From the top-notch Michelin-starred restaurants of Tokyo, over festival-exclusive sushi and sweets, to locally sourced specialties of weird fish, the Kanto area and its prefectures have a lot to offer to visiting foodies.
Let’s take a look!
Indulge in the tastes of Tokyo Prefecture
At the time of writing, there are 140 Michelin 3-star restaurants in the world.
Out of those, 21 are situated in Japan making the country world’s second, just after France. Kyoto boasts 8, Paris has 9, but no city in the world has as many as Tokyo – 12 top-rated restaurants in the world. This makes Tokyo metropolis the gastronomic center of the world.
Since the formation of this huge city (back at the time it was called Edo), people from all across Japan visited. Everybody brought their local recipes and plant seeds – carefully preserved, some of these are heritage Edo vegetables available even today (incl. Nerima daikon and Kameido daikon radishes, Magome Sansun carrots, and Komatsuna mustard spinach).
But Edo/Tokyo is not just a mix of culinary influence – it has a strong local dining culture too – and many unique recipes were born here.
Tokyo-style Sushi – Edomae Sushi (江戸前寿司)
Being the fast food of Japan, the concept of sushi revolves around bite-sized explosion of flavors.
In the past it was a method of preserving fish, but around 1820, modern-day sushi was invented by a man named Hanaya Yohei in a part of Tokyo now known as Sumida. Hanaya’s food stall was close to both Tokyo Bay and Sumida River, so with a good supply of fresh fish and some ingenuity, the first sushi came to life.
Back in the day, the city (and its bay and waterfront) were called Edo, so the name for this quickly-spreading specialty essentially means “Edo-front Sushi”. Some common ingredients in Edomae sushi are spotted shad, mackerel, shrimp, and eggs. It was mostly arranged as nigiri-style sushi – the rolls came later.
Fukagawa Meshi (深川めし)
Nestled between rivers in the Koto ward, the Fukagawa area used to be famous for Haori geisha and asari short-neck clams.
It was once an expanse of flat, sandy banks and tidal areas of Tokyo Bay and Oyoko River. The Fukagawa meshi food stalls were all the rage in Asakusa until early 20th century. Today, the abundance of clams and oysters is replaced with polluted waters and reclaimed lands, so most of the ingredients for the dish are caught in the tidal flats in Chiba – but the tradition of Fukagawa meshi lives on in the area.
There are a few ways to prepare Fukagawa meshi – but they all involve asari clams, rice, some miso and green onions. In some restaurants, the rice is boiled with clams, in others, a soup of miso, clams, and onions is poured over rice. However it’s served, Fukagawa meshi is a true Edo-style treat.
Loach and Egg Hot Pot – Yanagawa Nabe (柳川鍋)
Loach dishes are yet another downtown Tokyo specialty dating back to the Edo period. Pond loach, a small freshwater fish the Japanese call dojou, is the centerpiece of a hotpot that also includes burdock root, whisked eggs, and a mix of soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar (also known as warishita sauce).
Monja yaki (もんじゃ焼き)
You probably heard about okonomiyaki – Osaka’s rich, savory pancakes.
Well, Tokyo has its own version of the pancake recipe, created and served at Tsukishima (an island in Chuo ward). Monjayaki is a little runnier (using more dashi-stock water) than its Kansai relative, it’s eaten at about the consistency of melted cheese or scrambled eggs. Along with the batter, it may contain scallops, shrimp, pork, squid, clams, tuna, cheese, corn, cod roe, and a variety of vegetables.
Must-eat in Kanagawa Prefecture
Shonan Whitebait – Shonan Shirasu (湘南しらす)
The Shonan area of Kanagawa is blessed with the Sagami River that flows into the Sagami Bay, the area rich with all kinds of fish. The locals perfected a few specialties made of whitebait (very young, translucent white fish), typically sardine. In Kanagawa, you’ll find anything from simply boiled to sun-dried shirasu (whitebait), but if you’re in the Shonan area, don’t miss out on the fresh shirasu, only available on the spot – as whitebait goes bad very quickly.
Misaki Tuna – Misaki Maguro (三崎まぐろ)
Among many other things, Tokyo is famous for its tuna auctions (now held at the Toyosu fish market). Long ago, the first such auction was held in Misaki, a port town at the tip of Kanagawa’s Miura peninsula, with access to waters rich with a variety of high-quality tuna. Don’t miss out on Misaki maguro (tuna) specialties if you’re in the area!
