Best (and worst) Food in Setouchi, Japan

I am not ashamed to admit that the quality and variety of food factors greatly into my overall impression of a place. As someone that seeks out groceries and restaurants that are as clean and close to the source as possible, I have high expectations when I travel. To be honest, I often find that international destinations actually do have less processed cuisine than use over here in America.

Miyajima street eats

Well my experience in Japan took local food to a whole new level. I had been to Japan once before, exploring the Tohoku Region with CNN. It was there that I realized that Japanese food is not just sushi. However, the sushi still is really good but on this 2 week exploration in Setouchi, I had two very good reasons to push the boundaries of the culinary side of Japan.


Firstly, we were shooting one entire episode just on the best local food and local drinks in the Setouchi region. Secondly, I was pregnant during the entire shoot, which greatly limited my fish intake to those with low levels of mercury (and I hate to say it, a lot of seafood around the world is very high in mercury). So I was ready to dive into noodles, tempura, local game, river fish and various wild looking snacks that I grabbed from street vendors on the way.

You can watch the video to go deep into all the top dishes, restaurants and traditional cuisine of Setouchi. However below, I’m going to recap my personal favorites.

 

Udon Noodles: Thick and Thin

I got quite the education in Japanese noodles. I had no idea how many types of noodles this country could lay claim too! Also, many of the regions in Japan have their own signature noodle. In Setouchi, it was udon. To understand the intricacies of this chewy, satisfying, slurpy noodle, we went to the source: the Nakano Udon School.

Nakano Udon School

 There, classroom style, we learned about udon, from the ingredients to the finished product. Our very entertaining teacher was strict, in a funny way, and she required that after we prepared our noodle dough out of flour, salt and water, we had to wrap it and dance on it to make it soft. Yes, dance. She blasted “YMCA” and other 70s dance hits, all while yelling at us to keep dancing.

I definitely burned off the calories to eat my creation, which we did at the end. After the dancing, we flattened and then folded the noodles so we could cut into long, even strands. Mine weren’t as perfect as hers, but they did taste good!

Hiroshima Udon

We also ate super thick, gelatinous Shinsho-ji Udon at a Gokando, a beautiful garden in the Hiroshima prefecture. The was a whole different style of udon, rolled as thick as 3 straws and placed in a communal hot water pail. From there, we used wide chopsticks to fish out one long noodle strand and place it in our own bowl. There was a selection of delicious toppings, which you can add to your taste. I loved the salts and chilis!

Shinshoji udon

 

Soba Noodles (Handmade by a singing mountain local)

I love all sorts of noodles but I think that Japanese soba noodles are my favorites. I love the buckwheat flour used in them, giving them that earthy flavor and grainy texture. I also usually love the salty broth that they are served in. 

My favorite soba noodle award goes to the lovely woman below, who cooked a lunch feast for us in her home/restaurant in the Iya Valley.

Handmade Soba in Iya valley

Located on the edge of a cliff road, we took off our shoes and walked into what felt like her home (her home actually was attached). She watched us with delight as we ate all the deliciousness that she had prepared for us, including heaps of these soba noodles.

Our dessert? A song! She was a famous singer and unprompted, she stood up and starting singing a ballad in Japanese. Now that is a memorable way to end a meal.

 

Matcha Tea

Matcha tea iyaI drank copious amounts of tea while in Japan–it is served at every meal! But I developed a new love of matcha tea when we tried it at a roadside stop of another tiny mountain town in the Iya Valley. We were welcomed in with song, dance and costume by the proprietor, a spry, smiley older woman that is known for her enthusiasm.

Matcha Green Tea Iya Japan

She showed me how to grind the matcha using a traditional grinder, then she placed heaping spoonfuls in my cup, covering them with hot water.

As I sipped this rich, green liquid, she pointed out the window at the verdant mountainside across the river. That was where the tea leaves of this same matcha were grown. It only made it taste that much better.

 

Tempura

I’d had tempura before in the States so I thought I “knew” tempura. Well, I was wrong. Tempura in Japan is not the thick or greasy style that I’d had before. It is instead, delicately battered and just lightly fried, which only brings out the flavor of whatever delicious vegetable, starch or meat that was lucky enough to be “tempura-ed.” I loved all the tempura vegetables that we tried specifically the lotus, pumpkin and squash.

Tempura Shrimp Onomichi

However, I think my favorite was the tempura shrimp which we enjoyed in Onomichi (see above). The most exotic? Tempura wild deer. It was actually delicious!

