Welcome to Wakayama, one of Japan’s most underrated destinations for foodies
(CNN) — There’s no denying Tokyo is one of the world’s food capitals.
But if you look beyond the Michelin stars and take a deep dive into the origins of Japanese cuisine and the many ingredients that define it, you’ll find Wakayama prefecture, south of the city of Osaka, offers an unexpectedly diverse abundance of flavors.
Case in point: It’s the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce.
Named Kishu — or Kii Domain — in ancient Japan, Wakayama has been an important food and spiritual center since Heian-kyo (today’s Kyoto) was built in the late 700s.
Fortunately, much of that legacy remains today, evidenced by these 10 dishes and ingredients every Wakayama visitor needs to try.
Yuasa is the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce.
courtesy Yuasa, Wakayama Tourism Bureau
The small town’s origins as a soy sauce production center took root over 700 years ago, when a Japanese monk returned from China with a technique for making miso (soy sauce paste). Soy sauce, a byproduct of miso-making, was discovered accidentally.
Today’s travelers will feel like they’ve stepped through a time-warp when visiting Yuasa. Many of its historic shophouses contain miso and soy sauce shops, in addition to small factories and museums, giving visitors ample opportunities to pick up a few bottles of this prized condiment to take home.
Getting there: Catch the local train at Wakayama City’s JR Wakayama station. The journey takes about an hour.
Chuka soba, a.k.a. Wakayama ramen
Resist the temptation to call it ramen — it’s known locally as “chuka soba.”
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
No visit to Japan is complete without a bowl of steaming hot ramen.
In Wakayama City, ramen is referred to as “chuka soba,” or Chinese noodles. There are various versions but every bowl of chuka soba should feature a tonkotsu-shoyu (pork bone and soy sauce) broth with off-white noodles and barbecued pork.
Ide Shoten, voted Japan’s best ramen eatery in 1998 during an episode of popular series “TV Champion,” is a chuka soba shrine for noodle lovers.
Negi (scallion) ramen at Mauri Junibanchoten — served with a green blanket of chopped scallions on top — is another must-try.
Typical chuka soba restaurants often offer a serving of perfectly pressed pickled mackerel sushi on the side. These are great appetizers and worth biting into before you dive into your ramen.
Ide Shoten, 4-84 Tanaka Town, Wakayama City
The original sushi
Mehari-zushi features rice balls wrapped in pickled mustard greens — a Wakayama specialty.
Nowadays, when people think of sushi, nigiri comes to mind. The most famous representation of this beloved Japanese dish, it’s a bundle of rice topped with a piece of raw fish.
But those looking to experience the original styles of sushi, which date back to the 10th century, should head for Wakayama’s Kumano region.
One of the area’s most beloved local cuisines, narezushi is a hand-pressed rice ball topped with fermented fish. (Just don’t let the scent put you off.)
You can find it in local food halls, ramen shops and also a restaurant called Yatsufusa, which serves narezushi with local sake.
Another type of traditional sushi is mehari-zushi. These oversized rice balls wrapped in pickled mustard leaves were once a traditional bento (lunch box) inclusion for workers and farmers. They’re still a popular food for hikers visiting the mountainous Kumano region thus can be found in many shops in the area.
Yatsufusa, 38-6 Yukawachomaruyama, Gobo, Wakayama
Nakata is one of Wakayama’s biggest ume processing and brewing factories. Vistors can take a tour and enjoy a few free samples of the umeshu.
If you’re enjoying a refreshing glass of umeshu (plum wine) or a meal of umeboshi onigiri (rice balls with pickled plum) in Japan, there’s a good chance the ume is from Wakayama.
The province accounts for around 60% of Japan’s total ume production. The most famous variety is Nanko ume, a large, succulent species with a vibrant green and red hue, rich taste and soft pulp.
Its name was inspired by the Japanese characters of the words Takada (the farmer who planted the first ume field in the region) and Minabe (the region where his ume field was located).
