Mountains, rivers, and the sea: a diverse and varied culinary culture in the largest prefecture on Honshu

Iwate Prefecture is located in Tohoku, the northeastern part of Honshu island. The prefecture is shaped like a long ellipse, stretching some 122 km east to west and approximately 189 km north to south. The largest prefecture on Honshu, it boasts an area that is second only to Hokkaido and comparable to the four prefectures on the island of Shikoku.

On the west side of this vast prefecture lie the Ou Mountains; meanwhile, the Kitakami Highlands can be found on the east. The Kitakami River flows north–south between these two mountain ranges, with a plain extending through the river basin. Along the prefecture’s coastline are raised coasts with sea cliffs and marine terraces, and also ria coasts formed by the sunken foothills of the Kitakami Highlands. This blesses Iwate Prefecture with a natural environment of mountains, rivers, and the sea. Differences in geography naturally give rise to climatic differences. Thus, each region has developed its own distinctive cultural spirit and culinary culture.

Iwate Prefecture is working hard for the preservation and handing down of its diverse culinary cultures. People who are able to work with knowledge and skills about things like regional culinary culture and local cuisines that have been kept alive for many years, spreading the word about them and passing them down to the next generation are recognized as Artisans of the Cuisine of Iwate Prefecture. At the same time as handing down local cuisine to future generations, the entire prefecture is engaged in regional revitalization.

Cooperation with content: Iwate Prefecture Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department, Agricultural Extension Technical Division

A flour-based culinary culture that supplements poor rice production, and a mochi rice cakes culinary culture that strongly retains the air of samurai times

Image provider: Visit Iwate

In the coastal areas of Iwate Prefecture, the Yamase, a cold, moist easterly wind that blows in between June and August, can interfere with rice pollination and reduce harvest yields. While Iwate is today one of Japan’s leading rice-producing areas, its history of rice cultivation is actually one of long battles against cold weather damage.

In areas where stable rice production is difficult due to the harsh cold weather, wheat, soybeans, and buckwheat, together with grains such as different varieties of millet came to be grown to avoid problems that would result from a poor rice harvest. These products were processed into powdered form and used in cooking, thus creating a flour-based culinary culture throughout large parts of the prefecture.

In contrast to this, relatively abundant rice harvests were enjoyed in the southern parts of the prefecture, which is a warmer area. Influenced by the samurai culture of the Edo period, a unique culinary culture of mochi rice cakes developed in this region.

With a focus on these two major culinary cultures, we have divided Iwate Prefecture into five regions: the northern region, the central region, the southern region, the Ou and Kitakami mountain ranges, and the Sanriku coastal area. It is our pleasure to introduce the different natural features and culinary cultures of these five regions to you.

< Northern Region of Iwate >
A cereals culture compensating for the harsh environment

The northern part of Iwate Prefecture is the gateway to the north of Iwate.
The region features historical legacies such as the Goshono ruins, a registered World Heritage Site. Meanwhile, the coastal city of Kuji earned its fame as the setting for the television drama series Amachan.

Image provider: Visit Iwate

The cold has been harsh in this area since times of old. The cold Yamase wind which blows in from the east creates chilly conditions that make it hard for rice to grow. To compensate for the shortage of rice, different kinds of cereals that survive harsh conditions are grown: buckwheat, soybeans, and different varieties of millet. This gave birth to many kinds of dishes utilizing these ingredients.

The most representative of these dishes is mameshitogi. “Shitogi” means to mash. Mameshitogi are unbaked cakes made of beautifully green soybeans that have been boiled, mashed, and then kneaded in combination with rice flour and sugar. Mameshitogi were made as offerings to the mountain gods, in the fall at niwa-shimai, an event that marked the end of the busy farming season, and in spring, as food to attract nightingales.

Image provider: Visit Iwate

Mamebujiru soup is another flour-based dish. Dumplings made of wheat flour are filled with walnuts and brown sugar and are simmered together with vegetables in a soy sauce-flavored broth to create a dish that offers both sweet and savory flavors. The dish made an appearance in the drama series Amachan and has become popular among tourists.

