The Ōmi regions’ climate and nature, plentiful fresh water, rich soils and wide flat areas ideal for farming together with the bounties of Lake Biwa has led to the creation of a unique Ōmi food culture, and is one of the regions other popular attractions.
Ōmi beef is considered one of Japan’s three major wagyu beef brands. Older than even the famed Kobe or Matsusaka beef, Ōmi Beef dates back over 400 years to when the consumption of meat was usually forbidden yet was consumed by the samurai caste for medicinal purposes. The Ii clan of Hikone were one of the very few clans that allowed the slaughter of native wagyu cows in order to obtain hides for the shogunate’s jindaiko war drums. The consumption of wagyu beef was done so as not to waste the meat after removing the cowhide. The Ii clan of Ōmi’s Hikone devised a way to marinate the fine beef in traditional miso, a soy based paste, and presented this to the shogunate and members of the elite Tokugawa family as a health food.
Origins of Certified Ōmi Beef
During the 1868-1912 Meiji Era, Ōmi Beef made its way to the tables of Tokyo with the development of road and rail distribution networks. Ōmi Beef was shipped to Tokyo via Kobe Port and in those days it was customary to refer to a brand by the name of the port from which it was shipped. Therefore, Ōmi Beef was branded as Kobe Beef, despite being produced in Ōmi. For this reason, the name Kobe Beef became recognized worldwide as a high quality product. The completion of the Tokaido Line rail network in 1889 and the opening of Ōmi-Hachiman Station paved the way for direct shipments of Ōmi Beef to Tokyo, and as a result, the name Ōmi Beef was at last recognized. Over the last 100 years Ōmi Beef became firmly established as a brand and today Ōmi Beef is being produced on 80 farms in nine cities and five towns across Ōmi, modern-day Shiga Prefecture. Delicious as a steak, grilled, or thinly sliced for sukiyaki, Ōmi Beef can now be enjoyed at fine restaurants across the nation, but for some reason, it always tastes better in Ōmi!
Sake & Beer
Approximately one-sixth of Shiga Prefecture’s area is taken up by Lake Biwa. That’s a lot of water, but thankfully the people of Ōmi have found a good use for it. Fresh, clear water and the rich rice grown in abundance across Ōmi, is brought together and in the hands of a specialist is transformed into sake!
The rice grown in the basin surrounded by the Ibuki and Suzuka Mountains, is particularly ideal for sake production, and plentiful underground water from the mountains makes this area ideal for sake brewing. Many sake breweries prospered around Ōmi’s lakeside towns and post towns along the Tokaido and Nakasendo, and because of these land and water transportation routes, were able to expand their sales activities. There are currently 33 breweries in Ōmi still producing fine sakes.
These same fine waters of Lake Biwa and the many springs across Ōmi is has led to a marked increase recently in companies producing craft beer, and a wide range of seasonal beers, ales, stouts, porters and IPAs are being produced.
The Nagahama Roman (i.e Romantic) brewery also features a restaurant where visitors can enjoy freshly brewed beer together with a menu that focuses on Ōmi ingredients, in particular Ōmi beef and Ōmi grown vegetables. Hikone Beer is an eco-friendly craft beer brewery delivering a wide range of craft beers made with Hikone ingredients. Meanwhile the popular Two Rabbits brand is produced in the Ōmi-Hachiman district by expat Australian brewers focusing intently on creating “Beer for everyone” with a blend of Down Under hops and Ōmi waters. Which is the best? Well, you’re just going to have to travel around Ōmi and enjoy the original craft beer of each unique brewery.
Lake Biwa Fish
Known as the “Jewel of Lake Biwa” Biwamasu are a native fish species found only in ancient Lake Biwa, and is a local delicacy. Lake fish dishes such as small sweetfish and honmoroko, which are also only found in Lake Biwa, are used to create a food culture unique to Ōmi.
Funazushi is another unique regional traditional dish, prepared by fermenting Biwa caught salt preserved crucian carp in rice. Techniques for the marinating of fish in rice has existed in Japan since ancient times, but using crucian carp as an ingredient is a unique food culture of the Ōmi area, and Ōmi’s Funazushi is said to be the root of modern day sushi. An acquired taste, it is said that Oda Nobunaga once served funazushi to entertain the future shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It is still eaten traditionally by the locals, and by gourmands in search of a new taste sensation.
The Nagahama area along the northeastern coast of Lake Biwa specializes in specially raised duck dishes, while Ōmi’s mountainous Ibuki and Taga regions are famed for their fine buckwheat soba noodles.
The Rare Mandokoro Tea of Higashi-Ōmi
The one-time ruler of Japan, warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi is said to have met his right-hand man while being served tea. Ōmi born Ishida Mitsunari was 13 years old when Lord Hideyoshi was practicing falconry near Nagahama Castle one hot day. Hideyoshi came to the temple where Mitsunari was serving tea. The story goes that Mitsunari brought the great lord a large, mild, luke-warm cup of tea. The thirsty Hideyoshi quickly downed this before being presented with a second cup, slightly smaller, slightly hotter, slightly stronger than the first. His thirst quenched, Hideyoshi could sip at this one. A third cup, in a smaller tea bowl, much hotter and stronger than the last cup was finally served. This, Hideyoshi could take his time and relax with. Admiring the young man’s intelligence and hospitality, Hideyoshi took him on as one of his staff.
The tea served at this particular meeting is a local delicacy known as Mandokoro, a now rare native variety. There are also records that Mandokoro tea was served to Oda Nobunaga. Mandokoro is located in eastern Ōmi. Across Japan, tea cultivation was associated with the arrival of Zen Buddhism, and the Eigen-ji Temple’s founding in 1361 in Higashi-Ōmi is the origin of tea cultivation in Mandokoro. The area was found most suitable for tea cultivation due to the soils, geology, temperature differences, and rising river fogs. Although production quantity accounts for a mere 1-2% of Shiga Prefecture’s total tea output, it is probably one of the most traditional and ancient teas of Japan, with more than 600 years of history. It truly is the taste of Ōmi.