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Within the next few days I'm going to start a trip from the very south of Kyushu to the very North of Hokkaido.

I'm a bit of a foodie and I'm a huge fan of hot spicy food of all kinds, be it black pepper, chili, horseradish, mustard, Sichuan pepper, wasabi, or anything that might be described as "hot" or "spicy".

Japan is not famed for hot or spicy food, with the exception of wasabi. But I'm interested to find out if there are in fact some local dishes of this type which are not famous. Perhaps only known to Japanese or to food enthusiasts.

Besides wasabi I have also come across shichimi togarashi, koregusu, and taka no tsume. I think these are all just ingredients or condiments but I only found the last one by chance when browsing my dictionary a few minutes ago and I'm not familiar with it.

So I want to know whether there is some "spicy food destination" anywhere in Japan that I can plan my route around.

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That's going to be an awesome trip. I am extremely jealous, and will become more so if you manage to act on any good answers here. I am both a Japanophile and desperate capsaicin junkie. Good luck, and happy trails hippietrail! :) BTW, in case you didn't already know, what you're looking for might also be described as 辛い (karai). –  Nick Stauner Apr 2 at 8:08
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Planning my July Japan trip, I'm keeping a close eye on this question :) –  Mark Mayo Apr 2 at 8:13
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@NickStauner: Wonderfully, 辛い also means "tsurai" - painful (-: –  hippietrail Apr 2 at 8:29
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In fact a Foodie's Guide to Japan would also interest me greatly, so I've asked a related question: Resource for local cuisines and specialties across Japan –  hippietrail Apr 2 at 9:04
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Here is one blog post I found with quite a bit of info about spicy foods in Japan: WASHOKU Japanese Food Culture and Cuisine / Toogarashi red pepper –  hippietrail Apr 2 at 11:12

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

In short, no, there's no Japanese region known for spicy food in the same way that (say) Sichuan or Thailand is. Japanese doesn't really even have a word for "spicy", 辛い karai originally meant "salty" and is still used in that sense as well. However, there are a couple of spicy local specialities, mostly in the south of the country where they had the most Chinese/Korean influence.

enter image description here (courtesy Babi Hijau, Wikimedia Commons)

  • Karashi renkon (辛子蓮根) means "spicy lotus root", and it consists basically of lotus root stuffed with mustard -- and in case you haven't tried Japanese mustard yet, it's usually blow-your-socks-off hot. This is a speciality of Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu.

enter image description here (courtesy Kanko, Flickr)

  • Karashi mentaiko (辛子明太子) is spicy cod roe, this time with actual chilli. It's a Korean import that first landed in Japan at Shimonoseki at the western tip of Honshu, but is now well known all around northern Kyushu (esp. Fukuoka) as well. It's a rather expensive delicacy, and mentaiko spaghetti is a very popular (but only mildly spicy) way to eat it, but connoisseurs eat it raw with rice.

enter image description here (courtesy me)

  • Speaking of Kyushu, while classical tonkotsu ramen (豚骨ラーメン, noodles in pork bone broth) is not spicy, it's very common to add chili to it these days. Fukuoka is also the home of tonkotsu, with Ichiran (一蘭) and Ippudo (一風堂) battling it out for supremacy -- Ippudo's akamaru, in particular, is both famous and spicy. That said, I personally prefer Ichiran for their purity of vision: diners eat in curtained-off single booths! And you can specify the size of your chili dab, the default is above.

And that's about it, really, for main dishes or even main ingredients. In addition to wasabi and shichimi, Japanese cuisine uses some "spicy" spices:

  • The karashi mustard of karashi-renkon is also used to spice up some otherwise bland dishes like oden stew.
  • Yuzu-koshō is a paste of yuzu (a citrus fruit) peel with green chillies, most commonly eaten with nabe hotpot stews and yakitori grilled chicken. Originally from Yufuin in Kyushu, but was briefly super-popular nationwide a few years back.
  • Sanshō (a mild relative of Sichuan pepper) is used in a few dishes like grilled eel (unagi).

There's also a whole slew of spicy nibbles designed to accompany alcohol, eg. takowasabi (minced octopus with wasabi) and shiokara (fermented squid guts, absolutely horrible stuff), but none of these are particularly regional as far as I'm aware.

