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Food fun-ventures in Eastern Japan: Part 1

Food fun-ventures in Eastern Japan: Part 1

What’s visiting Japan without trying all the delicious local cuisines? Japanese cuisine is world-famous, but there is so much more food in Japan to try besides sushi. Of course, many of us also know of sashimi, tempura, and ramen. Yet Japanese food culture is much richer than that. 

 

During our recent trip to Eastern Japan (東日本 Higashi-nihon) with my colleague Sue, we had the opportunity to visit not only beautiful sightseeing spots such as the evergreen Oirase Keiryu and Lake Towada, and the historic Zenkoji Temple, but we also got to taste their delicious local cuisine. Today, we’d like to introduce you to some of them, starting with some famous Japanese food from the Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku chihō). Planning to add something unique to your Japanese foods list? Spice it up with these six mouthwatering must-tries!

 

1. Nokkedon (Aomori Prefecture)

(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)

 

Our first dish hails from the northernmost prefecture of the Tohoku Region, Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken). This prefecture is famed for having some of the best seafood in Japan, and alongside the fresh seafood is the unique cuisine known as Nokkedon (のっけ丼). Translating to “to place on” and “rice bowl”, this dish enables you to make your own original seafood rice bowl by picking your toppings of choice. 

 

Located just a few blocks from Aomori Station (青森駅 Aomori-eki), we arrived at Aomori Gyosai Center (青森魚菜センター), also known as Furukawa Fish Market. We purchased our tickets at the information desk—you can choose between purchasing a set of 5 tickets (¥750) or 10 tickets (¥1,500) and we, of course, opted for the ¥1,500 set—the more, the merrier! After picking up our bed of rice, we were off to create our own Nokkedon.

 

We were spoiled for choices (top), but ultimately picked and crafted our masterpieces (bottom). (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn & Julia Yee)

 

There were plenty of stalls lined up with each stall providing various options ranging from sashimi to miso soup, pickles, cooked dishes and meat as well. After much deliberation, we both settled on the fresh prawn sashimi, but from different stalls. There were some stalls which offered similar toppings, so it’s good to walk around and compare before settling on the one for you. 

 

Nonetheless, we devoured our delicious bowl of Nokkedon which was filled with seafood so fresh, we were left craving for more. This is a delicacy that simply should not be missed while in Aomori Prefecture.

 

Aomori Gyosai Center (青森魚菜センター)
Address: 1-11-16 Furukawa, Aomori-shi, Aomori 030-0862
Nearest station: Aomori Station (青森駅)
Access: 5-minute walk from the station
Opening hours: 7am–4pm (Closed on Tuesdays, regular holiday may vary during Golden Week, the Nebuta Festival period in August, Obon holidays, and the year-end and New Year holidays)
Tel: +81-17-763-0085

 

2. Inaniwa Udon (Akita Prefecture)

Akita delights: Kiritanpo with a side of iburigakko. As for the mains, regular udon (left) and inaniwa udon (right). (Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)

 

The second item on our list is Inaniwa udon (稲庭うどん) from Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken). Famed as one of the three famous udon in Japan, it has a long history dating back to 1665. What makes this udon so special is that the Inaniwa udon noodles are very silky and thin compared to its thicker counterparts. 

 

We ordered a teishoku (定食) set, which is the Japanese set meals that came with both the regular udon and the Inaniwa udon to compare, and it was surprising how different the two types tasted. The difference in texture of the Inaniwa udon made it the perfect match for dipping in the local dipping sauce—which was a yummy miso-based sauce—and enjoying the udon cold. 

 

The delectable noodles were so soft and chewy. Personally, I preferred it over the regular udon as it was easier to eat. My teishoku set also came with two Akita delicacies, kiritanpo (きりたんぽ)—a traditional food made from rice, toasted on fire and glazed with miso—and iburigakko (いぶりがっこ smoked pickled daikon radish).

 

3. Reimen and Yakiniku (Iwate Prefecture)

Reimen. (Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)

 

Moving along the Tohoku Region, our next two recommendations can be found in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken). The first stop on our Iwate to-eat list was Reimen (冷麺), one of the traditional foods in the northeastern city of Morioka (盛岡市 Morioka-shi). You may be thinking, “Wait, this doesn’t look like a traditional Japanese dish”, and you’re right. It is a Korean-inspired dish that translates to “cold noodles”. 

 

Yummy! (Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)

 

As this was my first time trying Reimen, I was pleasantly surprised when it was first served to us. The cold dish featured translucent noodles in a slightly spicy beef broth, served with a slice of watermelon and topped with half a hard-boiled egg, sliced cucumbers, kimchi, and a slice of meat. The level of spiciness of the beef broth could be ordered according to your preference, with about seven different levels to choose from. The vivid colours and flavours of the broth really made this dish stand out. 

 

Another way to enjoy Reimen is to pair it with barbeque or grilled meat for a scrumptious dinner. The beautifully marinated beef was very flavoursome and we wanted to order more.

 

4. Wanko Soba (Iwate Prefecture)

Guess who ate less than 100 bowls? (Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)

 

Another type of noodles that I’d like to add to this foodie’s list is the formidable yet memorable Wanko soba (わんこそば). Also hailing from Iwate Prefecture, Wanko soba is not so much of a delicacy, but rather, an experience (or should I say, challenge?) to consume as many bowls of soba as possible. Despite knowing ahead of time that we were to do this challenge, nothing could have readied our hearts and stomachs to eat-until-we-dropped as we entered Azumaya’s premises.

