In Conversation with Local Japanese Food Guide, Miyuki Sasaki

Japanese Food Guide Miyuki Sasaki On Her Love of Local Food, Traditional Customs & Sake

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We had the pleasure of speaking to local Japanese food guide, Miyuki Sasaki about how food is the gateway to getting to know the customs and cultures of the different regions in Japan. Emphasising the importance of trying dishes and drinks specific to the city or town that you are visiting, Miyuki talks to us about the significance of food and sake in the country and shares her tips for how to best experience authentic Japanese cuisine. 


First, Miyuki, tell us about you – are you from Takayama?

No I’m not, I’m from Akita Prefecture which is in the northeast of Japan. I was born in Honjo City which is on the coast facing the Sea of Japan. I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by rich nature until I was 18 and left for university.

So how did you end up in Takayama?

I lived in Osaka before moving to Takayama in the Hida Region. I was used to living in the countryside surrounded by nature; I lived in Osaka for five years and I never got used to the environment of a big town. I really missed my life closer to nature when I was in the city, so I started looking for somewhere to live in the countryside.

I found a job with the company I now work for in Takayama. I had visited Takayama once when I was 19 years old and I remembered liking the atmosphere of the town, and of course the real attraction was the rich natural environment of forests and mountains surrounding it, so I moved!

What do you love most about Takayama?

Takayama and the whole Hida region is surrounded by high mountains, and the railway only opened 85 years ago. As a result, the area was isolated from a lot of the urban culture of Japan’s modernisation, so there are still many traditional cultural practices here, in the food, dialect, lifestyle and even relationships. Unfortunately, these traditions are dying rapidly in Japan.

I’m someone who loves old, authentic cultural traditions, so for me, the remaining authentic culture in the Hida region makes it a worthy place to live and visit. Plus, this region has incredible nature with green forests, mountains, wild animals, and ground that isn’t just paved over everywhere. I enjoy trail running in the summer and skiing in the winter, both of which I can do on my doorstep here.

So why should people visit? 

Most tourists visit Tokyo and Kyoto when they come to Japan. Tokyo is so modernised and is the biggest city in Japan. Kyoto is the city of old Japanese culture. They are both worth seeing, however, there are so many towns that aren’t big tourist destinations, where ordinary Japanese people are living normally, with a traditional and sustainable lifestyle. Takayama is one of those places, where tourists can experience the real lives of Japanese people in the countryside.      

What is your top recommendation for things to do in Takayama?

In Furukawa, just north of Takayama, I recommend exploring by bike – you can get an English speaking guide to show you around so you don’t get lost. You can really see local life here, including the local farmers, their houses and the beautiful scenery around them. 

In Takayama, you should take a walk along the Enako river. This is out of the main tourist area and not made for visitors at all. Along the path of the riverside, you can see traditional houses and gardens, small neighbourhood markets, and locals taking the same walk you are. I love to show my guests the authentic life of Japan’s rural areas.

Takayama and the Hida region has a lot of great local food. What are your favourites?

Firstly, I love sake! But I don’t have a favourite. In each area or region, there are small and big breweries producing sake for locals. You should always enjoy the local sake of the area that you’re visiting. 

I also love Tsukemono steak, which isn’t actually steak at all. It’s a dish of pickled vegetables, fried on a pan with a beaten egg. I hadn’t seen this dish before coming to the Hida region as it’s a local dish here. It is very easy to make, and so delicious. It’s said the idea of this dish came from locals, during the winter when the temperatures were so cold that the vegetables would freeze, people needed to create something warm so they pickled vegetables before winter, and then thawed them when winter came.

So how long have you been a guide in this area?

I have been a guide for four years, showing guests around by bike, on foot and even on snowshoes.

Why did you decide to become a guide in the first place and what do you enjoy most about it?

I was a teacher before coming to Takayama. I worked in public elementary schools for seven years and in high schools for four years. My degree was in Japanese language for Japanese students. I didn’t actually like being indoors in school all day, and I enjoy seeing different people every day, so I left school and came to the Hida region.

Now as a guide, I love meeting different people from various countries, different ages, different cultures. I get the chance to talk with them about Japanese culture, which I love, and I get to learn about their different cultures too.

The highlight of my job is being able to interact with so many different people.    

Traditional Japanese Pancakes in Takayama

We want to know all about Takayama and Japan’s food! We know miso is popular here. How do people eat it?

The miso that locals have historically used in this region is a type of barley miso which is dark brown in colour and tastes a bit salty.  In this area, we have a traditional dish called Hoba Miso which is grilled miso with sliced mushrooms and green onions on a magnolia leaf. It goes well with sake and you can find it on the menus of local restaurants here.

If someone is visiting Japan, what are the best foods and drinks that they must try? 

Of course, the best drink is sake. I’d always recommend that visitors enjoy the local sake in the local area with the local dishes!

It is so hard to choose the best food as in each area of the countryside as there are so many unique dishes.

I suggest that people who visit this country explore Japan’s rural side, not just Tokyo and Kyoto. Enjoy the local food that was created from the local environment and influenced by local history. 

How important is food in Japanese culture? What role does it play?

Japan is a small island. A single race has been living here for a long time, so it’s always been very important for people to keep good relationships with their neighbours in their communities.

One of the roles of food is to express your heart to your guests and to ensure relationships are well-maintained.

Our food culture strongly relates to ritual events like Matsuri festival, wedding parties and funerals. Most Japanese people are believers of Shinto. Essentially, we believe the food we eat is offered to us from a god in the sky. The dishes for these kinds of special events are based on the same dishes of regular life. In each region, people have created and developed many dishes that suit the local custom and are produced using local ingredients from the surrounding environment. 

Besides Japanese food, do you have another type of food that you enjoy?

I love food that is rooted in traditional customs and provenance. We enjoy dishes from international cuisines here now. I’m interested in imagining why and how those dishes were created – what the stories behind them are. And I like to drink beverages that are thoughtfully paired with the cuisine. 

Have you travelled a lot in Japan? Where is your favourite place in the country? 

There are 47 prefectures in Japan. I have been to all of them except Okinawa. My favourite places are in Oita and Shimane prefecture. They’re not popular destinations at all but I really love their rich culture. I love Buddha statues and pottery and these areas have a lot of historical and cultural heritage sites plus good kilns that produce great pottery.

What about outside of Japan?

I have been to most of eastern Asia, as well as the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. I lived and worked in Palau in the Micronesia islands for two years at a local elementary school as a math teacher and I enjoyed it there.

But the place I’ve enjoyed travelling the most is India. The chaos of people, the culture and religion were all really exciting to me.

 

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