Regional life supported by the cultivation of rice, flour, and potatoes

Aomori Prefecture is surrounded by "three seas:” the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, and the Tsugaru Strait. The central part of the prefecture is split in two by the Ou Mountains, and people living in the Tsugaru, Nanbu, and Shimokita regions have always led different lifestyles. Vastly different natural environments have influenced the culinary culture of each region. Let’s investigate how three local flavors have developed in three different ways.

Video provided in part by: SHUN GATE, the Japanese culinary culture information website

The northernmost point of Honshu, surrounded by three seas

Aomori Prefecture, located at the northernmost tip of Honshu, is surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, and the Tsugaru Strait, and wraps around Mutsu Bay, which lies in its center. The island of Hokkaido, connected to Aomori by the Seikan Tunnel, is just a stone's throw away. On a clear day, you can see Hokkaido from the observatory in the city of Aomori, where the prefectural office is located.

The Ou Mountains, which include the well-known Mt. Hakkoda, divide the prefecture into two halves. The mountain range creates a rough division between the Tsugaru region to the west and the Nanbu region to the east. The naming of these regions comes from the feudal lords—the Tsugaru and Nanbu clans—that ruled these parts during the feudal era. In an even more detailed division of the area, one can add the Shimokita region, which protrudes into the Tsugaru Strait from the Nanbu region.

Aomori Prefecture has four distinct seasons. Summers are short and the winters are long. Taking advantage of this cool climate, agricultures is carried out all over the prefecture. When viewed by farm product, Aomori has a well-balanced mix of fruits, vegetables, and livestock. As of 2018, the prefecture ranked the top for agricultural output in the Tohoku region for 15 consecutive years.

When it comes to Aomori Prefecture's specialty product, many people think of apples. Consistent with this image, Aomori’s level of production is by far the best in Japan. According to a report by the prefecture's apple fruit tree division, 445,500 tons of apples were produced in 2018. Apparently, some 40% of these are shipped to the Kanto region.

Surprisingly, the foundation of the "apple kingdom" that Aomori is today was formed during modern times. Development projects by the Meiji government brought seedlings and cultivation techniques, resulting in the opening up of areas for cultivation on riverbeds and on hills along rivers. Then, as demand expanded, this spread to fields, plateaus, and mountains.

Along with apples, rice is also synonymous with Aomori Prefecture. The clear streams that flow from mountains such as Mt. Hakkoda and the World Heritage Site Shirakami-Sanchi, together with fresh water from Lake Towada, Iwaki River, and the like are used for agricultural purposes, and rice is cultivated in various places throughout the prefecture. Between May and October, Aomori enjoys the longest hours of sunshine in the Tohoku region. Rice, which enters its growing period around this time, grows quickly, bathed in ample amounts of sunshine.

In 2018, Aomori’s rice yield was 11th in the country, and the yield per 1,000 square meters was 596 kg, which is 2nd place in the country. Currently, brands/varieties such as Tsugaru Roman and Masshigura are the main ones being distributed, while the branding of Seiten no Hekireki, which started to be planted in 2015, is moving forward. All are cold-resistant and able to withstand the harsh weather conditions of Aomori Prefecture. They are the result of repeated improvements to varieties and research carried out by people in the past. These days, Aomori has achieved success as a major rice production area, but in the period before the early 20th century, only limited areas were able to grown rice due to the nature of the land and the weather. This history is also reflected in the regional culinary cultures that developed independently.

kuko Kitayama of Shibata Gakuen University conducts research into the local cuisines of Aomori Prefecture. She explains:

“Aomori Prefecture’s culinary culture can roughly be divided into three: the rice culture of Tsugaru, the flour-based culture of Nanbu, and the potato culture of Shimokita. In terms of food, the Tsugaru region has historically enjoyed a favorable environment. During the Edo period, successive Tsugaru lords developed their lands with levee works and new rice fields, resulting in prosperous rice cultivation. It seems that white rice consumption was frequent even among the commoners.”

Even thought the wind may blow in from the Sea of Japan or the northeasterly Yamase may blow in from the Pacific, the Tsugaru region is sheltered by Mt. Iwaki and the long, tall Hakkoda ranges. The impact of cold damage was negligible, and this is a major reason why rice cultivation flourished.