Image provider: Visit Iwate

A dish with intriguing origins is yamagi batto. The Nanbu clan, which ruled this area during the Edo period, considered buckwheat soba noodles a luxury item, and for a time, prohibited farmers from eating them. The story goes that people continued to eat soba by making dumplings in the shape of willow (yanagi) leaves from buckwheat flour, declaring: “This is not soba; it’s yanagi batto.” The “batto” in the name of this dish comes from the word “hatto” which means prohibition. This story illustrates the common folk’s strong desire to enjoy soba

< Central region of Iwate >
Shitonemono culture, with a wide variety of dishes made mainly from rice or wheat

Image provider: Visit Iwate

The central part of the prefecture, centered on the prefectural capital of Morioka, is famous for cultural events such as the Chagu Chagu Umakko horse festival and the Sansa Odori festival. The Kitakami River basin, which lies at the foot of Mt. Iwate (also known as Nanbu Fuji), has many flatland areas with large swathes of rice paddy fields. In the past, however, rice production alone was not able to provide a stable diet, so barley, wheat, and buckwheat were also grown.

These grains were ground into flours which were then kneaded to create a diverse array of sweets and dishes.
The word for “kneading” in the Iwate dialect is "shitoneru." The word gave rise to dishes of this kind being called “shitinemono,” of which a wide variety were enjoyed by the people of Iwate.

The most representative shitinemono dish is hittsumi. Flour is kneaded with water into a dough which is then rolled thin and torn by hand into small pieces. These pieces are boiled in a broth together with ingredients such as chicken and vegetables. In this area, the expression for “tearing by hand” is “hittsumamu,” and this is said to be the origin of the word “hittsumi.” Today, this dish is eaten all over the prefecture. Ingredients used depend on the season, the region, and the household doing the cooking. In mountainous areas, river crabs and river fish are used, while in coastal areas minced saury is used as an ingredient. These days, the dish has also been modified into different modern styles, with curry flavored hittsumi. and hittsumi served in Western, Chinese, or dessert styles. Hittsumi is widely loved by people of all ages and can now be considered the dish of the people of Iwate prefecture.

Image provider: Iwate Prefecture Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department, Agricultural Extension Technical Division

Shiwa resident, Ms. Eiko Hosokawa is a hittsumi culinary artisan. In addition to farming, she serves regional dishes created from local ingredients at a restaurant that is part of a farmer's market. Hittsumi is a warming dish that is popular in winter.

“Hittsumi has been a day-to-day dish since the old days. It’s a soup that was made with lots of ingredients in times when there was not enough rice around. In the old days, people would run out of their stores of rice between April and July, so they’d eat wheat dishes to take them through to the fall, when the new rice would become available.”

Ms. Hosokawa says she has many opportunities to teach local cuisine to children. “It’s wonderful when the kids go home and have a go at making these dishes, then eating them with everyone in the family as they listen to grandma and grandpa talking about life in the old days.”

Image provider: Iwate Prefecture Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department, Agricultural Extension Technical Division

Another shitonemono dish worthy of mention is kirisensho. This is a local confectionary that was often made, especially around the time of the Girl’s Festival. In the old days, mothers would make it with their daughters, passing down the recipe for this local dish in a very natural way.

Shiwa resident Ms. Reiko Hosokawa is a kirisensho culinary artisan. She teaches regional cuisine cooking classes in various settings such children’s classes or in schools. “In the old days, rice and sugar were precious ingredients, so kirisensho was a bit high class, you could say. People ate it when they gathered together at ceremonial occasions.”

Image provider: Iwate Prefecture Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department, Agricultural Extension Technical Division

Back when Ms. Hosokawa was a child, a mortar was used to pound broken rice at home to make rice flour, which was used in cooking. The culture of eating rice with great care so as to avoid any waste it is deeply rooted in the Morioka region. “I suppose that’s why there are so many shitonemono dishes that are made from kneaded dough. These days, we still have lots of dumpling shops around here. They sell lots of sweets made from kneaded flour dough, things like kirisensho and dango dumplings.”

People still love eating kirisensho as an everyday snack, but these days, there aren’t many people who make it at home. Most people buy it in a shop. “In the old days, people would learn how to make it from their grandmothers, who lived in the same household, so the recipe would get passed down naturally. In the nuclear families that people have these days, there aren’t many opportunities to learn the recipe. In the future, I’d love to get people who are in the age group where they’re bringing up young kids to get interested in this dish.” The people of Iwate are still trying to pass down regional dishes, moving from a culture of buying to one of making.

< Southern Region of Iwate >
A unique 400-year-old mochi culinary culture in a region blessed with rice

With places such as Hiraizumi, home to the Konjikido at Chusonji Temple, the southern part of the prefecture is steeped in history and culture. This area has a relatively mild climate and flat terrain, and has thus enjoyed stable rice cultivation since olden times.

During the Edo period, when the Ichinoseki and Hiraizumi areas were ruled by the Sendai domain, an order was issued for mochi rice cakes to be produced on the 1st and 15th of each month as an offering to the gods, and a custom of praying for peace and good health came into being. This established the consumption of mochi rice cakes in the area, so much so that a mochi calendar was created to mark the eating of mochi on traditional event days or at the turning of the seasons—over 60 times a year!

