I've been perusing a new booklet just published - Japan's Tasty Secrets - covering a myriad of regional food favorites in Japan. Complete with a map, color photographs, and good basic descriptions it quickly moves the reader beyond the stereotypical sushi and rice (although these are also present in fantastic forms) to flavors, textures and ingredients that embody Japan through the seasons. Beginning with favorite Japanese foods eaten all across the country the booklet includes a large section on signature regional favorites that in some cases have been served for hundreds of years.
The short descriptions include a bit of story (as all good food does) to further whet the appetite. Knowing it is difficult to grow rice further north in colder areas such as Nagano makes the popularity of soba (buckwheat noodles) clear to me at last. (Buckwheat requires a shorter growing season and is a good source of nutrition.) Imagining food shortages after WW2 gives the Ikinari dago (sweet potato dumplings) a different flavor, as does knowing that Karashi rennkon (lotus root stuffed with spicy miso) started being served about 300 years ago. The sheer variety of ingredients - tofu, wild and tame vegetables, duck, chicken, pork, salmon (meat and roe), pufferfish, trout, wild boar (seriously), beef, konnyacu, ginger, garlic chives, chestnuts, etc. -shows that this list only scratches the surface of a rich culinary history.
Even if a traveler can only stay in Tokyo, this handbook opens a door to a variety of tastes that can only be found in Japan. (To be frank, eating here can sometimes be intimidating, but this booklet will take the edge off.) Organized by the Rural Development Planning Commission, a division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, (and translated by Adam Fulford), the booklet is meant to encourage exploration of the countryside. (Something I would highly recommend, too!) Information on getting a copy before coming to the country is available here, but it can also be found at Japan's international airports.