Akita: A Beautiful Region Filled with Abundant Nature

Akita Prefecture occupies the northwest part of the Tohoku region, which is located in northeastern Japan. Three great rivers—the Yoneshiro, the Omono, and the Koyoshi—run through the prefecture, providing plentiful water throughout. In the north lies Shirakami-Sanchi, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site which is blanketed with primordial forests of Japanese beech trees; the east contains the Ou Mountains, which run north-south, as well as Nyuto Onsen; and in the center of the western coast, the Oga Peninsula displays its magnificent and beautiful terrain along the rich coastline of the Japan Sea.

Akita Prefecture has the least sunshine among all prefectures in Japan. However, its summers are hot and humid with no clear end to the rainy season, and in many years it rushes straight into the autumn. The Ou Mountains block yamase, a cold wind descending from the mountains said to cause cold damage to crops. Located on the Japan Sea coast, Akita instead experiences the foehn phenomenon, a warm, dry wind which is suitable for growing rice. This wind helps the heavily laden rice stalks grow, yielding bountiful harvests. In the Obonai region, this wind is called takarakaze (lit. “treasure wind”). Since long ago, this wind has been so beloved by the region that there are folk songs about it and a place has even been named after it.

Source: Farm Pension “Seisetsukan”

A Rice-producing Region with Koji Culture Deep-rooted in its Local Cuisine

Photo Credit: Akita Prefecture

Akita Prefecture is widely known as a producer of rice. The mineral-rich waters from Shirakami-Sanchi and other sources, the temperature gap between hot days and cool nights, and the soil which has constantly been protected by snowmelt all play a big role. The headliner is "AKITAKOMACHI" rice, which had "KOSHIHIKARI" as its mother and Ou 292 as its father. The rice was named after the Heian period poet Ono no Komachi with the hope that it would be loved forever. Akita produces many other delicious rices, including "HITOMEBORE", "YUMEOBAKO", "MENKOINA", and "SAKIHOKORE".

Photo Credit: Akita Prefecture

“Akita’s local cuisine is best known for its characteristic ‘koji culture’, which arises from the region’s rice production.” These are the words of Nobuko Sasaki, a former Special Professor of Education and Culture at Akita University and someone who studies Akita Prefecture’s local cuisine.
Second-tier rice, such as broken or immature rice grains, which cannot be shipped as food rice did not go to waste. Instead it was boiled and kneaded into snacks or made into koji and used to pickle vegetables. During the long winters in particular, rice koji was used in a variety of dishes as a clever way of preserving food stores. This was the result of the ancestors’ knowledge and craftiness.
These days, many people focus on koji and fermented foods due to an increased awareness of their health benefits, but it would be fair to say that the people of Akita Prefecture have lived together with koji since long ago.

Furthermore, the bountiful fish of the Japan Sea and Hachiro Lagoon, the rice from the paddy fields, and the bounty of the Ou and Chokai mountains are all elevated through unique preparation methods and techniques into a profound food culture.

Akita Prefecture can largely be divided into three regions: North, Central, and South. Below, you will be introduced to each region’s characteristic natural features and the well-known local cuisine they have produced.

< North Akita Area >
Kamabuku: The Ancestors’ Impressively Profound Wisdom

Photo Credit: Akita Prefecture

The entire northern part of Akita Prefecture is designated as a heavy snow area, with the Ou Mountains running north-south along the Iwate border and the Dewa Hills running parallel to the west. The Yoneshiro River runs east-west, bisecting these mountains and forming the Hanawa, Odate, and Takanosu basins, as well as the Noshiro Plain at its estuary. Once, the natural conditions in the north were so severe that agricultural production was impossible. For this very reason, those who lived in mountain farming villages had to use their everyday knowledge to craft unique local dishes.

Photo Credit: “Akita Local Food Culture”, Akita Prefecture Rural Districts Lifestyle Research Group Council

In such a mountainous inland region, it is difficult to obtain fish. Therefore, the people of the area came up with kamabuku, which is made using ingredients close to hand and cleverly crafted to look like kamaboko. Using absolutely no fish, it is made with strained potatoes and mochi flour, with sugar and salt added to the mixture. Some households mix in pumpkin or adzuki beans, giving the dish a colorful touch. This dish is truly a product of the ancestors’ wisdom.