 

Shabu-shabu

What a perfect meal! Shabu-shabu is also known as hot pot. It is when a large pot of lightly seasoned broth is served boiling with various raw vegetables, starches and meats. The meat is usually very thinly sliced beef to make for quick cooking. Not only does everything taste so flavorful, it is prepared exactly as you like it! And I love that it felt relatively light since no oil is used!

Shabu Shabu JapanWe enjoyed Shabu shabu feast up in the mountains of the Iya Valley, at our kominka. A local woman prepared so many dishes, in addition to the shabu, all from locally grown, raised and hunted sources. I never wanted to stop eating!

Shabu Shabu Japan

 

 

Kobe Beef

Of course this beef has international acclaim but I have to say, it lives up to the hype. I enjoy a good steak every now and then, but the grass fed, tenderly aged kobe beef is a totally different dish.

We went to Kobe Misono, the restaurant that launched the worldwide chain known as “Benihana.” It was fun because we were able to watch the expertly trained chefs prepare and cook the kobe beef right in front of us. What was impressive was how little was need to transform these perfectly cooked morsels into some of the best meaty bites I’d ever have. Just a little salt, a drop of oil, a sear on all the sides and done. Pop that in your mouth and you’ll know why kobe beef has such a big fanclub.

kobe beef kobe misono

 

Arima Cider Teppo Water

Arima Cider Teppo Water

In the hot spring town of Arima, everything revolves around the legendary hot springs. Not only do you soak in these therapeutic waters, but you can DRINK them too! Grab a bottle of the Arima Cider, made from the local hot spring water, and you’ll feel like a kid again with that bubble gum flavor! I don’t love soda but I did love this drink!

 

Favorite Meal: Kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki

There wasn’t one dish that I loved here–it was all of them. The whole 4 hours of this tasting menu experience was made memorable by the exquisite service and talented chefs behind each bite. I shouldn’t be surprised, the Ryokan Kurashiki is known to be one of the most luxurious ryokans in Setouchi! There was no detail overlooked.

Ryokan Kurashiki Kaiseki

The menu is seasonal and since it was late fall, early winter, we enjoyed root vegetables and wild game, as well as locally caught fish. The presentation of each course was mind-blowing. Tiny personal grills allowed us to grill our own meat, individual shabu hot pots and ornate bites displayed in fruits. There was even a wasabi root on the table with a grater so we could grate our own fresh wasabi!

 

….Dishes that I did NOT love:

Just for fun, I wanted to include a few things that I tried that I did not love so much. Every culture is bound to have food that you don’t like (see you later, France’s foie gras) and there are many American dishes that I despise too. But in Japan the list was short. Here are a few.

Kakiwai Miyajima

Fermented Oysters

Miyajima is known for having fresh oysters and you see them in every style. While I don’t go crazy over an oyster, I don’t mind them. However, I found out that I do not like them fermented. We went to a lovely coffeehouse overlooking the slope down to the sea on this magical isle. It was there that I tried their signature fermented oyster. Not only was the visual not appetizing to me, I did not enjoy the taste. I ate it to be polite and of course, for the camera, but to be honest, I did not go back for another bite. Those I was with did like it a lot so clearly it was just a matter of taste.

 

Salt Ice Cream with Red Bean

Salt Ice Cream Red Bean Paste Japan

Ice cream is everything to me so I had to try the popular salt ice cream with red bean paste when we stopped at one of Japan’s roadside food marts (they are incredible by the way!). So the verdict? It definitely looks better than it tastes. This soft serve ice cream is extremely salty–so much so that it was hard to swallow. The slightly sweet red bean paste had little flavor and was an odd textural combo with the ice cream. I didn’t despise it but I definitely didn’t see the appeal, particularly with how much sodium must be in each lick!

 

Calpis Water

Don’t be fooled, this is not water. This opaque, white drink is actually made with milk and lactic acid, so it is fermented milk water. It has a strange, slightly fizzy feel on your tongue and the flavor was not enjoyable in my opinion. I prefer the green teas or sparkling waters that I found at the food marts instead!

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Have you tried any of these before? Tell me what you thought!

 

xo

Kelley

torii gate

Top 5 Adventures in Setouchi, Japan

Japan might be synonymous with gardens, temples, sushi and cherry blossoms, but did you also realize that it is home to a wild variety of adventures? I spent 2 weeks exploring the Setouchi Region in Southwest Japan, which is famous for its breathtaking landscapes so it’s no surprise that outdoor adventures are plentiful here. I had no idea that Japan looked like this! We explored beaches and coasts, clear waters, rugged mountains, sweeping valleys and iconic cities throughout this region, and it is the adventures that stand out to me most. Here is a list of my favorite experiences throughout the region. Note that since Setouchi is all about the Seto Inland Sea, each of these experiences have to do with water in some way.

