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Monday, July 22, 2024
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An Eater’s Guide to Tōhoku, Japan’s Capital of Sake, Wagyu, and Sea Pineapples

Aizuwakamatsu Castle during the cherry blossom bloom in Fukushima, Japan. Norikazu/Shutterstock

A few hours from Tokyo by bullet train, the rugged northern region features Miyazaki-worthy landscapes, a coastline chock full of seafood, and some of the country’s most stunning cherry blossoms

In Japan’s internationally beloved food scene, urban hubs tend to steal all of the attention. Tokyo currently holds the record for the city with the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. But culinary centers are only possible thanks to areas like Tōhoku, a mountainous region located a couple hours north of the capital by bullet train, which supplies much of the country’s finest produce and seafood.

Here, the landscape looks straight out of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime My Neighbor Totoro: blue skies with puffs of clouds over snow-dusted peaks and seemingly endless stretches of green fields. The pristine environment is ideal for raising wagyu cattle and sea creatures such as uni, growing rice and producing sake, and turning out giant peaches, tomatoes, and honey-sweet apples. This bounty isn’t all shipped off to Tokyo, though. Local chefs turn the freshest possible fruits of the land and sea into dazzling meals for a fraction of the price of a night out in a major city.

Outside of Japan, people may be familiar with Tōhoku from the earthquake that struck the area in 2011. It was the country’s strongest recorded earthquake, generating a tsunami that swept away homes and destroyed fisheries and rice paddies. The disaster took thousands of lives across the region and precipitated the nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture. Japan launched an immense cleanup effort led by young volunteers, many of whom had originally left Tōhoku to work in bigger cities, who rushed back to help clear debris and shelter displaced families.

In the years since, fishermen and farmers have worked to rebuild their industries and regain consumer trust in their food (which is perfectly safe to eat). Their persistence has paid off: Twelve years after the disaster, Tōhoku has made a comeback, thanks to the passion of its residents and the revived tourist economy. The area has reemerged as a thriving culinary scene that includes restaurateurs who moved back to the area after the earthquake and found a new sense of pride in their hometowns that convinced them to stay. In the eyes of the Japanese, Tōhoku has become a symbol of rebirth and resilience, a destination that honors its traditional agriculture while bringing its food culture into the future.

Wagyu beef, seafood, sake, and miso, four of Tōhoku’s most famous products.

What is Tōhoku cuisine?

Spread across 26,000 square miles in the northeasternmost portion of Honshu, Tōhoku consists of six prefectures: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata. The region’s cool climate and craggy coastlines have made it a historic center for fishing and agriculture, rice in particular.

The region produces 30 percent of Japan’s total rice yield and has the highest production volume per capita. Akita and Yamagata are especially known for their flavorful grains. The harvest has inspired local takes on rice cakes such as Akita’s kiritanpo, a sticky rice cylinder skewered on a cedar stick and toasted.

Lots of that rice becomes sake, and Fukushima Prefecture is even nicknamed the “Sake Kingdom” because it has long been the country’s production center. In castle cities like Aizuwakamatsu, you can visit breweries that have been operating since the feudal era, when agricultural land was owned by daimyo (lords who answered to the ruling shogun) and protected by samurai.

Tōhoku is also the site of a thriving fishing industry. The dramatic Sanriku coastline stretches about 100 miles along the Pacific Ocean in northeastern Tōhoku, spanning Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi (hence the name Sanriku, which translates to “three shores.”) It is considered one of the world’s best fishing grounds because it lies at the crossroads of three mineral-rich currents. Sea urchin, scallops, oysters, and oily fish like mackerel flourish in these deep, blue-green waters. The coast’s food culture reflects the rich catch, such as during autumn sanma festivals, when vendors serve hundreds of free charbroiled Pacific saury with a sprinkle of salt.

What to know before you go

Iwate wagyu: “Wagyu” refers to four breeds of Japanese cattle, which descended from a crossbreed of native and imported cows in the early 20th century. Wagyu is often referred to by its geographic origin, such as the world-renowned Kobe beef from Hyōgo Prefecture. Although its label may be less familiar internationally, Tōhoku’s Iwate beef received the top prize at the Tokyo Meat Market — an annual showcase and contest that draws the country’s leading cattle farmers — 11 times, which is the most of any region. Iwate Tankaku wagyu is especially well-regarded; the beef comes from Japanese shorthorn cows and is mildly marbled with a tender red meat flavor.

Hoya: The shallows of Sanriku are home to an unusual ascidian called hoya, also known as a sea squirt or sea pineapple, which is found only in these waters. Resembling a bright red human heart, hoya is eaten raw or cooked, and has a strong clam-like taste with hints of bitterness and sweetness.

Fishing for sea pineapple in Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture.

Takayuki Atsumi with his catch of sea pineapple.

Kōji: In addition to being a top rice-growing region, Tōhoku has long been a leading manufacturer of kōji, or rice inoculated with a mold culture. The fermented substance is crucial for unlocking savory and sweet flavors in soy sauce, mirin, miso, sake, and other staples of the Japanese kitchen. Look for kōji products by Fukushima’s Horaiya Honten such as amazake, a milky malt rice beverage said to improve skin and gut health.

