Location: Akita Prefecture
Date: 11/17-11/18, 2012
Host: Akita Prefectural Government, in cooperation with JTB and a local magazine. This trip was a special promotion, offered selectively to bloggers who applied online.
Impressions of the Trip: At 7:20 sharp, we met our fellow travelers on the Komachi Express platform at Tokyo Station. We were all bloggers, taking advantage of a special, limited, travel offer from the Akita Prefectural government, JTB, and a local magazine. The bullet train sped us from the big city to Tohoku snow country in just a couple of hours.
At Kakunodatte we hurried from the bullet train to the local, inland line and piled onto a special train car painted with autumn leaves and outfitted with low wooden tables and tatami seating. This was the “riori tsushin densha,” a special dining car used to promote and revitalize local agriculture and cuisine. A network of “farm moms,” – including several of our neatly aproned hostesses on the train – work together to deliver delicious food items that they produce at their farms directly to this train when it stops at their local stations: roasted chestnuts; “gakko,” or Akita pickles made of delicious vegetables; chestnut rice; a beautiful bento full of seasonal veggies and mushrooms; toasted mochi sweets; and more. Our hostesses introduced each local “farm mom” (and one farm dad, who made the delivery to the train because mom was too busy) and explained each food item to us. The delicious seasonal foods were the perfect compliment to the fantastic rural scenery outside: autumn-colored nature as far as the eye could see, dotted here and there with orchards, vegetable fields, and houses.
Bellies full, we got off of the dining car at the end of the line, and boarded a bus that took us deeper into the heart of Akita to Nyutou Onsen, which is famous for its outdoor pools of milky-looking hotsprings reputed to have healing properties. After a relaxing soak in the pool, we headed back down the forested trail to our bus and departed to an award-winning beer brewery situated on the shore of Japan’s deepest lake, Lake Tazawa. One of the brewery’s unique offerings is a rice beer, designed to compliment Japanese food. They are currently developing a beer that is meant to be enjoyed either cold or hot: unfortunately, it is still in the development phase and I was not able to try it. If they succeed in making hot beer taste good, it will be a real revolution!
Sunday morning we returned to Kakunodate, the “samurai city,” where we learned about a local style of basketry made of finely sliced wood, and tried our hand at weaving decorative horses. I gave my “horse” caribou antlers, to the astonishment and fascination of everyone in the room (I was surprised, too, when everyone came to take pictures of my caribou). Next we made our way to a family restaurant specializing in natto soup. Natto is a variety of fermented soybeans with a distinctive odor. Famously good for the health, they are also famously difficult to eat for the uninitiated: they leave sticky filaments all over your face and inexplicably fluff up as you chew. Natto soup, on the other hand, exhibited none of those disturbing traits. A delicious broth full of veggies and mushrooms, it went perfectly with the bowl of Akita Komachi our hosts offered us. Long considered the best rice variety in all of Japan, recently Komachi has lost ground to Yamagata and Niigata strains of rice.
The father of the family that runs the shop explained to us why Akita Komachi (the rice that the Akita shinkansen is named after, if I am not mistaken) has not been able to hold onto its place at the top of the Tokyo rice market rankings. Evidently, the climate in Akita has been getting warmer. High quality rice requires warm days and cold nights to mature properly. This type of climate is most common right at the base of mountains (the cold, pure water needed for rice is found there, too) Because of Akita’s changing climate, the harvests have been getting smaller and the quality of the rice is not as high as it once was. Akita has less arable land near mountains than Yamagata and other prefectures, adding another layer to the challenge of creating rice that is competitive in the Japanese market. One more interesting note he shared was that rice is now being grown in Hokkaido, an area that until recently was far too cold for the crop.
Our last two stops both involved that cold weather food speciality, kouji. Kouji is a special rice mold, strains of which are used in creating miso, sake, and Japanese pickles, or tsukemono (gakko in Akita dialect, as my hosts repeatedly reminded me). At 羽場 (Haba) kouji factory, we sampled fresh apples treated with kouji (soft, sweet, and delicious!), a sweet miso jelly packaged in beautiful paper, and rice balls with miso. At the Amanato sake brewery we saw another variety of kouji incubator and tasted a few varieties of sake. Sake is unique in the alcohol world in that it has two types of microorganism actively processing the brew simultaneously: kouji breaking down the rice into simple sugars, and yeast eating the sugars, causing fermentation and alcohol production.
Kanji: This trip’s kanji is 糀、or kouji. The components of the kanji are “rice” and “flower.” In the long cold months of the northern part of Japan, it is probably the only flower blooming!