Odawara Fishcakes – Odawara Kamaboko (小田原かまぼこ)
Odawara, a town on the Sagami Bay coast, has a long tradition of making fishcakes (kamaboko). Combining the ground meat of fresh white fish, seasoning, and the mineral spring water from the Hakone mountains, Odawara’s kamaboko manufacturers create a fishcake that’s recognized across the country.
Savoring the flavors of Chiba Prefecture
One of the simplest dishes to make on our list, namero is an old and beloved fisherman recipe. It’s so simple to make, the fishermen used to make it with the very limited supplies on their boat.
In essence, namero is a mix of minced fresh fish (whatever the catch of the day was, or even a mixture of different fish kinds), seasoned with miso, shallots, shiso leaf, and ginger. All chopped up and mixed together, namero doesn’t look great, but it’s mouth-wateringly tasty.
Namero is most commonly served raw, made of fresh, just-caught fish. Sometimes, it’s served grilled, when it’s called sangayaki.
Tan Tan Noodles – Tantanmen (坦々麺)
The Chiba version of the popular Chinese noodle dish comes from Katsuura city (it’s also nicknamed Katsu-tan after the city). It’s a spicy ramen dish with pork, spiced with a lot of chili oil and soy sauce.
White Gau Ramen (ホワイトガウラーメン)
Gau ramen, born in Sodegaura city in Chiba (one of the leading producers of milk), is a tangy ramen soup you have to try if you find yourself in the area. The broth is made with ginger and milk, and topped with cream cheese, green onions, and meat, it makes for a lovely, warming dish.
Festival Sushi (太巻き祭り寿司)
You already know of the tasty treat that is sushi – but there are very few occasions to eat sushi that looks just as amazing as it tastes!
Falling under the category of futomaki sushi (large sushi), Chiba’s festivals are adorned with beautiful, ornate sushi rolls. Somewhat similar to the way colorful Western hard candy is made, Chiba festival sushi features carefully executed images: from flowers to kanji, the festival sushi are a treat in every way.
Chiba-style Peanuts – Rakkasei (千葉県の落花生)
Thanks to its soil mixed with volcanic ash, the number one product from Chiba are peanuts – it’s so common that peanut dishes are very often included in school menus.
One of the easiest and most loved peanut recipes is rakkasei-miso (miso peanuts). It’s super simple to make (it’s really just frying peanuts in miso paste), and it goes amazing with a bowl of rice!
Must-try dishes in Saitama Prefecture
Miso Potato (味噌ポテト)
It’s baked, roasted or grilled potato covered in sweet miso sauce – a delectable winter snack from the Chichibu region!
Kawahaba udon (川幅うどん)
Saitama prefecture is blessed with the widest river in Japan – on some spots, the Arakawa River reaches a width of as much as 2,537 meters. Inspired by the fact, Saitama is known for the widest udon noodles in Japan – Kawahaba udon (“river-width udon”) are not only fun to see, but their smooth texture is also delicious to try!
Kitamoto Tomato Curry (北本トマトカレー)
Tomatoes are a long-standing product of the Kitamoto city in Saitama, and a creative addition to the well-known curry recipe.
A true Kitamoto Tomato Curry will have a serving of red rice (colored with tomatoes or tomato juice), tomatoes in the sauce, AND tomatoes in the topping. This spicy-savory and slightly sweet treat is a great local lunch in Saitama.
Gastronomic journey through Tochigi Prefecture
The Tochigi prefecture, besides its famous national parks, is famous for its high-quality water and thriving agriculture industry. It’s known for many fruits of the land – wheat, barley, tomatoes, taro root, gourd (kanpyo), and most famously – strawberries.
Shimotsukare may not be the tastiest dish on our list, but it’s surely one with most profound tradition surrounding it.
It’s traditionally made in February, for Hatsu-uma, a religious festival devoted to the fox deity Inari. A prayer to Inari is believed to bring good harvest and business success, and shimotsukare is an offering to grant it (later eaten at home).
The idea behind shimotsukare is simple – it’s mainly made of New Year’s leftovers, mainly salted salmon heads. Various additions, like beans, coarsely grated carrots and daikon radish, and tofu are included in the mix.
Bandai Mochi (板台餅)
Tochigi’s bandai mochi is nothing like the chewy treat you may know. It is a sweet rice cake – but far less glutinous and crispy. Rice cakes covered in miso and sesame paste are skewered and grilled for a tasty local delicacy.
The vast national park of Nikko is known for its shrines and temples (many of which are certified UNESCO World Heritage Sites). As holy grounds, Nikko was the home to many monks and people of religion – most of which ate a vegetarian diet for most of their lives.
