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2000s Archive

A Winter’s Tale

Originally Published December 2008
Breathtaking landscapes and soul-soothing comfort food enliven the long winter months in the mountains of Japan’s Honshu island.

A fairy tale of winter near Tazawako, where snow covers the ground for months at a time. Writing on a sake tank at the 350-year-old Okuda Brewery.

A snow-covered path leads to a rustic wooden lodge deep in the mountains of northern Japan. It’s the middle of winter, and I enter a dining room where guests sit cross-legged on tatami mats, wearing thick indigo cloaks over cotton robes, the same outfit I have on. In the corner, charcoal smolders in an irori, a traditional open hearth sunk into the floor, and a dozen river char—salted, skewered lengthwise, and slowly roasting—encircle the flames. A hot pot, the essence of comfort food, simmers in the cauldron of the fire. Every community here boasts its own signature version of the dish, and the one before me, a specialty of the inn where I’m staying, gives off a nutty aroma from the ingredients stewing in the rich pork-rib stock: mountain-yam dumplings, three kinds of wild mushrooms, burdock root, and miso paste.

A server delivers more dishes, all new to me—wild ferns cooked with fresh tofu, stir-fried mountain greens, flowering rape shoots simmered with tangy Japanese mustard. I notice a man spooning hot liquid from a bowl with a roasted char floating inside. “What is that?” I ask. “Sake,” he says, offering me a cup. The floral alcohol is infused with the flavor of the fish, an odd but delicious pairing.

Since I fell in love with the food of Japan on my first visit to the country a decade ago, I have discovered, far from Tokyo and Kyoto, a culinary world at the edges, one that goes way beyond sushi, teriyaki, and tempura. And of all the places I’ve traveled, nowhere has intrigued me more profoundly than Tohoku, a deeply rural area, 350 miles north of Tokyo, that is defined as much by its bitter climate as by its forested mountains and jagged coastline. From October through April, Siberian winds sweep across the Sea of Japan, dumping piles of snow—as much as 15 feet a year—on the region. It’s not just the harsh elements, though, that set this land apart. Tohoku has long captured the Japanese imagination as a foreboding spot—a Wild West where soldiers battled indigenous tribes and disgraced samurai settled after banishment. This sense of isolation endures. When my friends in Tokyo heard I was planning a trip to Snow Country—in winter, no less—they responded with blank stares.

Driving on a long, empty highway hugging the Sea of Japan, I watch slate-colored waves crash against rocky cliffs. Snow squalls whip the frigid air. An occasional fishing village appears and quickly recedes behind me. In the distance, frosted peaks thrust into dark skies. I pull into Kitaura, a small port in Akita (yes, the birthplace of the dog), one of Tohoku’s main prefectures. In Japan, winter is the best season to fish, since the catch is particularly fatty and rich. I make my way to Kameya Ryokan (“Turtle Inn”), a three-room hotel whose restaurant, with seven long, low tables, is the one place in town to eat. The owner, Shigetaka Miura, wearing a ski jacket over a chef’s smock and white apron, is on his way to the dock. He invites me to join him while cautioning that the fishing will be only so-so because of rough seas.

We enter a brightly lit waterfront warehouse with shutters open on two sides. The day’s haul rests on ice in hundreds of white Styrofoam crates, arranged in long rows. Wholesalers in rain slickers and rubber boots inspect a staggering array: stonefish, rockfish, blowfish, flounder, horse mackerel, six-inch tiger shrimp. Other containers reveal tangles of glistening, dark-green seaweed. The gray tails of three-foot-long cod poke out from white boxes that are stacked to the ceiling. Next to them, row after row of cedar crates hold rose-colored octopuses, some weighing as much as 50 pounds, all still alive. Most fishermen sail solo in 20-foot open skiffs, in waters less than five miles from the tiny ports along Tohoku’s coast. I am amazed at what they’ve been able to catch on a “so-so” day.

Shigetaka prepares dinner at the restaurant. A couple of fishermen sit near me, unwinding at another table, drinking beer and staring at the TV mounted on the wall. Eight pairs of neatly arranged shoes and boots—the village firemen are eating in the back room—wait at the entrance.

