Connect With the Heritage of the Kumano Region Through its Food
The home of umeboshi
Preservation methods have evolved throughout the Kumano region, including in Tanabe, the western gateway to the sacred Kumano Sanzan shrines and temples. Tanabe is famous throughout Japan for its plums and plum products, especially umeboshi (pickled plums), one of Japan’s oldest known preserved foods. Shops throughout Tanabe sell umeboshi, sometimes flavored with honey or perilla, plum wines, plum jams, and also sweets that showcase the fruit. More than 20 different varieties are grown in the region, including the popular Nanko variety.
Tanabe’s plum industry drives the local economy, and plum groves cover the foothills of the Kii Mountains in large swathes. Local communities have cultivated ume for centuries and developed their own unique techniques. The towns of Minabe and Tanabe have developed a sustainable system that is registered a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. A key feature involves maintaining coppice forests around the mountainside plum groves to improve the soil’s retention of water and minerals and prevent slope collapse.
Visit in early spring to see the groves in bloom and catch the sweet scent of plum blossom on the air. Minabe-bairin is one of the largest groves and is popular with visitors. You can even pickle your own plums and learn more about the local ume industry at places like the Plum Koubou and the Kishu Umeboshi-kan.
Kishu Binchotan and the history of charcoal in Japan
Kishu Binchotan is the coal of choice for many Japanese chefs for grilling eel, yakitori chicken skewers, and other ingredients. The white charcoal burns at a lower temperature than other charcoals, doesn’t release smoke, and is said to lend a subtle aroma to meat and fish grilled over it. Kishu Binchotan is made from ubame oak, a particular type of oak unique to the forests of Wakayama. Charcoal-making has a long history in Kumano, and the Tanabe area is the country’s main producer of Kishu Binchotan. Ubame oak forests are carefully maintained by local charcoal artisans and typically surround the area’s ume groves. Many local restaurants serve delicacies grilled over Kishu Binchotan such as yakitori skewered chicken, sometimes served with a plum condiment, and salted mackerel. Ajikoji, a drinking and dining district in Tanabe, is a good place to start. The production of Kishu Binchotan flourished during the Edo period (1603–1867), but its roots lie as far back as the ninth century, when charcoal-making techniques were introduced to Japan from the Asian continent by the famous monk Kukai. Kukai visited China as part of an official envoy and returned with new knowledge and Buddhist teachings. After his return, he founded the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism and opened a temple on Mt. Koya, in the north of the prefecture. Charcoal-making is thought to have spread to the Kumano region from there. Visitors can learn about Kukai at the mountaintop temple town of Koyasan.
Bounties from the sea
Wakayama is a mountainous prefecture, and some of the largest communities have developed along the coast, supported by the sea and its bounty. In Nachi-Katsuura, Shingu, and other towns along the coast, visitors can sample ocean-fresh seafood from tuna and Pacific saury to spiney lobster. Check what is in season when you visit to enjoy Wakayama’s seafood at its very best. Nachi-Katsuura is especially famous for its tuna catch, which is among the country’s largest. At the Katsuura fishing port, visitors can observe tuna auctions, then enjoy a fresh seafood breakfast at Katsuura Port Nigiwai Market. Tuna filleting demonstrations are sometimes held at the market, and there is also an onsite shop where you can buy local products. In Shingu, look out for Pacific saury. The saury caught off the coast here is lean with less fat and a lighter, more refined flavour than usual. One way to enjoy it is filleted and pickled, laid whole from head to tail over sushi rice as Sanma-zushi. It can also be eaten fermented with rice and salt as Sanma Nare-zushi, which has a creamy appearance and is sometimes likened to blue cheese. Sanma Nare-zushi may be served in a small dish with a dash of soy sauce and shichimi pepper or as a topping or an accompaniment for tofu and other ingredients. Wakayama’s ancient pilgrimage routes, the Kumano Kodo, lead along the coast through Nachi-Katsuura and Shingu, and inland to Kumano Sanzan shrines and temples such as Kumano Nachi Taisha, Nachisan Seiganto-ji, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Pilgrims would have stopped at towns along the coast for food and shelter, and to pick up supplies before journeying into the mountains. Mehari-zushi is a type of riceball wrapped in pickled mustard greens that was easy to carry and commonly eaten by local field hands and rafters who brought timber down the Kumano River. Today, it is often packed in lunches for visitors walking the Kumano Kodo trails.
Kumanogyu—Wakayama's premium beef brand
Careful breeding has created a distinct regional beef cattle that yields delicately marbled top-grade beef known as Kumanogyu. This premium brand of beef is one of the country’s top wagyu brands and can be enjoyed at restaurants throughout the Kumano region. Kumanogyu typically has a soft, melt-in-the-mouth texture and a slightly sweet, satisfyingly meaty flavour. You may find it at restaurants served as steak, in a hotpot dish known as sukiyaki, or finely cut for shabu-shabu boiling or yakiniku grilling. The Kumano region has a long history of animal husbandry, possibly dating from the Heian period (794–1185) when livestock were used for transporting goods from Kyoto by pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. During the Edo period (1603–1867), cattle were commonly used for farm work in the Kumano region. However, with the introduction of new farming methods in later years, the need for draft cattle dwindled, and through selective breeding, local cattle breeders succeeded in creating a premium wagyu beef cattle. Enjoy the local beef with Wakayama plum wine, locally brewed craft beer, or delicious sake.
Enjoy Kumano's cuisine with tasty sake
Sake is an integral part of Japanese culture and is commonly offered to deities at shrines. Sake breweries can often be found around famous shrines, and Kumano is no exception. Ozaki Shuzo is a local brewery in Shingu where Kumano Hayatama Taisha is located. The brewery uses pristine water from a subterranean river flowing down from the Kii Mountains to create craft sake with a crisp and refreshing flavour. The brewery’s flagship brand is Taiheiyo (literally “Pacific Ocean”), a fitting name considering the brewery’s location on the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. Visitors can enjoy it at bars, restaurants, and hotels in Shingu and elsewhere in the Kumano region. For a Kumano Sanzan-themed tipple, look out for the brewery’s Kumano Sanzan sake, a premium ginjo sake brewed from Yamada Nishiki rice polished to 60% or less.