Food fun-ventures in Eastern Japan: Part 3
A common piece of praise about holidaying in any part of Japan over the years is how safe the entire country is for overseas travellers. I respectfully disagree, as I’ve found that my waistline is constantly in danger every time I travel there, no thanks to the seemingly infinite types of new, delicious-looking food that can be encountered beyond every turn.
Last autumn, I was given the opportunity to embark on a whirlwind tour of the Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku chihō) and feast on its many delicacies along the way. Join me as I recount the many meals I had along the way as I travelled together with my colleague Carissa to nearly every prefecture to see what makes the food of Eastern Japan so much fun!
1. Inawashiro Soba (Fukushima Prefecture)
Soba can taste quite differently when lovingly made by hand. (Image credit: ©「福が満開、福のしま。」福島県観光復興推進委員会)
Working my way up from the south I’ll start with my first dish from Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken), Inawashiro Soba (猪苗代そば)! As a major cultivator of buckwheat, many places in Fukushima are known for their buckwheat noodles, or soba (そば). These local noodles are traditionally handmade as soon as they are harvested during the fall season, so you can expect the soba served during this time to be especially fragrant and delicious!
The set meal at this restaurant served a mini tempura bowl together with the soba. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
I had my serving of soba at Resthouse Goshikinuma (レストハウス五色沼) at the entrance of Urabandai (裏磐梯), a beautiful national park and “Lake District” of Japan. The noodles served here are very much unique from the usual, factory-made stuff you’d normally buy in supermarkets or other eateries. They were chewy, aromatic, and had a certain vitality to them, with a distinctive nutty flavour. The miniature tempura don (天ぷら丼) or tendon served together in the set meal was also light and delicious, and provided the perfect stamina boost I needed for a hike through the national park I would make right after. Give the soba noodles a try the next time you visit Fukushima Prefecture, you might find yourself unexpectedly surprised!
Soba noodles are nutritious and high in fibre and protein, so be sure to load up before going on any long hikes! (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
Resthouse Goshikinuma (レストハウス五色沼)
Address: 1093-341 Hibara, Kitashiobara, Yama-gun, Fukushima 966-0501
Nearest station: Inawashiro Station (猪苗代駅)
Access: From Inawashiro Station, take a 30-minute Bandai Toto bus ride (¥790) to Goshikinumairiguchi bus stop. From there, it is a 10-minute walk to the entrance of Goshikinuma.
Opening hours: Varies by facility
2. Sendai Gyutan (Miyagi Prefecture)
There’s a certain umami flavour to gyutan that’s more prevalent than in other cuts of beef. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
Next up is gyutan (牛タン), the pride and joy of Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県 Miyagi-ken)! For the uninitiated, gyutan means “cow’s tongue” in Japanese, and trust me when I say that it is way more appetising than it sounds. The popularity of this cut of beef which started in Sendai City (仙台市 Sendai-shi) has now made it readily available in nearly every yakiniku (焼肉) restaurant spread across the country. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was not able to make it to Sendai this time round to try it on its home turf, but luckily for me, a restaurant specialising exclusively in Sendai gyutan dishes was not too far away from my hotel in Fukushima City (福島市 Fukushima-shi).
The most common way to enjoy gyutan would be to cook it over a barbeque and season it lightly with salt, but Gyutan Sumiyaki Rikyu (牛たん炭焼利久) served their beef tongue in a variety of different ways. Compared to other cuts of beef, gyutan is slightly chewy yet easy to swallow, with a juicy interior packed with a rich, meaty flavour. Besides having it grilled simply, I also got to try gyutan sushi, gyutan tempura and finely chopped gyutan served in a maki roll.
Gyutan Sumiyaki Rikyu (牛たん炭焼利久)
Address: 7-32 Sakaemachi, Fukushima 960-8031
Nearest station: Fukushima Station (福島駅)
Access: 2-minute walk from the station
Opening hours: 11am–2pm (Lunch, last order: 2pm), 2pm–10:30pm (Dinner, last order: 10pm)
3. Morioka Reimen (Iwate Prefecture)
The refreshing, sweet and tangy taste of reimen is a perfect accompaniment to grilled meat. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
Moving further north from Fukushima is Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken)! This is an area known for having a variety of unique noodle dishes, and of the fabled "Three Great Noodle Dishes" of Morioka City (盛岡市 Morioka-shi), I managed to taste two during this trip—namely the dishes of wanko soba (わんこそば) and reimen (冷麺)!
