The 9 Regional Cuisines of Japan: Signature Dishes
Japan’s regional cuisine (kyōdo ryōri 郷土料理) is divided into 9 main regions, each with its own signature dishes, ingredients and produce. These regions are Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushi and Okinawa.
The climate and terrain of Japan is very varied from region to region, meaning that farming is diverse, and livestock and harvests can differ substantially between areas. This gives rise to abundance of different ingredients, and hence different types of dishes.
From north to south, each region contributes their specialties to Japanese cuisine.
In this post we'll cover:
1. Hokkaido ( 北海道 / ほっかいどう)
Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands and, as such, it is colder than most of Japan.
The majority of the Hokkaido population live in coastal areas. As a consequence, seafood is a very prominent ingredient in regional Hokkaido dishes. Shellfish such as king crabs, hairy crabs, sea urchins, oysters and scallops from this region are all considered to be among the best seafood of Japan.
You will often find butter and cream in Hokkaido dishes, because the region is home to the majority of dairy cows in Japan. The colder temperatures also mean that warming dishes like soups, hot pots and grilled meat are prominent in winter season.
Four of the best-known local dishes are miso ramen (especially Sapporo ramen); Genghis Khan: table-top BBQ with lamb and vegetables; salmon with miso and vegetables, which can be stewed, grilled or stir-fried; and ika sōmen, a type of sashimi made from very thinly sliced raw squid.
2. Tohoku ( 東北 / とうほく)
The Tohoku region is the northern part of Honshu island. It is mountainous, and most of the farmable land in the area is in the inland lowlands.
It is also a region with cold winters, making hearty, winter warmer dishes like soups and hot pots perennially popular.
Tohoku is also known for a number of traditional preservation methods, which give rise to some unique regional dishes, including sasa kamaboko, small fish patties which are grilled for preservation; and kiritanpo, pounded rice cakes that are grilled in a similar way.
Three other well-known dishes of Tohoku are senbei-jiru, a soy-based soup with rice cakes and vegetables; gyutan: beef tongue, either grilled or raw; and dondon-yaki, a regional variation of okonomiyaki.
3. Kanto ( 関東 / かんとう)
The Kanto region of Japan is in the central part of Honshu island. It includes major cities like Tokyo and Yokohama and is the most highly developed and populous area of the country.
Because of the large number of people, whose ancestral roots are often in other parts of the country, Kanto cuisine is exceptionally diverse, incorporating both national favorites and traditional techniques.
What is internationally known as sushi is actually a particular type of sushi called edo-mae-sushi, which originated in Tokyo in the nineteenth century.
This area is also well-known for several nabe dishes (hot pot), including yanagawa-nabe with burdock, and dojo-nabe with loach; and the savory pancake monja-yaki, a nostalgic food item from working-class Tokyo districts.
4. Chubu ( 中部 / ちゅうぶ)
Chubu is also on Honshu island, to the south of the Kanto region, in central Japan. It is a mountainous area that is home to Mount Fuji.
The food from Chubu region is commonly known as Nagoya cuisine, after the largest city in the area. The central location of Chubu means it has been very exposed to the influence from other countries and Nagoya cuisine is therefore extremely diverse, with influences from Italy, Taiwan, India and China, among others.
However, many ingredients and dishes are also derived from local tradition, such as tamari sauce, the type of soy sauce made in the region, Nagoya chicken and kochin, a cross-breed chicken from the region, and shrimp.
Four notable dishes from the Chubu region are tebasaki: chicken wings in a sweet sauce; ogura bean jam served spread on toast; kishimen, a type of udon noodle; and toriwasa: sashimi of chicken from the special Nagoya kochin.
5. Kansai ( 関西 , かんさい)
Kansai region is in the southern end of Honshu island and is a well-populated region with several large historic cities, such as Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.
It is one of the most renowned culinary regions of Japan, and is particularly well-known for its street food. Many dishes feature kombu dashi; this ingredient is widely used in the region. Kobe beef also comes from this area.
Many delicacies of this region are internationally famous. Takoyaki, grilled octopus fritters; the savory pancake okonomiyaki; and fugu, the poisonous pufferfish are all known throughout the world.
