Miketsukuni – The Three Regions That Keep Japan’s Traditional Culinary Cultures Alive

“Miketsukuni” is the name used to refer to three provinces—Awaji, Wakasa, and Shima—that for centuries have supplied the Imperial family and court with abundant offerings of their regional food. Over the years, they have successfully safeguarded and passed down their traditional values and cultures onto the present. In this article, we’ll discuss the three Miketsukuni regions as well as the irresistible allure of Japan’s culinary culture, which traces its origin to Kyoto back when the city served as the country’s capital.

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*This article was written in collaboration with Hyogo Prefecture.

What Are the Miketsukuni?

Starting around 1,400 years ago during the Asuka and Nara Periods, the name “Miketsukuni” has been used to describe three areas that have been supplying Japan’s Imperial family and court with abundant, regional food offerings: Awaji (modern-day Hyogo Prefecture), Wakasa (modern-day Fukui Prefecture), and Shima (modern-day Mie Prefecture). To this day, these same areas continue their dedication to Japan’s culinary culture by producing outstanding ingredients and dishes. It’s fair to say that, going forward, the Miketsukuni will be key players in helping keep “washoku” – the traditional dietary culture of the Japanese and a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – alive for future generations.

How Miketsukuni Offerings Bring Attention to Kyoto-Brand Ingredients

In this section, we will touch on the traditional Miketsukuni offerings of Awaji, Wakasa, and Shima, which are still loved by the locals. We will also shine the spotlight on the traditional ingredients of Kyoto, a land that has played an incredibly large role in Japanese dietary culture.

Awaji (Hyogo Prefecture)

・Awaji Island Red Sea Bream

Awaji Island is surrounded by the Akashi, Naruto, and the Kitan Straits, from where experienced fishermen pull out nets full of wild caught red sea bream. The Awaji Island Red Sea Bream is a name given to a specific high-quality variety of the fish raised in the fast currents of the straits surrounding the island.

Sea bream has been eaten by Japanese people for centuries and holds a special place in their hearts. It’s been said that the Imperial family has traditionally lunched on salt-grilled sea bream since ancient times all the way until the 1860s. Throughout all that time, the main ingredient for their midday meal apparently came from the Miketsukuni province of Awaji. Even after that custom came to an end, the Maruyama Fishing Port in Minamiawaji City has continued to offer dried wild caught red sea bream to the Daijosai, a thanksgiving harvest festival held after the enthronement of a new emperor, during the Taisho, Showa, Heisei, and Reiwa eras.

The Awaji Island Red Sea Bream is considered a delicacy and one of the best examples of Miketsukuni offerings. It’s a very popular fish that can be prepared many ways but in Awaji, it’s usually enjoyed minced and mixed with rice (taimeshi), served with thin noodles (tai somen), or steamed and grilled on a plate of unglazed pottery (horaku-yaki).

・Awaji Island Onion

Awaji Island Onions are grown using traditional agricultural methods developed over the course of 130 years. They are easily recognizable because of their sweet taste and soft texture. The onions can only be grown on Awaji since the island is surrounded on three sides by the Harimanada Sea, Osaka Bay, and the Kii Channel, which enrich Awaji’s soil with sea minerals, making it incredibly fertile. The island’s good drainage also plays a part in producing this flavorful produce with a ton of sweetness and nutrients packed into it.

Awaji Island Onions are planted in the autumn and take their time slowly growing and absorbing nutrients through the winter. After the onions are harvested in the spring, they are naturally air-dried in onion sheds, which makes them even sweeter. The Awaji Island Onion can be enjoyed all year round because it comes in many different varieties, like the fresh, early maturing kind or the late variety that requires storage after harvesting to increase its sweet flavor.