 

So many side dishes. Will I be able to enjoy them with my soba? (Image credit: JR East / Julia)

 

The soba or buckwheat noodles are served in bite-sized portions and we had to try to eat as much as we could without stopping (maybe with an exception of a toilet break if the shopkeepers are in a good mood). Other than soba, toppings like spring onions, soboro minced meat, and grated radish with shimeji mushrooms, and side dishes like pickled vegetables and sashimi are provided for a change in palate. Wearing the bibs that were prepared for us, it was now time to get our wanko on.

 

We both began our challenge not knowing what we were in for, and soon, we were in too deep. While the sky’s the limit, the challenge is to eat at least 100 bowls of wanko soba. Getting past the 40–50-bowl mark was not too difficult, but it started to get tough soon after. The waitresses would pour the soba into our bowls while cheering and chanting “Hai jan jan, hai don don,” as a means of encouragement to eat more. 

 

Unfortunately, I admitted defeat by the time I was on my 87th bowl, while Sue devoured 101 bowls. A regular portion of soba is equivalent to about 15 wanko bowls, so if you do the math, that’s a lot of soba consumed in one sitting! 

 

The waitress almost got her, but she did it. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul & Sue Lynn)

 

Once we finished the portion in our main bowl, it was instantly refilled by the energetic waitress standing right next to us with a tray of bowls—ever-ready to serve us our next bite. When you decide to stop, you would have to quickly cover your bowl with the lid to end the challenge. Otherwise, the eager waitresses would try to sneak in additional noodles into your bowls if you’re not fast enough.

 

I should have tried to eat more…I will try again next time, maybe. (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn & Julia Yee)

 

Once we were done with the challenge, we received a small paper certificate with our names, date of visit, and number of bowls completed. Sue managed to hit 100 bowls so she also received an additional special wooden plaque. Azumaya, where we did our challenge, not only offers an English menu and instructions on how to participate in the challenge, but also Halal options for our Muslim friends! We highly recommend you to try this fun activity if you’re not afraid of not wanting to eat soba for the next few months. 

 

Azumaya Ekimae-dori (東家 駅前店)
Address: 8-11 Morioka-ekimae Building 2F, Morioka-Ekimae-dori Morioka-shi, Iwate 020-0034
Nearest station: Morioka Station (盛岡駅)
Access: 2-minute walk from the station
Opening hours: 11am–3pm, 5pm–8pm
Tel: +81-19-622-2233

 

5. Gyutan (Miyagi Prefecture)

(Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)

 

Our last stop in Tohoku was Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県 Miyagi-ken), where we feasted on the delightful gyutan (牛タン) or beef tongue—a delicacy of Sendai City (仙台市 Sendai-shi). As it was the weekend and peak dinner time during our visit, we headed to a restaurant right by Sendai Station (仙台駅 Sendai-eki), where they offered gyutan prepared in various ways.

 

For regular gyutan, which are thinly sliced, they come either drizzled in tare (たれ) sauce or lightly-salted. While there, we also got to enjoy the atsugiri (厚切り) slices which were the thicker cuts. Both variations were mouth-wateringly delicious—for those who like to enjoy the natural taste of the beef, we recommend the lightly-salted option, while those who prefer the savoury flavours can enjoy the tare sauces. 

 

Personally, the thicker slices were the highlight of our meal as the meat was so tender and juicy with each bite. ​​In Sendai, you can find gyutan specialty shops just about anywhere you go, so do try it during your visit. 

 

6. Shinshu Beef (Nagano Prefecture)

Delectable Shinshu beef. (Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)

 

Heading out of the Tohoku Region, the final recommendation on our list can be found in Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken), also in Eastern Japan. We cannot end off this article without mentioning perhaps the best food that Nagano has to offer: Shinshu beef (信州和牛 Shinshū wagyū)! Japan is home to some of the best quality beef in the world, and Nagano has its very own specialty as well, in the form of Shinshu beef. What makes this beef special is how the cows are raised: they are fed with Nagano apples—another speciality of the prefecture—which makes their meat sweet and tender.

 

(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)

 

It was my first time trying Shinshu beef and my colleague Sue, who had tried the beef prior, has been raving about it the entire trip. Excitedly, we made our way to YAMASACHI (やまさち) located in HOTEL METROPOLITAN NAGANO where we were staying at. We were greeted by the chef and he soon began preparing our meals. He skillfully cooked the beef in front of us, and we could smell the lovely aroma while we waited (im)patiently.

 

I miss this already and I’m getting hungry just as I’m writing this article. (Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee)

 

The chef placed the plate in front of me and I took my first bite after admiring this work of art that is my medium-rare Shinshu beef. Needless to say, I was mesmerised. It was simply decadent; the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and subtle sweetness of the beef was something I have never experienced before. Best of all, this restaurant offers Muslim-friendly / no-pork options for Muslim visitors once reservations are made in advance. Overall, the experience at YAMASACHI was a feast for all five senses.

 

Teppan Grill YAMASACHI (鉄板焼「やまさち」)
Address: 1346 Minamiishi Dou-cho Hotel Metropolitan Nagano 2F, Nagano 380-0824, 
Nearest station: Nagano Station
Access: 3-minute walk from the station
Opening hours: 11:30 am–2:30 pm (Last order: 2pm), 5:30pm–9:30pm (Last order: 9pm)
Tel: +81-26-291-7000

 

This is the end of the first part of our fun food-venture in Eastern Japan. How was it? We hope our list of unique food experiences has given you some ideas on what local gourmets to add to your list of must-try dishes during your next trip to Japan. Stay tuned for part two, where we will introduce more of Nagano’s delicacies.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn & Julia Yee

 

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