I have often noticed that when people travel, you often get people who gravitate towards the cuisine most like what they have back home. And then you have those people who are a little more adventurous and willing to try something a little more exotic and unfamiliar.
One of the great things about Japan is that the food is often very unfamiliar to western tastes and yet familiar at the same time. Having lived in the Aomori prefecture in the Tōhoku region of Japan as a teen for several years, I can say that the food is appealing for those looking to be more culinarily “adventurous”.
With a seemingly endless variety of flavors and dishes to choose from, Tōhoku is certainly a hidden gem for foodies of all kinds.
Akita: Hearty Food for Hardy People
Akita is a pocket of natural beauty nestled away between the mountains and the sea. The winters are frigid, so it stands to reason that the cuisine of this prefecture can be quite hearty.
Kiritanpo is pulverized cooked rice that is skewered with cedar, grilled over charcoal, and covered in miso paste. Once this step is complete, the cooked skewers are placed in chicken stock, and the dish is ready to eat. The concoction can also be eaten with miso paste, though it’s not essential to do so.
Another popular mainstay is hatahata, a heavily salted sandfish that migrates to the coast of Akita in the winter. Once processed, the fish can be prepared in any number of ways. However, given how cold Akita can get, a belly full of hatahata hotpot will certainly set you right.
Finally, you can’t miss Inaniwa udon. One of the most popular varieties of udon in Japan—next to Shikoku’s famous noodles—these are handmade and almost a little like Vietnamese pho given how much thinner they are than the usual udon.
Aomori: Juiciest Apples in Japan
Aomori Prefecture is a place that is near and dear to my heart. I grew up there, spending my teen years on an airbase in the small town of Misawa. Call it rose-tinted glasses, but food hasn’t tasted quite as good since I left—most notably the apples.
Juicy, sweet as sin, and an absolutely gorgeous shade of red. To this day, I have yet to find an apple as succulent as those from Aomori. Aomori apples are massive, with some getting as big as melons. A single apple can go for little more than $20 in some cases. I promise you: no other apple will ever compare if you try one for yourself.
A little less common than the fruit that keeps the doctor away is baniku. A delicacy that may take some aback, but is worth a try: horse meat. I first tasted baniku at a festival in the town I lived in at the time, not knowing what it was. In truth, I thought it was beef at first. Some may not like the idea of eating horse meat, but if that is not an obstacle for you, you might just be pleasantly surprised by tender, succulent, and savory meat.
Before we move on to the next prefecture, I would like to recommend a personal favorite of mine: a little restaurant in the town of Misawa known as the Cheese Roll House. The food and the decor are inexpensive. Solidly working class, but very inviting and warm. I recommend a plate of yakisoba and a serving of cheese rolls. These gyoza wrapped in a golden flaky crust around perfectly melted cheese are simply perfection.
Fukushima: The Birthplace of Kitakata Ramen
In Fukushima Prefecture, there is a town where ramen reigns supreme. The name of this town—and its eponymous ramen—is Kitakata.
The broth is made of soy sauce, tonkatsu (pork bones), and sardines. The noodles are firm and topped with bamboo shoots, scallions, and (for the grand finale) the tastiest sliced pork you ever did try.
For something a little less traditional, a neat twist on the above dish is the Kitakata ramen burger. Yes, that is a thing, and it really exists. Everything in the burger, right down to the kind of flour used to make the buns, is exactly the same as the soup. And it’s exactly aas delicious.
Iwate: ‘The Great Three’
In Iwate Prefecture, there is a city, known as Morioka, that is famous for three different kinds of noodles. These are sometimes referred to as “the great three”, and are sometimes even sold in prepackaged three-packs.
Wanko Soba noodles are unique because one “serving” contains a single mouthful of noodles. When you eat a serving, the server will continue to refill your bowl until you’re done. Morioka Reimen is a cold ramen dish with noodles made of potato starch and flour. Reimen is based on the Korean dish naengmyeon.
The third great morioka noodle, Jajamen, is a variation of Zhajiangmian, a Chinese noodle dish. This variant of udon is served dry with a scoop of meat miso on the side. Mix the miso with any other ingredients on the side to taste, and then crack a raw egg in at the end of your meal before requesting traditional seconds.
Hot soup poured into the same bowl means you can more easily enjoy the leftover meats from your first round of noodles. This dish isn’t expensive and is usually served at specialty jajamen restaurants.
Miyagi: Nightlife In Northern Japan
In Miyagi Prefecture, the food and drink scene is not to be missed. If you are a fan of pub culture, there are plenty of bars and nightlife around Sendai.
In downtown Sendai, Kokubuncho is the largest evening entertainment district in Tōhoku. To name all of them would mean you’d have to scroll forever to get to the end of this article, however special attention should be paid to the izakayas. Traditionally the domain of the working class coming to a place to unwind, these locales can be very lively, and sometimes downright rowdy.
Izakayas serve a fairly wide array of food. Examples of items found on their menus include:
- Karaage. Essentially just tasty bite-sized morsels of chicken.
- Tebasaki. Chicken wings, ever the reliable pub meal.
- Sashimi. You know it. You love it. It’s sliced raw fish.
- Edamame. Boiled soybean pods.
- Yakisoba. A popular stir-fried noodle dish.
The list could go on, but the typical food served in izakayas isn’t exactly “Tōhoku food” per se, however, if you need to add excitement in with all the nature walks and festivals, paying Sendai’s nightlife a visit can definitely spice things up.
With all this talk of various cuisines, perhaps you might consider running in the Tōhoku Food Marathon. Every year, runners from all around Japan (and the world) converge in Tome city to run 26.2 miles (42 kilometers) through the pastoral scenery of the Tōhoku region.
The race is sister-even to the Marathon du Medoc in France, and along the course are a variety of food vendors from around the region. Even if you aren’t running, it’s at least worth checking out since just about every type of food in Tōhoku is available.
Yamagata: Between the Mountains and the Sea
Yamagata is an eclectic place—food-wise and otherwise. It’s a mountainous area that also happens to be close to the sea. Mountain cookin’ meets good old-fashioned Japanese seafood. What’s not to love? However, there are two food items that Yamagata is renowned for.
This prefecture produces some of the best fruit in the world. Despite the overall quality of their fruit production in Yamagata, by and large, it’s the cherries that steal the claim to fame. It’s the main source of cherries in Japan, and these tiny red fruits are regarded as some of the finest in the world. Even a small box of Yamagata cherries has been known to sell for around $50.
This prefecture’s other big selling point is, without a doubt, imoni. This flavorsome soup is traditionally made with taro (a starchy root vegetable), thinly sliced beef or pork, and konnyaku in a broth seasoned with soya sauce—although there are plenty of variations too.
Imoni is a festive dish that’s usually served in the fall. Family and friends gather together at parties specifically for this dish. It even has its own festival, if you can believe it. And I’d say that any dish that merits its own festival surely merits a visit to Yamagata just to try it.
Final Thoughts On The Food of Tōhoku
Throw a rock and you hit fantastic food in the region of Tōhoku. If you’re even just a little bit more motivated, you could probably find something unique and different to eat every day. The endless variety of cuisines beckon all the food enthusiasts of the world to come forth and taste this region’s plentiful bounty. So what are you waiting for?
If you want to learn more about the phenomenal food and lifestyle that promotes longevity throughout the Land of the Rising Sun, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.