・Awaji Beef

Awaji Beef is an offshoot of the world-famous Tajima beef. The pure, delicate flavor of the meat is the product of hard work—such as by improving the quality of the feed given to the cattle—as well as the lush surroundings the cattle are raised in, characterized by a mild climate, clear skies, and pristine water. Awaji Island Tajima beef has made a name for itself at national-level competitions where it has won awards for the quality of its fat, which contains high amounts of oleic acid, said to be the key to giving beef its distinct taste. Only meat that has cleared the strictest of criteria can win the right to be labeled “Awaji Beef.” The result is beef with delicate marbling and fat with a low melting point, which results in a perfect, delicious balance of tenderness and exquisite sweetness.

Wakasa (Fukui Prefecture)

・Wakasa Red Tilefish

For centuries, the marine products of Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture have been held in such high regard that Kyoto had a special term for them: “Wakasa-mon,” meaning “things from Wakasa.” Among them, the “guji” red tilefish has been especially prized for its sweet taste and mouthwatering aroma when grilled. Although the guji is a white fish, it has a simple yet deep flavor. Over the years, it has made the fish a sought-after, indispensable ingredient in Kyoto cuisine, with the fish being transported from Wakasa to the old capital via the so-called “Saba-kaido” or “Mackerel Road.”

In modern-day Fukui Prefecture, red tilefish are captured via angling, longlines, and gillnets, but to be recognized as a “Wakasa Guji,” the fish must be exceptionally fresh and not have any visible injuries from the fishing. A lot of care goes into properly transporting the caught tilefish which, together with their shape and taste, make them one of the finest fish in all of Japan.

・Grilled Mackerel

Long ago, mackerel was one of the most popular fish caught on the Fukui coast. The slightly salted Wakasa Bay variety frequently made its way up the Mackerel Road into Kyoto, where it became a big part of the local culinary culture. It’s no wonder then that Fukui Prefecture has come up with many ways of preparing and preserving mackerel. Grilled mackerel, mackerel sushi, and “heshiko” (mackerel pickled in rice bran paste) remain popular local dishes to this day. It’s also been said that the locals get their stamina from eating “maruyaki saba,” which is whole-roasted, fatty mackerel.

・Mackerel Sushi and Grilled Mackerel Sushi

Mackerel sushi is filleted mackerel that has been marinated in salt and vinegar and served on vinegared sushi rice. Over the years, it’s become tradition to enjoy it on special occasions and celebrations. Besides the old capital, the exquisite dish has also become popular in the Reinan region of Fukui that supplied the fish. Today, many mackerel sushi shops exist throughout the area.

Grilled mackerel sushi combines the best elements of the dish with the amazing taste of roasted mackerel. As soon as you bite into it, savory flavors will spread throughout your mouth, with the soft, grilled fish meat and the sweet rice working together in perfect harmony. We guarantee that you won’t be able to stop at just one.

・Wakasa Obama Kodai Sasazuke (Small Sea Bream Pickled in Vinegar)

Kodai Sasazuke is one of the most famous dishes in Wakasa. The dish is made from small yellowback sea breams, which are filleted into three pieces, lightly salted, marinated in vinegar, and then served in a cask or barrel-like container with bamboo leaves. The wood of the cedar cask absorbs excess moisture from the fish, essentially aging it for a short amount of time and condensing its flavor. Only Fukui Prefecture, which has long supplied Kyoto with marine products, could come up with an ingenious method like this.

The skin of the yellowback sea bream is a beautiful pink while its flesh is a lustrous, light amber color, bordering on transparent white. The fish’s robust flesh treated with just enough salt and vinegar combines with the unique aroma of its wooden container, resulting in a winning combination that will make your mouth water. This marine product was the first to be registered with Japan’s Geographical Indication (GI) protection system due to its unique processing system that preserves the fish while keeping its taste as close to fresh as possible.

Shima (Mie Prefecture)

・Spiny Lobster

The Japanese name for spiny lobster is “Ise ebi,” meaning “Ise shrimp.” As you can guess, it comes from Ise in Mie Prefecture, specifically the Shima region where it’s considered a local signature product. The sea around Shima is constantly supplied with nutrients from Ise’s mountains via rivers and thus makes a great home for spiny lobsters which feed on clams, sea urchins, and other lifeforms while braving the sea’s rough waters. As a result, spiny lobster flesh is very robust and, when enjoyed as sashimi, really leaves an impact mixed with an elegant sweetness that stays with you long after the first bite.

