Writer: Yumiko Ishimaru
Kombu is edible kelp. The history of kombu is very long, and there is no record where this name came from. It is supposed that the Chinese who traveled to Japan by boat in the late Jomon period ate kombu. It is also said that kombu was used as a present for the traders or as an offering to the leaders.
Again, there is no record where the name kombu came from; however, some people say that indigenous people of Hokkaido, Ainu, used to call it “kombu” when they went into China, and this name was re-imported to Japan as a foreign word.
In the Edo era, when marine traffic increased, the trading ship called “Kitamae-sen” that sailed in Japan Sea used to deliver rice, soy sauce, etc. from the main island of Japan to Hokkaido. They also brought back kombu from Hokkaido to the main island. Furthermore, kombu was distributed to Satsuma (now called Kagoshima Prefecture) by vendors of medicine from Toyama. Then kombu was distributed from Satsuma to Ryukyu (now called Okinawa Prefecture), and then from Ryukyu to Qing (China). Also it was distributed from Toyama to Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo. “Kombu Road” is a general term for those kombu distribution routes.
As Kombu Road expanded and kombu was introduced to new lands, unique kombu eating cultures were developed. Kitamae-sen that flourished from Edo era into the mid Meiji era used to be operated by traditional coalitions of ship-owners. Kitamae-sen spread not only daily commodities such as kombu and rice, but also people and cultures. In this manner, the largest sea transportation routes were formed by Kitamae-sen.
It is well-known that Toyama has the highest rate of Kombu consumption in Japan. One of the reasons is that Toyama was one of the ports of call for Kitamae-sen. Consumption of kombu in the Kanto area including Tokyo has been one of the lowest because the Kombu Road reached Kanto much later.
A little trivia:
Toyama people love “Rausu-kombu” and Kyoto people love “Rishiri-kombu”.
I will talk about different species of kombu in the next column!