Reimen is a cold noodle dish that has its roots in Korean cuisine. It came about when a yakiniku restaurant opened by Korean immigrants started serving cold noodles based on what they used to have in their hometown, and the taste quickly caught on from there. Along with being topped with the usual suspects such as hard-boiled egg, cuts of meat and cucumber, reimen also noticeably has a few unique ingredients in the soup including kimchi, and seasonal fruit such as apple, pear or watermelon.
Let’s not forget about the delicious, marbled wagyu that’s ever-present in the region! (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
I had my first taste of Morioka Reimen in a restaurant called Pyon-Pyon-Sha (ぴょんぴょん舎), a yakiniku establishment with a signature high-collagen reimen dish. The noodles came in a really large bowl, with all of the ingredients intricately arranged around the coil of chewy noodles. I’m usually used to eating my yakiniku paired with steamed Japanese rice, so it was extra refreshing to have the heaty barbequed meat counterbalanced with the cooling, sweet noodle soup. My reimen came with a sliced pear in the broth as it was autumn, and I thoroughly enjoyed the mild spicy-sweet balance it gave me.
Address: 9-3 Jaran Building, Moriokaekimaedori, Morioka-shi, Iwate 020-0034
Nearest station: Morioka Station (盛岡駅)
Access: 2-minute walk from the station
Opening hours: 11am–11pm (Last order: 10pm)
4. Wanko Soba (Iwate Prefecture)
Don’t think, don’t feel, just eat. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
It’s one thing to slurp a bowl of noodles for fun, but what about for glory? For those with a competitive spirit (and the stomach to match), Iwate Prefecture has you covered with wanko soba! It is said that once upon a time, a visiting warlord to Morioka city enjoyed the soba noodles served by the townsfolk so much that he kept demanding they serve him more after every bowl he downed, leading to his servers having to stand behind him and dump fresh noodles into his emptied bowl one after another. This legend led to the rise of the Wanko Soba Challenge, in which the participant is made to finish as many bite-sized bowls of soba noodles as they possibly could without time to rest between bites.
While there is no time limit (or bowl limit, for that matter) for this challenge, you are not allowed to leave your seat for a break as an ever-present waitress will be standing behind you with a full tray of noodles, ready to energetically refill your bowl after every slurp. Every order of the Wanko Soba Challenge also comes with an assortment of side dishes like pickled vegetables and sashimi to vary up your taste buds, though keep in mind that every bite of tuna could mean one less bowl of soba towards your score!
Going into this challenge, I already had a goal in mind—112 bowls, which was the office record held by my colleagues at the time for the number of bowls consumed in one sitting. If you manage to complete at least 100 bowls of wanko soba, the store will award you with a special wooden plaque with your name on it, immortalising your achievement and bragging rights.
With 116 bowls to my name, it’s not easy being the best. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
Of course, as the most powerful member of the writing team, not only did I manage to break past the 100-bowl requirement, but I also smashed the office record by eating a full 116 bowls of soba! If you think you can beat that score, you can head on down over to Azumaya (東家) in Morioka City and attempt the challenge for yourself!
(Note: If you contact the restaurant and make a reservation at least a few days in advance, a special halal or vegetarian version of the Wanko Soba set meal can be prepared, where they swap out the mirin usually used in the soba sauce!)
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
5. Inaniwa Udon (Akita Prefecture)
Fun fact: I ate this entire bowl of noodles mere hours before the previously mentioned Wanko Soba challenge. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
Tohoku is a region simply loaded to the brim with oodles of noodles, and the next one on the list is Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken)’s very own Inaniwa Udon (稲庭うどん). Unlike most forms of thick, chewy udon, Inaniwa Udon stands out as being noticeably thinner and silkier in texture. The smooth noodles go down well when you slurp them, making for a quick, pleasant and oh-so delicious meal to complement a visit to Akita!
Kosendo feels like if a restaurant operating four hundred years ago were still here today. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
While exploring the famous preserved samurai streets of Kakunodate (角館), I came across this historic-looking restaurant located inside a former samurai residence. Kosendo is a longtime favourite of locals and tourists alike looking to get a hearty bowl of noodles while dining in a store with the same Edo-era atmosphere as the rest of the city. I ordered the Ume Oboro Inaniwa Udon, in which my bowl of noodles came complete with kombu seaweed and a pickled plum as toppings. The flavour and texture of the ingredients were really highlighted by the clear soup and smooth noodles, and I found the entire bowl to be a really wholesome dish which I wouldn’t feel guilty about downing every single day if I had the chance!
