Throughout all four seasons, the area’s nature provides gifts through its specialty foods that make all seasons great for eating. The Sea of Japan’s abundant natural ingredients are the foundation for each area’s simple yet delicious food culture that has been passed down for generations and loved by visitors for just as long.
Gifts From the Forest
Gassandake Bamboo Shoots Shonai/Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
Gassandake, a type of manegarindake (bamboo shoot) grow naturally on the highest peak of the Dewa Sanzan mountains, the religiously significant Mt. Gassan. Gassandake are known for having a softer white inside than bamboo shoots in other areas. As soon as shop owners put these out for sale in front of their shop, locals rush to buy them and use them to make miso soup, tempura, and more.
Warabi Bracken Tozawa, Yamagata
There are many edible wild plants in this area. Warabi bracken has been loved as a edible plant with a subtle, natural flavor and a unique texture. It can only be found and eaten in the spring. You can even go warabi bracken picking in Tozawa.
These edamame are known for their unique fragrance and delicious sweetness. “Dadacha” is a Shonai area word meaning “father”. It is widely said that the origins of the name come from when the beans were brought to Shonai in the Edo period. When the beans were brought to the feudal lord of the Shonai Domain, he asked, “Whose dadacha made these beans?”. They were called dadacha mame ever since.
Sand Dune Melons
Sakata/Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
The giant 35km long sand dunes that stretch from Sakata to Tsuruoka are where Japan’s leading melons come from. The soil’s characteristic water drainage, the strong sunlight during the daytime, and the difference in temperature from day to night, are all reasons that make Shonai’s melons so delicious.
Rice Akita / Yamagata / Niigata Prefectures
Akita, Yamagata, and Niigata Prefectures are all prominent rice producers in Japan. Visitors to the Uetsu area are welcomed by the sight of beautiful rural landscapes where this rice is produced. Here you can enjoy delicious rice made by the natural fresh air and clear waters of the land.
“Turtle’s Tail”, Delicious Rice’s Roots Shonai, Yamagata Prefecture
The “tsuyahime”, “koshihikari”, “hitomebore”, and “haenuki” varieties of rice all get their roots from the “kame no o” (literally “Turtle’s Tail”) variety. This variety of rice was cultivated in the Meiji period by farmerKameji Abe. Recently, the rice has been getting praise for its use in sake brewing, leading to its use by sake breweries all over the country. The rice is known for its grains that don’t lose flavor easily, making it the variety of choice for Koikawa Brewing and over 30 companies across Japan brewing a type of sake called “ginjoshu”. Sake made using Turtle’s Tail is also exported to Europe and North America.
Popular Products for Furusato Tax Mikawa, Yamagata Prefecture
In the center of Shonai’s plains lies the town of Mikawa. Two-thirds of Mikawa’s land is made up of farm fields. The town of Mikawa presents the treasures of these fields, which are perfect for those who wish to use Furusato Tax, a tax reduction given to taxpayers who donate to local municipalities.
Figs Nikaho, Akita Prefecture
Nikaho City is known as the northern limit for fig production. Found in the Otake region near the base of Mt. Chokai are the white zenoa variety of figs. Known for their small size and resilient fruit flesh that doesn’t burst even when cooked, they are often made into candied figs. In recent years, the area has cultivated figs that can been eaten raw in their ripest stage.
Kanakabu Turnips Nikaho, Akita Prefecture
Kanakabu turnips are cultivated using the slash and burn agriculture, in which wild or forested land is clear cut and any remaining vegetation burned. The resulting layer of ash provides the fertilization for the turnips to grow into their unique horn shape. They have a peculiar sharp taste and a chewy texture. They’re mainly sold in a pickled form between October and January.
Gifts from the Sea
Sakura Masu (Cherry Trout) Sakata / Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
The sakura masu is known as the fish that signals the start of spring and can often be found at Shonai area spring festivals and celebrations. The standard sakura masu dish, Niramasu, is sakura masu garnished with boiled Chinese chive.
Wakame Awashimaura, Niigata Prefecture
Wakame can be enjoyed all year, but it’s peak season is in spring. Because every household harvests wakame at the same time in the middle of March, the village becomes enveloped in the smell of the wakame shores. Each household in Awashima cultivates wakame, and when November comes, they wrap ropes in wakame seedlings and cultured until spring. Wakame is delicious in miso soup, but it can also be quickly boiled and used in wasabi soy sauce, as well. It can be enjoyed at every restaurant and inn, or it can be bought as a souvenir at local shops.
Kaza Shrimp (Nikaho, Akita Prefecture / Sakata & Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture)
This shrimp’s meat has good flavor, and can be eaten as sashimi or sushi, roasted, fried or in miso soup. Because it doesn’t stay fresh for long, this rare shrimp doesn’t really appear in markets, usually only being found fresh in local areas.
Iwagaki Oysters Nikaho, Akita Prefecture / Yuza/Sakata/Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture / Murakami, Niigata Prefecture
The peak season for oysters in this area is the middle of summer. The Sea of Japan receives water from underground loaded with minerals, making the oyster meat plump and richly flavored. You can enjoy freshly caught oysters at fresh fish shops and roadside stations during this season.