“On the other hand, the Nanbu region was directly affected by the Yamase due to its location. This made it unsuitable for rice cultivation, and the area experienced long periods of famine and strife. Bit by bit, a culinary culture of grains and flours came to be established, with people eating food like wheat flour, foxtail millet, and barnyard millet. There are records of households for whom these were the staple food until the decades after WW2. Meanwhile on the Shimokita Peninsula, the crop that became established was potatoes, a farm product that is also capable of withstanding the cold climate. Since olden times, Tsugaru people have also enjoyed ‘kannakakeimo,’ a preserved food where potatoes are sliced up like potato chips and dried.”

According to Kitayama’s analysis: “With the passage of time, the palates of the people of the region have adapted to both potatoes and flours.” Differences in food culture are not limited to staple foods. They developed in diverse ways in each of the Tsugaru, Nanbu, and Shimokita regions.

< Tsugaru Region >
Pacific cod, the main New Year’s dish, which was also loved by successive feudal lords

The Tsugaru region is a part of Aomori Prefecture that, during the Edo period, was the Hirosaki Domain, established by the feudal lord Tsugaru Tamenobu. The castle town was Hirosaki. Hirosaki Castle, which has distant views of Mt. Iwaki, is the only historic site in the Tohoku region with a castle tower remaining intact.

Pacific cod is a must-have for New Year in Tsugaru. A huge fish with a protruding belly, a large-sized Pacific cod could reach 120 cm in length and 20 kg in weight. During the feudal era, Pacific cod was highly valued as a fish offered as tribute. The first cod caught between October and November used to be displayed in a special room in the castle known as the “yamabuki no ma” before being presented to the lord. Apparently, the fish was so highly valued that at times when the lord was in Edo due to the Tokugawa shogunate’s alternate attendance system, cod was sent to him via “express courier.” The fish’s pinkish white flesh has a mild taste without any peculiarities. Freshly caught cod is served as sashimi, but is also tasty sliced and grilled with salt or with miso. Another way of serving it is a soup called “jappajiru.” From the head of the fish to the tip of its tail, nothing is thrown away when preparing “jappajiru,” in which leftover parts like bones and organs are boiled with vegetables to make the soup. Precious cod roe (fish eggs) is boiled with carrots to make “taranoko ae,” a regional dish with a delightful popping texture that makes it popular even among children.

“New Year in Aomori is called ‘Cod New Year.’ It is said that in the olden days, families would welcome the New Year by cooking an entire cod. These days, if you visit a supermarket or a take-out food shop in the winter, you’ll see a bunch of Pacific cod dishes,” explains Nobuko Chiba, a culinary researcher based in the city of Aomori, who livens up the Aomori food scene with her cooking classes and events. “Even these days, there are many regional dishes that are handed down from parent to child, from child to grandchild in Aomori. They are valued for feeling deeply familiar to people.” Chiba says that she also enjoys seasonal regional cuisine at home with her children.

“Kenojiru” is one such regional dish that people are very used to enjoying at home. It is full of ingredients like daikon radish, carrots, butterbur, burdock, and beans and is a classic dish served at Little New Year (January 15th). The soup stands out from others in that all the ingredients are diced. People say that “ the finer you chop the ingredients, the better the soup tastes.” If lots of wild vegetables are added, the soup turns a blackish color, which also a sign of a delicious “kenojiru.” The soup is all the more delicious when you think about the time and labor the cook has put into each bowl.

< Nanbu region >
Flour-based dishes that connected the lives of the common people

During the Kamakura period, a part of northern Tohoku that spans Aomori, Akita, and Iwate prefectures was ruled by the lords of the Nanbu clan. At the end of the 16th century, the Tsugaru clan gained independence from the Nanbu family, which found its power greatly reduced. The clan’s former territory, which remains in the eastern part of Aomori Prefecture, is these days know as the Nanbu region.

In the latter half of the Edo period, it was difficult to obtain rice due to bad harvests and famine throughout the area, so wheat and buckwheat were cultivated instead. Regional dishes made from wheat flour came into being in the process.

