Delicious Hiroshima - Day 1

Delicious Hiroshima - Day 1

There is no better way to get to know a place in Japan - its past and its present - than through its food. Hiroshima is saddled with a heavy, heavy history that tends to overshadow everything else. However, among Japanese, Hiroshima is also famous for its food: The city is the birthplace of a much-loved dish called Hiroshima Okonomiyaki (a kind of savory pancake; more on that later), which grew out of the scrappy, determined post-WWII years. Hiroshima is also the center of a larger prefecture, of the same name, defined by its long border with the Inland Sea. The coastline is punctuated with fishing villages. All kinds of delicacies are pulled from these waters, including roughly two thirds of the oysters in Japan.

I'd been to Hiroshima ten years ago, as a backpacker, rushing through the sights, as most visitors do. I missed out on some potentially great meals and also a chance to see another side of Hiroshima - its vital side. When Hiroshima prefecture invited me to come sample the local food culture, I couldn't say no. This time, I'd do it right. Bonus: They even let me pick where I wanted to go.

Ueno - Anago

First on my list was Ueno, in Miyajima-guchi, a tourist town 30 minutes from Hiroshima city, where boats take off for the picturesque island, Miyajima. At the beginning of the last century, when the railway first arrived in Miyajima, Ueno Tanikichi had an idea.

He would take the anago (a kind of sea eel), common to the waters of Hiroshima Bay, put it on rice, and package it as a bentō (boxed meal) lunch to go for train passengers.

Anago wasn't thought much of back then; unagi (river eel), was preferred for its fatty flesh. Leaner anago comes out light and almost fluffy when cooked (actually, you might like it better since it's less oily).

In the century since Ueno - as the shop that replaced the original bentō stand came to be called - opened, anago's esteem has risen.

Ueno's signature dish, anago-meshi (grilled eel served over rice), is now considered a local specialty. Many Miyajima restaurants serve it. During the summer and on weekends, it's not uncommon to wait an hour for a table at Ueno.

The restaurant's old wooden façade, with ivy running through the latticework on the second floor, is also part of the charm. It's a bright spot among the drab concrete buildings that line the road between Miyajima-guchi train station and the ferry terminal. The interior is all wood, worn smooth with the years.

Anago-meshi is served in a lacquer bowl, a bed of rice topped with three or four eels' worth of meat. The slender eels are first grilled and then dipped in a sweet and salty soy sauce glaze.

Every time the chefs at Ueno make a new batch of sauce they mix it in with the old, resulting in a never-ending pot seasoned with 100 years of history.

If you've grown tired of plain white rice, you're in for a treat here: The rice is steamed in a stock made from boiling the heads of the eels, perfuming it with the flavor of the deep sea.

Kakiya - Oysters

From Miyajima-guchi, it's a quick 10-minute ferry ride to Miyajima. The island is famous for its centuries-old floating torii gate and, more recently, for its Yaki-gaki (grilled oysters).

Oysters have been cultivated in Hiroshima Bay for over 400 years.

Yaki-gaki have long been a local staple, a quick and easy meal for the fishermen and women who put in long hours on the water.

Then native son Yūji Hayashi started selling them to tourists. Now Yaki-gaki vendors line the main tourist strip in Miyajima, filling the air with brine-tinged smoke.

But none of them put on a show quite like Hayashi-san who, after 40 years behind the grill, now has his own place: Kaki-ya.

He grills his oysters over high heat - never mind the flames that lick his hands and the occasional eruption of shell and juice that he has to dodge.

Hiroshima oysters are small, a little bit sweet, and with a low liquid content (so they don't shrink much upon cooking); they're perfect for the grill, so long as you cook them fast.

The high heat also chars the shells giving the plump, steaming oysters inside a smoky finish.

Kaki-ya is oddly stylish for a touristy little island in rural Japan. It has a modern, minimalist look: stark white walls framed with dark wood beams and tables to match, spot lighting and a glass front.

In addition to Yaki-gaki, the restaurant also serves a bunch of other oyster dishes, including kaki-meshi, oysters on rice.

Like the flavorful rice in Ueno's anago-meshi, the rice for kaki-meshi is also steamed in broth - this time made from oyster juice.

There's also an extensive menu of wine and sake by the glass. When the manager came by our table to recommend the local brew, Ugo no Tsuki (which means "moon after the rain"),

I was sorely tempted. But there would be plenty of sake drinking later...

Kitayoshi - Izakaya

Hiroshima is one of Japan's major sake producing regions and its Saijō district is ranked among the top three (the other two are Nada in Kobe and Fushimi in Kyoto, in case you're curious).

Sampling some of this prestigious jizake (local sake) was my mission for the evening. Back in downtown Hiroshima we headed for the main eating and drinking district, Nagare-kawa and Hodori.

There's something for everyone here: bars, clubs, pachinko and karaoke parlours, and, of course, plenty of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs).

My pick for the evening, an izakaya called Kitayoshi, is located inside the covered shopping arcade(Hon-dōri).

Covered shopping arcades(Shotengai) are emblematic of post-WWII Japan, but Kitayoshi is going for something a little more traditional: The entrance, marked by a giant paper lantern, is reached via a flight of stone steps.

At the top of the stairs is a giant tank of Ugo no Tsuki - which does seem to be the local drink - direct from the brewery .

The namazake (unpasteurized sake) has just the slightest hint of carbonation and a lightly fruity, clean taste ­- very easy to drink. It's also an easy match for anything on the menu at Kitayoshi.

There are plenty of rough and tumble places to eat and drink in Hiroshima. Kitayoshi, on the other hand, is a pretty classy place. It has a long wooden counter lit by ceramic lamps shaped like half-moons.

There's a large vase of sunflowers on one end. At another end, set into the counter, is a display of fish on ice. Kitayoshi gets fresh fish every morning straight from Hiroshima's fish market.

Today they've got sanma (Pacific saury), kinmeidai (splendid alfonsino or golden eye snapper) - I love kinmeidai - and tachiuo (scabbard fish), which the chefs will grill over charcoal. They do a local seafood sashimi platter, too.

We finished off the meal with some classic Japanese comfort food: suji nikomi (stewed tendon) and motsu nikomi (stewed intestines). It's much better than it sounds (and, no, that's not just the sake talking).

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