Ego Awashimaura, Niigata Prefecture
You can find ego seaweed washed up on the shores of the Sea of Japan. In summer, you’ll often see ego in it’s sun-dried form, which is taken and prepared into the local dish, “egoneri” (called “okyuto” in Kyushu). You can taste the aroma of the seashore as you eat it at local restaurants and inns, and you can also buy it packaged at local shops.
Japanese Squid Sakata/Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
This squid makes its way up north from Kyushu and can be found in herds in the Sea of Japan from May to July. Because of this, it’s also called the “summer squid”. Squid that are found on the coasts of Shonai during the start of summer are still young and growing, so their bodies are soft and delicious.
Salmon Nikaho, Akita Prefecture / Yuza, Yamagata Prefecture / Murakami, Niigata Prefecture
In autumn, you can view salmon migrating upstream at Kawafukuro River (Nikaho), Ushiwatari River (Yuza), and Miomote River (Murakami). You can also enjoy several types of seasonal salmon dishes in each of these areas.
Dongara Soup Nikaho, Akita Prefecture / Yuza/Sakata/Tsuruoka Yamagata Prefecture
Dongara is the taste of winter in the Sea of Japan area. In this area, plump cod caught from the freezing waters are put entirely into nabe hot pot soup. Because the cods entire bodies and carcases (“gara” in Japanese) are put into the soup, it’s known as “dongara soup”. There are also many events that can be enjoyed during the winter revolving around dongara.
Torafugu Sakata/Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
Shonai’s natural torafugu (tiger globefish) are caught using a special method that doesn’t harm the body of the fish. Fish that don’t meet the size standards are set free, protecting the land’s resources. Along with Dongara, the torafugu caught using these thorough methods are also one of the Shonai area’s top winter dishes.
Hatahata Nikaho, Akita Prefecture / Yuza/Sakata/Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
These Japanese sandfish spawn in late fall and make their way to the sandbars in large groups. They are eaten baked with sweet miso coating, or boiled with soy sauce on top.
Kanburi Awashimaura, Niigata Prefecture
Buri (Japanese amberjack) can be enjoyed every year from April to December, but the most delicious kind is winter’s “kanburi”. The sight of fisherman braving the cold and raging winter waves holding a single fishing pole really makes for a compelling sight! The large kanburi who swim through these rough winter waters have a very rich flavor. There are also uncommon giant kanburi. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to eat one at a local inn.
Dewa Sanzan Buddhist Cuisine Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
The Dewa Sanzan Buddhist Cuisine has been passed down from generation to generation among Mt. Haguro’s lodges. This cuisine uses many edible plants and mushrooms found near the mountains which are cooked using traditional methods that take time and care. Because the recipes call for various wild plants, flowers, and seaweeds, the menu will depend on the season you visit. It’s a great chance for those visiting the sacred mountains to purify their bodies beforehand by eating this traditional food.
Buddhist Cuisine, Gomatofu
If you’re going to try Buddhist cuisine, the best place is at Mt. Haguro’s temple lodgings or purification halls. The simple yet refined taste is the main point of the cuisine, especially the unique gomatofu. Eating it with sweet sauce is the way to eat it in this region. Every temple lodge has its own unique flavor for you to enjoy.
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Zairaisaku Motsu Shonai Region, Yamagata Prefecture
Zairaisakumotsu are vegetables, fruits, grains and other natural produce that has been grown in the area and loved by people for many years. Zairaisaku motsu have long supported the region’s daily life and have become a big part of the cultural inheritance of the area. Yamagata Prefecture recognizes over 160 produce types as zairaisaku motsu, and among those are the winter season’s turnips, daikon radishes, potatoes, and beans. Tsuruoka is home to 60 varieties of zairaisaku motsu which all have wide genetic diversity. The city currently has several projects aiming to pass down farming techniques and food cultures as a “living cultural property” to future generations.
Hirata Akanegi (Sakata)
These red onions have been cultivated since the Edo Period in the district of Hirata, Sakata. The fresh, red color of the onions give it a strong taste, but when cooked, the flavor completely changes into a soft, sweet flavor.
These turnips are farmed in the Atsumi district of Tsuruoka’s mountain regions. The sweet and sour taste and texture are one of a kind. Pickled in sweet vinegar is a popular way to eat them.
Salmon Culture Murakami, Niigata Prefecture
Murakami has always had an abundant supply of salmon, and has been praised for its excellent processing techniques since shipping to the capitol city back in the Heian Period. The area was faced with a shortage of fish in the Edo period, but samurai Aoto Buheiji proved that the salmon population could be revitalized and created the spawning environment for salmon called a “tanegawa” in the Miomote River, which was the first successful attempt to recover a salmon population in the world.
Murakami gives special attention to the salmon here, with it’s Murakami name, “iyoboya” literally meaning “the fish of all fish”. The people of Murakami have always been helped through hard times by the fish, as salmon was the source of funds for the area during the Edo period, and was always abundant even when rice was not. The area has over 100 varieties of salmon cuisine that shows just how much gratitude they have for the blessing of salmon in the area.