Examples include “kinkamochi,” a confection containing brown sugar, walnuts, and miso and wrapped in a flour-based dough. At times when there was not enough rice available, “hittsumi,” a kneaded dough torn into bite-sized pieces, was added to soup. Meanwhile “kakke” is thinly rolled wheat flour dough that has been cut into triangular shapes and boiled. It was eaten spread with leek and miso sauce or garlic miso.

In the Hachinohe domain, which was ruled by the Nanbu family, it is said that barley and soba crackers replaced rice as the staple food. During the Meiji era, “Nanbu senbei,” a type of cracker that was baked to be firm, appeared in the area. They were sometimes eaten as is, and sometimes torn off and added to soup as an ingredient. This soup, which is called “senbeijiru,” is still eaten in Hachinohe to this day and has become a speciality of the city.

Compared to mountainous areas, Aomori’s Pacific coastal areas are blessed with marine resources. In fishing towns, “ichigo-ni,” a dish made with sea urchin and abalone in the style of soup, was eaten on a daily basis. The peculiar name of this dish (lit. strawberry soup) is said to come from the fact that the sea urchin floating in the soup stock “had the appearance of hazy-looking wild strawberries in the morning mist." Hashikamimachi, which is famous for its “ichigo-ni,” holds the Hashikami Ichigo-ni Festival in July each year. Flavors that have been handed down from generation to generation in the region are being handed down even now.

< Shimokita region >
An abundance of seafood from the ocean

The Shimokita Peninsula consists of a city, a town, and three villages, including the city of Mutsu, Omamachi, and Higashidori Village. Due to its unique axe-like shape, it has been nicknamed Masakari Hanto—the Axe Peninsula. The blade of the “axe” faces the Tsugaru Peninsula across the Tairadate Straight and the island of Hokkaido, which lies approximately 20 km across the narrowest part of the Tsugaru Straight.

The area is divided into a northern half, home to the expansive Osore-zan Mountain Range, and a southern half, where the gentle plateau spreads out. It is dotted with scenic spots including Mt. Osore, Hotokegaura, and Omazaki, which are designated as the Shimokita Hanto Quasi-National Park. Sixty-eight percent of the area is forest, with only nine percent farm land. In addition, the end of spring through summer is marked by days of low temperatures and low levels of sunlight, which makes crops susceptible to damage. With insufficient quantities of rice available, potato cultivation came to be established. Potatoes prefer cool climates. The Shimokita Peninsula, with its cold winds from the Tsugaru Strait, was ideal for growing potatoes.

Omamachi, known for its Oma tuna, has been growing potatoes since the Meiji period, and is working hard on branding its specialty potatoes, “okoppeimo.”

Image source: SHUN GATE, the Japanese culinary culture information website

The fishing industry is thriving in this part of Aomori, and employs many people in Omamachi and Higashidori Village. The style of fishing varies greatly from region to region. In the areas that face the Tsugaru Straight, bluefin tuna is caught by line, and people free dive for shellfish and harvest seaweed in a method known as “saikaiso” fishing. Off the Pacific coast, the Tsushima Warm Current and the Chishima Current converge, generate a large amount of plankton. Fishing boats are sent out to catch fish that have bred thanks to this this plankton that they feed on.

Mutsu Bay opens into the Tsugaru Strait and has been a habitat for scallops since times of old. Since the 1950s, when aquaculture became successful, Mutsu Bay scallops have become a speciality of this coastal region.

Image source: Amazing Aomori

“Misokaiyaki” (stewed scallop cooked in a shell) is a hearty way of eating that is typical of fishing towns. Scallop shells, which are used in place of a pan, are filled with “dashi” stock, miso is mixed in until it dissolves, and the dish is finished with egg on top. Long ago, all households had shells on hand. There are far fewer such households these days, but the delicious flavor of scallops is no different to that of the old days.

Aomori Prefecture has developed the wisdom for how to live by making good use of natural conditions, rather than going against them. The fact that its culinary cultures revolving around rice, flour, and potatoes have been passed down without being lost is an expression of the respect that people living today have toward their ancestors.

Aomori's main local cuisine