Totsukawa Village has created its own unique food culture, isolated as it was deep within the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Makoto Ura, expert on Totsukawa Village food culture, told us all we needed to know about the local flavors.
What first surprised us was that the people of Totsukawa have different kinds of water they use for different things.
For example, they believe that if they use the ice-cold water of winter for cooking, their food will be less likely to spoil, so every year they collect it in 2 liter bottles of it to keep in reserve.
Additionally, natural hot spring waters are so common that many houses have taps that dispense it. They often use it for cooking rice, making coffee, and boiling eggs.
“When I was a kid, I used onsen water to cook my cup noodles. I felt like it made the ramen taste better than using regular boiled water. Lately onsen pudding is pretty popular too.”
There’s even a spring that people from all over the country come to to collect “Hatenashi Water”. The spring lies at the foot of the Hatenashi mountains, along the World Heritage Site Kohechi Road. It’s known among the villagers as a source of very clean water, as there has never been a case of e. coli reported from it. People use it for cooking and making coffee, and it’s said to make everything more delicious. Lots of people come from Wakayama to get some, since you can take home as much as you like, or even drink it on the spot. Give it a try and see how you like it!
Would you be surprised if we told you that the tea that they drink here in Totsukawa Village is all home grown? The locals here don’t buy tea leaves; they grow their own.
“Everyone has their own tea plants in their homes or gardens. They pick the leaves fresh, and roast them in an iron pot, or crumble and dry them in the sun, then store them. We have a pot reserved just for roasting tea leaves at my house. Nobody would even consider buying tea.”
So not only do the villagers each have their own tea farms, but they grow it for their own consumption. This is the pinnacle of farm-to-table life!
They have many more uses for the tea than just drinking it, too. For example, they’ll put tea leaves in a cloth bag, put the bag in a pot of water and boil it, then put in rice to make tea-flavored rice porridge. This country recipe is a staple of Totsukawa cuisine.
“We only eat white rice porridge when we have a cold, but tea rice porridge is something we eat regularly. My grandparents made it every day. My grandfather would have a bowl of tea rice porridge and a bran-pickled cucumber for lunch, alternating between slurping the porridge and munching on the pickle.”
Of course they would also use their homegrown tea for ochazuke, a Japanese dish where you pour tea over rice. But instead of pouring perfectly brewed tea over rice, they pour course tea over mochi rice cakes and eat it that way.
“When I was little, one of my cousins came over to play, and when he poured sweet soy sauce over his mochi I was so surprised! (laughs)”
In the past, Totsukawa Village was not easily accessible by roads, so it was hard for the people living there to get fresh ingredients. That’s why a culture of eating preserved foods developed in the town. Mochi, for example, was not just grilled like it is in other places.
Take, for example, a food called “kiriko”. You take mochi, put it on a special machine, and stretch it out to its limits. You leave it like that for seven to ten days, then shave off centimeter-wide pieces. There’s also “kirikokaki”, which is made by shaving five milimeter pieces off of multiple thin rectangles of dried mochi, which can then be grilled on a hibachi plate or a small grill to make “okaki”, or mochi flakes. This is usually eaten with ochazuke.
“You’d put kiriko on top of rice, add a little salt, then pour course tea over it and eat it. I haven’t seen anyone eat it in a while, but it was delicious!”
Another popular preserved food that is used regularly in Totsukawa cuisine is called “yūbeshi.” You take a yuzu citrus fruit, scoop out the juicy insides, and fill it with miso, walnuts, sesame seeds, or whatever else you want, then steam it. Then you put it out to dry and let it be exposed to the winter winds before you eat it. Apparently, what goes inside it depends on the household and the region.
Every Wednesday in the Regional Exchange Center in the Hiradani part of Totsukawa, there is a little pop up kitchen called “Totsukawa Seasonal Ingredients: Tama-chan”. They sell yūbeshi stuffed with dried shiitake mushrooms, tuna, and 11 other varieties of ingredients.
Yūbeshi is a versatile food that can be sliced and put over rice, or made into an impromptu soup.
“I heard that people who work in the mountains take yūbeshi with them to put in hot tea to make a kind of miso soup.”
Lately the ways to garnish the yūbeshi have expanded to even include cheese, and it’s become a handy snack to have with alcohol.
“Mehari-zushi” is another food that is very versatile in terms of toppings. It sounds like a kind of sushi, but actually it’s more like a large rice ball wrapped in pickled mustard greens. The filling can be anything you like.
Another special kind of preserved food that’s popular in Totsukawa Village is “Sanma no nare-zushi”. Before roads to Totsukawa Village existed, fish had to be brought in from Wakayama on motorboats. It took several hours, so the only fish that they could get were dried or salted. Sanma no nare-zushi is a dish eaten in December made of sanma, or Pacific saury, that has been salt-dried long enough that all the fat has dissolved. It’s cut open along its back, deboned, washed, and made into sushi. Fern leaves are laid out in a bucket, and then the sushi is placed on top of them. The leaves and sushi are layered and packed tightly into the bucket, and a heavy lid is placed directly on the top of the pile, as well as a stone weight to press it down. Salt water is poured in, and the concoction is left to ferment for a minimum of two weeks, or up to one month. The water is poured out on New Year’s Eve, and the resulting nare-zushi is eaten over the first few days of the new year.
Luckily, we were visiting just after the New Year’s holidays and were able to try some homemade nare-zushi at Tama-chan’s in the Regional Exchange Center. It had just the right amount of tang from the pickling, which, mixed with the tasty flavor of the sanma, was absolutely delicious.
We couldn’t believe some of the things we saw and heard about Totsukawa Village’s food culture, but we’re not surprised it was so complex! That it hasn’t changed at all since the days when the town was cut off from the world, and the fact that the village’s cuisine is relatively unknown throughout Japan, makes it very precious. Trying the food in Totsukawa Village will give you plenty of great memories, and lots of things to tell your friends about. However, there’s not much of that local cuisine at the restaurants there. If there’s something you want to try, try asking a local about it. No doubt that'll spark a conversation with them, since they’ll want to know how you know about their local cuisine. And if you’re lucky, they’ll give you a taste of it!