Japan is a country that's home to one of the greatest food cultures on the planet. That's an irrefutable fact. From sake and sushi to oyster and green tea, the nation's stocked with some of the finest delicacies known to humankind. While the culinary accolades of larger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto are well documented in the media, there's a plethora of regions in Japan that have just a rich cultural and culinary history. One of those unsung regions is Kyushu – the southwesternmost of Japan's main islands, and an area that's home to some simply incredible food and drink.
The region is home to a plethora of culture and art, hot springs, well known resorts, and it's also full of culinary creations you won't find anywhere else in the archipelago. Each of its seven prefectures – Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Oita and Saga – has its own unique food culture that are very much worth exploring in their own right.
Nevertheless, due to the sheer array of options available, navigating your way around Kyushu requires a coherent plan of attack. Especially if you're set on doing some good eating while you're there. To help you plan a tour of the region that'll leave your appetite for adventure (and food) satisfied, we've created this guide to some of the culinary highlights of Kyushu. Planning a trip to Kyushu in 2020? We'd suggest visiting the following locations.
Where to eat and drink in Kyushu
Yame Central Tea Garden
Experience breathtaking scenery and get a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into the production of tea at the Yame Central Tea Garden. Located in the Fukuoka prefecture, this garden is comprised of around 70 pristine hectares of open tea plantations where you can gaze your eyes on row upon row of Gyokuro tea (one of Japan's finest green teas) growing among the gentle slopes of the landscape. Simply put, there's a reason that this bucolic garden was awarded the prestigious Emperor's Cup at the Festival of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1979.
Tours of the tea garden can be organised through the local tourist association and the recommended months for visits are around April and May when the leaves are being harvested. Yame uses a unique method of planting its tea leaves close together, creating the impression of a gently sloping landscape filled with waves of plantations. It's truly a sight to behold: the darkest leaves being the result of a limited amount of light and the grade of the Gyokuro tea largely depending on the amount of sunlight the plants have been exposed to.
Karatomari Ebisu Oyster Hut
If you're feeling up for an aphrodisiac while you're abroad, you should definitely make some time in your schedule to enjoy an oyster lunch at the Karatomari Ebisu Oyster Hut, a famous seafood spot that was opened up by the Fishermen's Association of Karatomari in 2003. Like farmers and their onions, if there's anything that fishermen know, it's their oysters. The season of the pacific oyster (known as the Magaki) runs from early November to the end of March – the very same time period that the Oyster Hut itself is open for.
Offering up the bounties of Fukuoka's coastline at market prices, the Karatomari Yebisu Oyster Hut also gives you the chance to enjoy the seafood of Fukuoka with a barbecue right on the beach. The accompanying market has a wide selection of seafood available that you can buy and immediately take to one of the many barbecue stations inside of its facility. The window-side grills offer fantastic views of the beautiful coast and we can't think of a better way to spend a meal than grilling your own seafood while you look out over the very body of water that fresh produce came from.
Sushi Restaurant Gyoten
You shouldn't visit Japan without eating sushi, and you shouldn't visit Kyushu without sampling some of the superlative sushi at Sushi Gyoten in Fukuoka city. Chef Kenji Gyoten is the owner of Sushi Gyoten and his restaurant holds the almost mythical distinction of three Michelin stars. Michelin might not always get it right but Sushi Gyoten is a spot that's truly worthy of a special journey. Each and every square inch of the restaurant has been painstakingly obsessed over and designed by chef Gyoten, having spared no expense in making sure his never ending pursuit of perfection is delivered to all of his diners.
From being served sashimi cut from a block of tuna valued at over $3,000 to drinking from a tea cup hand crafted by a former prime minister of Japan, Mr Morihiro Hosokawa, it's the attention to the finer details at Sushi Gyoten that make the difference. It's more than just a meal – it's a dining experience you won't ever forget.
Eating some excellent Shippoku food (a fusion of Chinese, European and Japanese cuisines) is highly recommended at the historic Japanese restaurant Kagetsu. Shippoku cuisine itself was actually born in the city of Nagasaki, as it was the only place that was opened to the West during Japan's 200 years of the isolationist policy. Various culinary cultures and influences were therefore brought in by trading vessels from the Netherlands, Portugal and China during that period.
The best way to taste that rich history – and eat a meal that's the perfect representation of the different cultures that existed in Nagasaki prefecture around 400 years ago – is at Kagetsu. The restaurant originally opened in 1642 and originally served as a highly exclusive restaurant for wealthy merchants, government officials, and countless other influential figures from all over Japan and the world. It now opens its doors to anyone looking for a great meal. The aesthetic garden not only provides a different dining atmosphere during each season but also plays host to some of the best shippoku cooking you'll find anywhere in the country. Guests should, however, take note that whale is served in the dinner courses here, but can be substituted out with requests made in advance.
Toride is a popular local ramen restaurant in Nagasaki that specialises in ramen and handcrafted noodles. Unlike most of the punchy beef and pork ramen you might encounter in London, the ramen at Toride uses a special white seafood broth as its base. In addition to the regular spread of noodles, the specialty of this restaurant is the "dunk rice". The flavour of dunk rice depends on the ramen broth that you choose (there's even some pretty out-there options like basil parmesan dunk rice, for example), and once you finish your noodles, the dunk rice is added to the remaining broth for a unique culinary experience. Toride is actually credited as having invented the dish, and it's something that you're unlikely to find anywhere else in the country. While putting rice in your ramen would normally be highly frowned upon, the thick broth of this ramen forms a delicious risotto-like dish that you'll be craving long after you leave the restaurant.
Hizen Hamashuku Sake Brewery Avenue
Head to the Saga prefecture for a sake brewery tour you won't forget. In the small town of Hama-Machi, nestled among its white-washed buildings, Sakagura Street is home to several sake breweries that come together in spring for an annual sake festival. It's a culmination of sake, beautiful cherry blossoms and fresh local food that make it a popular event. Just last year around 100,000 visited the town from all across Japan and further afield. In the area's heyday, there were around 13 breweries on this street but now only three remain. In spite of that, the avenue remains an excellent places to test out sake and other unique food products like sake-flavoured cream cheese. We'd suggest visiting Fukuchiyo Brewery, a brewery that won "Champion Sake" award by IWC, before working your way to Minematsu Brewery where you can get a taste of fermented sake cheese (kasuzuke). Just trust us on that one.
As a restaurant that's very much of-the-moment, Arita Huis is somewhere you can enjoy modern French and Japanese fusion food. Located in the Nishimatsuura District of Arita, on a pedestrianised street lined with pottery shops selling an array of Arita porcelain, Arita Huis's large, open-plan restaurant is a sight to behold. Seats looks directly into the kitchen so that the various troops of diners (which you should most definitely make an effort to join) can watch their plates being prepared right in front of their eyes. Most of the dishes, created using seasonal vegetables and produce, are served on local Arita porcelain and come accompanied by thick batons of crusty French bread. The food and atmosphere attract a young and trendy clientele and gives Arita Huis a European dining feel that merges amicably with the meticulous care and attention that Japanese cooking is known for. Portion sizes are generous.