Japan’s Inland Sea is on the cusp of discovery as a fascinating new travel destination. Home to hundreds of islands with their own distinct traditions and characters, I like to refer to the area as the Mediterranean of the East. Beyond the island of Naoshima, renowned for its Setouchi International Art Festival that attracts high end cultural travelers coming to view the latest in contemporary art and sample the excellent local seafood, the neighboring islands are coming into notice for their own excellent foods and special traditions.
According to Japanese mythology the islands of the Inland Sea were the first to be created by the gods. At the Kibitsu Shinto Shrine in Okayama city, elderly priestesses offer us a glimpse of Japan’s ancient mystical world through a special divination ritual that echoes back to Japan’s prehistoric Jomon period (dates back from before 10,000 BC).
The priestesses mix rice inside a sacred cauldron above a fire pit in which the decapitated head of an ancient warrior is said to be buried. As the water boils in the cauldron, a loud and bizarre rumbling sound can be heard that is believed to indicate good or bad fortune. Still relatively unknown, this ritual is believed among the local people to have healing effects.
When it comes to food, Shodoshima is one of my favorite islands in the Inland Sea. With its many olive trees and Greek windmill the island has its own Mediterranean flavor. The local olive oil is delicious, but the island is historically famous for its top class soy sauce and more recently its micro brewery sakes. Fifth generation soy sauce maker Yasuo Yamamoto exemplifies the spirit of tradition among the local miso and sake makers. While many modern producers go for fast paced fermentation techniques in modern facilities, Yamamoto ages his soy sauce in hand made wooden barrels for up to three years.
The taste of traditionally fermented miso is deep and abundant. As more and more top chefs are rediscovering Japan’s fermented food culture, no doubt greater attention will be given to the Japanese Mediterranean cuisine of the Inland Sea.
By Everett Kennedy Brown