  1. Kayak the Floating Gate

torii gate

 

You’ve probably seen images of this incredible gate, the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. Itsukushima is a Shinto Shrine and World Heritage Site, and I think it is a marvel unto itself. Built to honor the gods of the sea, it has been a popular place of worship for sea travels ever since the Edo period. This outdoor shrine is located on the shores of the sacred Miyajima Island, constructed near and even in the water. But this particular torii gate might be one of Japan’s most iconic images. The gate is built right on the water so during high tide, when the water surrounds it, it appears to be floating. High tide is the perfect time to see it up close, by kayaking!

Itsukushima Shrine

We rented kayaks from a small shop, right in the center of town. They helped us bring the kayaks out to the shore and provided a guide to help us paddle and navigate the two-seater kayaks. It was helpful to have help paddling since I had to stop a few times to take photos! I couldn’t believe how stunning the gate was as we passed through it. The vermillion color, the ornate carvings and the striking backdrop is even more tremendous when you experience it on the water. I will cherish the photos I took of this kayak adventure forever.

 

2. Fly in a Seaplane

Setouchi Seaplanes flight seaplane

The Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of islands and it is probably the most dramatic part of this entire region. To take in the breadth of the sea as well as the beauty of the terrain, a seaplane gives you an incomparable perspective.

Setouchi Seaplanes

I couldn’t recommend Setouchi Seaplanes more. This company has an ultra hip, ultra modern checkin counter and lounge, complete with complimentary drinks and snacks. Check out their cute selection of souvenirs from their gift shop.

From there, you are guided onto the dock for a quick security check and then onto the seaplane. With one seat on either side, and 3 rows behind the pilots, our group of 6 had plenty of room. There are two amphibious aircraft available and I was excited that we flew in the bright red and green “L’ala Rossa.” As we took off from the water, it was exhilarating to see the islands, roads, and bridges get smaller and smaller. What I didn’t expect was how photogenic the landscape would be from this angle. I was captivated by the glittering sea, the uninhabited islands and the miniscule speeding boats as are we soared for 50 minutes. The pilots pointed out highlights along the route and I felt the entire service was very professional and the planes were very well maintained. Let’s not forget, it definitely pumps the adrenaline too!

 

3. Bike the Shimanami Kaido

Shimanami Kaido Biking

With over 37 miles of paved bike paths, it is no wonder that cyclist flock to Setouchi for their biking vacations. Not only are the paths very well constructed, they are extremely scenic as well! We picked up our bike at our homebase, the Hotel Cycle in Onomichi, and from there we biked along the coastal paths. This allowed us to stop at beaches, admire water views, cross some of Setouchi’s many architectural bridges and hop from island to island. We biked to Ikuchijima Island to explore the vivid Kosanji Temple. And if you are hungry, check out the delicious tempura restaurants in town!  

 

4. Cruise the Oboke Gorge

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley Boat

Yet another water adventure can be found away from the Seto Sea, up in the mountains of the Iya Valley on Tokushima Island. Surrounded by what seems to be endless, wooded peaks, this region is already spectacular. But try experiencing it by boat.

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley

We embarked on a sightseeing boat to explore the Oboke Gorge, a crystal clear part of the Yoshinaro River. The cruise was very relaxed and peaceful. It was such a lovely way take in the fresh air and surrounding nature of the Iya Valley. Plus the water is so clear, you are can see wild koi fish splashing about under the hull.

 

5. Cross the Kazura Bridge

Kazura Bridge Iya Valley

You wouldn’t expect a bridge to be an adventure, but this one is! The Kazura Bridge is a hanging rope bridge that spans 50 feet above a river. It is thought to have been built by the samurai that lived in these mountains, who chose to built it out of vines and ropes so they could cut it down in case they were being trailed by attackers.

Standing on the Kazura Bridge

Now it is a picturesque tourist destination for it’s Iya Valley views but also for the bragging rights of crossing it. I am not going to lie, I was a little scared when I stepped on it. I had not expected the vines to be so far apart, making me very aware of the 50 foot drop between each step. The bridge also sways with movement and with the wind, so hold on!

 

The best way to understand these adventures is to see them!

Check out my Adventure video where I dive into all these Setouchi experiences and even more that I didn’t mention!