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 yakiudon 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pics by Nick/Shutterstock
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.
Top image © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock