The culinary culture of a rice-producing region blessed by water
Niigata Prefecture stretches slightly north of central Honshu, facing the Sea of Japan. Its area also includes Sado Island and Awashima Island, which lie approximately 35 km out to the sea, making it the fifth largest prefecture in Japan with a total area of 12,584 m2.
The northeast and southwest sides are mountainous areas with 2,000-meter-high mountains. Niigata Prefecture borders Yamagata, Fukushima, Gunma, Nagano, and Toyama Prefectures across the Asahi Mountains, Iide Mountains, and Echigo Mountains.
Video material partially provided by: Sado City, Location: Ma Yansong/MAD Architects "Tunnel of Light" (a piece by Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial)
Footage obtained in cooperation with: Ryotei Ichishime, Suzakaya Soba
A heavy snowfall prefecture with 767 first-class rivers
The Shinano, Agano, Ara, Seki, and Hime Rivers are first-class water sources that originate in the mountains and branch out into 767 rivers in various parts of the prefecture. Connecting each of these first-class rivers, the total length of the area reaches 3,629.3 km.
The accumulation of earth and sand from the Shinano and Agano Rivers formed the Echigo Plain. It is a vast plain about the size of Tokyo and was originally a poorly drained land dotted with lakes and marshes, hence the character 潟 (-gata, meaning lagoon) in Niigata. The area was prone to floods, and crops did not grow well, so it underwent extensive reclamation work from the Edo period (1603-1868) to the Showa period (1926-1989). The construction of Fukushima Lagoon in Niigata City was on a massive scale, reducing the area from approximately 5,800 ha to 262 ha. The surrounding area is a nature park where wild birds gather and aquatic plants grow.
Many must have an image of Niigata Prefecture as a land of snow. Niigata Prefecture actually has one of the heaviest snowfalls among the prefectures in Japan, with 70% of its land designated as a special heavy snowfall zone. The stronger the winter monsoons, the more snowfall there is in the mountains. The deepest snowfall in some regions even exceeds 3 meters. On the other hand, summers are long and sunny. Past records have shown maximum temperatures to reach 40 degrees Celcius or higher.
The wisdom of a rice-producing region hidden in its food culture
Niigata is blessed with fertile land nurtured by its clean water, along with a climate that has a wide range of temperatures. The entire prefecture utilizes this environment to cultivate rice, with the areas having rice planted accounting for about 10% of the prefecture's total area.
Niigata Prefecture boasts the largest rice harvest in Japan (2019/amount produced (2018)), exceeding Hokkaido and Akita Prefectures. The prefecture mainly produces Koshihikari. The new Shinnosuke variety and Koshiibuki have also been widely planted recently.
"No matter the era, rice has always accompanied Niigata Prefecture's food culture. This is evident in its variety of mochi, oyaki, okowa, and other food. In the days when rice was precious, people would make dango (dumplings) by mixing rice crumbs with taro and azuki beans. The common folk's wisdom continues to survive in the form of local cuisine."
This is how Ms. Michiko Toyama of the Niigata Prefecture Dietary Improvement Promotion Committee describes the prefecture's cuisine. The committee has established chapters throughout Niigata Prefecture and is working to pass on local cuisine and festive food to future generations.
"Due to the prefecture's large land area, even the same dish uses different ingredients and recipes depending on the region. Some regions have even adopted the food culture of the neighboring Fukushima and Toyama prefectures."
Niigata Prefecture's food culture is rich in diversity. Here is some of its cuisine divided into four areas: Joetsu Region, Chuetsu Region, Kaetsu Region, and Sado Island.
Sasa Zushi from Itoigawa, sharing the same anniversary as its birthplace
The Joetsu region is located in southwestern Niigata Prefecture. It consists of three cities: Joetsu City, Itoigawa City, and Myoko City.
Joetsu City developed as a political and cultural center in the Nara period when Echigo Province's provincial capital and Kokubunji temple were established there. During the Heian period (794-1185), overland and sea routes were opened to deliver fish to the capital. Today, the city's Naoetsu Port is still an important bay port, with approximately 1,400 vessels entering annually. It also handles around 6.9 million tons of cargo every year.
