Delicious Local Foods
The Kii Peninsula is famous for its lush natural environment—the base of local cuisine. Fresh local products are featured throughout the region. If you like Japanese food then you will love Kumano!
Wild Boar Hot Pot
In Japan wild boar meat is considered a highly prized delicacy, especially served as a hot pot dish. This is called shishi-nabe 獅子鍋, “shishi” being wild boar and “nabe” being hot pot. Another name for this dish is called botan-nabe or peony hot pot.
Ayu 鮎 or sweetfish (Plecoglossus altivelis) is a small local fish found in the clear rivers. It migrates up and down the rivers feeding on algae and insects. Ayu fishing is a common pastime. It is often served grilled with salt.
Mehari sushi めはり寿司 is a local dish made of rice wrapped in pickled Takana mustard leaves. It is a popular food to take into the mountains, as the leaves protect the rice. It used to be served as a very large ball, so when people took a bite, their “eyes would widen”, “mehari” in Japanese.
Chagayu 茶粥 is tea porridge. Its local name is Okaisan おかいさん, and is often served at breakfast.
The Amago アマゴor red-spotted masu salmon (Oncorhynchus masou macrostomus) is another local fish from the salmon family. It thrives in the upper reaches of the rivers where the water is clear and cool.
The southern Black or Kuroshio 黒潮 current flows north hitting the Kii Peninsula—creating excellent fishing grounds. Katsuura is one of the largest tuna ports in Japan, famous for its tuna or maguro 鮪.
Mikan みかんor mandarin oranges are a major agriculture product in Tanabe. There are over 80 species grown throughout the year.
Aka Shiso 赤紫蘇 or Red Shiso, is perilla mint and is used during the summer months to make a refreshing juice drink. Watch for its brilliant, natural red color. This plant is also used to color umeboshi red.
What is Ume?
Icon of Japanese Culinary Culture
Ume 梅 are fruit—Prunus mume or Japanese Apricot. They cannot be eaten raw but rather need to be processed and are consumed as both food and medicine.
The ume has a long tradition in Japanese culinary culture. There are a diversity of products made from ume including the iconic umeboshi 梅干 (pickled ume) and umeshu 梅酒 (ume liqueur). Other products include ume flavored slat (often served with tempura), juice, candies, noodles, etc.
Ume is a highly valued crop and has well-known positive medicinal effects including recovery from fatigue and food poisoning prevention.
Important Local Industry
The ume industry in the Minabe-Tanabe area is a vital aspect of the local economy with approximately 70% of the working population engaged in ume production or related industries.
With about 44,000 tons annual production (2012)—nearly 50% of Japan’s total production—this region boasts the highest yield in the country, around twice that of other ume-producing districts in Japan.
96% of the over 3400 farming families grow ume. It is a vital crop for the local economy.
Introduction to Japan
Ume is believed to have been introduced from China about 1500 years ago.
It gradual penetrated society becoming an integral aspect of the Japanese diet, culture, everyday lexicon and seasonal sensibility.
In the Nara period (710-794) preservation via salt pickling developed—a precursor to modern day umeboshi.
The medical efficacy of the ume can be found in Japan’s oldest medical text which was compiled in 984.
Even the name for the rainy season, Tsuyu 梅雨, incorporates the character ume, as the fruit is harvested in June.
From Elite to the Common People
In the 1300s umeboshi production began as medicine for the upper class. There are reference to umeboshi in texts and books from the Kamakura and Muromachi period (1336-1573), but it is believed that from the Edo period (1603-1868) they formed a part of the common people’s diet.
Large scale local production traces its roots to the feudal lord Ando Naotsugu who initiated and promoted ume farming around 1620. He encouraged ume cultivation in areas that could not produce rice such as mountain slopes.
There is a shrine dedicated to this visionary and pragmatic leader at Tokei-jinja.
Over the centuries new breeds and processing techniques were developed. Present day researchers and farmers continue to preserve, innovate, and improve local products and techniques.
The coastal mountains are steep with poor soil conditions: the climate is temperate and rainy.
For centuries farmers have adapted to these challenging environmental conditions, delicately crafting a balanced, diverse land use system.
