Top 10 Kagoshima Foods related to the Shimadzu Clan
Our top ten suggestions for dishes to try when you visit Kagoshima
Kagoshima is a major agricultural centre with a high rate of self subsistence and is known across Japan for its fresh, delicious produce and farm-to-table aesthetic. The volcanic landscape of Kagoshima presents a challenge for growing rice, but the mineral rich soil produces the Jurassic sized daikon radishes and tiny oranges Sakurajima is famous for.
The Kuroshio current brings a wide variety of fish into the 200-meter-deep Kagoshima Bay, making it a veritable treasure trove for prospective fishermen. Sea bream and the silver striped herring known as kibinago are perhaps most well-known, and the city’s vibrant fish market is a must visit for fans of super fresh sashimi.
In recent years Kagoshima cattle have also been in the limelight for the excellent quality of their meat, and Kagoshima Kuroge Wagyu even won the prestigious “Wagyu Olympics” back in 2017.
Kagoshima’s location in the south, close to the Asian mainland has also influenced its food culture, and a distinct Chinese and Korean influence can be seen in local dishes. The Shimadzu clan have also influenced the food culture of the region, and over their 700-year rule of Kagoshima, some quite unusual food trends appeared in relation to the rest of Japan.
With that in mind let’s take a look at the top ten Shimadzu related foods that you should definitely try when you visit Kagoshima!
10. Sweet Potatoes
Called “Satsuma imo” across most of Japan, this is perhaps the most commonly available food from the Kagoshima region. Satsuma of course refers to the old name for Kagoshima, but locally this persistent tuber is referred to as “kara imo”. “Kara” means China in this case – the place from which sweet potatoes were originally imported into Japan through Okinawa.
Due to the volcanic landscape of Kagoshima, producing large amounts of rice was always a problem for the Satsuma domain. Hardy sweet potatoes could be easily grown as a replacement staple food, and eventually found their way into mainstream Japanese cooking.
Sweet potatoes are also used as the main ingredient in making Kagoshima’s famous fire water shochu. The distilled spirit was originally produced in large quantities in the late 19th century for the Shuseikan Project as a raw material for the production of firing caps used in rifles. Using rice to produce alcohol was seen as a waste so sweet potatoes were used instead. The drink was eventually refined into the popular drink we know and love today.
You can try freshly roasted sweet potatoes from Tanegashima at the Satsuma Gift Shops here at Sengan-en. We also highly recommend the sweet potato and shochu flavour ice cream for a sweet treat. For a more refined sweet potato snack take a look at the Sengan-en Matcha Café. We also have a wide selection of local shochu, including our own special brands Shimuja, Hime Aoi, and Sengan-en.
9. Satsuma A’ge
This deep-fried snack can be found all over Kagoshima in bars and restaurants, often being enjoyed with a warm glass of shochu. Made from fish paste deep fried in oil, Satsuma a’ge is essentially a kind of fish cake, and while can be eaten plain is often made with a vegetable filling such as carrot, lotus root, or sweet potato.
Satsuma a’ge is well known across Japan, but in Kagoshima it is often called “tsuke a’ge” instead, deriving from the Okinawan pronunciation “chiki ahgee” which apparently originated in south east Asia.
8. Bamboo Shoots
Bamboo shoots are a common seasonal delicacy in April and May and are used widely in Japanese cooking. Most Japanese people probably haven’t thought too much about the origin of Moso bamboo, the thick variety from which edible shoots are produced.
Moso bamboo is in fact a rather recent addition to Japanese flora, having been first imported into Japan by the Shimadzu clan from China by way of Okinawa in the late 18th century. Two shoots were imported by the 21st head of the Shimadzu family, Yoshitaka in 1736 and planted here at Sengan-en.
The Konan Bamboo Grove which stands behind the main house at Sengan-en is said to be the first grove of Moso bamboo in Japan. Moso bamboo spread out from Kagoshima and can be found all across the country today, notably in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto.
You can try the sweet, crunchy, almost asparagus like moso bamboo shoots at the Ohkatei Restaurant at Sengan-en when they are in season.
7. Satsuma Oranges
To much of the world the world “satsuma” conjures up the image of a small baggy skinned orange, easily peelable by hand, and to be totally honest – not particularly Japanese. It’s usually a surprise to most people familiar with the diminutive citrus fruit of Chinese origin that its name was actually taken from a feudal domain southern Japan.
Simply called “mikan” in Japanese, most people in Kagoshima are also totally oblivious to the fact that the oranges are called by the former name of their home and are often genuinely delighted and quite surprised when told so.
