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Tue, Apr. 24, 2018 Toyama: A food culture rich in umami
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Kombu (kelp) seaweed has been an essential ingredient in the Japanese diet for over a thousand years. It is used to make the savory dashi stock that underpins all Japanese cuisine. It also cooked in many dishes to add essential minerals and umami.

This kombu seaweed grows in the sea around Hokkaido. In the old days, trading vessels known as kitamae-bune used to carry kombu from Hokkaido to other parts of Japan, traveling down the Japan Sea coast.

Toyama was one of the ports of call for those ships, and the kitamae-bune merchants became very wealthy. At the same time, kombu became embedded in the lives and daily food of the local people. These days, people in Toyama use more of the seaweed in their local cuisine than almost anywhere else in Japan.

On this edition of Journeys in Japan, Mai Rapsch from Germany visits Toyama to explore its rich food culture and traditions.

Kaze-no-kitamae Tavern
Kaze-no-kitamae Tavern
The owner of this izakaya tavern has developed a menu of original dishes that he prepares using the traditional kobujime technique, in which ingredients are pressed with kombu (kelp). As well as sashimi, he also prepares vegetables, tofu and other ingredients using this method.
Address: 2-2-9 Shintomi-cho, Toyama City
Mori-ke (Mori family residence)
Mori-ke (Mori family residence)
The Mori family were wholesalers and traders who owned and operated kitamaebune cargo ships. The Mori residence dates back some 140 years, and has been designated an important cultural asset of Japan.
Address: 108 Iwase-Ohmachi, Toyama City
This food market adjacent to Toyama railway station stocks a wide range of local specialties, including confectionery, masu (trout) sushi, hotaru-ika (firefly squid), shira-ebi (white shrimp) and local sake. The complex also restaurants that serve traditional Toyama dishes, such as Shiro-ebi tendon (rice bowl topped with white shrimp).
Address: 1-220 Meirin-cho, Toyama City
Takeshima Kombu-ten
Takeshima Kombu-ten
Founded 50 years ago, this shop specializes in kombu (kelp seaweed) from Hokkaido. Besides the kombu used for preparing dashi soup stock, it also sells more than 70 kinds of processed kombu products, including snacks and candies.
Address: 2-4-6 Chuodori, Toyama City
Kokando Shiryokan
Kokando Shiryokan
Toyama has long been famous for traditional medicine, which used to be sold by itinerant peddlers around Japan. This museum preserves and displays artifacts related to the medicines, including the packages that were used in the old days. The old documents and other items have great historical and cultural value.
Address: 2-9-1 Umezawa-cho, Toyama City
Toyama Glass Kobo
Toyama Glass Kobo
This facility was set up to display and sell hand-made items made from glass, and to publicize the appeal of traditional Toyoma glass. Visitors can also try their hand at glass-making here.
Address: 1512 Furusawa, Toyama City
One of the most popular shops in Toyama for traditional Japanese confectionery. It is famous for its kokuto-manju (brown-sugar dumplings) and tororo-kombu ohagi (sticky rice stuffed with sweet red bean jam and covered with shaved kombu).
Address: 5-33, 1-chome, Chuodori, Toyama City
To reach Toyama from Tokyo, it takes about two hours by bullet train on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line.
Travel Log

Traveler: Mai Rapsch > More Info


Occupation:Conference interpreter (German & Japanese)

Length of residence in Japan:about 2 years

Reason:To pursue a career I love in a place that lets me feel at home and offers great food.

As a foodie and nature-lover, Toyama was the best place I could wish for as my first travel destination for Journeys in Japan. The stunning view of Toyama Bay, which I encountered on my very first day, was simply breath taking. Never before had I seen a landscape where such a massive range of mountains rises up behind a beautiful ocean! This unique topography leads to the nutrient-rich waters of Toyama Bay - which is also often referred to as a "natural fish tank."

Toyama also has one of the highest consumption of kombu (kelp seaweed) in the country. Since ancient times, local maritime wholesalers engaged in a thriving trade with Hokkaido, bringing back this seaweed to Toyama, where it has become an indispensable ingredient in the local cuisine.

The variety of specialties made with kombu was impressive. But what I found even more fascinating was the fact that local people were handling the seaweed with so much love and pride, but at the same time with a somewhat sober authenticity. In the west, "umami" is still often a term used with a certain sense of hipness. But here in Toyama, I realized that it is just a natural, and clearly recognizable, taste in Japanese cuisine.

Kombu is not only a powerful source of umami. It also seems to underlie many other industries and crafts that the region has to offer. Medicine is the catchword you might probably hear most frequently when you ask Japanese people about Toyama. And even glass production, which once flourished because of the production of containers for drugs, is now known beyond prefectural and even national borders.

Even the young generation and people from all over the country are proud of the ancient traditions of Toyama and eager to preserve them. At the same time, they are striving to transform them into something new and sustainable in order to keep it's attractiveness alive. This makes me curious about Toyama's further development - and makes me want to go back to see what Toyama will have to offer next time!

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