“My favorite hot pot,” the chef says, setting a large earthenware crock on the heating plate in front of me. The dish bubbles with snow-white monkfish and crisp leeks in a fragrant broth of monkfish liver and miso. The fish is incredibly tender and flavorful. “Caught a few hours ago,” the chef reminds me. He returns a little later to strain the leftovers, adding two raw eggs, rice, and scallions to the broth. “Neko manma,” he says—”cat food,” in Japanese slang, the best of the hot pot, which indeed resembles cat food but is at once comforting and delicious.

The farmers market in Fujisato, a mountain town at the edge of a primeval beech forest, also sells a remarkable variety of fish—mackerel, herring, flounder—all displayed on a folding table under a plastic tarp. But here, a two-hour drive from Kitaura and the sea, they’re all salted or cured.

I meet Taido Niikawa, the town’s Buddhist priest, and Keiko Kodama, a retired English teacher in her sixties with a pageboy haircut. “We have a modern supermarket now,” she says, pointing to a store across the street, “but this is where we shopped before.” Centuries ago, fresh fish, the basis of Japanese cooking, could never have survived the journey this far inland during the winter, she explains, when traveling was an arduous affair. “People here adapted to the tough conditions. They hunted deer and bear in the forests. They pickled, smoked, salted, and dried vegetables to last through the long, cold months. They foraged the mountains for wild greens and mushrooms, and cured them, too, all before the snows arrived,” she says.

At dinner that night, with Taido Niikawa’s family and friends, in the 370-year old temple, we eat a meal of pickled vegetables, river fish, smoked chicken, and soy-sauce-flavored horsemeat stew, the latter a delicacy here. Taido’s mother brings out plastic bottles filled with a milky liquid and pours a glass for everyone. Pickles aren’t the only thing that’s homemade: Doburoku—sake, brewed at home by a neighbor—is harsh, fizzy, sweet, and dangerously easy to drink.

To be sure, naturally preserved foods are an integral part of the overall Japanese diet, but in Tohoku, they are the ingredients of survival, the heart of the robust dishes that make up the area’s wintertime cuisine. The next day, I visit the home of Wakako Arakawa, walking in to find her chatting with five other women who are seated on the floor. In typical rural style, all are wearing floral-print smocks and have kerchiefs covering their hair. The women, surprised to see a gaijin in such a remote area, giggle as they invite me to join them. Wakako brings over a tray with tea and snacks. “Gakko chakko,” she says with a smile. For these local residents, “tea and pickles” might be the equivalent of afternoon tea in the Scottish Highlands, a ritual to pass the time when it’s too cold, or simply too dreary, to go outside. The pickles are an Akita specialty of crunchy carrots and bright yellow daikon radishes that have been smoked over cherrywood. Wakako also serves sliced hatahata zushi, silver sandfish the size of herring, fermented with rice. The fish smells sour but tastes sweet, like pickled herring.

“In the countryside,” Keiko says, “families make their own hatahata zushi and pickles. And every family’s tastes different.”

As the women chat, I realize how much the heavy snowfalls have affected their lives. They speak in the Akita dialect, indecipherable to outsiders, a language of clipped words that, legend has it, evolved for rapid communication in the bitter cold.

I ask Wakako to show me how she makes her pickles, a request that results in another round of giggling from the group. She leads me into the storehouse behind her home. In the dim light I count 14 plastic buckets, each with a different pickle inside, whose lids are being held in place by a stone or chunks of cinder block. Wakako scoops out a handful of limp greens—wild vegetables she picked herself—that look like cooked string beans. Then she points to some sturdy buckets the size of wine barrels that are lashed tight with bamboo struts: “Homemade miso,” she says, “enough to last for five years.” Dried mush­rooms and dokudami flowers, traditional herbal remedies to cure stomachaches, hang from the wall.