The area's high humidity throughout the year also led to a culture of fermented foods taking root. The products manufactured are diverse and include miso, tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables), sake, wine, and many other genres. It is also closely tied to local cuisine, most notably kensan-yaki, a grilled rice ball dipped in miso paste. The savory flavor of miso makes it an appetizing dish perfect as a snack or an evening meal.
Itoigawa City is located in the westernmost part of the prefecture, bordering Nagano Prefecture to the south and Toyama Prefecture to the west. The city is rich in varied nature, including coasts, mountains, and valleys, with two national parks and three prefectural parks within its city limits.
Its steeply sloping seabed makes for the perfect fishing ground. The city has seven fishing ports, landing red snow crabs, gengyo (a deep-sea fish), and deep-water shrimp. One of the local dishes remaining in the area is Sasa Zushi, or bamboo leaves sushi. Sasa Zushi is served on a bamboo leaf and colorfully decorated with seasonal ingredients, so it is mainly eaten at festivals and celebrations.
To pass on this custom to the present, Joetsu City's Junior Chamber of Commerce registered July 7 as Sasa Zushi Day to appeal to people inside and outside the city. The banners lined up at the storefronts of food shops and restaurants saying "Itoikawa Tanabata is Sasa Zushi Day" has become a seasonal tradition.
Enjoying Nagaoka's round eggplants steamed, a unique way of eating eggplants that has taken root in the region
The Chuetsu region consists of 14 cities, towns, and villages, including Yuzawa Town, the setting of Yasunari Kawabata's novel Snow Country, Sanjo City, which is attracting attention from Japan and abroad as a metalworking town, and Tokamachi City, a city full of hot springs.
In the southeastern part of the region, Uonuma City is a "city of water" where the first-class river Uonogawa River and its tributaries flow. The season for ayu fishing opens every July. It is when fishing enthusiasts head out to the river to cast their lines.
Although Uonuma City is famous for its Uonuma Koshihikari, it is actually also a production area for zenmai royal fern, harvested from around March to June. During the off-season, sun-dried hoshikusa zenmai is distributed. Zenmai is a natural product grown in the mountains, and it loses its acridity while exposed to snow water, giving it a strong flavor. Made with an abundance of seasonal vegetables, zenmai no nimono (stewed zenmai) is a must-have for New Year celebrations, weddings, and funerals, adding a festive flair to celebrations.
With the second largest population in the prefecture, Nagaoka City plays a central role in the Chuetsu region. The city is currently working on a "Nagaoka Vegetable" certification system to review the value of traditional vegetables grown in the region.
There are three criteria for certification: (1) The vegetable has been around for a long time and can only be found in Nagaoka; (2) The vegetable can be found anywhere but is delicious when grown in Nagaoka; and (3) The vegetable is new but is eaten in a unique way in Nagaoka.
Sixteen vegetables have been certified to meet these standards (as of October 2020). The Nagaoka kinchaku nasu is a round, plump eggplant that began to be cultivated around the middle of the Meiji period (1868-1912). As July approaches, when the season is in full spring, it bears fruit bursting to life despite the summer heat. Although it is also delicious grilled or fried, the Nagaoka-style is to enjoy it steamed.
This pealed kinchaku nasu is steamed in a bamboo steamer or other steaming vessel. Its umami flavor spreads in your mouth as you eat it. Its simple taste will keep you coming back for more until the very last bite.
Home cooking, an indispensable part of the Niigata resident's dining table
The Kaetsu region consists of 12 cities, towns, and villages centered on Niigata City, the prefectural capital. In the northern part of the prefecture lies Murakami City, a city long engaged in salmon fishing. "Iyoboya," as fishermen refer to salmon, means "fish among fish" in the Murakami dialect. Their salmon stands out among all their foods.