Summer Elegance: A Green Blanket Broken by Small Boats

Photo Credit: Akita Prefecture

Unmatched for its wondrous spring waters, Akita has many marshes and ponds, such as Kakusuku Marsh, where water plants such as the water lilies and other members of the Nymphaea family can grow naturally in abundance. The jelly-like buds which emerge from their stalks are called junsai. Beautiful scenes of a green carpet broken by small boats as they harvest the buds can only be seen from May to August. The practiced movements of the harvesters as they pick the buds by hand are impressive.

Photo Credit: “Akita Local Food Culture”, Akita Prefecture Rural Districts Lifestyle Research Group Council

Akita Prefecture has many local hotpot dishes, but its unique summer hotpot dish is called junsainabe, which contains plenty of junsai as well as ingredients like chicken and burdock. Junsai has a jelly-like consistency and slides down the throat, making it a perfect pairing for chicken, and since it is produced in the area, locals put a lot of it in their pots. Due to changes in the environment, the number of areas where junsai grows naturally have declined, but the local people value the ingredient very highly and refuse to let it disappear. Therefore, they began the development of junsai marshes, Mitane being one of the few such production areas in Japan.

< Central Akita Area >
Damakomochi: A Famous Dish from a Rice-producing Area

Photo Credit: Akita Prefecture

The central area of Akita Prefecture has volcanoes such as Mount Akita-Komagatake and Mount Yake to the northeast and is surrounded by the Ou and Dewa Mountains, with the Omono River running north-south through its heart. A stone’s throw from the urban areas, a magnificent natural landscape spreads out before one’s eyes, with many splendid natural parks dotted about, including Lake Tazawa Dakigaeri Prefectural Natural Park, Magi Mahiru Prefectural Natural Park, and Otakiyama Natural Park. Additionally, the coastal area boasts some of the top ports in Japan in terms of catch volume, which are instrumental in producing Pacific cod, Japanese pufferfish, red sea bream, and sailfin sandfish, a famous ingredient of Akita’s local cuisine.

Since long ago, damakomochi has been a beloved dish of the coastal area. Said to have originated in southern Akita near Hachiro Lagoon, this staple autumn and winter hotpot dish is now eaten all across Akita Prefecture.
Originally, Japanese pond smelt and icefish would be grilled and added to the pot before eating, but these days, chicken bones and meat are used more commonly instead. Rice is ground roughly so that the individual grains are still visible then rolled into a damako ball. The more it is chewed, the more the rice’s sweetness expands throughout the mouth. Such an exquisitely delicious food can only be found in a rice-producing area. Kiritanpo is mashed rice formed around a skewer and grilled, but damako is characterized by being made into dumplings without grilling. The fatty Hinaijidori chicken is delicate yet firm, while the Japanese parsley with its roots attached provides concentrated umami and aroma, all of which serve to elevate damakonabe to a new level.

Shottsurunabe: Akita’s Famous Sailfin Sandfish + Three Main Fish Sauces

Photo Credit: Akita Tourism Federation

“Shottsuru is a condiment born from the wisdom of the ancestors which is deserving of special mention. Each area passed down fascinating, unique dishes which suited its nature and climate,” says Ms Sasaki.
The appearance of the sailfin sandfish heralds the arrival of winter in Akita. During the winter, food was sometimes scarce, hence this fish was seen as a gift from the gods and highly valued. Akita’s shottsuru is one of Japan’s three main fish sauces, along with ishiru from Ishikawa Prefecture and ikanagoshoyu from Kagawa Prefecture. The fish sauce is made by fermenting sailfin sandfish for one to two years. It is characterized by its rich flavor and pairs perfectly with delicate sailfin sandfish flesh and buriko fish eggs which pop in the mouth. In Akita, shottusuru is used to flavor hotpots as well as kayaki, a delicious dish in which a seashell is used in lieu of a pot to hold a mixture of seasonal fish and vegetables.

< South Akita Area >
Nasu no Hanazushi: Beauty and Flavor at an Artistic Level

Southern Akita Prefecture is located in the hilly Yokote basin area and, with its expanse of beautiful rural landscape, is one of the few grain-producing areas in Japan. Compared to the central and northern areas of the prefecture, it has four full seasons, allowing for the cultivation of a variety of crops. Furthermore, the area has many ruins from the Stone Age, including the Yonegamori ruins and the Hotta Fort ruins; it was the setting of the Gosannen War during the Middle Ages; and during the Edo period, the region saw significant growth due to commerce under the Akita Domain.
Since long ago, the South Akita area has produced mainly fruits and vegetables, and as a result it has many traditional vegetables with unique shapes and cultivation methods. Additionally, the koji culture has put down deep roots here, and dishes using koji are essential everyday foods.

