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Akita-dakimasu! 11 foods you must try in Akita

Akita-dakimasu! 11 foods you must try in Akita

Food: an essential need for human beings, and also one of the main reasons for people to travel. Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō) is known for beautiful natural sceneries, amazing summer festivals and unforgettable fireworks, but most of all, for its delectable foods. If there is one prefecture with particularly interesting range of delicacies, it would be Akita.

 

Kiritanpo in Akita Prefecture. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture / JNTO)

 

Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken) is in the northern part of Tohoku Region, and it’s known for many things, namely food, nature, and hot springs. Mention Akita to the average person and they would think something along the lines of the historical Kakunodate Samurai Village, larger-than-life Akita Kanto Festival held every summer, the surreal Nyuto Onsen, or even the cuddly Akita dogs. But if there's one thing Akita is widely known for, it's food. 

 

Food in Akita draws special attention compared to others, as the prefecture is known for its diverse delicacies made possible by its pristine nature. Furthermore, because of its location next to the Sea of Japan and its mountainous terrain further inland, it enjoys the best of both worlds: amazing seafoods, and high-quality wheat and mountain vegetables.

 

Akita Prefecture's culinary map divided into three areas: Northern Akita (Ōdate City), Oga Peninsula, and Southern Akita (Yokote and Yuzawa). (Image credit: Akita Prefecture, Google Maps) 

 

For this article, we will be looking at the distinctive and varied cuisine of Akita in detail. Unlike those commonly found in other parts of Japan, Akita cuisine is determined by its geographical areas, and some traditional cooking methods are used to prepare it. Without further ado, let’s start our gastronomical tour through the “autumn ricefield” prefecture.

 

Northern Akita: foods of tradition

The northern part of Akita is mostly mountainous, so the quality of air and water here is clean and pure. Thus, this area is ideal for cultivating rice and rearing poultry, where air and water quality are paramount. One outstanding city in northern Akita known for great food is Ōdate (大館市 Ōdate-shi), and it is here where our gastronomical journey in Akita commences, and it starts with perhaps the most iconic dish of the prefecture.

 

① Kiritanpo (きりたんぽ)

Kiritanpo. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

When it comes to food in Akita, kiritanpo would immediately spring to mind for many people. Kiritanpo are rice skewers that are native to the prefecture, and a lot of special attention is paid in preparing them. Freshly cooked rice is pounded until they are slightly mashed, and then they are moulded on skewers made from Japanese cedar, and toasted over charcoal fire in an open hearth.

 

To make kiritanpo, freshly cooked rice is pounded and then formed on Japanese cedar skewers. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

The origins of kiritanpo can be traced back to the olden days, when used leftover rice to wrap around woodsticks and ate them with miso paste while working in the woods. Today, it can be enjoyed with miso paste, or in a hotpot with ingredients that may include chicken, burdock, spring onions, mushrooms and other mountain vegetables. Enjoying it as a hotpot during winter is a particularly special way to enjoy the dish, as Akita is known for its cold winters because of its geographic location. Though it can be enjoyed throughout the year, the hearty hotpot is traditionally enjoyed over the end of the year, from mid-September to March.

 

Grilling kiritanpo around an open hearth. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Kiritanpo enjoyed as hotpot during winter. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

② Hinai jidori (比内地鶏)

Hinai-jidori, a specialty of Akita Prefecture. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

This one’s for the meat lovers: Akita has some of the best chicken in Japan, and it comes in the form of Hinai-jidori. The chicken is distinctive from its usual counterpart for its tender and chewy texture, strong and full-bodied taste, and perfect fat ratio. Even upon roasting, Hinai-jidori still retains its rich savoury taste, and its taste becomes more pronounced the more you chew them.

 

Hinai-jidori has a strong savoury taste, a chewy texture and a perfect of ratio of fat to lean meat. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

What makes Hinai-jidori extra delicious is how the chickens were raised: the Hinai chickens (比内鶏) need three times more feed, and they are reared longer—150–170 days in total—than other ordinary broilers (chickens that are 8–12 weeks old). Perhaps most important is how the chickens were raised: they get to enjoy the cleanest mountain air and freshest mountain spring water thanks to Akita’s pristine nature. They are also reared in a stress-free environment, where they can freely move around and enjoy feed such as natural grass and insects.

 

Hinai-jidori as yakitori (above) and in Kiritanpo hotpot. (Image credit: Akita Inu Tourism)

 

Oyako-don using Hinai-jidori in Ōdate. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Hinai chickens are one of the three most famous chicken breeds in Japan, alongside Satsuma chickens (さつま鶏 Satsuma-dori) from Kagoshima Prefecture and Nagoya Cochin (名古屋コーチン Nagoya-kōchin). It is enjoyed in many ways, including as yakitori, oyako-don, and specially in Akita, in a Kiritanpo hotpot.

