The taste of “Kaga Hyakumangoku” that blossomed with the plentiful harvest from the sea and mountains

Ishikawa Prefecture is located at the center of the Hokuriku Region, bordering Toyama and Gifu prefectures to the east and Fukui Prefecture to the south. Its long and narrow terrain runs from southwest to northeast, with its tip protruding into the Sea of Japan. The prefectural land is divided into north and south in the Noto and Kaga districts with Hodatsushimizu Town, Kahoku City and Tsubata Town as the boundary. The topography of the two districts differs significantly with the Noto district largely comprising low mountains and hilly terrain with an altitude of 300 meters or less. The Sotoura area with its coast facing the Sea of Japan has well-developed river terraces, while a contrasting quiet coastline with gentle waves extends along the Uchiura area, located on the Toyama Bay side.

Meanwhile, the Kaga district is characterized by its mountainous areas with the highest peak of Mt. Haku at an elevation of 2,702 meters. River erosion and sedimentation have formed a wide plain. Sand dunes stretch along the length of its coastline, which is one of the longest in Japan, except in the south. The plains have a relatively mild climate although the area experiences cloudy and rainy weather that can last for several days due to the winter storm phenomenon that is unique to the Hokuriku region.

Video provided in part by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture Stores interviewed: Aoki Cooking School and Hacchoya

From the separation of Noto and Kaga provinces to the establishment of Kaga Domain

During the Ritsuryo period, Noto and Kaga provinces, which constituted Echizen Province, separated over time with the establishment of Noto Province in the mid-8th century and Kaga Province in the early 9th century

In the early modern era, when the Edo shogunate system was instituted, Noto, Kaga, and Etchu provinces (present-day Toyama Prefecture) became the territory of the Kaga Domain. Following the death of Lord Maeda Toshiie, one of the leading generals during the Sengoku period, the domain is said to have earned the rights to land worth 1.2 million koku of rice, which consequently created the term “Kaga Hyakumangoku” or Kaga with one million koku of rice.

Image provided by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture

The Kaga Domain was located in Kanazawa City, the home of Kanazawa Castle, where the Maeda family resided. This is where a castle town and samurai culture developed. Successive lords of the domain took a keen interest in cultural projects, encouraging commoners to engage in crafts and tea ceremonies. Today, 10 items including Kutani ware, Wajima lacquerware, and Kanazawa leaf have been passed on as nationally designated traditional crafts. The proportion of people who enjoy the tea ceremony and flower arranging here is one of the highest in Japan.

Different food cultures developed in these distinctive districts with a diverse history and lifestyle: the Noto district surrounded by the sea, the Kaga district with a sprawling plain, and the Kanazawa environs that prospered as a castle town. What are the features of these food cultures?

< Noto district >
A key maritime transport hub where a seafood-based food culture is embedded

With its peninsula protruding into the ocean, the Noto area has served as a key base of maritime shipping along the Sea of Japan since the ancient times. The Port of Fukuura, located in present-day Shika Town, is known to have traded with the Bohai Sea countries in China from the Nara Period to the Heian Period, which led to the inflow of diverse cultural influences.

Fishing methods such as trawling, pole fishing and fishing by ama divers developed in Sotoura. The popular fishing method in Uchiura is yellowtail fishing using fixed nets. Inshore fish, shellfish and seafood continue to be part of the daily diet in the coastal areas where a food culture that relies on food from the ocean has taken root. Wheat and azuki beans were grown in inland areas with a lot of snowfall. Barley was eaten on a daily basis, coupled with “satoimo meshi” (rice cooked with taro) and “daikon meshi” (rice cooked with daikon radish) in autumn. Wheat grown in the mountain fields is processed into udon and somen noodles.

One of most popular seasonings in Noto is a fish sauce named “ishiru,” which is made by fermenting and aging salted fish for a year or longer. The term ishiru is said to have come either from iyoshiru (fish sauce), shioshiru (salt sauce), or yoshiru (leftover sauce from pickled fish). The diversity in taste from region to region is one of the features that make ishiru so alluring; the main ingredient of ishiru is sardine meat in Sotoura and squid liver in Uchiura. Ishiru is well known as one of the “three major fish sauces of Japan” along with shottsuru from Akita Prefecture and ikanago shoyu from Kagawa Prefecture.