The origin of the name “satsuma” is the result of a tale of murder, revenge, and unpaid debts. Following the murder of a British merchant named Charles Lennox Richardson by retainers of the Shimadzu clan close to Yokohama in 1862, the British Royal Navy sent seven warships to Kagoshima Bay to collect reparations. A short battle took place, with the British burning down much of the town which had mostly been abandoned.
The battle ended inconclusively but Satsuma were forced to pay £25,000 (£3,000,000 in modern terms) which they promptly borrowed from the Tokugawa Shogunate and never repaid. They also gave several boxes of oranges to sweeten the deal, and the British negotiators were apparently impressed that they could be easily peeled. The oranges were taken back to the UK and “satsuma” became a household name.
Make sure to also try the diminutive Sakurajima komikan when visiting Kagoshima. These cute little fruits are apparently the smallest peelable oranges in the world, and their size is caused by the volcanic soil on which they are grown. Also make sure not to miss out on the chance to try delicious Sakurajima komikan gin from Komasa Jozo which is on sale at the Shimadzu Gift Shops.
6. Sakurajima Daikon Radishes
Sakurajima isn’t only famous for its tiny oranges it is also home to the world’s largest daikon radish. Sakurajima daikon are the heaviest variety of radish in the world, with regular sized specimens weighing in at around 6kg, and the very largest coming in at a whopping 30kg. This oversized vegetable has been cultivated in the region for well over 200 years, and the majority are grown between September and February each year.
Sakurajima daikon is used in a number of local recipes and is often pickled and used as a side dish. At Sengan-en you can sample Sakurajima daikon at the Ohkatei Restaurant. The daikon is cut into golf ball sized pieces and simmered in a broth of miso, brown sugar, and shochu with a tender piece of Kurobuta pork.
5. Jambo Mochi
Jambo mochi are a local treat consisting of lightly toasted rice cakes skewered on two sticks and glazed with sweet soy, miso, or kokuto caramel sauce. The name “Jambo” comes from a mispronunciation of the Chinese word “liang” meaning “two”.
The two sticks used to skewer the mochi are said to represent the two swords worn by the samurai. Jambo mochi were a popular snack for samurai travelling north out of Kagoshima who would pass by Sengan-en before heading into the mountains.
Our mochi rice cakes are freshly pounded each morning at Sengan-en before being lightly toasted on both sides and skewered with bamboo sticks. The mochi are then plunged into sweet soy, miso, or kokuto caramel glaze and served warm for you to enjoy. Make sure to try them out at our Jambo Mochi Shop when you visit Sengan-en.
This pure white steamed cake is a must try when visiting Kagoshima. Once a luxurious treat only for the lords of the Shimadzu clan, it is now one of the most popular gifts that Japanese visitors to Kagoshima take back home for their friends and family.
In 1851, Shimadzu Nariakira recruited a confectioner from Akaishi named Yashima Rokubei, who was working in the capital Edo, to create tasty new preserved foods with nutritional value. Rokubei founded a store called Akashiya and began creating a variety of delicious sweets, as well as experimenting with steamed manju cakes.
Rokubei noticed that Satsuma yams were of very high quality and combined them with refined rice flour and white sugar being researched by Nariakira to create a new kind of steamed sweet called karukan. Today Rokubei’s legacy is being continued by Akashiya – a stylish sweet shop that has been Kagoshima’s premier producer of confectionary for over 100 years.
Akashiya have a branch in the Shimadzu Gift Shops here at Sengan-en, so make sure to stop by and check out their delicious selection when you pay us a visit.
3. Sea Bream
Known as “tai” in Japanese, sea bream is a famous local delicacy in Kagoshima. Kagoshima Bay is a particularly good spot for catching sea bream, known as the king of white fish. The word “tai” in Japanese is also seen as an abbreviation of “medetai”, which means “auspicious”.
The lords of the Shimadzu clan are said to have come to Sengan-en by boat from Kagoshima Castle, and Shimadzu Nariakira was known for his fondness for fishing in the bay before stopping at his beloved house and gardens. Even today catching sea bream in Kagoshima Bay is a sought-after experience for fishing fanatics across Japan.
Kagoshima Bay is notably also home to Kibinago, a smallish silver striped herring which is either deep fried or eaten as sashimi. The bay is around 200 meters deep and is formed from two massive submarine calderas that long predate Sakurajima.
Sea bream can be enjoyed as both sashimi and served in a shabu-shabu hotpot at the Ohkatei Restaurant here at Sengan-en.
