Local foods shaped by the pristine water and fertile land in Gifu

No trip to Japan is complete without indulging in local flavors. Visiting Gifu is no exception. The region has culinary traditions all of its own.

The clear waters of the Nagara River and its tributaries have provided generations of people in Gifu with ayu sweetfish, which are still caught in some areas using traditional techniques and taste best when cooked simply salted and grilled.

The land gives mountain vegetables and farm produce like rice and soybean, the latter of which is fermented to make the miso used in numerous local favorites. For drinkers, the combination of Gifu’s pristine water and locally grown rice help the region’s breweries produce sumptuously smooth sake.

Sweetfish Nurtured in the Nagara River

Sweetfish
Sweetfish

The Nagara River winds through Gifu and the region’s history. Flowing from its source in the Hakusan mountain range, the Nagara once functioned as a key trade route. Its clear waters have been used to help forge swords in Seki city, make washi paper in Mino and brew sake all over. And it has given the people of Gifu one of the region’s most loved foods—ayu sweetfish.

When many Japanese think of Gifu and ayu, they think of the 1,300-year tradition of ukai fishing, where cormorants are used to catch the ayu from the Nagara. But what of the fish itself? Many locals will tell you that it’s best eaten simply, just salted and then grilled so the flesh is soft and the aroma savory. At some of Gifu’s traditional inns, that grilling will be done on skewers around an open hearth, adding a charred hint to the flavor of the skin.

One reason the ayu is so good is its clean habitat. Because the Nagara has traditionally been a regional lifeline, it’s long been respected and cared for, and that harmonious existence between river and people is why the Ayu of the Nagara River System has been designated as a Globally Important Agriculture Heritage System by the Food and Health Organization of the UN.

Gifu’s Soul Food

hoba miso
hoba miso

To get to the heart of a culture, eat its food. In Gifu that means trying the miso—a fermented mix of soybean and grain that has been used in Japan for more than 1,000 years. Miso in Gifu isn’t relegated to a side role in soups—though it does make great soup—the paste plays an integral part in the region’s soul food.

With a dish called keichan, miso is used to marinate chicken, which then gets cooked on a hot plate with onion, cabbage and possibly other vegetables. Every family can have its own keichan variation, but wherever keichan is served it’s one of those dishes that highlights the social side of Gifu’s soul food—you come together around a hotplate to cook and eat as a group. And like all good soul food, it’s fantastic, from the richness of the miso all the way to the little bits that stick and char on the hotplate.

You get a similar, moreish stickiness with hoba miso, where miso is cooked on a leaf called hoba with leek and sometimes mushrooms and meat such as the local Hida wagyu beef. That’s a common fixture on menus at traditional inns. There’s vegetarian soul food too, with goheimochi. This pounded rice cake originated with mountain workers in Gifu’s Tono and Hida regions but is now found all over Gifu—it’s usually found on a skewer, oval shaped and grilled just enough that the sweetened miso and soy coating begins to darken.

Gifu Sake: Brewing Perfected Over Generations

Gifu Sake

Gifu’s brewers have been making Japan’s most famous tipple for centuries, and today the region is home to roughly 50 small- to mid-sized breweries who between them have won a slew of domestic and international sake awards. Not bad for a regional industry that prides itself first and foremost on making sake for local tastes, not trying to reinvent the wheel to suit trends elsewhere.

Ask a local brewer what makes the region’s sake special, and they will be too modest to mention the brewing skills that have been handed down through generations. What they will focus on is Gifu’s pristine water, which runs off the mountains into the region’s network of clear rivers, and the quality of the locally grown rice. All three are crucial to producing a great sake.

As for the sake they craft, it tends to be smooth and easy-to-drink, and it can complement any Japanese food. Pair it with ayu sweetfish, hoba miso or the local Hida beef, it’s always good. Although no two Gifu sake are the same—Gifu’s breweries each have their own characteristics, making Gifu the perfect place to explore the many intricacies of the classic Japanese drink.