Kyūshū, the most southerly of Japan’s four main islands, is pretty much left alone by tourists. Yet, the island – only a bullet-train ride from Tokyo – is one of the country’s culinary hotspots. Proximity to mainland Asia and historical legacies from trade with the British, Dutch and Portuguese has led to a fusion of styles. You can see this in the Chinese- and Korean-inspired ramen soups, Nagasaki’s famous castella cakes and the Fukuoka-style yaki udon noodles, which are typically served with a dash of Worcestershire sauce.
Delicious food is everywhere – from the cheap and cheerful street food of Fukuoka to the high-end sushi restaurant. Here are the foodie experiences worth making a detour to Kyūshū for:
1. Try the freshest seafood
The clear waters around Kyūshū yield an abundance of seafood. There’s Takezaki Crab and super-tender squid, mounds of fat tiger prawns and fugu, Japan’s deadly pufferfish – a popular sushi delicacy. Famous seafood dishes include ikizukuri, a live-squid sashimi typical of Yobuko in Saga – don’t try this if you’re squeamish.
What fresher way to try seafood than in its sushi form. Sushi no Jirocho in Kurume is one of the best sushi restaurants on the island. Here, you’ll sit at the counter and watch chef Ryoji Katsuno preparing immaculate plates. In a silvery flash of his knife, Katsuno presents a steady stream of sashimi: highest-quality “fatty” tuna, tender squid and grilled seabass follow fugu, oysters and the ever-popular horse mackerel. Katsuno then impresses with a selection of miniature matchbox sushi.
2. Taste rare foods
At the source of a river in Asakurashi, southern Fukuoka, an unassuming weed grows in abundance. This is the rare suizenji nori (kawatake) river weed and it’s believed to only grow in this metres-long stretch of clear volcanic spring water. The Endo Kawatake plantation, which harvests the weed here, sells a single sheet of nori for around ¥10,000. It is also prized as an anti-inflammatory beauty product.
Kuzu root starch is another expensive Kyūshū delicacy, known for its healing benefits. It’s served in jelly form with a sweet sauce or as noodles in soups. The country’s largest producer is Hirohachido, a family-run business based in Kagoshima Bay, in southern Kyūshū. Visit the 200-year-old Hirokyukuzu Honpo store in Akizuki.
Look out for kuzu noodles or fronds of suizenji nori in your miso soup at upmarket restaurants across Kyūshū.
3. Feast on the world’s best meats
Wagyu (beef) is one of Japan’s most famous exports and regularly features on world’s-most-expensive-food lists. Myth has it that wagyu cows are raised like emperors, fed beer and massaged to produce the intense marbling that creates an exceptionally tender, almost creamy, texture.
Kyūshū is home to one of the top three brands of wagyu in the country: Saga beef. At Kira restaurant in Saga prefecture itself, you can flash-fry freshly chopped morsels of beef and vegetables on a hot-plate set into your table. The delicate flavour of the meat is food heaven.
The pork equivalent is Kurobuta (known as “black pig”). Its soft, pink flesh is said to have been a favourite of samurai warriors and, today, it’s still highly regarded. Head to Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū to try Kurobuta, which comes from black-skinned Berkshire pigs that were imported from England to Kagoshima around 400 years ago.
The most popular way to eat Kurobuta is as a tonkatsu breaded pork cutlet or as shabu shabu, dipping succulent thin slices into a hot pot at your table. Try it at Roppakutei in Kagoshima city.
4. Go on a street-food tour of Fukuoka
Fukuoka, a city on the north coast of Kyūshū, has some of the best street-food in Japan. Every night, around 150 yatai food stalls pop up all around the city centre.
Spending an evening touring the yatai is great fun: you sit on a high-stool at the counter and watch the chef in the centre of it all, conjuring up an array of small dishes among the steaming pots and sizzling grills. It’s a sociable, rowdy event, where orders fly and strangers inevitably start chatting. By morning, there’s nothing left. All the street-food vendors have packed up and gone home, taking their yatai with them.
Along with the popular yakitori chicken skewers and gyoza Chinese fried dumplings, the yatai chefs serve many great regional dishes. Be sure to order a bowl of Tonkotsu ramen, a cloudy pork-bone broth, which many claim to be the best ramen in the country. Motsunabe is a one-pot dish that’s served in its pot at the table. Then there’s the Mizutaki, a chicken hotpot; Mentaiko, that salty pollack roe with a chilli kick; and the ever-popular Hakata-style udon noodles.
5. Take some tea
In Kyūshū, they know how to make the perfect cup of tea. That’s because this is one of Japan’s most important tea-growing regions. It’s no coincidence that the island is also famed for the exquisite ceramics used at tea ceremonies. It is home to such historic ceramicists as Kakiemon and Fukugawa.
Kagoshima, in the far south, is the second-largest tea-production area in Japan, but you’ll also find smaller purveyors in Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Saga. Fukuoka is known for its high-quality matcha tea, used in tea ceremonies, and for Gyokuro Green Tea, considered to be one of the highest-grade green teas in the country.
Konimien Tea, a small award-winning producer in Yame, has been creating tea for around 150 years. Each leaf is picked individually, dried and tossed by hand lovingly over a warm stove. You can visit the tea shop, explore a gallery that explains the history of tea here dating back to the days of the Dutch East India company, or admire the Yame Central Tea Plantation.
6. Enjoy some warming sake
You can’t eat out in Japan without a jug of warm sake to wash down your meal. Fortunately, this feisty drink is not hard to find in Kyūshū. Fukuoka is the centre of sake rice-wine production, with more than 70 breweries packed into the small prefecture.
At several breweries, you can see the complicated brewing process first-hand and taste a few samples, warmed up or cold. Try Minematsu and Hiyuko Tsuru breweries in Kashima or Kitaya Brewery in Yame. You’ll come away knowing your ordinary Fukutshu from your high-grade Daiginjo, or the difference between a dark Koshu and a cloudy Nigorizake.
Kyūshū also the birthplace of shochu, a spirit distilled from various raw materials, including corn, barley and sweet potatoes (yes, really, sweet potatoes). Many of Fukuoka’s brewers create shochu as a by-product of sake, using rice, along with fruity shobun vinegar, which is so delicate that it’s enjoyed watered down as a cordial.
Ros Walford travelled courtesy of Premium Kyūshū Tours. Visit Trip Insight to book a foodie tour of Fukuoka. English isn’t widely spoken in Kyushu. If you need help booking a tour, call the Kyushu Tourism Information Centre or Saga’s Doganshitato call centre. For more information on Kyūshū, see the Welcome to Kyūshū website.