The “Journal of Japanese Seafood Products” published in the Taisho era has a description of ishiru from Noto, suggesting that ishiru production had already been established as an industry by that time. In the old days when transportation was inconvenient, Ishiru-nabe, a nabe stew dish seasoned with fish sauce, used to be a delicacy among people in the mountain villages where fish was a rare commodity.

< Kaga district >
Largest grain-producing region in the prefecture, created by a class-A river

Kaga Plain is a vast, fan-shaped plain, created by the “Tedori River,” the largest, class-A river in Ishikawa Prefecture that spreads in the central and southern parts of the prefecture. With an area of about12,000 hectares, the plain covers eight municipalities including Kanazawa, Komatsu, and Kaga. A water control expert named Eda Gombei built seven irrigation canals from the end of the Edo period to the beginning of the Meiji era to improve the soil that was unfit for planting rice due to its high levels of drainage. Consequently, Kaga Plain eventually developed into a grain-producing region that is the pride of Ishikawa Prefecture. The name Eda Gombei is passed on in legends to this day as “the father of the seven canals of water.” Although rice is now grown throughout the prefecture, most of the areas under cultivation can be found in Hakusan City, Kaga City and Komatsu City in Kaga district.

“Oshizushi,” or pressed sushi, embodies the eating habits unique to the Kaga district that has developed as a grain-producing area. In the days when rice was still a luxury item, “oshizushi” was a feast for the ordinary people to be served only on special occasions and festivals.

The “Guzu-yaki Matsuri (Festival)” is a traditional event that is held every August in Kaga City. Young men wearing white tabi socks would carry a large mockup of a “gori” fish (small fish of the Cottidae family or goby) and parade through the post town. The gori mockup that represents bad luck is burned at the end of the festival to drive out evil spirits. An indispensable dish at this festival is “kakinohazushi,” a type of “oshizushi” or pressed sushi made by placing persimmon leaves, mackerel, and sushi rice in layers in a sushi frame, weighed down and set aside. Similarly, “sasa-zushi” that uses Veitch's bamboo leaves is deeply rooted as another traditional food from the Kaga district.

< Kanazawa City and its environs >
A variety of samurai dishes developed during the feudal era

The city of Kanazawa developed as the home of the Kaga Domain. By the mid-Edo period, the city had the largest population after Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The atmosphere of the former castle town remains to this day, and the city is dotted with cultural assets such as Kanazawa Castle, the symbol of the capital city of Kanazawa, “Kenrokuen Garden,” a garden created by the Kaga Domain, chaya-gai geisha district and former samurai residences.

It was this historical background that contributed to the development of a unique culture in Kanazawa City. This is also evident in its food culture, where seafood and farm products gathered from all over the region supported the development of a samurai cuisine.

A typical samurai dish is “jibu-ni,” made by stewing duck or chicken meat coated with flour. The dish is served on special lacquerware with a wide mouth and shallow bottom that exemplifies its high level of prestige.

Another dish representative of samurai cuisine is “hasu-mushi,” which uses steamed lotus root. Legend has it that the lotus root that had been cultivated for ornamental purposes inside Kanazawa Castle compound was applied to edible use. Also, “kaburazushi,” which is an indispensable ceremonial dish for the New Year's feast, is made using yellowtail caught during the cold season in Noto, which was offered to the Kaga Domain immediately after it was caught, and turnips, a specialty of Kaga.

“Tai-no karamushi” or steamed sea bream, is another ceremonial dish befitting a castle town. The dish is made by stuffing gutted sea bream with okara (soy pulp) and steaming the fish carefully. It is usually served in the “nirami-dai” style with two sea breams placed on a platter with the belly side adjoined. This dish is primarily served at a wedding where the bridegroom’s family cooks the sea breams brought by the bride’s family. The spectacle of two big sea breams placed side to side must have drawn the attention and applause of guests at parties.

Two regions with distinctive history, Noto and Kaga, intermingled as one culture under the clan administration to create Ishikawa Prefecture where various lifestyles and customs have been passed down for generations. It is delightful to relive the days gone by through the taste of “Kaga Hyakumangoku” left behind by our ancestors.

Ishikawa's main local cuisine