strategic and logistical support in order to survive, even as their numbers dwindle. He told me that the meat of black beef cattle was different from that of Akaushi, brown beef cattle, the particular breed he was raising. Well, he couldn’t exactly tell me how their flavors differed, only that they did, and he believed black beef was regarded as the better meat. He informed me that black beef is one of the products for which the Aso area is particularly famous. Although my new friend said his career had taken him all over Japan, he insisted there was no place he would rather live than in Aso. He was a contented man who loved his community and his work; perhaps a fine example of the Kyushu everyman. 

Another meat that Kumamoto Prefecture is particularly known for is horse. Raw horse meat, known as
ba-sashi, is a popular delicacy, usually served with soy sauce and fresh ground ginger. Horse meat may also be used in nabe hot pots, grilled meat skewers, and simmered meat and vegetable dishes. 


There are a number of different stories about how horse meat came to be popular in Kumamoto. One story dates back to the days of Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611), lord of Kumamoto Castle. It is said that when he returned from campaigning in Korea, the mood of his soldiers was so exuberant (perhaps overjoyed to be home) that they slaughtered and ate their horses as part of their celebrations. A variation on that story claims that the people of the Aso caldera used horses for heavy farm work and became so fond of their animals that when the horses died, they honored them by eating them. Another explanation is that farmers decided to eat their horses when mechanization meant they no longer needed the animals for heavy farm work. Finally, there is a version that credits more recent events, namely conditions of near starvation in the aftermath of World War II, creating the necessity to eat the animals simply to survive.


Perhaps all of these stories have an element of truth. In any event, horse meat continues to play a role in the cuisine of Kumamoto and even other areas of western Kyushu. It's not unusual to see horse meat on restaurant menus or even restaurants specializing in horse meat dishes.


A final Kumamoto meat product to consider is the Amakusa Daio chicken. Amakusa Daio is a very large chicken, growing to about 7 kilograms (15.5 pounds), raised in free-range conditions that result in exceptionally firm, delicious meat. Whether due to the breed or due to its living conditions, Amakusa Daio chicken also has more thigh meat than most other chicken breeds.


Free range is similarly a key factor in the flavor of Kagoshima's famous kurobuta, black pork. The black pigs of Kagoshima (actually a breed introduced from Okinawa) are raised ranging in forests, consuming grass, acorns, and roots just as their wild ancestors did. Their foraged feed is supplemented with commercial feed that may include rice bran and sweet potatoes. They are raised for 33 to 39 weeks, 25% longer than ordinary commercial animals, producing a rich, savory flavor. Unlike other kinds of pork, the proportion of fat is lower, resulting in meat that isn't quite so greasy. It is very popular grilled or cooked in stews.


Miyazaki also prizes free range meat, primarily its special breed of chicken, the Miyazaki Jitokko. This breed is a bit larger than commercial chicken and is known for its long legs. Because it is allowed to mature more slowly in free range conditions, the meat has a lower fat content and a sweeter flavor. Miyazaki is also known for its charcoal production and one of the most popular ways to prepare Miyazaki Jitokko chicken is to grill it over coals. The meat is usually grilled in bite size chunks becoming thoroughly infused with the smoky flavor of the coals.


Another popular way to prepare chicken that is regarded as distinctive to Miyazaki is "chicken nanban", a boneless piece of battered fried chicken that is dipped in sugared vinegar and then smothered in a sauce similar to tartar sauce. Since the name "nanban", which means "out of the south", was given to the earliest Westerners who came to Japan from the southern seas, one can guess that this manner of cooking chicken may have been introduced from abroad.


Needless to say, in a place like Kyushu, that is blessed with plenty of mountainside forests, game meats are also available. For example, restaurants in Oita Prefecture's Saiki often feature wild boar and venison on their menu. Remote areas of other prefectures also have these meats available.


Other Essential Food Items


Much like the Mt. Aso area, the flanks of Kagoshima's Kirishima volcanoes are conducive to raising cattle. The Takachiho Farm is a kind of  "show farm" within sight of Mt. Kirishima where visitors can see a working dairy in action. Although the farm is open to visitors every day during ordinary business hours, on weekends and holidays there are various activities to give visitors a real farming experience. Among these activities are churning butter, making ice cream, making sausages, and even milking a cow. 


There is also a small petting zoo with sheep, goats and rabbits, which is a popular experience for children. Although most visitors probably wouldn't notice it, the farm also has its own biomass plant that generates electricity from methane for an environmentally friendly outcome.


Since the farm is fundamentally a dairy, the dairy's products dominate in the souvenir shop, with milk, cheese, and yogurt being especially popular. Soft-serve ice cream cones in various local flavors are a popular snack for travellers across Kyushu. At Takichiho Farm their speciality flavor is "milk", pure and unadulterated, but for those who just have to try a more unique flavor, there is also apple-camembert.


