Thursday, March 29, 2012

Akita Adventure in Flavors

The Trip

Travel lends opportunity to discovering local flavors and people. During our stay in the Tohoku prefecture in Akita, a chef provided us with both new tastes and a memorable moment to laugh over.

The History

We stayed at the mountain hotel Yamanoyado near Tsurunoyu Onsen. The onsen has been in use since ancient times. Its name is derived from the story of a hunter who first spied a tsulu Japanese crane bathing its wound in the warm onsen waters.
The mountain hotel Yamanoyado
Later the Samurai used the area. The existing thatched roof structures appear as they did during those times. All meals are prepared over a ryori charcoal fire in a sand pit surrounded by tatami mats and flat cushions. Nearby the various onsen waters puff steam into the sky as mountainsides of snow look down. Each onsen's water varies in its mineral composition but all are reputedly good for your health.

The Food

Our first meal consisted of iwana a native Japanese river trout grilled on large sticks, mountain plants such as fuki and udo, salad, fresh pork, vegetables, and shrimp for the grill, rice, tofu, chicken patties on sticks, and yamanoimo nabe. Yamanoimo nabe is a miso based soup broth with bits of chicken, vegetables, and small dumplings made from the mountain potato yamanoimo and mashed rice. With a wink toward modern life, ice cream made with rice and garnished with fresh fruit was served for dessert.
Having dinner around the ryori
We sat around the charcoal fire grilling our food, sipping beers and sake, wearing yukata and heavy robes, acclimating to the old ways. Admittedly, we wriggled about more than those samurai, thanks to our years of using tables and chairs.

The Alert

The large dining room was divided up with sliding doors, but each eating area had a ryori with a charcoal fire and a long hook hanging down from the ceiling. The chef brought us our yamanoimo nabe in a large caste iron pot with a wooden lid and attached it to the hook over the coals. As he was delivering pots to other diners, we heard one of the guest's cell phone signal the jishin alert, "whoop, whoop, whoop." With that brief notice, the earth began to shake.
The ryori with the soup pot or nabe over the grill
The staff slid doors open, revealing other diners. In an earthquake, doors are propped open to insure an exit. Diners gathered about the various hearths looked up and at each other. The shuddering continued and the moment stretched into the next. The chef slid open the last doorway, nearest us, and said with some urgency, "Turn on the TV!" Pausing a moment, he said, "Oh! We don't have a TV!" causing laughter as, at last, the shaking stopped.

The samurai did not have television and neither did we.


The second night, the chef served a soup with the local specialty, kiritampo, a rice dumpling, in a soy sauce based broth. Kiritampo are not widely served outside the local area. They are made by mashing hot cooked rice with a mortar and pestle into a thick paste. The paste is then pressed by hand onto a chopstick and grilled. The resulting dumplings look like tubes. These are added to hot soup and served, offering hearty but healthy fare.
Soup with kiritampo rice dumplings
The samurai may have spent a great deal of time on swords, but considering the amount of snow surrounding us, they must have also enjoyed the warmth of the fire and the onsen waters as we did.
Entering into Tsurunoyu Onsen- appears as in Samurai times
We returned by bus to the train station to await our Shinkansen for Tokyo with an hour on our hands. We headed to a coffee shop where I was happy to have thick slabs of toast (a two incher) for lunch (only in Japan!) after three whole days without toast for breakfast!

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