 

③ Edamame flavoured ice cream

Edamame soft-serve ice cream (above) in Ōdate. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

There’s always room for dessert. Always. And when it’s about ice cream, Japan has some of the most interesting flavours. The same goes for Akita, and it has some interesting flavours here. Take edamame—young soya beans commonly identified in Japanese pubs (居酒屋 izakaya)—and what results in a refreshing soft serve ice cream that’s refreshing and delectable. Ōdate is particularly known for its high-quality edamame because of its ideal geography and climate. The city's terrain is a basin, so it enjoys warm days and cool nights, which are perfect for producing flavourful edamame.  

 

Edamame from Ōdate, with branches just after harvest (left) and in pods (right). (Image credit: Akita Inu Tourism)

 

Speaking of soya beans, it is also the main ingredient for making soya sauce, which Ōdate's famous for too. So check this out: how about soya sauce? In Ōdate, you also find soya sauce flavoured soft serve ice cream too. Only in this city can you find soft serve ice cream based on flavours of two different kinds of soya beans, so don't miss out on them when you're in town. 

 

Oga Peninsula: gifts from the sea

When discussing Japanese cuisine, it's impossible not to include fish into the topic. Fish is a main staple for the people of Japan, and in a prefecture adjacent to the sea such as Akita, fish is very much part of the daily life of the locals. The culinary hotspot in this area is Oga Peninsula (男鹿半島 Oga-hantō) which directly faces the Sea of Japan (日本海 Nihon-kai), and here the next part of our journey continues here, where one fish is even designated as the official fish of the prefecture.

 

④ Hata-hata (ハタハタ)

Hata-hata. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture).

 

Each region in Japan has its own local specialty fish, and the same applies for Akita. Here, the local delicacy is hata-hata (ハタハタ), which is the local name for Japanese sandfish. The unusual name is an onomatopoeia to describe the sound of thunder, and this fish can be only caught during winter, a period that experiences frequent thunderstorms. The locals have since associated the sound of thunder with the fish, as a sign of the beginning of winter.

 

Hata-hata, caught only during winter when the climate is cold. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Hata-hata prepared by broiling, frying, drying, pickling, grilling (above-left) and even as shottsuru hotpot (above-right). (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

What’s unique about hata-hata is its lack of fish scales, making it versatile for cooking in many ways: broiling, frying, drying, pickling and more. The fish is also salted and then used to make shottsuru (しょっつる), a type of fish sauce that is a key ingredient in making shottsuru hotpot (しょっつる鍋). Furthermore, hata-hata is traditionally eaten as sushi in January to celebrate the new year. The best place to enjoy hata-hata is along the coast of Akita, especially in the Oga Peninsula when seafood is bountiful.

 

⑤ Ishiyaki hotpot (石焼き鍋)

Ishiyaki hotpot. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Nothing warms up the body better in winter than a simmering hotpot (鍋 nabe). And for a prefecture such as Akita which is mountainous and in the northern side of Tohoku, the winters are colder than in most other prefectures. However, Akita has a gift in the form of its own specialty hotpot, and this one has a unique novelty: it involves putting a hot stone inside the hotpot itself.

 

Ishiyaki hotpot demonstration. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh) 

 

A ishiyaki hotpot consists of fish and vegetables, and the red-hot stone cooks them instantly while retaining their original taste. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Ishiyaki involves putting a red-hot stone into a hotpot filled with fish, shellfish, vegetables, and miso paste, and cooked traditionally in a wooden pail. As the stone dips into the pail, the hotpot comes to a boil, instantly cooking the meats and vegetables without destroying the taste. Enjoy the aroma of seafood and miso filling the room as steam rises from the simmering hotpot. Ishiyaki hotpot is native to Oga Peninsula and is a must-have while in Akita.

 

⑥ Babahera ice cream (ババヘラアイス)

Babahera ice cream in Akita Prefecture. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

How does one end a full meal? With desserts, of course. And what better way to finish off a meal than with ice cream, which Akita has its own quirky answer. Enter babahera ice cream, a novel Akita dessert that is synonymous with the summer season. What’s interesting about this ice cream is how they are peddled: they are sold by genial elderly women in pushcarts, and you can see them from afar because of their bright pink and yellow clothing and umbrellas.

 

Babahera ice cream sold during summer, and the ice cream is served in the shape of a flower. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The name itself is quirky: "baba" means grandmother in Japanese, and "hera" is the metal spatula they use to scoop the ice cream. Iconic about the ice cream: they are served in the shape of a flower. The flavours are usually strawberry and banana, and the ice cream is mildly sweet and refreshing (i.e. perfect for the warm summer). Best of all, they only cost ¥200–250. Babahera ice cream can be found everywhere in Akita but it is said that its origins is in the coasts of Oga, where it gradually spread to all over Akita over time. 

