Takayama is a small city located in the middle of the Japanese Alps, in the northern portion of Gifu Prefecture. The region’s geography and climate has fostered a unique food culture. Although you’ll see quite a lot of beef on the menus (one of Takayama’s specialities is Hida Beef, or Hida-gyuu), theres no need to come bearing a sack of instant meals. With an emphasis on mountain vegetables and a liberal use of miso (fermented soy bean paste), there’s plenty of local food that vegans can enjoy, if you know what to look for!
I. Hoba Miso (朴葉味噌) & Miso
When I visited Takayama I was hell-bent on trying one particular local dish – Hoba Miso ( 朴葉味噌). Hoba Miso consists of spring onions, mushrooms, other vegetables, and often slices of Hida Beef cooked in miso over a magnolia leaf. Obviously you’ll want to look for one without the be
I didn’t go about my search in a particularly organized fashion – I pretty much just walked up and down the streets hoping to find a place that had it on the menu. Luckily they were plentiful, and I ended up heading into one restaurant with it on the menu. I wish I remembered the name of it – it was so cozy and the staff were so kind. They were happy to make Hoba Miso without the meat, and I asked to make sure they didn’t add any fish sauce, just in case. It was so good! Just mushroom, green onions, veggies and miso grilled on a magnolia leaf, with a bowl of fresh rice & a glass of sake. Simple, perfect.
There is, of course, always a small risk that the miso used might contain some flavorings/additives that aren’t vegan, so if you’re nervous and would prefer something where you can read the ingredients, you can also buy do-it-yourself kits and souvenir shops throughout Takayama! I’ve long since resigned myself to the ever-present and ambiguous “アミノ酸等” that seems to be nestled at the end of every ingredients list, but if you keep looking you may be able to find some with more clear ingredients.
Miso is very important in Hida-Takayama cooking, and not just for making Hoba Miso. The harsh winters and scarcity of seafood made miso a critical component of the region’s cooking, and thus Takayama has become known for it’s miso. You can find miso manufacturer’s in the Old Town, and various types and flavors of miso in it’s souvenir shops. Since miso is such a versatile ingredient, it makes great souvenir!
II. Mitarashi Dango (みたらしだんご）
Takayama is also well known for it’s Mitarashi Dango, and you can find stalls selling the treats throughout town (especially in the old town district). If you’ve been in Japan for a while you’re no doubt familiar with Mitarashi Dango. However, the kind I ate in Takayama were markedly different from the sticky, smooth, and often overwhelming sweet treats I was used to guiltily buying from convenience stores. The sauce on the Takayama version seemed to be much less liberally slathered in sauce, and the sauce itself seems to have a higher ratio of soy sauce to sugar. In addition, they were grilled much more thoroughly, giving them a more interesting texture than their smooth combini-counterparts. The result was more savory than sweet, but still quite delicious.
III. Vegetables: Sansai Ryouri & Tsukemono
The Hida-Takayama region is also famous for it’s veggies – fresh, cooked, or pickled, vegetables have a huge influence on the local cuisine. In fact, there’s an entire school of cooking (called Sansai Ryouri) based on the use of wild mountain vegetables, ferns, and herbs. As with many vegetable dishes in Japan, though, the prevalent presence of vegetables is rarely indicative of a vegetarian dish – often fish sauce or other seafood is used at some point in the cooking process. However, if you don’t mind trying your luck, it seems that Suzuya is well-known for it’s vegetables dishes.
If you aren’t feeling confident in your ability to negotiate ingredients with chef’s, though, that doesn’t mean you have to absent yourself from enjoying Takayama’s vegetable delights. You can still have a wonderful and interactive experience exploring the offerings at Takayama’s morning markets. There are two morning markets: one along the Miyagawa River, and another in front of Takayama Jinja. They’re fairly small, but each has plenty of vendors selling fresh vegetables, fruits and pickles from the Hida Takayama region. They often offer a huge variety of free samples, making it all the more easy to decide what to buy! However, a word of warning: Read the backs of the packages before buying. Some tsukemono (pickles) do contain small amounts of animal products/flavorings, so it’s always better to check!
IV. Hida Soba & Yomogi Udon
The Hida region’s climate is ideal for growing buckwheat, so it should come as no surprise that soba is one of Takayama’s specialities. Honestly, I’ve never been a huge soba person, so I’ll admit that I passed up trying this while I was there.
However, I’m a huge udon fan, and will never pass up a chance to try a new and exciting type of udon. So when I learned that Takayama’s shops sold udon filled with mashed yomogi (mugwort, a wild mountain herb), I had to try it. I ended up bringing it home and made a delicious soup with it, and although I didn’t think the mugwort had a very strong flavor, it was quite pleasant. If you like yomogi, you can also try various other yomogi-flavored foods while in Takayama: yomogi mochi, yomogi-flavored peanuts, and even yomogi shochu! I wish I’d had a chance to try more!
V. Sake (Nihonshu, 日本酒）
And last but not least, SAKE! Takayama is also famous for it’s sake, and you can find numerous old sake breweries throughout the Old Town district, marked by large cedar balls at their entrances. You can sample sake at the breweries or at restaurants throughout Takayama. While there’s no guarantee that sake is refined using animal products, I find that this is very rarely the case (at least according to Barnivore’s sake listings). Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of information regarding smaller breweries, but if you Japanese ability is strong enough, visiting the breweries themselves would offer a great opportunity to ask!