Spare a thought for Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. It’s not part of the mainland, it’s a long way away from the tourism hubs further north and, for those reasons alone, many visitors are content just to fly overhead on their way in or out of the country.
When we drove to Kyushu coming from Shikoku, I was knocked flat by the scenery. There are some beautiful places in Japan, but the network of bridges that linked dozens of tiny islands across the Bungo Channel were unlike anything else in the country. It would rival the impressive karsts of Vietnam’s famous Ha Long Bay.
Ironically for Kyushu, although relatively few make it there these days, it was once the most popular destination for visitors to Japan. It was in Kyushu that Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and English traders and missionaries first arrived in Japan. Even through Japan’s centuries of self-imposed isolation, parts of Kyushu were the only areas of the country that remained open to foreign trade. It was in Kyushu that some of the great innovations in Japanese cuisine were born.
Dishes like tempura, which is today one of the icons of Japanese food, were first introduced around Kyushu by Portuguese missionaries (the name comes from the Latin ‘quattor tempora’).
One of my favourite cooking methods in Japanese cooking is nanbanzuke, where fried foods are marinated after cooking in a vinegar mixture – an interpretation of Portuguese escabeche. Even the name nanbanzuke translates to “Southern barbarian pickle”, indicating its origins in Japan’s south.
Nagasaki’s light and moist Castella sponge cake has obvious origins in Portugal both in its name and its cooking method, nearly identical to the Portuguese pao de lo. The famous kakuni manju pork bun was a staple in Nagasaki centuries before they started appearing in popular New York restaurants, their history in Japan influenced by the dongpo pork of Chinese traders.
In Fukuoka, there are areas filled with food carts serving everything from yakitori to the famous Hakata ramen, named after Fukuoka’s Hakata ward and considered by many to be the best ramen in all of Japan. Its style is echoed in tonkotsu ramen bowls all over the country.
The carts themselves have their history in China and South East Asia. Servicemen returning to Japan after the Second World War and unable to find work mimicked the street food stalls they had seen abroad. While most of the rest of the country regulated them into extinction around the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in Fukuoka they remain a vital part of the area's cultural heritage.
Kyushu’s food scene is as fascinating as it is diverse, and there is plenty there to reward anyone willing to travel just that little bit further to discover it.