It isn't difficult to find soft-serve ice cream wherever one travels. Chocolate, vanilla and matcha seem to be standard flavors in most places. Other unique or interesting flavors are also available at some locations. At the Phoenix Michi-no-Eki on the Miyazaki coast between Aoshima and Udo Jingu two particularly unusual options are ebi (shrimp) and ashitaba (Angelica keiskei), a herbal plant related to the carrot. Are you game to try either of these?


Although noodles were originally introduced from China more than 1,500 years ago, they are now common and widely popular across Japan. Kyushu is known for preferring its noodles a bit softer than other places, with different cities known for different noodle dishes.


The most popular noodle dish in Nagasaki is chanpon (see "Gateway"), a big bowl of noodles and a variety of meats and vegetables, said to have been developed by the Chinese traders living in Nagasaki during the Edo Period (1603-1868). In Fukuoka, on the other hand, the most popular noodle dish is ramen, another Chinese-style bowl of noodles but with a different kind of soup and toppings. For tourists, in particular, a fun way to enjoy Fukuoka ramen is at a yatai, an open air food stall. Yatai became popular just after World War II, when there was a shortage of permanent premises for restaurants. The friendly, informal atmosphere of yatai has ensured their continued business over the years, although these days the bulk of their customers seem to be tourists and other out-of-towners. Besides ramen, they also serve standard "pub grub" items like yaki-tori and gyoza.


It would be remiss not to mention the role in Kyushu cuisine of that ubiquitous Japanese condiment, soy sauce. Notwithstanding the prevalence of soy sauce as a condiment across Japan, there is no denying that there are regional differences in flavor. In Kyushu, soy sauce tends to be sweeter than in other parts of Japan. This sweetness comes from sugar, a product introduced to Japan through Kyushu centuries ago. It is often said that because sugar first entered Japan through Kyushu, the people of Kyushu have more of a sweet tooth than people in other parts of the country and generally prefer most of their food to have sweeter flavors. Kyushu’s soy sauce certainly exemplifies this stereotype. 


Of course there are plenty of soy sauce brands that are produced for the mass market, but there are also a large number of soy sauce “microbreweries” dotted across Kyushu, to the delight of discerning cooks and diners, who can search out just the right soy sauce for the specific dish they are making or eating. For five generations, the Ikezaki family have been producing Maruike Soy Sauce in a tiny brewery on the north shore of Amakusa’s Shimoshima. In spite of their small size, they make and sell half a dozen varieties of soy sauce throughout Japan, including one flavored with yuzu citrus fruit. This tangy sauce is good to make salad dressings and is also popular with grilled meats. Maruike is not alone in flavoring their soy sauce with a local agricultural product. In Oita, a unique soy sauce is flavored with shiitake mushrooms (a logical choice, since Oita is a major producer of dried shiitake). 


For a great opportunity to learn more about the subtleties of soy sauce flavors, consider visiting Hukuman Soy Sauce in Fukuoka, one of the oldest soy sauce companies in Kyushu. In addition to producing excellent soy sauce, Hukuman has a shop with over 300 varieties from across Japan. They also have a “soy sauce sommelier” and offer tastings that are very instructive, especially for non-Japanese whose appreciation of this fundamental seasoning may be lacking.


What to Drink?

Good food is often enhanced by good drink; Kyushu is blessed with an abundance of different drinking options.


The most fundamental, of course, is green tea. Green tea was first introduced into Japan from China via Kyushu (see “Gateway”) and Kyushu’s Mt. Sefuri was the first place where tea plants were cultivated in Japan. These days, the area of Kyushu best known for tea production is Yame, around 50 kilometers southeast of Mt. Sefuri. Saga’s Ureshino, Kumamoto’s Minamata, and Kagoshima’s Chiran areas are all also well known for growing tea. Tea plantations are a common sight in these areas. They are usually characterized by rows of hedges following the contours of the hillside, neatly trimmed to a gentle bulge across the top.


Tea shops also abound, particularly in these areas. These shops are often infused with the earthy aroma of the green tea leaves. Tea leaves are usually picked in the spring, around late April or early May, although there is a variety known as bancha that is harvested in summer. To produce green tea, the leaves are typically allowed to rest briefly to curb oxidation and are then lightly steamed, rolled and dried. Unlike black tea, which is generally from the same tea leaf, the green tea that is most popular in Japan, is unfermented or only very lightly fermented. Some varieties of tea, such as the hojicha that has recently risen to popularity, is lightly roasted, giving it a softer, more full-bodied flavour.


Coffee is also rising in popularity and is now beginning to be grown in Kyushu. When Shisei Goto retired from his teaching job at a Kumamoto agricultural high school, he wanted a new project. Having worked with his students on various tropical crops, he decided growing coffee would be a fun challenge and so he started Goto Coffee Farm in Minami Aso. Most of the time, his coffee trees are kept inside a plastic-sheeted hothouse, although in summer he replaces the plastic with black netting. "Actually, most tropical plants are more resistant to cold temperatures than to extreme heat," says Goto. Nonetheless, his coffee beans have proven to be quite sweet, a characteristic he attributes to the warm hothouse conditions.


