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After riding the super-express Komachi Shinkansen for four hours, through landscapes that could have come directly from movies like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, where wild mountainsides occasionally part to reveal tiny farming villages tucked away in hidden valleys, you finally burst out of the mountains into a landscape dominated by golden-green rice paddies rippling in the wind and small hamlets.
Akita presents a very different face of Japan than the glitz and chrome of Tokyo and Nagoya or the stately solemnity of Nikko and Kyoto. It has very little in the way of special tourist attractions – although those it does have are highly recommended, including the rocky coastline of Oga, the soft blue caldera lake of Tazawako, deepest in Japan, and especially the samurai district of Kakunodate, where an entire district of houses have been preserved in their historic state, making the town look like a scene out of a samurai movie. It also boasts a number of famous mountains, including the “Dewa Fuji” (otherwise known as Mount Chokai) on its southern border and a designated World Heritage mountain range, the Shirakami-Sanchi, on the northern. Akita is the face of Japan’s inaka (田舎), the rural countryside of mountain-surrounded farmlands. Here, the wind that meets you is filled with the smell of green growing things instead of concrete or old incense. Adventurers who want to step off the beaten trail could do little better.
Akita is one of Japan’s major rice producing prefectures – the “Akita Komachi” brand of rice is considered nation-wide to be one of the best. So much so that Akita is sometimes called the Rice Bowl of Japan. (In fact, the prefecture’s name means “Autumn Rice Paddy.”) So it should come as no surprise that Akita’s most famous local dish is… rice!
The surprise is the form the rice takes; most people do not expect sticky rice to be shaped around a wooden skewer and grilled. It’s said that this style of cooking started as a kind of travel rations for hunters going up into the mountains, but today this rice-on-a-stick, called tampo or (if cut) kiritampo, is usually eaten at festivals with a sweet-salty miso paste. However, most kiritampo in Akita isn’t eaten on its stick at all.
In Japan, winter is practically synonymous with nabe – mushrooms, vegetables, meats of some kind and tofu stewed in a crockery pot of boiling broth. And in Akita, which often sees the coldest temperatures, heaviest snows and least sunlight of the main island’s prefectures, the nabe is an ever-present household standby. (Along with pickles, another bit of Japanese cuisine that the local environment has encouraged residents to raise to a fine art.) The local favorite is kiritampo-nabe, where the flavor of the broth and meat – both usually made from the local free-range chicken variety, the Hinai-jidori – soaks into, flavors and rehydrates the grilled rice.
To try another popular local soup, hop on another train and ride your way out to truly the end of the line, on the Oga Peninsula, and watch as fresh vegetables and fish are put together in a cold broth. Then stand back – the next ingredient is a red-hot rock! The result is a flash-boiled hot soup; the lightning-fast cooking time means that the fish meat comes out wonderfully soft and succulent. Go to a high-class restaurant and you get to watch the whole procedure – but, on the other hand, you might find the odd fish eyeball in your soup; it’s considered a delicacy. If you’re not quite that adventurous (or have a smaller budget), there are plenty of small restaurants that serve this ishi-yaki ryori with less flair and less chance of finding your dinner staring back at you. While on your way, you can also pass by what is probably the flattest part of all Japan: Ogata, a village built on the reclaimed land of what was once Japan’s second largest (and distinctly shallowest) lake. Ogata is best known for its all-organic farmer’s market.
VISITING THE LAND OF SNOW AND SAKE
The best time to come to Akita is probably the autumn; as the name of the prefecture implies, this is the most dramatic and pleasant of the seasons. Mountain hiking in particular is highly recommended; the prefecture has no shortage of trails. The Tazawako and Mt. Chokai areas in particular have an abundance of trails. Tazawako in particular also boasts some famous onsen, often associated with a hotel or resort. In addition, the best kiritampo – made with rice freshly threshed from the fields – is made in October. (Although it is usually available throughout the colder months.) And if you come a little early for that, you will get to see the gold-green rice paddies that give Akita its name.
The best time to visit in the winter is February; this is the coldest, snowiest month of the year, but also the time when the winter festivals are in full swing. Be warned that you need to plan your visit well, and that it’s next to physically impossible to visit all the festivals in one year, since most happen at almost exactly the same time (the lunar new year). Some of the best-known festivals are the Sedo Namahage Festival on the Oga Peninsula, where mountain gods in the form of demons come down to purify the fields for the next year and scare the laziness out of the local children, and the Kamakura Festival in Yokote, where other children build snow huts and sell sweet rice drinks to passers-by. This is also a good time to hit the ski slopes to the east and to the south.
Senshu Park, in Akita City, is known for its nighttime sakura (yozakura) in the spring, but true aficionados of the Japanese hanami tradition will want to head out to the old samurai town of Kakunodate, where an entire district of Edo-period houses has been preserved. Some of the houses are even still inhabited; others have been converted to tea shops, coffee houses and museums, but the overall feel is something out of a samurai movie. Volunteer guides are available to walk you through the town and museums, but their English might be a little shaky. In addition to the weeping sakura trees (a rarity in the region brought as part of the dowry of a Kyoto noblewoman), a two-kilometer road along the river has sakura trees planted on both sides, forming a tunnel of blossoms well-known throughout Japan. (Kakunodate is famous for its scenery in the fall as well, when the Japanese maples turn bright scarlet.)
Summer in Japan, with high humidity and heat alike, is not for the faint of heart. Akita, however, is probably a better prospect for visiting than Tokyo; farther north, with less cement, and fanned by winds off the Sea of Japan, summers are more bearable in this region. In addition, Akita boasts a number of summer festivals as well, most famously the Kanto Festival of Akita City, where lanterns dangling from poles to evoke grains of rice are paraded through the city, to the Nishimonai Bon Dance (one of the most famous of its kind in Japan) in Ugo, to the biggest national fireworks competition of Japan, held in Omagari.