When to visit: Tōhoku’s parks transform into fields of cotton candy when cherry blossoms bloom, making spring one of the most beautiful times of the year to visit. Sakura season takes place around mid-April to early May, a little later than most of Japan due to the cooler temperatures up north. Gather friends for a picnic near the elegant black-and-white Hirosaki Castle in Aomori Prefecture. The grounds contain about 2,600 blossoming trees, and the oldest ones were planted by the Tsugaru clan in 1715.

Summer is also a great time to visit Tōhoku, as the weather is sunny but not too humid, and the region’s famous produce is at its ripest. Come in early August for the Three Great Summer Festivals: the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, the Kanto Matsuri in Akita, and Sendai’s Tanabata Matsuri. They feature eye-popping displays of neon floats, lanterns stacked on poles, and giant streamers, respectively, as well as joyful processions of musicians and dancers. At each celebration, visitors can take part in rituals — like hanging a paper fishnet at Tanabata Matsuri — to ensure plentiful catches and harvests in the fall.

Getting around: The shinkansen (bullet train) network makes it easy to hop between Tōhoku’s major cities. From Tokyo Station, it takes only 90 minutes to reach Fukushima.

Edo miso meal at Kura Cafe.

Where to eat

Fukushima Prefecture

Located 30 minutes south of Fukushima City, the mountainous castle town of Nihonmatsu has been Tōhoku’s sake-making center since feudal-era Japan. Daishichi continues to be run by descendants of the samurai who founded the brewery in 1752. Try a flight of sake made in the traditional kimoto manner, a labor-intensive method of developing a yeast starter that results in a nuanced and mellow flavor. The nearby Okunomatsu Brewery was established by a family of ronin, or masterless samurai, in 1716. Although the owners remain focused on craftsmanship, they now proudly produce sake by using cutting-edge technology.

Nihonmatsu is also home to Kunitaya, a small miso factory that has specialized in the fermented soybean paste since the Edo era. The family converted a rustic wood-beamed storehouse into Kura Cafe to serve homestyle lunches. Enjoy a selection of small plates including zaku zaku soup with cubed vegetables, kōji-fermented vegetables like sagohachi pickles, and miso-stuffed onigiri in flavors such as yuzu citrus or ginger.

Shoji Yusa, president of Okunomatsu sake brewery (and samurai descendent).

Daishichi sake.

An hour’s drive west takes you to Kitakata, which has become a pilgrimage site for ramen aficionados. The town has the most ramen shops per capita in Japan, and locals even eat the noodle soup for breakfast. Try Kitakata’s distinctive take on ramen at Genraiken. Since 1927, the restaurant has specialized in a light yet multifaceted, soy sauce-based soup with chewy, medium-thick noodles. Then join the line at Ban Nai, which pairs a nearly clear broth made from mountain water with slices of simmered pork belly.

Travel an hour southeast to contrast Kitakata’s lightweight style with Kōriyama’s nearly black, soy sauce-based ramen. Masuya and Masuhan were the first restaurants to introduce this dark yet surprisingly mellow version, and it has become a rising star for ramen fans.

Miyagi Prefecture

Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture is Tōhoku’s largest city and the birthplace of gyūtan: sliced beef tongue cooked over a charcoal grill or wood fire, served with oxtail soup, barley rice, and pickled vegetables. In 1948, chef Keishiro Sano learned about the flavor possibilities of beef tongue from a French colleague and developed a Japanese version of the dish at Aji Tasuke. Today, restaurant Gyūtan Kaku stands out for preparing the meat in thick, juicy slices with a crisp outer layer.

Once you’ve accomplished the requisite beef tongue feast, join Sendai’s residents in strolling around the City of Trees — named for its thoroughfares lined with green Japanese zelkovas — and snacking on traditional bites along the way. Look for sasakama, a skewered, grilled fish cake shaped like a bamboo leaf. Made from fresh rockfish paste, sasakama has a springy texture and can be customized with savory toppings or fillings, such as rock salt and cheese.

Then satisfy your sweet tooth with zunda mochi, a soybean rice cake that originated in Sendai. Young edamame is mashed with sugar and salt, and the vivid green paste is molded into a chunky rice cake. You can find these snacks and more at Sendai Station, or in any of the city’s lively shopping and dining neighborhoods such as Jōzenji and Aoba Streets.

An auction at the Ishinomaki fish market.

Picturesque Ishinomaki has been an important port city since the 1620s, and it’s now home to the world’s longest fish market, an accolade that speaks to the city’s deep seafaring roots. At sunrise, boats bring in abundant catches of fish and seafood such as the coveted Matsushima oysters and Ezo abalone. A raucous auction then takes place over the colorful creatures displayed in rows of containers.

After the hustle and bustle has subsided, the fishermen grab lunch at Genki Shokudo, a no-frills cafeteria that doles out generous portions of sardine ramen and rice bowls overflowing with red salmon roe. Beneath the dining hall is Genki Ichiba, a food market where visitors can stock up on tinned and vacuum-packed seafood to take home.