Just as he did while he was teaching, Goto is always experimenting with his trees, trying out different varieties and different cultivation methods. One experiment he's introduced is a program to allow individuals to own or adopt a tree for 30,000 yen per year. Sponsors are guaranteed a fixed amount of roasted beans from the tree each year and even have the opportunity to visit the Minami Aso area to see the tree in person.


According to Goto, there are three farmers growing coffee in the Aso area and another in nearby Tsuetate. The Tsuetate farmer uses onsen heat to keep his plants in a comfortable environment. 


Another example of leveraging volcanic power for the sake of good coffee can be found in Kagoshima, where Sakurajima Coffee prides itself in using hot volcanic ash from Sakurajima to roast its beans. 


Sake is regarded by many as Japan’s quintessential alcohol. In fact, the Japanese word “sake” means both “alcohol” and “rice wine”. Kyushu is home to around 165 sake breweries, many of which offer tours to visitors.

 The Kitaya Brewery, based in a heritage-listed building in the heart of Yame, celebrates  its 200th anniversary in 2020. For two centuries, it has been producing excellent sake using Yame's pure spring water and locally grown rice, much of which it grows itself. 


Kitaya produces about 4,000 koku (722,000 liters) of sake a year, including for export. In 2013 their Daiginjo Gokujo sake was awarded a gold medal in the International Wine Challenge, being declared the best of the best out of nearly 600 sakes in the competition.


Rice to make sake must be polished down to a much smaller grain than rice for meals. Additionally, the moisture content of the grains before they are steamed is important. After the rice is steamed, it is spread on a cedar table in a temperature-controlled cedar-lined room and sprinkled with koji mold. As the mold grows on the rice to begin the process of converting it to sugar, the mix must be stirred every couple of hours. This is a painstaking process that the Kitaya brewers continue to do in small batches, lest they change the famous flavor of their sake. When the koji mix is ready, it must be dried before yeast and water are added, then the fermentation process can begin. Since the weather is more changeable in Kyushu than in northern climes, careful tending is essential. Kitaya's toji (master brewer) is the leading toji in Kyushu and he keeps a close eye on the fermenting sake to ensure the right conditions to produce the flavor he is after.


In developing their sake varieties, of which there are many, Kitaya often focuses on food pairings. They even get requests from restaurants to develop sake that will go particularly well with the restaurant's cuisine. Interestingly, since there are so many varieties and flavors of sashimi, they focus not on pairing to the fish, but rather to the soy sauce.

Shochu, a distilled white liquor, could be characterized as Kyushu’s quintessential alcohol. It is certainly popular in Kyushu! Shochu can be made from rice, like sake, or from barley, sweet potato, buckwheat or sugar. Its alcohol content is usually around 25%, significantly stronger than sake. There are around 230 shochu distilleries in Kyushu, the vast majority of them in the southern part of the island. Kitaya Brewery, mentioned above, also produces shochu, and in 1972 developed a "Reduced Pressure Still" that results in a smoother, more aromatic drink. This type of still is now in common use among shochu producers.


Beer is also a popular drink in Kyushu. It was brewed by the Dutch traders in Nagasaki as early as the 17th century, but wasn’t really introduced to the Japanese public at large until the late 19th century. Since, like sake, the key ingredient for beer is the water, Kyushu’s plentiful good water means all of Japan’s major beer brands have breweries in Kyushu. Kirin operates a brewery in Fukuoka’s Asakura where locals advise that because it is made with the local water, pure and sweet, it is the best beer to complement local food. On that theory, one should enjoy Asahi Beer when visiting Fukuoka, as there is an Asahi brewery in Hakata, but switch to Sapporo Beer in Hita, and Suntory in Kumamoto where they have respective factories nearby.


Craft beers are also rising in popularity across Kyushu. It often pays to ask the staff if the restaurant has any craft beers. Or you can seek out a bar that specializes in craft beers. Beer Market Base in Miyazaki city is an excellent example. They feature not only their own craft beers, produced in a brewery near Miyazaki Shrine, but also other craft beers from across Kyushu. A tasting selection of four glasses is a popular way to sample a few and pick your favorite.


For travellers in Kyushu, one thing is certain—you will not starve. There is such a wide variety of food and drink available across Kyushu that it would be difficult for anyone to try everything. But whatever food one chooses to try, fresh, top quality ingredients are practically guaranteed. One of the easiest ways to quickly become familiar with local cuisine is to stay at Japanese-style inns where meals are served, since such establishments are particularly fussy about serving food lovingly made with local ingredients. If you are unsure which alcohol goes with the meal, ask the staff or servers for advice, and always choose the local product. Dining in Kyushu is an absolute treat.