Zoe Rees, Destination Specialist

Read how the etiquette surrounding food and dining in Japan is particularly strong, even on the trails.

Anyone who has hiked in Japan will tell you that a significant part of the experience is the food – and it will definitely play a big role in your Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo Way experience. Along these trails you will often stay in family-run accommodation (minshuku and ryokans) in small villages and have the opportunity to sample delicious, fresh and locally-produced meals. Here, food becomes a work of art; the combination of flavours, appearance and seasonal ingredients is taken very seriously. As is the custom around dining.

Japan, while very advanced in many ways, can also be quite traditional in others. For instance, punctuality is appreciated. Meal times are set and you usually have only one or two choices with regards to the time. And, while dietary requirements and allergies may be commonplace in many countries, they are neither common nor well understood in Japan. Read more about dietary requirements and allergies here.

Each accommodation owner or chef takes great pride in preparing a well thought out breakfast and multi-course dinner from local and seasonal ingredients. Yes, you will be eating a lot of rice and a lot of fish (raw and cooked) — sometimes three times a day. You will also be served vegetables, tofu, some meat, some eggs, soups, pickled dishes and food cooked at your table over a small burner.

Both of RAW Travel’s walks include amazing breakfasts and dinners. On the Kumano Kodo you are also provided with a packed lunch for most of your trekking days. On the Nakasendo Way you do have a bit more of a chance to choose where you eat — though soba noodles is the local fast food and you won’t find any burger joints here!

cooking up soba noodles

You will receive an abundance of food, especially at dinner times, when you will be presented with many courses (kaiseki). It is better to try some of everything and, while you can express you are too full if you are really struggling, the Japanese do not like to waste food. Cleaning your plate is the biggest compliment you can pay a chef (as is saying oishii which means something like delicious or yummy — this was very well received when I used it!). One idea: if you are travelling with other people, you can swap your food with each other.

Japanese seafood meal

Those enjoying a temple stay in Koyasan will also be able to experience a unique way of preparing meals. Shojin ryori is vegetarian cuisine which was initially created for samurai who wanted to train with the monks and have “pure” food, excluding fish, meat and animal products. There is a separate kitchen and special chef who prepares these meals. A typical shojin ryori meal is centered around soybean-based foods like tofu along with seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants, which are believed tobring balance and alignment to the body, mind, and spirit. The monks use the “rule of five” when cooking, so that every meal offers five colors (green, yellow, red, black and white) as well as five flavours (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). This simple meal is a big contributor to the fine dining kaiseki meals and is now trending outside of Koyasan with chefs training in this style of food preparation across Japan.

 To accompany your meals, you may be wondering about the local tipple. Sake, of course, is the national beverage and a popular choice. If you have tried this at home and not liked it, I recommend giving it another try in Japan. I would also suggest the cold variations to ensure top quality (many of the heated sake are a restaurant’s way of covering up the cheaper ingredients). Exported sake has added preservatives which can impact some of the taste, however the sake in Japan has no preservatives and this results in a smooth and clean flavour. Sake was the travellers’ choice of drink following a long walk, particularly along the Nakasendo Way, and you will find many breweries in Kiso Fukushima and the area.

For those who prefer something a bit sweeter, you may enjoy umeshu, which is traditionally made by steeping green plum in sugar and clear alcohol. It is sometimes called an apricot or peach (it is from the same family), but, either way, taken over ice, this is a lovely way to end your meal, though sometimes you will be given a small taste as part of your appetiser at dinner.

umeshu, a Japanese alcoholic drink