When in Akita in the summer, do spot them out and help yourself with a serving of Instagram-worthy ice cream.

 

Southern Akita: Land of noodles

What's the other type of dish that is synonymous with Japanese cuisine? Noodles. Lots of noodles. From ramen (of many kinds, no less) to udon, noodles are enjoyed everywhere throughout the country, including Akita. The southern part of Akita is steeped with mountains, resulting in fresh water and clean air which are conducive cultivating high-quality wheat. It is in cities here such as Yuzawa (湯沢市 Yuzawa-shi) and Yokote (横手市 Yokote-shi) where Akita offers some of the best noodles in the region.

 

⑦ Jumonji ramen (十文字ラーメン)

Jumonji ramen. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

If you’re in the mood for noodles but something warmer and soupy, then try Jumonji ramen for a change, a local specialty that also originates from Yokote. It’s fish-based shoyu ramen made with wheat noodles that are firm, thin and wavy, and the broth is prepared using spring water from the Ou Mountains (奥羽山脈 Ōu-sanmyaku). It perfectly marries Akita’s amazing fish (in the form of bonito flakes and dried sardines) with its high-quality rich soya sauce, resulting in a humble bowl that’s food for the soul.

 

A humble bowl of ramen perfect for the harsh Akita winters. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Jumonji ramen is the perfect dish for the harsh Akita winter, so it not only warms up the body, but also perfectly exemplifies the food of Akita. Rich in flavours yet humble in presentation, it can be enjoyed at any time of the day, be it for lunch or dinner, or a late-night supper after drinks.

 

⑧ Yokote yakisoba (横手焼きそば)

Yokote yakisoba. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Yakisoba is Japanese stir-fried noodles, and is a popular street food in Japan. They can be found almost anywhere in Japan, and is often seen in festivals as well. While the dish is almost identical everywhere—with ingredients such as pork, cabbage, onions and beansprouts—Yokote has its own variation to this dish.

 

Yokote’s variation of yakisoba includes a sunny side-up egg and fukujinzuke pickles. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Yokote’s variation of yakisoba includes two components: a sunny side-up egg, and fukujinzuke (福神漬) pickles. Fukujinzuke pickles might strike as unfamiliar for many people, but for Japanese curry lovers, they might see it all the time. It’s the pickles commonly served in Japanese curry, and Yokote’s version includes this condiment, adding some crunch to their dish. It’s a quirky version of a common street dish, so why not try it as a change while in the rural areas of Akita?

 

⑨ Iburi gakko (いぶりがっこ)

How iburi gakko is prepared. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

The next food item isn't noodles, but is something close to the hearts of the people of Akita. Every rural area in Japan has their own answer for comfort food, and Akita is no exception. During the cold winter, a special type of dish called iburi gakko is enjoyed by the locals. "Iburi" means smoked, and "gakko" is the Akita dialect for Japanese pickled vegetables (漬物 tsukemono). Daikon is traditionally used as the main ingredient, but other vegetables can be used as well, such as carrots.

 

Daikon hung over fire in a smoking shed and later pickled using a special blend of ingredients. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Iburi gakko is native to the city of Yokote (横手市 Yokote-shi), and they are prepared by tying daikon up with rope and hanging over a flame in a smoking shed for several days. The wood used for smoking commonly comes from deciduous oak trees and chestnut trees. After smoking, the vegetables are cleaned and then pickled in a special blend made from salt, rice bran, malted rice, crushed rice produced in the process of polishing rice, a little sugar, and safflower for colouring.

 

Iburi gakko has a profound and smoky taste as a result of its smoking process. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Because of the smoking process, iburi gakko has a deep and smoky taste that is distinctive from other typical pickled vegetables. It can also be enjoyed in many ways: as a side dish on its own, or paired with tea, sake, or even wine. Preparing them takes a lot of time and effort, so they’re becoming increasingly an acquired item. When in Akita, especially in winter, iburi gakko is the familiar taste that the locals have grown up with and cherished over the cold season.

 

⑩ Inaniwa Udon (稲庭うどん)

Inaniwa udon. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Udon is thickly-cut, wheat-based noodles that is prevalent in Japanese cuisine. It is considered as one of Japan’s favourite comfort foods that can be enjoyed at any time of the day, be it in the morning for breakfast or late at night for supper. There are many variants of udon in the country, and one special example is Inaniwa udon.

 

Inaniwa udon is thinly-cut and takes several days to prepare, resulting in a smoother texture. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Inaniwa udon originates from Inaniwacho (稲庭町) in the city of Yuzawa (湯沢市). It has over 300 years of history, dating back as far as the Edo Period (江戸時代 Edo-jidai) in the 17th century. Inaniwa udon is distinctive because it is thinly cut, unlike its more common, thickly cut counterpart.