Yuba is “tofu skin” – the layer of fatty skin that forms on the surface of cooking soy milk. Carefully removed and eaten in noodles or deep-fried, these tofu leaves are known across the country, but the Tochigi variety comes with a unique wavy texture and most commonly rolled up.
Gourd and Egg Soup – Kanpyo no tamagotoji (かんぴょうの卵糸状)
Tochigi grows most gourds in Japan, specifically the kind we call yugao. The gourd is not used much fresh, but it’s often cut into thin strips and then dried, making a special dry gourd delicacy called kanpyo.
The local way of eating kanpyo is in a soup – especially using the imperfectly made strips that are below regular kanpyo quality. With an addition of eggs, this soup is a tasty, hearty meal that envelops the spirit of Tochigi.
Taste your way through Gunma Prefecture
Unlike many parts of Japan, Gunma is a landlocked prefecture, blessed with mountains and national parks. Never rich in rice or fish, Gunma developed a unique eating culture based on the strengths of the area: konjac plant and wheat.
Konjac – Konnyaku (こんにゃく)
Konjac, the starch of a konjac potato, is a prized zero-calorie jelly that’s widely eaten in Japan in a variety of dishes. Gunma is the leading producer of Konjac plant, growing around 92% of the country’s output (you can even visit a Konnyaku theme park in Kanra city, Gunma).
The plant is first processed into powder form, then mixed with water and (often) seaweed powder to get the consistency of a bouncy, gelatinous cake. The jelly cake has no flavor at all, but it soaks up the aroma of anything cooked with it, so it’s a popular addition to a variety of cooked meals. In a stew or sukiyaki, konjac is loved for its texture (somewhat similar to mushrooms).
Besides being a regular addition in stews and hot pots like oden, nimono, and sukiyaki, konjac is also dried and cut into noodles.
Okkirikomi is a simple noodle dish created by the farming families of Gunma prefecture. The soup is quite simple, containing a broth of soy sauce or miso, seasonal vegetables, and himokawa udon – a type of wide (really, unusually wide) wheat noodles traditionally made in Kiryu city.
Roasted Sweet Bun – Yakimanju (焼きまんじゅう)
Manju are sweet buns loved across Japan – but yakimanju, roasted sweet buns, are hard to find outside of Gunma prefecture. The buns are typically not filled, but instead coated with a mixture of sweet and umami paste. Then, a few are skewered and roasted on a grill, making for a sweet-salty delicacy that’s fluffy on the inside and crunchy on the outside.
Another sweet specialty of Gunma, hanapan (flower bread) is a sweet little bun covered in sugar. Created in the city of Kiryu and shaped after Kiryu Tenmangu Shrine’s plum flowers, hanapan is a simple flour-and-egg delicacy, known for its unique structure – not exactly as crunchy as a biscuit (but close) and not really as fluffy as a bread (but also close).
What to eat in Ibaraki Prefecture
Anglerfish Hotpot – Ankou nabe (あんこう鍋)
Ankou – anglerfish (yes, the strange-looking creature from the deep sea) is a local delicacy in Ibaraki, especially in winter. When taken out of its deep, high-pressure environment, the slimy anglerfish becomes too soft to cut on a board. Instead, it’s hung on a hook to be cut vertically – this technique is called tsurushi-giri. All parts of the fish are consumed, giving a variety of textures and nutrients (most notably – collagen).
The anglerfish is used in a variety of recipes – its liver is a renowned delicacy – but the most popular one is a simple hotpot with miso, veggies, mushrooms, and tofu.
With a pungent smell somewhat akin to aged cheese, natto is an acquired taste – but this healthy fermented breakfast staple is an absolute favorite of many Kanto locals. While not everyone likes the stringy, smelly nature of natto, many people consume it with rice daily for its numerous health benefits.
Today loved and available throughout Japan, natto was supposedly first created in Ibaraki, completely by chance as soybeans came in touch with straw, feed for the horse of samurai Minamoto no Yoshiie. Whether or not that’s true, Ibaraki does grow a lot of small soybeans perfect for natto production. The prefecture’s capital Mito claims the national delicacy, even sporting a natto statue in the city.
The Foods of Kanto – As Diverse as the Land
Tokyo is an impressive place to visit, but if you have some extra time in the area, don’t miss out on the beauties (and the delectable flavors) of surrounding prefectures as well. Each with its own peculiarities and unique products, a journey through the prefectures of Kanto is truly a connoisseur’s paradise.