Onomichi Port City’s Food Culture of the Past and Present

Situated between the mountains and the sea, Onomichi is a small port city by the Seto Inland Sea. During medieval times, the city prospered as a midway stop for cargo ships taking the northern route between Osaka and Hokkaido. This prosperity resulted in the appearance of wealthy merchants, who in turn financially contributed to the construction of the area’s shrines and Buddhist temples. These beautiful structures, which are well-noted throughout Japan, remain standing even today, having fully melded into the daily lives of locals. Here, I’ll introduce Onomichi’s culinary traditions and modern food trend, which I directly experienced when I visited the city’s markets and restaurants.

Onomichi, With Stone Walls (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

A history of fish cuisine & processing cultivated in the port city of Onomichi

The use of fish from the Seto Inland Sea is one core characteristic of Onomichi’s cuisine. “Dashi” cooking stock prepared from the fish and dried young sardines, known locally as chirimenjako are also key components. Onomichi is home to many smaller varieties of fish, and miso soup prepared and consumed by local households often uses cooking stock made from these fish. Onomichi Ramen, a type of ramen that uses such stock, is popular throughout Japan.

Onomichi Ramen (2019)Original Source: Shinyokohama ramen museum

JA Farmers’ Market “Eejan Onomichi Onomichi Branch” (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

JA Farmers’ Market “Eejan Onomichi Onomichi Branch”, Fresh Fish Corner (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

"Eejan Onomichi" is an establishment where customers can buy goods directly from the producers. At this market, the fish are handled and sold by fisher who caught them that very morning out in the Seto Inland Sea. The market also features fresh regional varieties such as red Pacific sea bream, red rock fish, Kizami wrasse fish, etc., all of which are also caught that morning. Red rockfish in particular is popular among locals as a luxury ingredient, one that is suitable for a banquet, feast, or other special meal.

JA Farmers’ Market “Eejan Onomichi Onomichi Branch”, State of Processing at the Fresh Fish Corner (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The fishermen themselves handle and process the catch to individual customer preference, such as by descaling the fish, removing the head, etc. Onomichi has historically been host to a thriving fishing industry, and at one point there were actually fishermen living out on the water, without a permanent residence. In Onomichi, the simplest and most promising method of fishing commerce still remains: customers can directly purchase fresh fish from the very people who caught them.

JA Farmers’ Market “Eejan Onomichi Onomichi Branch” (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Eating Onomichi’s fresh vegetables

The calm climate of the Seto Inland Sea has resulted in another of Onomichi’s charms: the town’s agricultural products, which include citrus fruits, tomatoes, wakegi scallions, and more.

JA Onomichi-city is an agricultural produce direct-purchase store. Here, customers can purchase freshly-harvested vegetables directly from farmers. Intensively cultivated in a short period between the harvesting season of tomatoes from Kumamoto and other prefectures, Onomichi tomatoes can only be picked in May and June.

JA Mukaishima Eino Center, Mr. Takayuki Kishida (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Mukaishima Tomatoes (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Dishes featuring Onomichi tomatoes are offered at LOG, which opened in December 2018. This accommodation facility provides its guests a new way to spend time in the city, including experiencing local food. LOG’s seasonal menu offers dishes that use local Onomichi ingredients that are in-season. The different seasonings and tastes offered by these dishes make use of the natural flavors of the ingredients. They are simple, yet profoundly delicious. It has a somehow relaxing flavor, as would a homemade dish made by a friend who’s good at cooking, would have.

LOG: Summer Lunch Menu Three Dishes (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

The chilled tomato pasta, for example, is offered for lunch only during the summer (left photo). Its cold soup features the rich and dense umami flavors and acidity of Onomichi-grown tomatoes, and mixes with the deliciously uneven-textured flat noodles developed by a local noodle manufacturer. The dish may not be over the top or showy, but its vegetables feature gradually-deepening umami flavors that are a joyful experience. This particular dish is made by hand, by LOG’s kitchen staff under the supervision of chef Ai Hosokawa.

LOG: Library, Interior (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Takanobu Yoshida, who works as LOG’s General Manager, made the following comment on the establishment’s dishes: “We’ve worked with local ingredients in a similar fashion in the past. But we are always thinking about how we can go further. Instead of sophisticated dishes that one might find in a big city, I would like our customers to enjoy our carefully prepared dishes that make full use of the ingredients. I want people to experience our food as a gateway, one that allows them to develop a deeper interest in the charms that Onomichi’s culture and climate.”

LOG: Entrance (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

LOG is located at the top of a flight of stone steps, and cannot be accessed by car. This results in certain limitations as to what may be brought to the establishment, and its employees strive to be imaginative and creative when developing a menu.

