The richness of the food culture of Yamagata Prefecture, known as “Another Japan”
Yamagata Prefecture is located in the northeastern part of Honshu (the main island of Japan). Around Mt. Gassan, which is located in the middle of the prefecture, there are Zao-san, Chokai-san, and Azuma-yama. They are mountains counted in the “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”, and the area is surrounded by scenic beauty.
A famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho spent 43 days on his journey of “Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North)” in this region, which is blessed with beautiful nature. “Silence, the sound of cicadas seeping into the rock.” This familiar “Cicada haiku” was composed at a famous temple “Rissyakuji” in Yamagata City. The places associated with Basho that are scattered throughout the prefecture have become a popular destination for haiku lovers and tourists. Edwin O. Reischauer, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, described attractive Yamagata Prefecture as “the other side of the mountain.”
Cooperating store: Ajidokoro Furuyama
A kingdom of good food with a variety of evolved local cuisine
Visitors’ palates are delighted by the local specialties that are proudly produced in the area. Rice, which accounts for about 30% of the agricultural output, and the nation’s top producer of cherries and pears are all high-quality products. The prefectural government even proclaims “Yamagata, a prefecture of excellent food and sake.”
Many people love the melt-in-your-mouth texture of “generically named Yamagata beef” and high-quality “brand pork from Yamagata Prefecture.” Also, you cannot forget the colorful pickles that come with each season. Various local flavors, such as “Seisai-zuke (pickled greens)” and “Akakabu-zuke” (pickled red turnips), have been handed down from generation to generation.
While there are gorgeous ingredients, the local flavors have also been passed down. For example, Yukina (snow greens), dried vegetables and edible wild plants. Mr. Hiroyoshi Furuyama says that the local cuisine using these ingredients is “full of wisdom unique to snow country.” He has been a chef at the famous “Ajidokoro Furuyama” restaurant in Yonezawa City for over 30 years.
Some of the local dishes handed down today were originally started in the period when food was hard to come by. Ingredients that are known only to the locals are one of the hidden charms of Yamagata Prefecture.
Yamagata Prefecture consists of four regions: the Murayama, Mogami, Okitama, and Shonai regions. However, there are various types of foods. For example, even for one of the typical local dishes, “Imoni,” that the ingredients and seasoning differ from region to region. Let’s take a look at the diverse and evolving food culture of each region.
< Murayama region >
Preserved food culture that has long been rooted in the village
The Murayama region, with its basins including the Yamagata Basin and its hilly and mountainous terrain, boasts the nation’s largest harvest of cherries and pears. Throughout the year, various festivals and events are held such as the “Cherry Festival”, “Hanagasa Festival”, and “Yamagata Imoni Festival”. Along with Zao hot springs and many other hot spring facilities, it is also a popular tourist spot.
In the Edo period (1603 - 1867), the Kamigata culture was brought here by trade via the Mogami River. Gorgeous hina dolls left in old houses in this region, such as “Kokinbina” and “Kyohobina” tell us that there was a lot of trade in the past.
“Simmering of dried hyo” is an essential part of the New Year’s festive foods. “Dried hyo” is sun-dried “hyo” (purslane) that grows wild on roadsides and fields. Our predecessors picked hyo in the summer, dried and preserved it. At the beginning of the New Year, they ate it in a simmered dish, saying that “Maybe (“hyottoshite” in Japanese) this year, good things will happen to us.”
In addition, in snowy areas, they prepared for winter by drying or salting vegetables and wild plants harvested from spring to summer as preserved food.
< Mogami region >
A unique local confectionery that remains in the place associated with Basho
Surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, the Mogami region is the area where a lot of deep virgin forest remains. About 80% of the total area of the region is covered with forest, and it is known as one of the best “giant tree villages” in Japan. “Shiraito Falls” in Tozawa Village is one of the “100 Best Waterfalls in Japan ”. There are a group of waterfalls in the Mogami Gorge along the Mogami River, with Shiraito Falls being the largest of them. Matsuo Basho wrote a haiku in front of the breathtaking view.
Centered on rice grown in the limpid waters of the Mogami River, which flows through the region, cultivation of garden products such as chives and leeks, wild vegetables, and fungi (mushrooms) are also popular. Especially, the production of fungi accounts for about 70% of the prefecture’s total.