To make sure that this bounty of the sea survives for future generations to enjoy, restrictions on fishing equipment used to catch spiny lobster and its fishing season were put into place. Additionally, the utmost care is put to transporting the caught crustaceans as gently as possible. That’s why you can taste man’s respect for nature in every bite of tender and sweet spiny lobster.

・Matoya Oyster

One taste of large, fresh, and plump Matoya Oysters with a little lemon on them is all it takes to taste the seashore inside your mouth. Give it time and the oysters’ sweetness will slowly reveal itself to you. Found in Matoya Bay, which is supplied with nutrients from the surrounding forest, Matoya Oysters are like if the entire bounty of the sea was condensed into one exquisite delicacy. They take time to grow, and once they mature, they are purified in UV-sterilized seawater. Abiding by traditional ideas and techniques developed by previous generations, only the finest oysters are chosen to be sold. Matoya Oysters aren’t just known for their amazing taste, but also for being incredibly safe to eat, earning it the respect of gourmets and foodies around the country.

・Anori Fugu

During summer, the “torafugu” tiger pufferfish of Ise Bay feasts on shrimp, crabs, and small fish. Then, in winter, the cold causes its body to contract, giving its flesh a chewy and crunchy texture as well as an exquisitely sweet and savory taste that needs to be experienced firsthand to be truly appreciated. However, there are limits on how often people can catch tiger pufferfish, and fishermen are required to return the smaller ones back into the sea. The more passionate ones even raise pufferfish from their fry stages and then release them into the wild.

Inspired by these efforts, the local chefs have taken to finding more delicious ways of preparing pufferfish. To many, these creatures are a precious gift of nature, and no effort should be spared to ensure their continued survival because that is how you show respect to the sea that has given the Japanese people so much over the centuries.

Kyoto (Kyoto Prefecture)

・Kyotango Pears

“Kyotango Nashi” is a variety of pears grown in the Tango region in northern Kyoto as well as a recognized Kyoto brand product. Each individual fruit is inspected for its sugar content using specialized sensors, and only those above a predetermined threshold will receive the “Kyo mark” (proof of it being a Kyoto brand product; guarantees the highest quality and a great taste) before being sold. Kyotango pears are a type of Asian pear, which are known for their refreshing sweetness and slight tartness that create a superbly balanced flavor. When chilled, Kyotango pears taste even sweeter, and thus are very popular for making compotes and desserts.

・Murasaki Zukin

“Murasaki Zukin” is a type of green soybean created by improving on the Tango black soybeans, some of the most popular soybeans in Japan. The Kyo mark guarantees their high quality and great taste, so keep an eye out for it when shopping for some. The name comes from the fact that their thin skin is a little purplish, and their shape does in fact resemble a hood (zukin) worn over someone’s head. Murasaki Zukin are larger than regular green soybeans and have a pleasantly chewy, robustly sweet taste to them. There are many ways that you can enjoy them, including boiled, with rice, in a salad, as tempura, and more. Try some and you’ll quickly understand why gourmets and foodies around Japan love these soybeans so much.

・Kyo no Sake Alcohol

Kyo no Sake is alcohol made entirely from “Iwai” sake rice, with both the sake and the rice being recognized Kyoto brand products. With its full-bodied taste, Kyo no Sake is perfect not just for Kyoto cuisine, but for many other dishes as well. Iwai rice was first developed in 1933 in a Kyoto laboratory and quickly became widely used and praised for its quality within the brewing industry. Due to problems with cultivation, though, the production of Iwai rice ceased in 1973, but after that a movement arose to bring back this “Kyoto rice to make Kyoto’s sake.” Thanks to the combined efforts of the government, brewers, and manufacturers, the Iwai rice was revived in 1992, leading to the creation of Kyo no Sake in 2012, and the recognition of both as Kyoto brand products.

▶Next page: Chefs Continuing the Tradition of Cooking Miketsukuni Ingredients

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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