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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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