2. Satsuma-dori Chicken
Take a stroll around Tenmonkan and drop into an izakaya and you will notice one popular snack to accompany a warm glass of imo shochu is the rather ominous sounding torizashi – literally raw chicken sashimi.
Chickens have been raised in Kagoshima for a very long time, and records from the time of the first head of the Shimadzu family, Tadahisa over 800 years ago show that breeds raised specifically for fighting were particularly highly prized.
These days there are several brands of chicken produced in Kagoshima, and the lean black variety known as Kuro Satsuma-dori are mainly used for torizashi. The meat is lightly grilled on the outside, but the inside is completely raw. The meat is thinly sliced and eaten with a little soy sauce and ginger.
If raw chicken doesn’t appeal don’t worry there are plenty of other options with meat that is thoroughly cooked through. Charcoal grilled sumibiyaki is a great treat when eating out at an izakaya, but here at Sengan-en you can enjoy a taste of the island of Amami Oshima far to the south of the Kyushu mainland with our ever-popular dish Keihan.
Keihen consists of rice topped with strips of omelette, shredded chicken, shiitake mushrooms, nori, and various other toppings doused in a rich chicken broth, and it can be enjoyed at the Ohkatei Restaurant at Sengan-en.
Special Mention: Kuroge Wagyu
Beef eating in Japan is a comparatively recent practice, mainly influenced by the western influence of the Meiji period. There are relatively few examples of beef being eaten by the Shimadzu family which is why Kagoshima wagyu hasn’t made it into the top ten.
When beef does make an appearance, it is usually in the context of international relations. In 1824 a British ship arrived at the tiny island of Takarajima to the south of the mainland. The British sailors who had been at sea for months approached the locals trying to get them to hand over a cow which they had spotted while sailing by. The locals refused and a short gun battle ensued, leaving one British sailor dead.
Visitors to Kagoshima these days certainly won’t have to fear getting shot to get their hands on a prime piece of A5 grade Kagoshima wagyu. Kagoshima beef won the prestigious “Wagyu Olympics” in 2017 and is going from strength to strength as an internationally known brand.
While Kagoshima beef doesn’t make our regular menu in the Ohkatei Restaurant, it does feature on our special menus for lunch and dinner in the private dining room which are bookable by email.
1. Kurobuta Pork
Without a doubt, the most famous food from the Kagoshima region is Kurobuta pork. Literally meaning “black pig”, and initially bred from British Berkshire pigs, the sweet and tender meat is a firm favourite among visitors to Kagoshima.
The history of meat eating in Kagoshima actually goes back a lot longer than other regions of Japan, primarily due to the Chinese influence on food culture brought in via illegal trade that the Shimadzu clan carried out using the Ryukyu islands as a gateway to the outside world.
While much of Japan saw meat eating as taboo due to the Buddhist thought regarding the killing of animals and the Shinto concerns around “kegare” (uncleanliness), it seems meat consumption was a part of normal everyday life for the majority of people in Kagoshima throughout the Edo period (1603-1868).
In 1818 the philosopher and artist Rai San’yo was surprised by the prevalence of pork in Satsuma on a visit to the region, dedicating part of his travelogue to the topic. It should be noted that pork at this time was not the Kurobuta variety that we know today, and wild boar was also frequently eaten.
It seems the preference for eating pork even stretched to the lords of the Shimadzu family. In 1996 an excavation of the site of the Satsuma domain residence in Tokyo revealed large quantities of bones from both pigs and wild boar buried in the garden. As a result of all this meat consumption it is said that the samurai of Satsuma were taller than their counterparts from other domains who stuck to eating fish and vegetables.
In recent years Kurobuta pork has started to gain attention internationally for its sweet and tender meat, owed in part to the pigs diet of sweet potatoes. In Kagoshima, the preferred ways to eat Kurobuta are as tonkatsu (a deep-fried pork cutlet), tonkotsu (simmered pork on the bone), or shabu-shabu (thin slices of meat parboiled in broth). All three can be sampled at the Ohkatei Restaurant here at Sengan-en, so take a look at our menu for more information.
That brings us to the end of this Kagoshima culinary cavalcade through the lens of the Shimadzu clan. This is only the tip of the daikon radish, and there is a whole host of fascinating food and fabulous fare awaiting the adventurous foodie here in Kagoshima. At Sengan-en make sure to check out our Sengan-en Matcha Café, the Jambo Mochi Shop, and of course our flagship restaurant Ohkatei for a selection of the best of Kagoshima food and drink while enjoying the spectacular view of Kagoshima Bay and active volcano Sakurajima puffing away in the distance.
Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.
He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.