 

Inaniwa udon's traditional manual preparation. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Inaniwa udon’s painstaking preparation is done manually, where it involves kneading the dough by hand, put on wooden rods to be stretched, and then dried for several days. After that, it’s kneaded again to remove as much air bubbles from the dough as possible, resulting in its silky smooth and chewy texture. Because of its laborious preparation, it can only be produced in small quantities in the past. Nowadays, because of modern technology, everyone can enjoy it even at the comfort of their own homes. 

 

Inaniwa udon as cold noodles in the summer. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Inaniwa udon in a clear broth with pickles and shiso leaves for winter. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Inaniwa udon is enjoyed differently depending on the time of the year. In summer, Inaniwa udon is best enjoyed as cold noodles where you can dip them into different sauces and slurp them up. As for winter, it is time for Inaniwa udon served in a clear broth that will warm you up perfectly for the chilly weather.

 

⑪ Hiyakake-soba (冷やかけそば)

Hiyakake soba. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

As evident from Jumonji ramen, Akita is known for producing high-quality wheat. Wheat is an essential ingredient in making noodles, resulting in amazing noodle dishes. One of them is hiyakake soba, a perfect counterpart to the Jumonji ramen best enjoyed during warmer weathers.

 

Hiyakake soba served cold for the summer season. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Hiyakake soba is a cold noodle dish, so you know what that means: it’s best enjoyed in the summer. It’s the perfect counterpart to the Jumonji ramen where, instead of warming you up, it cools you down. The origins of this simple yet satisfying dish can be traced to the town of Ugo (羽後町 Ugo-machi), which is near Yuzawa. It’s the best dish to have when you visit Akita in the summer, especially if you’re here for their world-famous summer festivals.

 

Akita’s unique and eclectic cuisine. (Image credit: Akita Inu Tourism)

 

It’s no secret that food is one of the main motivations for travelling to Japan (or anywhere, for that matter). Akita Prefecture is a treasure trove for amazing foods, for it has some of the best and freshest seafood and mountain vegetables, thanks to its untouched nature. Whether it’s during the chilly and snowy winter, or the warm and festive summer, there’s something for everyone. So make your next gastronomical tour to Akita, and make sure if you get to taste everything that the region has to offer.

 

More details on Akita

Akita Prefecture is located in the northern part of Tohoku Region, and is reachable from Tokyo by bullet train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Akita Shinkansen (秋田新幹線) bullet train from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Akita Station (JR秋田駅 Akita-eki). The journey takes about 3 hour 30 minutes, and the train fare is ¥18,460 with seat reservation.

 

Ōdate: this city is located in the northern side of Akita Prefecture. Visitors can take the Limited Express Tsugaru from JR Akita Station to JR Ōdate Station (大館駅 Ōdate-eki). The journey takes approximately 1 hour 30 minutes, and the fare is ¥4,070 with seat reservation.

 

Oga: this city / peninsula is located in the northwestern side of Akita Prefecture, facing the Sea of Japan. Visitors can take the Oga Line (男鹿線 Oga-sen) from JR Akita Station to JR Oga Station (JR男鹿駅 Oga-eki). The journey takes approximately 1 hour, and the fare is ¥770.

 

Yokote / Yuzawa: this city is located in the southern side of Akita Prefecture. Visitors can take the Ou Line (奥羽本線 Ōu-sen) from JR Akita Station to JR Yokote Station (横手駅 Yokote-eki) and JR Yuzawa Station (JR湯沢駅 Yuzawa-eki). The journey to Yokote takes approximately 1 hour 15 minutes with a fare of ¥1,340, and for Yuzawa, it's approximately 1 hour 40 minutes with a fare of ¥1,520.

(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the Akita Shinkansen and train lines above, and make seat reservations for free!)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it much cheaper than a round-trip train fare between Tokyo and Akita (approximately ¥36,920). Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

JapanRailClub

March's theme: Tasty Tohoku Treats. (Image credit: JAPAN RAIL CLUB)

 

Speaking of gastronomic delights in Yamagata, why not bring home some "Tasty Tohoku Treats" with an Omiyage Snack Box from JAPAN RAIL CLUB? Embark on a delightful snacking journey with JR East's latest snack subscription service! This March 2024's Omiyage Snack Box features an exciting variety of snacks produced by local makers of Tohoku, ensuring that you get to enjoy the region's best at the comforts of your home. Subscribe by 31 March 2024 and enter promo code "TTT20" at the checkout page to enjoy up to 20% off when you subscribe to a 6-month plan—the wonders of Tohoku await you!

 

Header image credit: Akita Prefecture

 

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