Tohoku is a vast area located in the north of Japan, right below Hokkaido. It is surrounded by mountains and sea areas, which is why it is known for its amazingly fresh and beautiful cuisine.
If you are planning to visit the area of Tohoku, you will be impressed by the fresh ingredients, the variety of flavors, and top-notch quality food to sample. Let’s go on with this article, where you will be guided to a gastronomical heaven in the north of Japan!
Most Buddhist monks in Japan dedicate their lives to the vegetarian diet. This is due to Buddhism’s teachings of not hurting any living creatures (plants are excluded).
If you are imagining some frugal bland meal consisting only of greens, then you are wrong! The dishes which are placed in small plates and bowls range from a variety of pickled, steamed, fried and braised wild mountain vegetables to miso soup with smooth and tasty tofu. The Shojin Ryori have been with Tohoku for centuries, and best of all, you don’t have to be a monk to taste it! You can savor it here when you come to Yamagata.
In Yamagata, there are three holy mountains known as the Dewa Sanzan which are famous pilgrimage spots. These are called Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono. All these three mountaintops have Shojin Ryori, which really makes it a holy and spiritual experience!
When: All year round.
Where: Any Shukubo lodging in Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata prefecture.
If you are a big fan of tuna, you should definitely visit Aomori Prefecture in Tohoku. Firstly, this is the best place to go for Bluefin tuna, also known as Natsu Maguro (summer tuna), because it is mostly caught in the summer season in Fukaura Town. On the other hand, the tuna caught in Oma Town is called Fuyu Maguro (winter tuna).
In terms of the size, Natsu Maguro is a little smaller than Fuyu Maguro. Natsu Maguro is also available for a longer period of time yearly. Known for its great taste of red meat with moderate fat and a smooth texture, Natsu Maguro tastes equally good both raw and cooked. The Fukaura Maguro Steak Bowl is one of the most famous local dishes made of this tuna.
When: Around and during Summer season
Where to Find it: Fukaura Town and Oma Town in Aomori prefecture.
Tuna dishes might be a pretty common sight but shark dishes, I believe, come as a shocker. No, I am not talking about shark fin alone. When in the sea, there are many stories of this creature eating humans, but when it comes to the land of Miyagi Prefecture, the opposite happens.
For the locals, every part of this marine mammal can be consumed from its skin to its meat and all the way down to its bones. The most popular dish on the menu is the Shark Fin Rice Bowl which consists of your usual white rice topped with a whole shark fin.
The shark meat has sparked public concern due to the appalling cruelty involved in the process of catching and preparing it. However, recent research has been carried out in order to prevent the extinction and cruelty towards sharks.
According to Samazing (an association for Promoting the Kesennuma Concept, a City known for Sharks), “At Kesennuma (which accounts to 80-90% of Japan’s shark catch), we must never just harvest the shark fin and throw the rest of the fish back into the sea”.
They also further stated that “The Kesennuma longline fishing industry is currently preparing to apply for the MSC certification awarded to sustainable finishing practices for its traditional longline fishing methods”.
When: All year round
Where to Find it: Kesennuma and Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture.
This sea creature is also known as “sea pineapple” due to its thorny appearance, but it tastes nothing like pineapple! Some describe the taste as “rubber dipped in ammonia”.
In Japan, it is commonly eaten as sashimi by slicing it in half and removing the internal organs and shell before serving with vinegared soy sauce. It is also sometimes salted, smoked, grilled, deep-fried, or dried. It is said to be a good match with sake!
When: Summer season
Where to Find it: Sanriku region of Japan (comprising Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi prefectures).
It is said that this shellfish is better eaten cooked than raw. The firm meat is rich in protein and iron. When you are in Miyagi Prefecture you must try the Hokki Meshi, a rice dish cooked with plenty of Hokki surf clams. The dish is rich in the flavor of the clams and is commonly served with thin slices of Hokki.
When: Winter to Spring
Where to Find it: Yamamoto and Watari in Miyagi Prefecture.
While most of the Sockeye salmon is salmon that has matured and traveled down the river to the sea, sockeye salmon that spends its entire life in a lake is called Himemasu. Their habitat also makes them taste different from those caught from the salty sea water.
Himemasu has a vibrant red color and plenty of fat. It is mainly served pickled with salt or made into aramakizake. It is also served as sashimi to bring out its sweetness and soft texture.
When: May to July
Where to Find it: Lake Towada bordering Akita and Aomori prefectures.
After much introduction on the seafood in this area, let’s head on to dessert! Yamagata produces up to 70 % of the cherries in Japan. So, why not have a cherry parfait & experience some cherry picking from the farm? Cherries that are freshly picked have a subtle tartness to their sweet flavor. Come and enjoy the cherry season from June to July.
When: late May to July (to purchase cherries), and June to July (cherry-picking),
Where to Find it: Various cafes and farms located in Yamagata Prefecture.
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For only about 200 to 250 yen, you can enjoy this local ice-cream! The name Babahera derives from the Japanese words baba (ババ), which is a nickname for old women or grandmothers, and hera (ヘラ), the ice cream scoop they use.
Babahera is usually shaped to look like a rose and is often sold by old ladies in brightly colored aprons and scarves. They are available in various flavors like strawberry and banana, lemon and strawberry, and milk and strawberry. These ice-cream stalls can easily be identified by their brightly colored beach umbrellas. They can also be spotted on the roadsides!
When: Summer season
Where to Find it: Small stalls along the street in Akita Prefecture.
With the local cuisines introduced here, I guess you won’t have to scratch your head trying to find what to eat while in Tohoku. However, do remember to check the seasons’ availability so that you won’t miss out the best local food offered in Tohoku!