The Miomote and Okawa Rivers running through Murakami City serve as the city's fishing grounds. In autumn, traps using fences called "urai" are set up in the Miomote River. During this season, people would also conduct kodo fishing at the Okawa River, in which they lure salmon into 1- to 2-meter square wooden frames.
It is said that Murakami City has a repertoire of more than 100 different salmon dishes. One particularly unique dish is the salmon yakizuke, freshly caught salmon grilled white and dipped in broth. This local dish unique to Murakami makes full use of salmon and is also served as a preserved food.
Kakiae namasu is a local dish handed down mainly in the Kaetsu region. It is a vinegared dish made from the edible chrysanthemum Kakinomoto. Have a bite and enjoy the bitterness of the flower petals lingering on your tongue after the refreshing acidity. Edible chrysanthemums are said to have originated in the Edo period. Even now, they are still distributed as common foodstuff. When they come into season in October, these packaged edible chrysanthemums line the shelves of supermarkets, a scene resembling a flower store.
"Edible chrysanthemums are full of taste and make vegetables more gorgeous," says Hiroki Muramatsu from the Niigata Central Chefs Association. He is training the next generation of chefs while serving as the executive chef of Ichishime, a ryotei restaurant in Niigata City. Although Ichishime boasts kaiseki cuisine that uses an abundance of seafood and seasonal vegetables, some of its regulars prefer their noppe.
"Noppe is a stew made with various root vegetables, centering on taro, and is eaten throughout the prefecture. It's interesting how the seasoning, ingredients, and even the way the ingredients are cut differ from region to region."
Depending on the region, it may also be called noppei-jiru, konimo, kokusho, daikai, and so on. Ichishime has arranged this well-established home-style dish into something only a ryotei restaurant can make, serving it in a small mallet-shaped bowl with salmon and kinugaya (a type of pea) for color.
"The best part of noppe is how you can serve it any way you like. Its flexibility is one of the reasons why it is so popular."
Food culture nurtured on an isolated island next to nature
Board a water jet at Niigata Port. Within an hour from there, you will arrive at Sado Island, surrounded by marine blue waters. It is the largest isolated island in Japan, spanning a total area of 855.34 km2. The Osado and Kosado Mountains rise from northeast to southwest, flanked by the Kuninaka Plain. The entire island, including the sea area, was certified as a Geopark in 2013. Scenic spots can be enjoyed all over the island.
It also appears in the myth of the nation's birth in Kojiki (one of Japan's oldest texts), and artifacts dating back more than 10,000 years have been discovered at the island's ruins. From ancient times to the Middle Ages, it was a place of exile for aristocrats defeated in political disputes. During the Edo period, it supported the finances of the shogunate as a gold mining site. At present, Sado Island has changed with the times and is now one of Niigata Prefecture's most popular leisure spots.
Its fishing industry has thrived since long ago, with half of the 64 fishing ports in the prefecture being concentrated on Sado Island. Its fishing ports come in all sizes, from large to small. All sorts of seafood can be caught there throughout the year, such as spear squid in spring, yellowtail in summer, and shrimp in fall.
While those on the mainland eat salmon during the New Year holidays, the people of Sado island eat yellowtail. This is related to the fact that cold yellowtail is caught via fixed-net fishing and that the exiled Kyoto aristocrats introduced the food culture of the Kansai region to the island.
Igoneri is another local dish handed down mainly on Sado Island. Its only ingredient is a seaweed called igokusa. Igoneri is made by boiling and dissolving dried igokusa, then cooling and hardening it. After cutting the seaweed into noodles, dip them in men-tsuyu and enjoy this tasty dish with a subtle aroma of the sea.
Sado Island also offers many other dishes not found on the mainland, such as the fugu no ko no kasuzuke, a dish using puffer fish ovaries, and Sado no nishime, a simmered dish with a strong taste of flying fish soup stock. The taste gets even deeper when thinking about the history of Sado Island.
"There are many local dishes that I have not grasped either." As Ms. Toyama says, Niigata's food culture has evolved uniquely, varying per region. The rice-producing site of Niigata is still full of appeals waiting to be discovered.