LOG: Staff Who Carry Luggage in a Big Bag (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“As it is not possible to transport large amounts of heavy ingredients here, we use herbs picked in our own garden, for example, and try to make things as lightweight as possible. We even use plastic bottles for serving our beer. An easy example would be with soda: It would be a struggle for the liquor shop to transport dozens of glass bottles up these steps. So we produce it ourselves onsite, using syrup. The limitations of this location are making us creative.”

LOG: Homemade Cola (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

LOG: State of the Building (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

In addition to its food, LOG has also gained considerable attention for its architecture. It was the first structure produced by Bijoy Jain, from the Indian architecture firm Studio Mumbai, which was implemented outside of India. Mr. Jain worked together with local craftspeople to renovate what was formerly an apartment building, helping the structure be reborn as a calm space that feels open and freeing.

LOG: Building, Color Chart (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

From the color scheme and materials, to the width of the steps and curved surfaces of the walls, each and every detail reflects Mr. Jain’s aesthetic and philosophy. The architecture is designed to become attached to peoples’ feelings as it is used. The flat stones paving the courtyard, for example, were manually laid, one by one, by local volunteers.

LOG: Café & Bar, Entrance (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

And the cafe’s entrance door is made using copper (photo). The color of this material slowly morphs as it is touched, and the people around it are able to enjoy the gradual change which takes place over the years.

LOG: Café & Bar, Counter Table and Chairs (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

LOG: Café & Bar, Interior (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“Small changes like this occur day to day. Once this building fully melds into Onomichi’s hilly landscape, a grand achievement will have been made. I am certain that this will happen within around 15 years”, laughs Mr. Yoshida.

LOG: State of the Library (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“As we continue to build and demolish structures, Onomichi risks seeing its unique charms as a city being lost. It will become just another town that one could find anywhere. I would like us all to think deeply about the materials that we use for construction, as the resulting buildings will eventually meld into the townscape once said 15 years or so have passed. I’d like to see both Onomichi’s people and its buildings constantly evolving.”

LOG: Gallery Space (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Matatabi: Storefronts Crowded with Locals, Immigrants and Tourists (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

To a bar where locals gather

Leaving the mountainous area that LOG is located in, and going down the hilly roads takes one to Onomichi’s central area, which lies next to the sea. As a rather compact city, one of Onomichi’s charms is how you can enjoy a wide range of sights and appearances, with transitions all taking place over a 15 minute walk.

Ramen Matatabi is located in a corner of the Shingai entertainment district, which maintains its appearance as a former-red-light district. Having only counter seats, Ramen Matatabi is a small shop ran by Takaya Ueda, who first moved to Onomichi from Tokyo four years ago. In addition to ramen, you can also enjoy alcoholic beverages and a variety of side dishes. As the evening falls, locals, as well as domestic and international tourists, gather and make friends.

Matatabi: Restaurant Owner Mr. Takaya Ueda (2019)Original Source: Mori, Michi, Ichiaba

“The vegetables come from Pitchfork Farms, which is run by a friend from the United States who moved here to the city. This same friend also makes our mayonnaise, doing it at home. Everything is organic, of course. For those of us here, choosing organic vegetables or avoiding chemical additives is nothing special, something not worth mentioning. But since then, I’ve learned that this is not the case for everyone, so I recently came to think, it would be a good idea to tell how much we care about how our vegetables are produced”, says Mr. Ueda.

Matatabi: Fried Food with Local Vegetables (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Listening to the conversations of people that have gathered at the restaurant, with customers coming from both within and outside of Onomichi, it becomes apparent that each has a connection with food, a women who manufactures vegan chocolate in the city, young farmers who produce tea in Hiroshima prefecture, men who run a liquor store in Nagano, a married couple who have opened an izakaya in Kochi, and more.

“Onomichi is host to a great number of guests from other countries, as well as many who stay in the city and move back and forth between other cities such as Tokyo, etc. There are also a lot of people like me, who have come here from a different city and to start a business. And, of course, there are those who are locally born and raised. Exchanges between these different groups of people occur naturally.”

Matatabi: Inside the Restaurant Crowded with Locals, Immigrants and Tourists (2019)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

As Mr. Ueda says, the city is host to different exchanges that take place between locals and the wide range of visitors who come from throughout Japan as well as from other countries. These daily interactions are a breeding ground for new trends and cultures. This is the food culture of Onomichi, a port city that sees the coming and going of both people and products. The city’s traditions remain alive and well even in the present day, taking the form of new food trends in the broad ties between its people.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
JA Onomichi City Agricultural products direct sales office
Ramen Matatabi

Photos: Yusuke Abe (YARD)
Text: Masaya Yamawaka
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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