Although it is often referred to as a plum, ume’s scientific name is actually prunus mume, a type of apricot.
Several umeshu factories offer tours and samples in Wakayama, including Nakata Foods, outside the city of Tanabe.
Kumanoogyu is leaner than its Kobe counterpart.
courtesy Wakayama Prefecture
Kumano beef, with the same exquisite marbling and delicate taste as its better-known counterpart, is leaner than normal Kobe beef and of great value in comparison.
Kumano beef can be found throughout the prefecture served in various ways. For instance, Steakhouse Hinoki serves burger steaks made with Kumanogyu, while Yakiniku Hige is a family-run diner that offers yakiniku with various cuts of Kumano beef.
Shansho peppers are used in condiments and marinades.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Similar to Sichuan’s numbing peppers, sansho peppers are mildly spiced, have a tongue-numbing quality and a refreshing citrusy fragrance.
Wakayama is the biggest producer of sansho peppers not just in Japan but also the world.
They are widely used as a condiment as well as in marinades. That green or brown powder you see on grilled eel and grilled chicken? That’s sansho. Peppers harvested at different periods during the year will vary in appearance and tastes, while the leaves are often used as decoration.
They’re also found in jars of seven-spice mixture (shichimi togarashi) on tables in almost every Japanese restaurant.
Looking for a culinary souvenir? You can find bottles of shichimi togarashi or grounded sansho pepper in many local shops and supermarkets.
Tried and true: The smell of Arida mandarins will make orange fans drool.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
Wakayama is Japan’s biggest producer of mikan and the prefecture’s Arida Mikan is one of the top mandarin orange brands in Japan.
In addition to mikan, Wakayama is a major producer of other fruits like persimmons, peaches and kiwis, leading many to refer to it as Japan’s kajuokoku (the fruit kingdom).
Travelers can experience Koya’s famed Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, which includes plenty of tofu.
Named after Mount Koya, the sacred mountain in Wakayama that remains a pilgrimage site for devout Buddhists, Koya tofu has a frosty back story dating to the early 1600s.
It’s believed monks of the area’s temples used to make it in the freezing winter temperatures.
To preserve the year’s soybean harvests, it was made into tofu that was left outdoors to freeze before it was thawed and dried for storage.
Unlike the silky pudding-like fresh tofu most are familiar with, the dried Koya tofu has a crouton-like texture and is great for absorbing sauce and soup in a dish.
Several Wakayama fish markets offer tuna cutting demonstrations.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
Not only does Wakayama have some of the largest ports for skipjack tuna, it’s also playing a role in efforts to save the species from going extinct.
In response to increased demand for skipjack tuna, over the last three decades Kindai University in Osaka has been working to create a more sustainable, fully farmed tuna option — and they have succeeded at their Oshima farm station at Kushimoto, Wakayama.
You can now find the Kindai tuna alongside wild-caught tuna in Wakayama’s many fish markets.
To sample some of the prefecture’s prized tuna, visitors can head to Katsuura Fishing Port. One of the largest tuna fishing ports in Japan, it hosts a daily auction as well as tuna slicing demos.
Toretore Market in Shirahama and Kuroshio Market in Wakayama City also host daily tuna cutting shows.
Dried bonito flakes are a Japanese culinary staple.
FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
Wakayama is also said to be the birthplace of katsuobushi — the wiggling, dried bonito flakes used to garnish takoyaki (squid balls) and okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes with cabbages, flour, eggs and, sometimes, pork and noodles).
To make katsuobushi, filets of deboned skipjack tuna are repeatedly smoked and dried until they’re as hard as a wooden block. The hardened fish is then shaved into thin flakes, which are used as a seasoning. It’s one of the main ingredients in dashi, the famed umami Japanese soup stock.
There are multiple stories connected to the discovery of bonito flakes that involve different prefectures in Japan but several of them point to Wakayama.
Regardless of the origins, bonito flakes are a Wakayama staple. Packaged bonito flakes can be found in pretty much any market/food shop — marking them the perfect souvenir.