Last but not least, don't forget more recent culinary imports:

  1. Japan's larger cities usually have Korean enclaves (eg. Tsuruhashi in Osaka and Okubo in Tokyo) which will give you all the chilli you can handle and then some, and many Korean foods like yakiniku BBQ have become an essential part of Japanese cuisine.
  2. Curry rice is apparently the single most common dish prepared in Japanese homes, although this came to Japan via England and even the notionally "spicy" (辛口 karakuchi) varieties will barely register on the palate of a chilli fiend.
  3. Last and probably least, Japanese-style Chinese (中華料理 chūka ryōri) is ubiquitous, even the smallest town will have one or two restaurants serving it. Unfortunately most all spiciness has usually been blanched out, with originally murderously hot Sichuan dishes like mapo doufu turned into vaguely ketchup-y concoctions, but there are usually a few token nominally spicy dishes like ebi chiri (エビチリ), shrimp in chilli sauce, on the menu.
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Sure, but Japan is way behind the curve in adopting the stuff. Never heard of ramen with chili in the noodles itself, although I don't doubt it exists, every hamlet in Japan has its "own" ramen. But ebi-chiri (shrimp in chili sauce) is a classic Japanized Chinese dish. –  jpatokal Apr 2 at 10:53
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@hippietrail Minor quibble: India didn't have chillies, but it did have spices including pepper, so I am guessing there was a word for spicy before chillies were introduced. That said, in most Indian languages, just like in English, the word for chilli is the same word used for "hot" (as in temperature). Perhaps its similar in Japanese? –  Dhara Apr 2 at 11:43
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@Dhara: In fact I'm really interested in these kinds of things and I have asked questions about how these words are or should be used for these various foods/condiments etc on either or booth the english.SE and cooking.SE sites: Is wasabi considered to be spicy or to be a spice? –  hippietrail Apr 2 at 12:16
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Additional notable spicy condiments to be aware of: sanshou and yuzu-koshou. Regarding shiokara, it is salty, not spicy 辛い (and it is a matter of taste; I don't dislike it despite the sliminess). –  Amadan Apr 3 at 1:50
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craving for japanese food now :'( –  Geeo Apr 3 at 6:12

Sapporo, in Hokkaido, is famous for soup curry -- this is a unique Japanese-style curry soup with vegetables (lotus root, potatoes, etc.) and chicken, served with rice on the side. Soup curry places typically have a system where you can pick how hot you want it (from 1-40 or similar) -- the higher levels are really spicy.

You can find pictures on the Japanese Wikipedia article.

For a particular restaurant, you might try Crazy Spice, which is very good.

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I tried this this afternoon in Sapporo and it was the second hottest thing I've eaten in my nine-month trip (one larb on the road north from Bangkok was spicier). At the place I went to (Curry Di. SAVoY) the choice was from 1 to 6 and I chose 6. It was delicious and generous as well as spicy. Unfortunately I'm going to leave jpatokal's answer as the accepted one because of how much effort they put in, even though you found the spiciest thing in the country that did not make their list. –  hippietrail May 3 at 15:52
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That's fair enough. I didn't do any special work; I'd just spent some time in the area. I'm glad you enjoyed it. –  emodendroket May 5 at 19:21

Yes, there are.

Hachijo islands and Ogasawara islands are famous for spicy food. Islanders put their chilli peppers literally anywhere and they are REALLY hot. I am not sure, but could be a variation of Thai Birds' Eye Chili peppers.

Islanders make spicy vinegar-based sauces similar to Tabasco sauce (just few times hotter), use peppers instead of wasabi to eat sushi, put peppers into soba noodles, make "tare" sauce of soy sauce and peppers and these are just most common uses.

However: normally food shops on these islands although feature some local dishes they are apparently "normalised" for an average visitor, so it's not that easy to find local spicy excesses being a tourist. Some pepper would be passed as an option in soba shops and that's all.

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Okinawans love this stuff too, except that they use awamori (rice liquor) instead of vinegar! Here are a few kinds from Taketomi: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yaeyaman_Spices_at_Takenoko.jpg –  jpatokal Jul 30 at 12:02
    
Wow thanks for this. I have had Hachijo on my list for my next visit to Japan since 1) I found out they have the strangest Japanese dialect beside the Ryukyus and 2) I saw photos of Aogashima. Now I have three reasons to go. Now to read about Ogasawara too. –  hippietrail Jul 30 at 14:03
    
I had koregusu (chilis in awamori) at every opportunity while I was in Okinawa. I think the kind of chilis you compare to Thai birds' eye chilis could be what are called "eagle claw chilis" (鷹の爪). –  hippietrail Jul 30 at 14:09
    
In fact there are native species of chilli peppers on the islands, as there are on Mariana islands which are on the same island row. Not sure if these are Eagle Claw chillis, but could be different, since I've can clearly taste the difference. :) And of course you are welcome to Hachijo island. I spend a lot of time there and it is an awesome place to be with very relaxed and friendly locals. The dialect is indeed funny and unintelligible to Japanese speaker, locals call it a "Hachijo language" by the way, but it is somewhat hard to hear since locals rarely use it with non-locals. –  Rilakkuma Jul 30 at 15:56
    
@jpatokal Okinawans and Hachijo people have a lot in common and share many things historically, such as fishing ship types, some language features and local music so I won't be surprised if pepper culture is one shared thing too. :) –  Rilakkuma Aug 2 at 14:15

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