It’s Friday lunchtime in Kagoshima, on a brilliant hot afternoon, and the weekend has already begun in earnest. At restaurant Ajimori, diners are packed around a grid of kotatsu – low, wooden tables framed by futons – while frazzled waitresses shuttle back and forth carrying platters of paper-thin pork and steaming pots of hot dashi broth. From table to table, lacquerware plates are piled high and the diners make light work of deep-fried tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets), tofu squares, and enormous side bowls of Chinese cabbage, pickled vegetables, and shiitake and enoki mushrooms.
“This craziness is just the normal lunch hour scene,” my tour guide, English expat Alex Bradshaw, says, as we begin to pick our way through the maze of courses with sticky, grease-splattered chopsticks. “But you’ll soon understand why. This place does the best shabu-shabu in the city.”
Shabu-shabu. Roll the term around in your mouth and you might get an inkling of what this Japanese delicacy tastes like. Named after the sound emitted when ingredients splosh into a flameproof hotpot on the table in front of you, the Osaka-born delicacy is a speciality in southern Kyushu, the most southwestern of Japan’s main islands.
The reason, Bradshaw tells me, is that kurobuta pork of such softness and tenderness is produced nowhere else in the country. This particular black hog is fattened up on satsuma-imo (sweet potatoes). Its meat is sliced prosciutto-thin, dipped in raw egg, then flash-fried. We replicate the gesture – stir, dip, eat, repeat – at a gluttonous click, the empty plates on our tabletop piling fast. It’s only Day One, but my food odyssey across Kyushu couldn’t have started better.
While shabu-shabu is an ingenious dish, complex, rich and intoxicating, it’s far from the only one, and I’m here to find out why Kyushu looks and tastes the way it does. Add to that is the fact that tourist numbers are thin – though maybe not for long. Fukuoka, the volcanic island’s most important gateway and largest city, has an increasing number of international flights. Then there’s the appeal of Kyushu’s “Kyoto- without-the-crowds” vibe; you can find yourself wandering alone in the Unesco World Heritage cedar forests of Yakushima Island, wondering why.
At 7pm, my night in Kagoshima begins with an exploration of the twilight-lit Yatai-mura, a series of pocket-sized stalls, their walls decorated with kanji-painted bamboo lanterns and light bulbs. The definitive backstreet picture of Japan, it stirs the senses, the late light filtering through woodsmoke haze from nostril-tingling barbecues. We sample satsuma-age, deep-fried minced sardines, and drink too much shochu, the city’s ever-present spirit distilled from sweet potatoes, ending up in Amusement Bar Kara Kara. It’s a hole in the wall kitted out with plastic Barbies, Pokemon characters and superhero figures.
To get to my next stop, I skirt Kyushu’s western seaboard by bullet train, the high-speed locomotive leaving behind cone-topped Sakurajima, the bay’s looming volcano, in the blink of an eye. Then, within hours, I’m in the city of Kumamoto, in front of its obsidian-black castle, a relic from the samurai era, now under extensive renovation following a devastating earthquake in 2015.
GETTING AROUND KYUSHU
Travelling to the island of Kyushu from the main cities of Japan is easy and efficient if you plan ahead.
FREE AND EASY
The Japan Rail Pass offers discounted, multi-use rail travel around Japan, with seven-, 14-, and 21-day options available. The pass is available to all foreign nationals visiting the country, but must be purchased in advance. The train ticket allows train travel on the shinkansen, or bullet train, as well as connections to the international gateways of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. For more information, visit www.jrailpass.com or www.jnto.go.jp
In the castle’s shadow, I meet local guide Shoko Taniguchi and, together, we discover Sakuranobaba Johsaien, a quadrant of simple, walk-in restaurants (located at the foot of the castle). The street-side menus that Taniguchi browses are overrun by typical Kumamoto dishes: sea urchin croquettes, red wagyu donburi (“you’ll never look at beef and rice the same way again,” she says) and horse meat served a number of ways.
A relatively new delicacy for the city, introduced only after the end of World War II, the horse meat is boiled, fried, curried, spit-roast, grilled, marinated, barbecued and, naturally, served raw. At Aso-Tei Yamami-Chaya, a restaurant with benches and simple decor, we have it at its least intimidating: served lightly grilled on a bed of vinegary rice.
Kyushu’s cuisine is an unholy bundle of contradictions for many – take torisashi (raw chicken), for instance. But one dish above all divides opinion in Kumamoto: karashi renkon, batter-fried lotus root stuffed with hot mustard and miso. It’s ubiquitous, fiery and – I must admit – far too overpowering for me.
SLURPING THROUGH FUKUOKA
Farther north through Kyushu, with a detour via Kurokawa Onsen, a time-warp mountain town enclosed by timber-framed ryokan, hot springs and natural pools, we arrive in Fukuoka in time for ramen. We make for the city’s Nakasu Island, a teardrop-shaped chunk wedged into the old town, squashed at the midriff by the meandering Naka River.
Here, the riverbank is lined with a bumper-to-bumper collection of 20-or-so makeshift yatai stalls. Little more than threadbare huts and stands, they nevertheless have long been a landmark for in-the-know foodies. Remarkably, all ladle out much the same thing: a bowl of wheat noodles and bone broth, topped with sliced pork and scallions.
The home of ramen, Fukuoka is infatuated with such belly-hugging joints, but rather than take a stool or stand, we eavesdrop on a recommendation and join the snaking queue outside nearby Ichiran, a towering, lantern-lit complex where diners wolf down noodles as if that were their last night on earth.
Afterwards, my arm is tugged to go for some sweet dumplings, filled with red bean paste, but my wallet has been dented and I can stomach no more.
We meander along the Naka River, and, from here, Kyushu’s food obsession is evident in all its finer subtleties. The smell of pan-fried gyoza wafts from stalls, miso lingers in the air, and the traditional facade of neighbourhood izakaya belie the extraordinary dining experiences on offer behind canvas drapes. With all this, how could you not feel hungry?
EXPERIENCING THE JAPANESE TABLE
If you’ve a taste for Kyushu’s dishes, you can now replicate them at home.
For more on the cuisine of Kyushu, Japan: The Cookbook is a new collection of more than 400 recipes of authentic Japanese dishes. Acclaimed food writer Nancy Singleton Hachisu also wrote insightful notes on the iconic and regional traditions of Japan. (out April 6 this year; Phaidon).
Photo credits: Japan National Tourism Organisation