Distance from Tokyo and the great urban centers is Akita’s strength, but it does introduce a few complications for the traveler. Trips should be planned carefully and train schedules carefully noted; many trains run only once an hour, nothing like the three-and-a-half minutes of Tokyo. Some of the particularly pleasant towns, such as Kosaka in the far north, have no train connections at all. International driver permits and a visit to the local car rental – of which Akita has many – are definitely advised for the serious visitor. Despite the added inconvenience, though, Akita is worth a visit, particularly for those who want to leave the beaten trail of tourist traps and steal a glimpse of a different sort of Japan.
All the ingredients needed to make your own kiritampo nabe are sold in box sets just about everywhere you look, but for the Text Box: Cherry-bark enameling, or Kaba-zaikuinternational traveler in particular, these boxes might be a little awkward to carry home, particularly as many contain raw meat and are meant to be consumed the day of purchase. A traveler might prefer to save their coin – and their duty-free allowance – for the local breweries: just as Akita is the Rice Bowl of Japan, that same rice also makes it one of Japan’s great Sake Jugs. Nearly every town has its own local brewery, and a number of prize-winning brews have emerged from them. All of these are collected in Akita City’s Atorion Building – located between the View and Castle Hotels not far from the station – where the staff would be happy to give you advice. Some breweries even offer tours; the Daisen City official homepage includes a list with information.
If you would like to buy something a little more long-lasting, Kakunodate is known for kaba-zaiku – “enameling” wooden items with polished cherry bark, which has a warm bronze-brown gleam and a distinctive texture. For those interested in color, the city of Yuri-Honjo is known for gotenmari – balls covered in thread in brightly colored patterns. And if you still want some foods, smoked Japanese pickles – iburi-gakko – are a local favorite, and would probably find favor with barbeque enthusiasts.
One particular adventure for those who chose to explore the prefecture by car is to visit the Michi-no-Eki, or Roadside Stations. Such locations offer goods themed by the locality or by nearby businesses, such as the Ando station not far from Kakunodate, where you can try all varieties of Japanese pickles as well as the surprisingly tasty soy sauce-flavored soft-serve ice cream (醤油ソフトクリーム – it tastes like slightly nutty caramel). And at nearly every station, particularly in the summer and fall, you can try that rarest and most precious of Akita’s offerings: cheap fruits and vegetables, fresh from the field and better than anything you’ll find in Tokyo!
OTHER FAMOUS FOODS IN AKITA
Hatahata – the Japanese sailfin sandfish, better known in Japan as hatahata, has long been a major staple in Akita, although for a period of about four years hatahata fishing was strictly prohibited after a period of massive over-fishing. But now the population has rebounded, and hatahata are once more a common sight on the table. Traditionally the peak hatahata season coincides with the early winter thunderstorms, but it is eaten year-round. You can find hatahata as sushi, grilled (often whole, because it has no scales and relatively few bones), and even fermented in soy sauce.
Inaniwa udon – Most visitors to Japan soon become acquainted with udon, thick wheat noodles usually served in a salty broth with tempura-fried vegetables, a sweet piece of fried tofu, or similar toppings. The udon of the town of Inaniwa will therefore come as something of a surprise, as they are often very thin and fine. These hand-made noodles from the southern part of Akita are famous in Japan, and have even been offered as imperial gifts in the past. They can be ordered at restaurants, or bought dried to take home.
Morokoshi – This Japanese confection is made by mixing azuki bean flour and sugar together and forming small blocks, often molded into decorative shapes. Morokoshi is often very hard but grainy when broken or nibbled, giving it a distinctive texture. Those who prefer to avoid overpoweringly sweet desserts often appreciate the subtle sweetness of this “dry earth” (the traditional meaning of morokoshi) confection.
Yokote yakisoba – This particular form of grilled buckwheat noodles, a common food in Japan, was deliberately designed in 1950 to give the city of Yokote a distinctive cuisine of its own. It is distinguished by a relatively sweet and liquid sauce for the noodles, and the fact that it uses straight noodles rather steamed, curly ones.
Damakomochi nabe – a sibling of Akita’s famed kiritanpo nabe, this form of hot pot soup also features rice as its main ingredient. However, unlike the kiritampo, which are shaped around a stick and grilled, the rice in the damakomochi is shaped into balls about three centimeters in diameter and without further ado inserted into the stew. This particular form of nabe is traditionally eaten at weddings and other similarly auspicious occasions.
Sansai (wild vegetables) – With so much of the prefecture covered by largely uninhabited mountains, one would expect that edible wild plants would be abundant – and one would be quite correct. From spring through late fall, the mountains are often full of restaurateurs and even normal locals searching through the vegetation for delicacies to add to the menu. The mountains offer a wide variety of these vegetables; the best place to eat them is typically inland, particularly around Tazawako and Kakunodate.
One particularly well-known “exotic” vegetable is junsai, or the buds of a particular kind of water plant. These buds are covered with a smooth, slippery membrane that usually picks up and holds the flavor of sauces very well in addition to appealing to the Japanese taste for neba-neba, or “slimy,” cuisine. Junsai are also often fried in tempura.
Horse meat – The northern reaches of Akita are known for their horse meat. Unlike the basashi of the southern part of the main island, however, horse meat in Akita is usually cooked in a stew-like sauce and added to rice, or used as a condiment in ramen. One well-known restaurant can be found in the village of Ani, at the Aniai Station.
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