Image provider: Visit Iwate

Mochihonzen is probably the dish that his most representative of Ichinoseki’s mochi culinary culture. Originally, honzen cuisine was a ceremonial meal served on celebratory occasions, in accordance with the etiquette of samurai families in the Muromachi period. Masamune Date, the founder of the Sendai domain, adopted this same etiquette and created a ritual meal that he called mochihonzen. It mainly consisted of mochi rice cakes.

On the occasion of mochihonzen, a facilitator known as otorimochi-yaku is responsible for speaking and moving the proceedings forwards. The etiquette for eating is rather detailed, and participants are expected to follow the instructions of the otorimochi-yaku as they eat. The meal includes dishes such as anko (red bean paste) mochi, zoni (a soup containing red bean paste and mochi, ryori mochi (a mochi dish that changes with season or the region), daikon oroshi (grated daikon); and takuan (pickled daikon). Ryori mochi comes in many different versions and a wide variety of ingredients such as zunda (mashed beans), june (mochi mixed with ingredients like perilla and freshwater shrimp), walnuts, wheat bran, or ginger may be used. It is said that over 300 different varieties of ryori mochi exist these days.

In 2010, the Ichinoseki Mochi Culture Promotion Council was established in order to preserve and hand down this culture of mochi. The council contributes to the increasing recognition of mochi culture by organizing seminars to learn about mochi culinary culture and the Nationwide Local Mochi Specialties Summit (later renamed the National Mochi Festival), which brings together different kinds of mochi from all over Japan.

As a result of these activities, mochi cultures that developed in their own unique ways have achieved a high level of recognition. Ichinoseki's mochi culinary culture is included in Washoku, which was registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2013.

< The Ou and Kitakami Mountain Ranges >
A culinary culture of preserved wild forest foods

Image provider: Iwate Prefecture Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department, Agricultural Extension Technical Division

In mountainous areas such as the Ou Mountains and the Kitakami Highlands, it is difficult to harvest rice and wheat due to the heavy snowfall, but such areas offer a treasure trove of wild forest foods.

such as wild vegetables in the spring and mushrooms and freshwater fish in the fall. These parts of Iwate have a well-developed culture of preserved foods, with people cooking meals that make plentiful use of salted or dried wild vegetables, dried radish slices, and frozen tofu. In particular, Asian royal fern is considered the supreme wild vegetable. Cooked uncut in a dish called zenmai no ipponni, it used to be enjoyed during important events.

< The Sanriku Coastal Area >
The bounty of the sea off the Sanriku coast and dishes that are popular inland

Image provider: Visit Iwate

The Sanriku coastline is characterized by the beautiful topography of places such as Jodogahama Beach and the Goishi Coast. The Sanriku Railway runs along the coastline. Also, the waters off the coast where the Oyashio and Kuroshio currents come together are an abundant source of seafood and sea vegetables all year round. These feature in many Sanriku dishes.

Sanma surijiru is a soup made with vegetables and minced saury shaped into dumplings. It is seasoned with miso and soy sauce. It is a very popular dish in the fall, which is the season for saury.

Image provider: Visit Iwate

Iwate Prefecture enjoys the largest catch of autumn salmon in all of Honshu. Except for the gills, salmon can be eaten in its entirety, so in the times when salmon was abundant, people would buy a whole fish and each household would use a part for cooking. There are many ways of eating salmon, but one is hizu namasu—thinly-sliced salmon head cartilage and daikon seasoned with vinegar. This is a dish where people can eat fish without wasting any of the sea’s bounty. It allows us to feel respect for nature.

The Sanriku coast also has many kinds of seaweed including matsumo whose shape resembles that of pine needles. It is mainly eaten in miso soup and vinegared dishes. Young kombu seaweed is also boiled, sliced thinly, then dried in sheets before being used as an ingredient in sukikombu no nimono together with seafood such as sand eel, dried herring, and scallops to create a unique flavor in each household.
Sukikombu no nimono is a dish that’s truly become established in the region, enjoyed as home cooking each day, not only along the coast but all over the prefecture.

In Iwate Prefecture, ingredients in abundant supply such as seafood and wild forest foods were put to use in cooking. Meanwhile, people had to come up with creative solutions to staples, which were prone to be in short supply due to cold damage, and ate them as highly valued ingredients. The concept of valuing and not wasting our food is also needed in the present age. We invite you to explore this notion through the enjoyment of the local cuisine of Iwate.

Iwate's main local cuisine