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What to Eat in Wakayama: The Spiritual Heart of Japan

By Ashley Owen
August 24, 2020
Updated: October 12, 2020
We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan’s food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.

Tucked away on the remote Kii Peninsula that makes up the southern part of Kansai, Wakayama is a stunningly beautiful region of rugged mountains, pristine beaches, and epic pilgrimage trails. Its temperate climate, fertile soil, and miles of Pacific Ocean coastline also provide the prefecture with an abundance of fresh produce and seafood, creating a rich and varied local cuisine. Here’s our guide on what to eat in Wakayama.

From unique regional takes on ramen noodles and nabe hotpot, to locally-sourced fruits and seasonings, Wakayama has plenty to offer foodie travelers. Vegans and vegetarians should head to Mount Koya for traditional, plant-based Buddhist cuisine, while fans of seafood won’t want to miss Wakayama Marina City, where you can try the freshest local fish – or even try to catch your own! Whatever your tastes, there’s something here for you to enjoy.

What to Eat in Wakayama

Here are some local Wakayama specialty dishes to try on your trip to the Kii Peninsula.

  1. Wakayama Ramen
  2. Meharizushi
  3. Wakayama Beef (Kumanogyu)
  4. Kishu Umeboshi
  5. Sansho Pepper
  6. Shojin Ryori
  7. Kue Nabe
  8. Wakayama Mikan

1. Wakayama Ramen

A bowl of Wakayama ramen with thick pork broth, strips of chashu, a whole boiled egg, and a topping of thinly-sliced negi

When you think of popular Japanese food, ramen may well be the first thing that comes to mind. Each prefecture puts its own spin on these noodles, and the dish is so popular here that some taxi drivers are even specially trained to make ramen recommendations! Known locally as chuka soba (Chinese noodles), Wakayama ramen tends to have a rich, thick soup that’s often made using pork broth, and always generously flavored with local soy sauce. Popular toppings include pork, spring onions and narutomaki fish cakes, as well as freshly-caught seafood from the waters surrounding Wakayama.

2. Meharizushi

Three portions of meharizushi on a tray

Meharizushi is a traditional style of vegetarian sushi, and a staple of Wakayama cuisine. Consisting of rice balls wrapped in pickled takana (mustard) leaves, the resulting snack is similar to the stuffed vine leaves enjoyed in Greece.

Originally made as a lunch for people working in the farms and mountains, these days meharizushi is served in smaller portions as part of a meal set or bento box. The sharpness of the mustard leaves balances the mild taste of the rice well, and hidden in the center you’ll also often find finely chopped pickled vegetables or takana leaves for extra flavor.

3. Wakayama Beef (Kumanogyu)

Thin slice of Japanese wagyu being dipped into a hot pot

Kobe isn’t the only part of Japan that's famous for its beef! Wakayama beef, or kumanogyu, is a premium variety of wagyu beef renowned for its sweet flavor, richly marbled appearance, and melt-in-your-mouth texture. It takes its name from the Kumano region in the south of Wakayama prefecture, where the cattle are raised. The meat can be enjoyed as a steak, juicy burger, or grilled BBQ-style at a yakiniku restaurant, with plenty of options to suit different tastes and budgets.

4. Kishu Umeboshi

Umeboshi, Japanese pickled plums, in a white dish

One of the most famous Wakayama foods is the humble plum, or ume. The prefecture grows more plums than anywhere else in Japan, and they're used to make products such as liquor and juice as well as umeboshi. Fans of sour food won’t want to miss these pickled plums, which have a soft, wrinkled appearance and a distinctive tart, salty flavor with a hint of sweetness at the same time. Commonly enjoyed with white rice – for example in an onigiri rice ball or bento box – they can also be made into a paste to be used in cooking or as a garnish.

5. Sansho Pepper

Japanese sansho pepper plant

Sansho pepper is a traditional Japanese seasoning made from the Japanese prickly ash tree, and Wakayama is one of the biggest producers of this spice in Japan. It has a distinctive lemony-peppery taste similar to that of Szechuan pepper, but with stronger citrus notes. Don't worry if you're not a fan of spicy food though, as the heat is comparatively mild. Sansho is a key ingredient in many Japanese dishes, such as yakitori and grilled unagi (eel), and often makes up part of the spice blend shichimi. The seasoning is also said to have a wealth of health benefits, so don’t forget to bring some home as a souvenir to include in your own cooking!

6. Shojin Ryori

A close up photo of shojin ryori, with several small dishes

When it comes to what to eat in Wakayama, there’s one type of food that should be on everyone’s list: shojin ryori. This traditional, Buddhist cuisine is made using no animal ingredients, meaning it can be enjoyed by vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike. It’s centered around local, seasonal ingredients designed to balance the body, and each dish is so beautifully presented that your meal will look like a work of art! The best place in the prefecture to try shojin ryori is Mount Koya, a sacred mountaintop town where you can spend the night in temple lodgings. Be sure to try their special tofu, koyadofu, which is frozen and dried before being cooked to better absorb the flavor.

7. Kue Nabe

Wakayama fish nabe with a small nabe hot pot and a dish of fish and other ingredients

This winter favorite is another must-try on your Wakayama travels! Soul-warming and nutritious, nabe hotpots are popular one-pot stews enjoyed all across Japan during the cold season. Each prefecture has its own version of the dish, and here the specialty is kue nabe. Kue, known in English as a long-toothed grouper, is a rare white fish found off the coast of Wakayama. Served in a rich broth alongside tofu, vegetables and shungiku chrysanthemum leaves, kue is prized for its soft texture and delicate taste. Its rarity can make this an expensive dish, but the taste is well worth it! 

8. Wakayama Mikan

Wakayama mikan growing on a tree

Wakayama’s warm climate makes it ideal for growing fruit, and mikan have been cultivated in the prefecture since the 1600s. This bright orange, seedless citrus fruit is similar to the tangerine, with a deliciously sweet taste. As well as being enjoyed in their natural state, mikan can be freshly-squeezed into juice, made into jam, or even used to flavor alcohol and desserts – both of which make fantastic souvenirs! If you want to try a more hands-on Wakayama attraction, some orchards welcome visitors to pick their own fruit at certain times of the year. It doesn't get fresher than that!

Whether you’re here to walk the historic pilgrim paths, sunbathe on Shirahama Beach, or relax in an authentic Wakayama onsen, make sure you leave plenty of time for sampling the local cuisine too! Hopefully this guide has given you some inspiration for what to eat in Wakayama, and encouraged you to visit this ancient and picturesque prefecture.

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Ashley Owen
Ashley is a freelance travel writer from the UK who spent the last two years living in Japan, and is about to embark on her next adventure to New Zealand. She's always on the lookout for exciting new vegan treats wherever she goes!
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