5 reasons to dine in Setouchi

From melt-in-the-mouth wagyu to potentially poisonous pufferfish, Christian Koch tucks into five of the finest foods Japan's Setouchi region has given the world…

Published 7 Jan 2019, 09:11 GMT, Updated 30 Dec 2021, 17:22 GMT
Kobe Beef
Kobe Beef
Photograph by Setouchi Tourism Authority

Reason 1: You can sample the world's most luxurious steaks

The stories surrounding Kōbe beef are the stuff of foodie folklore. Think cows so pampered, they're fed Kirin beer and receive stress-soothing massages. Or the hefty prices the meat fetches in the west, such as the £1,100 Kōbe burger recently served in one London restaurant.

The beatified bovine is exclusive for a reason: only 3,000 cattle a year can be certified Kōbe-grade. The beef tastes sensational, too; its melt-in-the-mouth texture due to extraordinary marbling achieved by a high-grain diet (the beer and massages are only used sporadically to simulate appetite).

For the perfect locavore experience, head to its namesake city. At Kōbe Plaisir, you can sample the fabled beef teppanyaki-style (grilled by a chef at your table), shabu-shabu (cooked with vegetables in boiling water before being dipped in sauce) or seiro-mushi (steamed). For a cheaper experience, swoop by one of Kōbe's Ikinari Steak restaurants, where high-quality steaks are eaten at communal standing stations.

Photograph by Setouchi Tourism Authority

Reason 2: The seafood is sensational

Bred in the nutrient-rich waters of the Seto Inland Sea, Hiroshima oysters are prized across Japan. In season during winter (time your visit during February's Miyajima Oyster Festival), the molluscs can be savoured year-round in Hiroshima, especially at bijou riverside bistro Oyster Conclave Kaki Tei, which prepares them fried, baked or with champagne cream.

Other seafood delicacies in the region include Iwakuni's iwakuni zushi, sushi made in large square moulds. Meanwhile, in photogenic Kurashiki, the speciality is mamakarizushi (sardine-like sushi), best-sampled at long communal tables of Mamakari-tei. Local legend has it that the fish is so tasty, it can trigger uncontrollable fits of feasting, so watch out. 

Miso Udon
Photograph by Setouchi Tourism Authority

Reason 3: Its udon really hits the spot

They take udon seriously in Shikoku. The stretchy noodles were supposedly popularised on the island and, today, taxis can be seen whizzing around capital Takamatsu adorned with plastic bowls on their rooftops. Such is the parochial pride, in 2006 a film appeared entitled Udon, following a failed comedian as he scoffed his way around the udon bars in Kagawa prefecture.

The most popular type in Shikoku is sanuki udon, chunky wheat noodles with a square shape and flat edges, served in a rich dashi broth. Although some eateries use mountain spring water, udon's everyman reputation means you can usually devour them cheaply throughout the island (try the covered arcades near Kawaramachi stations tracks in Takamatsu). Wherever you go, tradition dictates you slurp them loudly (apparently it cools the noodles down).

A range of Sake from Setouchi
Photograph by Setouchi Tourism Authority

Reason 4: It's the best place in Japan to embark on a sake brewery crawl

Although sake is brewed by 1,500 makers across Japan, the rice paddies of Hyōgo are regarded as producing the best rice wine in the country, thanks to the mountain snowmelt that flows into its paddies (think of it as sake's terroir). Watch the brewing process and enjoy free tastings at Kōbe's Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum or simply cruise the cluster of sake breweries in Saijō (just outside Hiroshima; saijosake.com). Naturally, there's a torrent of fantastic eateries and nightspots to savour sake's versatility, whether it's drinking it chilled with exquisite kaiseki in a traditional ryokan or knocking it back with salarymen in Hiroshima karaoke-joints.

Reason 5:  The fish is to die for (literally)  

The liver of Japan's famed fugu (pufferfish) is so toxic, it's said to be 1,200 times more lethal than cyanide. There's no known antidote and it's the only fish Japan's emperor isn't allowed to eat. Yet, for all the frisson of danger that comes with eating the world's deadliest dinner, it's hardly culinary Russian roulette: the preparation of the fish is highly regulated in Japan with chefs training for three years before qualifying for a licence. Indeed, most of the 10 people who died after eating the puffer between 2006-2015 had attempted to prepare it themselves.

The city of Shimonoseki is Japan's fugu capital. An expensive delicacy in the rest of the country, you can eat it for less than 1,000yen (£7) at the early-morning Karato fish market. It's also the only thing on the menu at Yabure-Kabure restaurant (try the downed-in-sake version). Expect an umami taste and your lips/tongue to tingle due to the tiny trace of poison left behind.

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For more information please visit: setouchitrip.com

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