There are still many places hidden in Japan that feature great cuisine. Kikuchi City, in the northern part of Kumamoto Prefecture, is also home to many of these foods, making it a treasure trove of countless superb local products.
The livelihood of Kikuchi City is its wonderful water. Flowing from the Kikuchi Valley, rated one of the 100 best sources of waters in Japan, the constant supply of pure water from Mount Aso goes underground and nurtures the vegetables and rice growing in the fields, as well as the everyday lives of the people living in the city.
Kikuchi vegetables, grown with the Earth’s blessing
Vegetables grown in Kikuchi are tasty because of their rich natural surroundings; temperatures that largely fluctuate between day and night, soil made of volcanic ash that lets water through easily, and most importantly, the mineral-rich underground water from the outer rim of Mt. Aso.
One of these “Kikuchi vegetables” that are grown with the blessing of nature is the Suiden burdock, which has its peak season from December to May.
The burdock was originally grown in paddy fields after the rice was harvested, and has now become a well-known local product of Kikuchi. We visited the burdock fields of Tadayoshi Murakami, who had spent over 40 years growing Suiden burdock. We found him right in the middle of harvest.
“Suiden burdock roots are whiter then regular burdock roots and have fine fibers, giving it a soft texture. We currently have two varieties: winter burdock, which we harvest between November and March, and spring burdock, which we harvest between April and July. Their roots are great pickled, fried with tempura batter or cooked in vinegar,” says Murakami. When the mud was washed off the burdock roots, the soft white skin emerged just as Murakami had said, giving off a whiff of soft, pleasant aroma.
Sausages and ham produced by the Sassa brothers, containing well-known local vegetables
Ham Kobo TONGTONG is a sausage and ham factory in the town of Shichijo, Kikuchi, run by Koki Sassa. The factory uses local ingredients from Kikuchi, and the pork they use, the key ingredient used in their sausages, is of a special variety called SPF Pork, sourced from Sassa Farm run by his brother, Kazunori.
“When making sausages, the thing that requires most attention is the level of smoking. You cannot go back and redo it, so our workers pay close attention in the smoking step. We are proud of our processing technologies, as well as the fact that we make all of our products by hand, using ingredients sourced from people we know. As we use the pork from my brother, I can confidently offer our products to our customers,” says Koki.
With Koki’s guidance, we visited his brother Kazunori’s Sassa Farm.
The pigs are grown in a fully hygiene-controlled environment and are certified as SPF Pork, granted to healthy, disease-resistant pigs.
“SPF pigs do not have particular pathogens. This makes them resistant to disease. Because of this, they grow quickly—it usually takes about 200 days for a piglet to grow into an adult pig, but for SPF pigs, this only takes about 180 days on average, sometimes even 140 days, before they are ready to ship. They can be shipped when they are young and fattest, so their flesh is soft and does not have an unpleasant odor. They also grow well, drinking lots of good Kikuchi water,” says Kazunori.
The Sassa brothers’ sausages and ham are also available at Melon Dome, a roadside station and a rest stop for the residents of Kikuchi, and have become popular products for the residents.
Hardship is opportunity: Kikuchi’s unyielding spirit against the disaster
On April 14, 2016, a great earthquake shook Kumamoto. Kikuchi was one of the worst-affected cities from this disaster.
While citizens were gripped with anxiety at one point, Mayor Minoru Egashira, who was born and raised in the city, exercised great leadership with the phrase “hardship is opportunity.”
“Local farmers said, ‘we have to fight because times are hard, our efforts will lead the recovery effort,’ and in the international rice competition held in December, ten months after the earthquake, they won the gold medal to make two consecutive wins since 2015. The news energized the people of Kikuchi and motivated me as well. We proactively worked with people outside of Kikuchi, holding festivals in Kikuchi for our sister cities Tono and Amami Oshima Island, and accommodating volunteers who were headed to to Mashiki and Minami Aso, which had suffered greater damage than us. Oddly enough, this connected us with many people and generated many fans for Kikuchi. Hardship is indeed opportunity. The earthquake caused us tremendous hardship but it is good that we have gained these connections that will continue into the future.”
It has been four years since Egashira, a man with great love for Kikuchi, became the mayor. We asked him why Kikuchi is an attractive place.
“I want to make Kikuchi a place where people can feel refreshed. Kikuchi has untouched nature and people cohabiting with that nature. We have the wonderful water from the Kikuchi Valley, things to enjoy in each of the four seasons, great food, hot springs and opportunities to do outdoor activities. I would like to cooperate with the citizens of Kikuchi to let other people know about these treasures and make as many fans of the city as possible.”
Suntory: The Premium Malts, made with the mineral water of Kumamoto
In the town of Kashima located in Kamimashiki Province is Suntory’s Kumamoto Aso Brewery (mineral water beer brewery), about a 50-minute drive from Kikuchi. This brewery uses mineral water from Kumamoto to produce The Premium Malts and their other products. Suntory’s corporate message is to “Living Together with Water.” For the plant, the most important thing is pure water, so that they can create great beer.
“The mineral water of Kumamoto has just the right hardness for beer production and the essential minerals to ferment yeast. There is also so much water that all tap water in the city can be sourced from underground. It is the perfect water for The Premium Malts. To protect this water, we use it without wasting it. For example, the entire group works to preserve the forests, and the Kumamoto Aso Brewery stores rain water for daily use,” says Nobuo Tada, the head engineer of brewing technologies.
For a while, production had stopped at the plant because of the damage from the Kumamoto Earthquake, but the plant resumed shipping The Premium Malts in January this year. In March the product’s taste was revised and it became more deep-bodied, with a more flamboyant aroma.
“The earthquake caused so much trouble, but it also gave us an opportunity to be grateful to the people living near us and to the support from people all around Japan. We were also very lucky the mineral water source was not damaged. The Premium Malts features 100% malt and has a slowly-derived, deep body. The new version was designed to offer a longer-lingering aroma and greater taste. Its production takes more effort than other product but I am proud of this great beer myself,” says Tada confidently.
Collaboration of the food and beer made with Kumamoto water
This time, E-ZEY JAPAN developed ham and sausages containing Suiden burdock root, a Kikuchi vegetable, and Japanese mustard greens, jointly with Ham Kobo TONGTONG. It is offered as a unique-to-Kumamoto gift set, packaged with The Premium Malts beer produced at the Kumamoto Aso Brewery, which uses mineral water.
We invite our readers to savor the ham and sausages accentuated with the texture of Suiden burdock roots and mustard greens, along with the aromatic The Premium Malts. Why not enjoy the taste of Kumamoto, nurtured by its wonderful local water?
Writer : ASAKO INOUE / Photographer : SATOSHI TACHIBANA / Movie : CHIZU TAKAKURA
※Selected photos courtesy of Kikuchi City
〈E-ZEY JAPAN〉Assortment pack of ham and sausages with SPR pork (from Kumamoto) and The Premium Malt’s from Suntory Kumamoto Aso Brewery
Kumamoto Prefecture Tourism Information
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