Power of the Forest
The ume orchards are built onto the slopes surrounded by natural forest.
The native trees are essential to manage water resource by holding the water and releasing it gradually, preventing soil erosion.
The forest offers shelter to native bees which pollinate the ume flowers, a valuable source of food after the long winter, and essential for ume production.
The native trees such as Umbamegashi (Quercus phillyraeoides, Ubame Oak) are harvested to produce high quality Binchotan Charcoal. The trees are selective-cut allowing the base to grow new shoots, regenerating quickly.
This forestry management method lets more light penetrate to the forest floor crating favorable conditions for biodiversity.
The well-balanced mountainside supports irrigation ponds and channels in the lower lying areas making rice and vegetable production possible.
Binchotan is a traditional charcoal of Japan and one of the world’s finest hard or white charcoal.
Present day it is valued as a elite-quality fuel for cooking because it burns consistently clean at a high temperature. Restaurants often proudly advertise in their store front that they use Binchotan in the kitchen for grilling.
This charcoal is known as “Binchotan” because a man from Tanabe with the name Bicchuya Chozaemon took some of the highly valued charcoal to Edo (present day Tokyo) in the 1700s which was received with great fanfare—black gold.
To differentiate locally made charcoal the prefix Kishu (the feudal name for Wakayama) is often added—forming the name Kishu-Binchotan 紀州備長炭.
Because of the numerous microscopic pores, it is often used as a filter.
The musical qualities of Binchotan’s high pitched metallic ring when struck, adds a playful side to this charcoal culture.
Wind chimes are a common souvenir because of this attribute—even a local orchestra plays entirely with charcoal instruments!
Minabe-Tanabe Ume System
What are GIAHS?
The GIAHS (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems) program aims to promotes public understanding, awareness, national and international recognition of Agricultural Heritage systems.
It is a project founded in 2002 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (headquarters: Rome Italy).
Reflecting the rich agricultural biodiversity and unique traditional adaptive management techniques, the local ume producing region was registered as a GIAHS called “Minabe-Tanabe Ume System” in 2015.
Difference Between UNESCO World Heritage & GIAHS
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is focused on designating and protecting cultural and natural sites, such as historic monuments and buildings and natural areas.
The purpose of GIAHS is rather to seek maintenance and conservation of agricultural systems to pass them to future generations, through the granting of special designation.
Ume blossoms have inspired artists and poets since historic times. The flowers bloom near the end of February and are harbingers of spring.
Like the cherry tree, flowers bloom before the leaves appear, but ume bloom longer and have a stronger fragrance.
The unpretentious beauty of the ume featured prominently in the Manyoshu 万葉集, Japan’s oldest poetry collection dating from the 8th century.
Ume also has a strong presence in Japanese arts such as ikebana and bonsai.
Ume is grouped with pine and bamboo forming an ancient, omnipresent cultural motif known as Shochikubai 松竹梅 (pine, bamboo, ume).
They symbolize steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience. More specifically, as ume blooms during the last cold days of winter, offer a sense of beauty, hope and joy for the emerging of new life and future.
It is an auspicious symbol often featured in ceramic, woodcarvings, kimono designs, etc.
Ume Culinary Culture
Umeboshi & Umeshu Tasting
Umeboshi pickles can be surprisingly salty and sour, but with new creations such as honey umeboshi they are more palatable to the taste buds of the uninitiated.
The diversity of local craft umeshu liqueur is the best in world.
To try some of these classic (and not so classic) flavors, head to Tanabe En+ near the JR Kii-Tanabe station. They are also registered as a tax-free outlet and open daily 10:00~19:00.
Let the tasting and shopping begin!
The Nanko Ume 南高梅 is a species of ume that was developed locally and is especially sought after.
It is the premier brand—the fruit being large with thick flesh, small pits, and thin skin.
Tanabe city is the only locality on earth that has an ordinance obliging residence to make their Kanpai toasts with Umeshu. It is a playful way to get people excited about drinking the local brew.
If fact it got so many people excited, that July 5, 2014, 866 people did a Kanpai cheers with their arms linked to get registered in the Guinness book of world records!