The local confectionery passed down from old times in this region is called “Kujira-mochi” (whale rice cake). Dough made of glutinous rice and uruchi rice flour is mixed with sugar, miso and soy sauce, and steamed. There are many theories as to the origin of the unusual name: it comes from the large size of the old “Kujira-mochi”, which was compared to a whale, it resembles salted whale meat with its skin on, or the kanji characters for “Kujira-mochi” mean “long lasting rice cake.”
“Kujira-mochi” is a festive food for the Peach Festival (Girls’ Festival) in the old calendar. A long time ago, it was customary for people to make “Kujira-mochi” at home. They shared their prized “Kujira-mochi” with their neighbors and competed with each other in their skills.
< Okitama region >
The carp dish recommended by the Uesugi family
The Okitama region is located in the southern part of the prefecture and is surrounded by the Ou Mountains and the Asahi Mountains. The Yonezawa Basin, Nagai Basin and Oguni Basin are located in the basin of the Mogami River with its source in Mt. Nishiazuma. The specialty “Okahijiki” (saltwort) is an annual grass similar to the seaweed hijiki. It is sold in and out of the region, and is eaten boiled, stir-fried, or as a salad.
This region is also known as a place associated with the Uesugi family. “Uesugi Shrine” located in “Matsugasaki Park” in Yonezawa City enshrines a famous samurai, Uesugi Kenshin. The “Yonezawa Uesugi Festival” is held in the spring, and the “Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival” is held in the winter.
Carp has been eaten in this region for a long time. Originally, they ate carp caught in the river, but since the era of the feudal government, carp farming has become popular. It was inspired by the lord of Yonezawa, Uesugi Yozan. He was concerned about the Yonezawa domain’s lack of animal protein. He ordered the fry of carp from Fukushima Prefecture, and promoted farming under the domain’s administration. The vassals made a pond in the yard of their house to raise carp.
People have eaten carp, rich in nourishment, as “Koi koku,” in which carp is cooked in miso, and “Koi no arai” in which carp is sliced and dipped in cold water. Among them, “Koi no umani,” a salty-sweet stew of carp, is a festive food eaten on New Year’s Eve. The common people wished for good health in the following year in front of the feast, which they could not usually eat.
< Shonai region >
A feast unique to the coastal region, condensing the tastes of the harsh winter
The Shonai region is located in the lowermost basin of the Mogami River, and has the Shonai Plain facing the Sea of Japan. The basin, with its fertile plains, is one of Japan’s leading grain-producing regions. About half of the prefecture’s brand-name rice, “Tsuyahime,” is grown in this region.
Sakata City, where the port of Sakata is located, once flourished as a port of call for Kitamaebune. The Kitamaebune was a group of merchant ships that were active on the Sea of Japan from the Edo period (1603 - 1867) to the Meiji period (1868 - 1912). The culture of ryotei restaurants in Sakata, which was reminiscent of Kyoto, originated from the merchants and shipowners of the Kitamaebune.
In Tsuruoka City, home to the Three Mountains of Dewa, a sacred place of mountain worship, there are many “festive foods and traditional foods” that have been associated with spiritual culture since long ago. More than 50 types of indigenous crops that have been protected for hundreds of years have been identified, and behind its history and food culture, it is the only city in Japan to be recognized by UNESCO as a “Creative City of Gastronomy.”
In the Shonai-hama, a coastal area extending about 60 km, more than 130 kinds of marine products are landed throughout the year. In recent years, the city has been working on branding “Shonai-obako Spanish mackerel,” “wild ocellate puffer” and “Shonai Kitamae crab.”
There are also many local dishes made from fish and shellfish. “Hatahata no yuage” (boiled sandfish) has been popular as a winter food since for centuries, and “Masu no ankake” (trout dressed with a thick starchy sauce) is a local delicacy that can be eaten at the Tenjin festival in May.
The main attraction of the winter seasonal “Kandara Matsuri” (cold cod festival) in Shonai is “Kandara Jiru” made of the bony parts, milt and liver of cod with miso soup. The flavor of the cod and seasonal iwanori seaweed brings pleasure to those enjoying this soup.
As you can see, Yamagata Prefecture’s food culture has been shaped by its long history. Some areas looked to the sea for their food, while others sought their food base in the mountains and fields.
“It’s not flashy, but it feels like you’re eating something local, like ‘tama-konnyaku’ or ‘imoni,’” said Mr. Furuyama. The charm of the food, which shines through in its simplicity, has been passed down through time.