Japan is a place of many capitals. Historically, the country had dozens of cities as its government capitals—and the same things go for its culinary capitals of Japan. In 2016, UNESCO confirmed Japan’s status as a culinary powerhouse, adding Japanese food culture to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. As such, Japanese washoku is equal to French cuisine, the only other national culinary tradition to be honored this way. And Japan’s contemporary cuisine is keeping pace, too. In 2017, four Japanese cities made The Telegraph‘s fine-dining rankings: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. And smaller cities like Nagoya, Hakodate, Takayama and others should be on your radar, as well. Consider the following ten cities the culinary capitals of Japan.
Tokyo currently has 302 Michelin stars—the most of any city in the world. As you might expect, its cultural heritage is rich, as well. Although early iterations of cured fish and rice were popular throughout Japan for centuries, the first quasi-modern sushi, edomae zushi, has its origins in Tokyo. Edo was Tokyo’s earlier name. Thus, “edomae zushi”simply translates to “Edo’s sushi”. And don’t leave the capital without visiting the famous fish market, Tsukiji.
With 135 Michelin stars to its name, Kyoto is close behind Tokyo as both a culinary and cultural capital. Its long history is evident in Nakamura-rō, a 400-year-old restaurant located in Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district. Try kaiseki-ryōri, a fancy, multi-course banquet that puts seasonal delicacies on full display.
With 116 Michelin stars, Osaka is a culinary star in its own right. However, this central city is famous for its street foods and cheap eats. Popular bites include takoyaki, or octopus balls, and okonomiyaki, a pancake-like food made of battered meat or seafood and cabbage.
If you think of Nara, you typically think of its resident deer. But now, also think about its Michelin stars. With 21, it’s on par with Rome and Madrid as a culinary capital. But don’t let its upscale reputation intimate you. Regional specialties include everyday dishes like narazuke pickles and Miwa somen noodles that—unlike most somen noodles, which are eaten cold—are often eaten in warm soup in Nara.
In smaller cities, the dining scenes are less cosmopolitan but equally unique. Local specialties are what make these smaller cities stand out from the crowd. In Takamatsu, for example, large sanuki udon wheat noodles are the top dog.
Eel is the star in Nagoya, whether grilled unagi or sauce-basted hitsumabushi, which can be served atop a bed of rice or sprinkled with dried seaweed, spring onion and wasabi paste. Or, you might find it mixed into a soup.
Ramen and seafood are very popular in Hokkaido. However, it’s the barbecued lamb, known as jingisukan (named after Genghis Khan because of the helmet shape of the convex table grill on which the meal is prepared), that takes the cake in Hakodate.
In Matsumoto, soba is served cold. But don’t be confused—it comes with a hot dashi broth for dipping for your own noodles. Another unique cuisine to Matsumoto is rich, red horse-meat sashimi, or basashi.
In Takayama’s old town, you’ll see many sake breweries, some of which have been there for centuries. Find the sake makers by spotting sugidama (balls of cedar branches) hung over the entrances.
Fugu, or blowfish, is poisonous—but not when prepared correctly. Try it in Shimonoseki, located in the southwestern region of Japan’s Honshu island—it’s regarded as the fugu capital. You might find it deep-fried, served as sashimi or hot pot style.