Every evening, Imamura transforms the freshest catch of the day into an elegant, multicourse kaiseki dinner. Chef Masateru Imamura moved to Ishinomaki to volunteer after the 2011 disaster and stayed to open his namesake restaurant. Sit at the counter to watch his team prepare plates of sashimi with dabs of rainbow sauces and fusion creations like mackerel with edamame and couscous.

A seafood dish at Genki Shokudo.

A dish at Imamura.

Iwate Prefecture

Iwate’s spring water and circular farming practices — in which small, sustainable farms raise cattle and crops together — are a winning combination for clean and flavorful beef. Experience the nuances of Iwate wagyu at yakiniku restaurant Ginga Rikyu. Diners receive six types of raw beef slices with varying levels of fat and texture. Lightly grill the cuts at the table and dip them in sauces like apple-ginger to bring out the umami.

A food tour of Iwate is not complete without trying the Three Great Noodles of Morioka: wanko soba, jajamen, and reimen. Visitors flock to Azumaya Soba Shop, which was founded in 1907 and is a favorite for all-you-can-eat wanko soba. In place of a single large portion, the staff continuously doles out small portions of the buckwheat noodles; the emptied bowls are stacked rather than refilled, all while the servers chant the nonsensical encouragement: “Jan jan, don don!” Just don’t try to break the record of bowls finished in a single sitting: It’s 570.

Although jajamen is eaten year-round, the hearty noodles are particularly satisfying during Morioka’s icy winters. Inspired by China’s zhajiangmian, the dish mixes thick udon-like noodles with a miso meat sauce and sliced cucumber or pickled vegetables. Try the original jajamen at Pairon, with hot chile sauce and grated garlic added to suit your taste.

In the summer, residents cool down with reimen, a cold noodle dish similar to North Korean naengmyeon. Seirokaku serves the chewy semitranslucent noodles in a refreshing beef broth, along with house-made kimchi that stains the soup bright red.

Iwate’s famous soba.

Iwate beef from Nakamura Farm.

Where to sleep

Hotel Juraku

Iizaka Onsen, a hot springs town situated 30 minutes from Fukushima City, has been a beloved nature getaway for over a thousand years. That’s where you’ll find Hotel Juraku, which also feels like a step back in time; the suites are outfitted with short-legged chabudai tables, sliding screens, tatami mats, and windows overlooking the Surikami River. Soak in the shared onsen baths filled with spring water, which vary in temperature and carbonation. Wrap yourself in one of the provided yukata robes, and fill up on gyoza and grilled fish at the extensive international buffet. Rooms start at $174.
27-27 Nishitakinomachi, Iizakamachi, Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture 960-0201

Hotel Metropolitan Morioka

Hotel Metropolitan is located steps from Morioka’s main railway station, making it an excellent home base for exploring the city. Wake up in a large room furnished with modern amenities, and head down to the breakfast buffet that showcases the local products of Iwate. Be sure to try the sekai ichi apple slices, milk and yogurt from nearby farms, and Hitomebore short-grain rice with a slightly sticky texture. The Metropolitan’s in-house restaurants also feature seasonal offerings like conch and simmered mushrooms. Rooms from $68.
1-44, Moriokaekimaedori, Morioka, Iwate Prefecture 020-0034

Saryou Souen

About 1,500 years ago, Emperor Kinmei traveled to Miyagi’s Akiu Onsen hot springs as a last resort for treating his skin ailments. Historical records claim the ruler fully recovered, and wellness seekers have been soaking in the Natori River’s healing waters ever since. Bask in the stylish luxury of Saryou Souen resort, which resembles an ancient scroll painting complete with a Zen garden, koi pond, and waterfalls running over rock features. Spend time in the bubbling open-air baths, and treat yourself to a facial or massage, followed by a seasonal dinner served in your room. Accommodations from $1,330.
Aza Kamado Higashi, Yumoto, Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture 982-0241

Hotel El Faro

Located 30 minutes east of Ishinomaki, Hotel El Faro is made up of about 40 mobile homes with a meaningful story. When the nearby fishing port was destroyed in the 2011 tsunami, a group of hoteliers swiftly transformed mobile homes into emergency housing for families that lost everything. Later, these temporary houses were upcycled into cozy accommodations and painted a spirited blue. El Faro, which means “lighthouse” in Spanish, is now a beacon for travelers in Tōhoku, as well as a symbol of locals’ courage and determination to rebuild. Rooms begin at $81.
2-1-2, Onagawa, Onagawa-cho, Oshika-gun, Miyagi Prefecture 986-2265

Tetsuo Nakamura on his farm, which produces Iwate beef.

La Carmina is an award-winning travel/food/culture blogger and journalist with bylines at Travel & Leisure, AFAR, and Time magazine, among others. She hosts travel TV shows worldwide — including Travel Channel coverage in Japan — and has published four books with Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, including The Little Book of Satanism. Follow her adventures in over 70 countries @LaCarmina.

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