Additionally, there are many other dishes that are renowned within the region, including yudofu, made with silken tofu and kombu dashi; futomaki, a type of sushi; and chawanmushi, a savory steamed custard with dashi.
6. Chugoku ( 中国 / ちゅうごく)
The western part of Honshu Island is Chugoku, which contains both urban and rural areas, including the cities of Hiroshima and Okayama.
Seafood is very popular in this region, with oysters and matsuba gani – snow crabs – being particularly prized.
Hiroshima also has its own version of a savory pancake, called hiroshimayaki, where the vegetables, egg, pork are cooked in layers, with a base layer of noodles.
Three other well-known dishes of the region are doto-nabe, which features oysters, tofu and vegetables in miso broth; kanimeshi, a stir-fry with snow crabs; and izumo soba, dark soba noodles from the rural Shimana prefecture.
7. Shikoku ( 四国 / しこく)
Lying south of Honshu island, Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s main islands, and the least populated.
The northern part of the island produces rice, wheat and barley along with various fruits. Especially notable is the sudachi citrus fruit, from the Tokushima area. Sudachi are usually grated and added to fish dishes.
Wheat production has led to the development of the well-known Sanuki udon noodles. Tuna is also an especial delicacy of the region and features in many dishes. The best-known of these is tuna tataki, in which the fish is lightly grilled and served rare, along with garlic, ginger and dipping sauces.
Three other well-known dishes include shoyumame, a tasty snack made with broad beans; uwajima taimeshi, fishermans’ sashimi, eaten with hot rice; and the ancient taro root stew, imotaki, from the Ehimi prefecture.
8. Kyushu ( 九州 / きゅうしゅう)
Kyushi island, in the far southwest, is known for its volcanoes, hot springs and beaches.
Saga prefecture is home to Saga Wagyu beef, one of the most premium brands in Japan. This beef is often served as sukiyaki; or as shabu shabu: both are types of hotpot with very thinly sliced meat.
The region is also well-known for its tonkotsu pork dishes, including Hakata ramen noodles, in the famous pork bone broth, and pork ribs slow braised with shochu and miso for many hours.
Additional well-known dishes include the Chinese-inspired champon noodles from Nagasaki; and gyoza dumplings.
9. Okinawa ( 沖縄 / おきなわ)
The Okinawa islands lie far to the south of Kyushu, midway to Taiwan. This location has historically made Okinawa an important trading location. This can be seen in the region’s cuisine, with influences from China and south east Asia being very evident, especially in its use of spices such as turmeric.
Although rice is eaten, tubers such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and taro are more commonly used as staples in this region. North American influence has also become prominent in the cuisine of Okinawa, in the last half of the twentieth century.
Okinawa is the largest consumer of konbu seaweed in Japan, using it not only in dashi stock, but also in braised and stir-fried dishes, such as Okinawa soba noodles. Other seaweeds like mozuku and hijiki are used in stocks and soups.
Chanpuru is considered the representative dish of Okinawa. The name means “something mixed” and is essentially a stir-fry with influences from south east Asia, China, mainland Japan and the USA, as well as Okinawa itself. Another notable specialty of the region is jushi, a type of rice soup.
How do the local cuisines contribute to Japanese food culture?
Japan is a country that places enormous value on tradition, locality and ancestry, meaning that regional products and specialties are extremely revered.
But it is also a country that innovates, and as a result, modern Japanese cuisine in all regions has adapted, and now includes many newer dishes. From the late nineteenth century onwards, there was an influx of foreign ingredients and new cooking methods, especially from China, originally, and more recently from the USA.
The popular Japanese concept of Meibutsu (“famous things”) is one that attributes fame to admired local products. Food specialties, known as Tokuhansin are included in these categories of products, and are much revered and prized.
Caroline has always been an enthusiastic eater, but it wasn’t until leaving her childhood home for university that she realized that delicious dinner doesn’t just automatically appear on the table at the end of every day. Since then, every day has been a quest to ensure that her dinner is not only plentiful but also delectable. And not only for herself, but also for others. Her initial career was in the events industry in London, but after moving to Germany, she started food blogging followed by opening a restaurant. She was the co-owner and head chef of Muse Berlin for eight years. She now lives in the countryside in Catalonia, Spain, where she works as a recipe developer and content creator for clients in the food industry.