As I head out of Fujisato, miles of aluminum shutters, stacked four high to block the driving snow, run like silver ribbons along Akita’s mountain roads. They weave through silent country villages and cut across dense forests, where drifts pile high in stands of cedar. In the town of Kiowa, a solid globe shaped from green cedar branches hangs by the entrance of the Okuda Brewery, the traditional way of announcing that the first sake of the brewing season is ready. Shigetoku Okuda, an 18th-generation sake maker, welcomes me to his sakagura, which has been in the same family for 350 years. A sour, yeasty smell hits me as I walk into the brewery. Heavy rough-hewn beams, blackened by age, support the ceiling. Thick—packed earthen walls insulate the building from the cold outside—but barely. A worker in a cavernous room stands inside a huge bucket, five feet high and seven feet across, scooping up cooked rice with a shovel and dumping the clumps onto a screeching conveyor belt. His face glistens as steam pours from the bucket; a white towel, tied on his head like a biker’s bandanna, helps absorb the sweat. “Here, taste it,” he cries, offering a sample from the tip of his shovel. The white rice is hot, sticky, and as chewy as al dente pasta. Shigetoku then leads me to a waist-high stainless-steel tank and, after dipping a cup-size ladle into it, gives me a sip of namazake, unpasteurized sake. It has a brash, refreshing taste, the cold liquid imbued with live-yeast cultures.

Shigetoku follows age-old methods in crafting Akita sake, which is made with prized Komachi rice. “I need the cold to make my sake,” he says, and, in fact, he brews rice only in the winter months, the traditional time for sake production in Japan. Shigetoku’s mother meets us as we leave and invites me into the attached family home. The ceremonial tearoom has tatami floors and a scroll of calligraphy that is prominently displayed. Charcoal glows inside the irori. Our voices lower to a whisper as Mrs. Okuda prepares powdered green tea by frothing it with a bamboo whisk.

“I picked the scroll just for us,” she says softly, pointing to the elaborate brush strokes. “In this cold weather,” she translates, “we should enjoy the coldness and be at peace with nature.” The perfect motto, I think, for all of Tohoku.


Staying There

Take the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Tazawako village, where you’ll find Tsurunoyu (011-81-187-46-2139; from $80), the place where I enjoyed my pork-rib hot pot and char-infused sake. The hotel is clustered with six other rustic lodges in the Akita mountains, and all provide day passes, so you can hop from one steaming outdoor bath to the other for ever-changing views of the snowy mountains. Farther north, in Aomori prefecture, the 38-room Aoni Onsen (011-81-172-54-8588; www.yo.rim.or.jp/aoni/; from $77) is nestled so deep in a mountain pass that a four-by-four must drive you the final five miles to the lodge. Oil lamps still provide the only illumination at the hotel. The seven-room Syohoen Ryokan (011-81-187-77-2116; syohoen.net; from $130) is a magnificent traditional Japanese inn with a 14-course dinner of Akita specialties—including a hot pot of pork, wild mountain greens, and tofu in a miso broth, all cooked in a metal pan shaped like a giant scallop shell, a tradition from when hot pots were served on actual shells. At Kameya ryokan (011-81-185-33-2049; $105 for lodging and dinner), you can sample the monkfish hot pot, grilled rockfish, cod soup, and half a dozen other local fish served as sashimi.

Eating There

Mukashi Kiritanpo-ya (0186-43-4040), in Odate, specializes in Akita’s signature hot pot, kiritanpo nabe, a hearty stew of chicken, burdock root, leeks, wild hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and kiritanpo (pounded sticky rice grilled on a cedar spit). The stock in the dish is simmered for three days and made from free-range heirloom birds that are serenaded by Mozart, pumped over loudspeakers. (“I read that Mozart calms people,” the breeder told me. “Why not chickens?”) Along the coast, near Oga, the chef at six-table MinoKO (0185-38-2146) “stone-boils” another iconic Akita hot pot by plopping a red-hot stone into a cedar bucket filled with broth, sea bream, and seaweed—a gurgling dish invented by local fishermen. At Dewaya (0237-74-2323), in neighboring Yamagata prefecture, in the town of Nishikawa, the 22-course tasting menu is based solely on wild greens and fungi, both picked from the surrounding forest. Once a pilgrims’ lodge, the restaurant also serves an excellent sake and a moss that grows on the high limbs of beech trees, which can be reached only in winter when snow drifts are high enough (“seaweed of the forest,” the chef calls this delicate dish).