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Hiroshima Prefecture: Maximal flavor in a miniature Japan

November 13, 2017

What’s in a name? In Japan, when it comes to place names at least, the answer is often a mixture of the literal and the symbolic. While some refer to local landmarks or geographical features, others rest on auspicious iconography or doff the cap to figures from history and legend.

The passage of time can serve to conceal such origins still further. But Hiroshima, the famous port city that lends its name to this prefecture in the far west of Japan’s largest main island, Honshu, might just have a foot in both camps.

One theory suggests that the appellation (which means “broad island,” and was bestowed in the late 16th century by local daimyo Mori Terumoto [1553–1625]), is a reference to several large platforms of land in the middle of the Ota River delta, on which the castle and surrounding town were built. Another less likely explanation indicates a dual homage to Terumoto’s ancestor Oe no Hiromoto (1148–1225) and trusted advisor Fukushima Motonaga.

Whatever the precise origins, though, the “broad” part of the name does seem to aptly convey the topographical scope that has seen Hiroshima Prefecture—with its combination of mountains, fertile alluvial planes, and rich estuaries opening onto the sheltered, temperate, island-dotted waters of the Seto Inland Sea—described as “Japan in Miniature.”

Sea for miles and miles

While the coastal straits support fisheries and aquaculture yielding produce such as conger eel, black sea bream, and nori laver, there is one marine delicacy for which Hiroshima is particularly well-known: oysters.

These mollusks are often eaten in nabe hot pots, or steamed together with rice. But where better to sample them at their simple, freshly grilled best than Miyajima? This small island, a short ride away from central Hiroshima by train and ferry, is home to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Itsukushima Shrine.

Carefully farmed in floating cages dotted across the surrounding bay, the oysters take roughly three years to reach market size. From mid-autumn to spring, they can be sampled on the very day they are harvested, cooked to perfection over an open grill, until each morsel slides pleasingly down the throat.

Peak size and succulence comes around March or April, and though they are the perfect warming pick-me-up for an afternoon’s sightseeing in the cooler months, modern refrigeration means that oysters can nowadays be enjoyed throughout the year. One salesman at an oyster stand attached to a long-established inn between the quay and the shrine said that on good days, he might sell as many as 1,400 individual pieces.

Pie with a little help from my fronds

Another treat closely associated with Miyajima is momiji manju, a maple leaf-shaped variant on manju, a staple Japanese confection that teams anko (sweet azuki bean paste) with a castella-like sponge cake casing. Devised in the early 1900s to evoke the foliage of the nearby Momiji-dani valley, over the intervening century momiji manju have become the quintessential Hiroshima souvenir.

We stopped off at the tearoom of one local manufacturer with some 90 years of history. Here, overseen by the third-generation owner, as many as 800 momiji manju are baked to perfection in a proprietary mechanized mold, deftly turned out by hand, and swiftly packaged to ensure that the characteristic moistness of the sponge is retained.

While these days a variety of flavors, including chocolate and custard cream, are available to make sure all tastes are catered for, the classic filling is smoothly pureed koshi-an. The malty, almost treacly sweetness of this bean jam gently unfurls across the back of the palate, complemented but not overpowered by the rich, eggy castella. Alongside a bowl of subtly bitter matcha green tea, cleverly branded by local establishments as “Japanese espresso,” it makes for a divine combination that seems somehow in keeping with this sacred setting.

Pancake days

Back in Hiroshima itself, we get down to earth once more in search of the local soul food. Though many readers may associate okonomiyaki with the Kansai region, and Osaka in particular, Hiroshima Prefecture actually has around 2,000 restaurants dealing in this hearty dish––Japan’s highest per-capita figure. In the capital, several particularly dense clusters can be found in the Okonomi-mura (“Okonomi Village”), Okonomi-monogatari ekimae hiroba (“Okonomi Story Station-Front Square”), and Okonomi-kyowakoku (“Republic of Okonomi”) districts.

Furthermore, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki differ significantly from their Kansai counterpart. The latter, which has spread throughout much of Japan, is commonly described as a pancake or a loaded omelet. A batter of pureed yam, eggs, flour, dashi stock, and other ingredients such as meat or seafood is ladled onto a hotplate to cook into a single robust mass, before being garnished with sweet okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and a handful of katsuobushi flakes, which seem to dance in the rising heat of the dish.

In Hiroshima, meanwhile, a crepe-like base is topped with cabbage, meat or seafood and a generous serving of noodles (either soba or thicker udon). This more layered construction is thoroughly cooked on a hotplate before being flipped over onto an egg “lid,” and finished off with chopped scallions and nori flakes, along with the obligatory sauce. Not far from the contemplative gardens of the Peace Memorial, we even found one restaurant offering a range of vegetarian and vegan options, to make sure no visitors need do without this unmissable local slap-up feast.

When life deals you lemons…

Hiroshima’s fertile soils, hot summers and mild winters also mean the region is ideal for cultivating a variety of crops, none more so than citrus fruits, especially oranges and lemons. Though the prefecture is among Japan’s leading producers of both fruits, it is particularly synonymous with lemons.

Of course, unlike many other fruits, lemons are not particularly appetizing on their own. That’s why local entrepreneurs, including a cafe near Hiroshima station that specializes in local fruit, have come up with a bewildering array of different ways to get the most out of this yellow treasure. There are obvious uses: lemons might be candied, made into syrup for soft drinks, or used in sweets, ice creams and other confectionery. They are also used in savory dishes as dressings, or sliced whole into nabe hotpots to tenderize and add tartness to the stewing beef.

Finally, in a highly topical celebration of the Hiroshima spirit (in more ways than one), what could be a more appropriate way to toast the recent successes of the local baseball team than by mixing freshly squeezed lemon juice with shochu and raising a flagon of “lemon sour”? It is a bracing local take on a popular Japanese cocktail.

Text and photos: David McMahon

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