Address: 9 Higashikatsurakucho, Kakunodate-machi, Semboku-shi, Akita 014-0325
Nearest station: Kakunodate Station (角館駅)
Access: 15-minute walk from Kakunodate Station
Opening hours: 10:30am–3:30pm
Tel: +81 187-53-2902
6. Nokkedon (Aomori Prefecture)
It’s basically a Build-A-Bear workshop, but instead of a huggable toy you’re making the perfect sushi bowl. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
Our final prefecture of this journey, and also the northern edge of Tohoku is ever-awesome Aomori (青森県 Aomori-ken)! Famous for being one of the snowiest places in the entire world, the challenging climate of Aomori means only the hardiest crops and produce are made here, such as apples, garlic, and seafood. One unique dish that has become famous here thanks to the fresh seafood in particular is nokkedon (のっけ丼), a unique type of sushi bowl in which you choose the toppings yourself!
The best place to try out this unique dish is the Aomori Gyosai Center (青森魚菜センター), also known as Furukawa Fish Market, in Aomori City (青森市 Aomori-shi). Only a short 5-minute walk away from Aomori Station (青森駅 Aomori-eki), the many stalls of this lively fish market are lined with trays of fresh catch sorted by price and type, primed and ready to be eaten! All you have to do is purchase a meal ticket at the information desk for ¥2,000 and you will be given 10 ticket stubs, which you can exchange for a steaming bowl of rice and sushi toppings as you browse the stalls of the market like a kid in a sushi carnival!
While you can’t go wrong with the classics, there’s really nothing stopping you from building a bowl made of 10 juicy red prawns and nothing else. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
Different kinds of fish will be available for you to try depending on the daily catch of the fishermen who supply the market. As I visited in autumn, they had a special focus on tuna and mackerel based on their recommendation board at the entrance, but I opted to focus on building a bowl made of my personal favourites, such as red shrimp, minced tuna, and crab miso. The ability to have full control over your bowl and strategize your meal tickets really enhanced the experience of dining here, and I very strongly recommend anyone who visits Aomori City to definitely give this place a shot!
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; opening hours may vary during Golden Week, the Nebuta Festival period in August, Obon holidays, and the year-end and New Year holidays.)
7. Hirosaki Apple Pie (Aomori Prefecture)
There’s nothing more Aomori than a good slice of apple pie. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
I’ll cap off this gastronomic journey with some dessert, and when you’re in Aomori, the flavour of the day is unquestionably always apple pie! Autumn is the ideal time to try the many apple-flavoured treats of this prefecture, as the fruit is ripe and in season. With a hop and a skip I travelled over to Hirosaki City (弘前市 Hirosaki-shi), a city so enraptured by apple-mania that you can collect a map from the train station detailing over 40 different apple pie stores and cafes in the area, categorised and rated by sweetness, sourness, and cinnamon flavouring.
At least fifty places to get apple pie in this city, but fewer of them get classier than this. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)
For myself, I chose to have my apple pie at the Taisho Roman Tea Room (大正浪漫喫茶室 Taishō Roman Kissashitsu), located in the Fujita Memorial Garden (藤田記念庭園 Fujita Kinen Teien) only a short walk away from Hirosaki Castle (弘前城 Hirosaki-jō). An absolutely marvellous place to spend your afternoon, the Taisho Roman Tea Room is a classy, Victorian Era-inspired cafe with elegant surroundings, well-dressed staff, and equipped with a fine lunch and tea menu. There was even a man playing the grand piano at the time when I visited, which really added an extra air of refinement to the place as a whole.
There were many different types of pie available on the menu, so I chose to have the Peter Pan Pie, a classically baked pan apple pie layered with chestnuts and chocolate sponge cake. To summarise the meal succinctly, the apple pie was so good it guaranteed a return visit from me for my next Aomori trip.
To learn more about the apples of Aomori check out Carissa’s article on the subject, based on the same trip we took together to this region!
Taisho Roman Tea Room (大正浪漫喫茶室)
Address: 8-1 Kamishirogane-cho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8207
Nearest station: Hirosaki Station (弘前駅)
Access: Taisho Roman Tea Room is a 5-minute walk from the Shiyakushomae Bus Stop, which can be reached by a 20-minute bus ride from the station.
Opening hours: 9:30am–4:30pm (Last order: 4pm)
Tel: +81 172-37-5690
Header image: JR East / Afiq