Photo Credit: “Akita Local Food Culture”, Akita Prefecture Rural Districts Lifestyle Research Group Council

T“In addition to koji, another essential food group characteristic to the area is salted foods, which can be preserved and stored for long periods. During Akita’s long, snowy winters, it used to be crucial to have preserved foods to get through the season. Once the autumn harvest ended, each household would use lots of koji and salt to make nasu no hanazushi and natazuke to stock up for the winter,” explains Ms Sasaki.
Among the traditional vegetables cultivated in the area are eggplants characterized by their round or elongated shapes. Nasu no hanazushi is made by combining these eggplants with mochi rice and chrysanthemum flowers, and pickling it all in nanban. The extravagant and showy colors are refreshingly appealing. It takes extensive practice to master the techniques needed to prepare such a beautiful dish. This essential Akita winter dish has sweetness from the plentiful mochi rice and koji, which is contrasted beautifully by the fresh aroma of the chrysanthemums.

Iburigakko: One of Akita’s Three Main Pickled Foods

Photo Credit: “Akita Local Food Culture”, Akita Prefecture Rural Districts Lifestyle Research Group Council

Daikon is normally sun-dried in order to make takuan, but with Akita’s short sunlight hours, the vegetable would reach the freezing point before being fully dried. To solve this problem, daikon was dried on the house hearth, which was how iburigakko was first made. Long ago, every household would line up daikon atop their hearths during the winter to make homemade iburigakko. Nowadays, the Akita Iburigakko Promotion Council has been established to continue passing on the traditional preparation methods for iburigakko. The council has standardized the smoking method, ingredients, and maturing period in order to protect iburigakko as part of the food culture.

Kanten: A Colorful Cultural Food Used to Solidify Anything

Photo Credit: “Akita Local Food Culture”, Akita Prefecture Rural Districts Lifestyle Research Group Council

Kanten (agar-agar) is a colorful food made using a countless number of ingredients, from egg, pumpkin, and walnut to matcha, sesame, and noodles. Used primarily as an appetizer at important family ceremonies, kanten is also an essential dish which Akita residents prepare and eat at home in their everyday lives. South Akita in particular has a culture of sweetening their foods, so any kanten dish here is characteristically sweet. While the tongue enjoys the simple kanten which accentuates the other ingredients, the eye is entertained by the beautiful colors of this cultural food.

“Udon Culture”: Passed Down through the Ports of Call of the Kitamaebune and Tied to Family Ceremonies

Photo Credit: Akita Prefecture

In the old days, it was customary for families to hold all family ceremonies such a weddings and funerals at home. Ozen dishes served to guests were also all handmade. Each community would have someone called the “chef” who would decide the menu and direct others in its preparation. These ozen dishes would always include an udon dish called udonwan (lit. “udon bowl”). In areas where this custom was passed down, the dish is affectionately called udonko, and even today it is an integral dish served at every family ceremony.

Akita has always been a producer and exporter of rice, and the kitamaebune ships brought wheat to trade for that rice. The golden age of the kitamaebune ships lasted from the late Edo period to the Meiji period, and they left a profound historical mark on the ports of call in Akita: noodle factories. The settlements of Nihoka, Yurihonjo, and Noshiro, which had ports of call for the kitamaebune ships, still have noodle factories today, unchanged from the time of their founding. The people of the region are ever fond of them, too.

“Local cuisine is difficult to define unless you intentionally create it. Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for older generations to pass it dishes down to younger generations. However, children can learn a dish in their home economics class in elementary school and bring home the recipe, for example. There doesn’t have to be a set way of doing things. If the younger generation shows interest in local cuisine, the possibilities are endless. If it then takes root in the community and continues on in an unbroken chain, I think that would be wonderful,” Ms Sasaki says warmly.
Preserved food dishes for getting through the winter have a deep and fascinating local color. The winters in a snowy climate are hard, which leads to unique local dishes reflective of the prefecture’s regional characteristics. Using the tribulations and efforts of the ancestors who have come before, the next generation will continue to uphold the traditional local cuisine of Akita.

Akita's main local cuisine