Salmon hanging under the overhang of roofs is the typical winter sight in Murakami. The way the fish are hanged, with its head on the bottom and part of its stomach remaining, show the people’s display of respect for the fish.
This exhibition hall explains Murakami’s salmon culture in a easy to understand way. You can have a look under the Miomote River through glass panes in the natural observatory, be introduced to fishing methods and tools, and even visit a mini incubation area.
Sakata’s many French restaurants have given birth to the name for the area’s French cuisine, “Sakata French” The start of French cuisine in the area was in 1967, when the son of a distinguished family, Kyuichi Sato, wanted to start a French restaurant in Sakata and invited chef and coworker at the Tokyo Nissay Theater, Masahiro Oota, to return to Sakata with him to open the restaurant.
And with that, a new genre of French-esque cuisine made with local Shonai ingredients was born. The fresh Shonai ingredients have attracted famous food critics like Takeshi Kaiko and Saiichi Maruya to the area, making Sakata French known across the country. Even now, master chefs are continually creating new ideas and recipes, ensuring the Sakata French culture will live on.
Sakata’s ramen got its start in 1927 when a Chinese immigrant opened a Chinese ramen restaurant. The techniques for making this ramen were learned and handed down until present day. 80 percent of Sakata’s ramen shops use hand-made noodles, and just about every restaurant uses a high water to wheat flour ratio (about 40 percent water). This gives the noodles their characteristic plump and springy texture. The soup is a clear, soy based broth, and often includes dried sardines, fried flying fish, and konbu seaweed.
THINK SAKATA NO RAMEN ASSOCIATION
Shonai Sake Festival Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture Early July
Shonai is well known for its rice, but also well known for its sake. Every July, all 18 sake breweries in the Shonai area hold a sake festival. Here you can sample over 100 varieties of local sake, as well as seasonal foods that go well with sake at food booths, making it a popular family trip in the summer.
Nikaho City Umi no Sachi Seafood Festival Nikaho, Akita Prefecture Mid July
At this event you can try many of Nikaho’s seafood, including iwagaki oysters, and enjoy stage events, panels, and food booths. You can try grilled iwagaki oysters, or even grill for yourself in the grilling space, as well as many other fun activities.
Gassan Wine Festival Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture Early September
This event celebrates the release of the Tsuruoka Asahi area’s specialty product, Gassan wine, made from mountain grapes, as well as the various improved varieties of the grape. Here you can enjoy first-rate red, white, and rose Gassan wines, as well as mountain grape juice.
There are casks of wine and grape juice placed everywhere inside the venue, and everything is all-you-can-drink. Pour a glass of wine straight from the cask while enjoying the barbeque to your heart’s content.
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Ichijiku Ichi Nikaho, Akita Prefecture Early October
“Ichijiku Ichi” is an event focusing on local businesses that started in 2016. Besides ichijiku figs, you can find the best coffee shops, food, and crafts within and outside of the prefecture all in one building.
Sake no Tsukamidori Taikai Yuza, Yamagata Prefecture Late October
The town of Yuza has been home to salmon incubation business since the Meiji period. From early October to late December, tens of thousands of salmon make their way up the rivers to lay eggs. The Sake no Tsukamidori Taikai event lets you experience this phenomenon firsthand. 300 salmon are released into the Kasen Park Canals located behind Yuza Middle School, where you can try catching the fish by hand. Every year children come with their parents and enjoy the challenging ”scuffles” with the vigorous salmon. The venue also sells salmon soup and salmon cooked in outdoor ovens.
Shokuji Sekikawa, Niigata Prefecture Early November
At this event, you can enjoy eating Sekikawa’s fine food in a Meiji period mansion. The Nationally-designated Important Tangible Cultural Property Watanabe Residence “Toukeien” provides homemade cooking using carefully selected local ingredients. The food served is usually eaten during special celebrations and events in Sekikawa. Experience Sekikawa’s luxurious, traditional culture and food while viewing the falls leaves in the garden.
Shin Soba Festival Tozawa, Yamagata Prefecture Early November
This festival gives you the chance to try Tozawa village’s limited soba handcrafted by top soba artisans. The “Tozawa Seasonal Market” that runs at the same time showcases Tozawa local autumn products such as mushrooms, fall vegetables, processed goods, and more. They also offer a free taste of the local Nameko soup.
Kandara Festival January Tsuruoka/Sakata/Yuza, Yamagata Prefecture
At this festival, you can enjoy the taste of winter in the Shonai area, Kandara soup, made by putting entire cod fish into boiling soup. Eating the hot soup outdoors makes it even better. In Sakata, the sake festival runs at the same time.
Kakeyo Festival February Nikaho, Akita Prefecture
This strange festival got its start approximately 300 years ago in the Genroku era. On this day, shipowners, praying for safety on the seas and a large catch of fish, carry about 10kg of caught kangara cod fish from Konoura Port and walk 2 kilometers to Konourayama Shrine to give the fish as an offering. After the offerings, cod soup booths and other festivities are held.
Kan Chokai Sake Summit Late January Nikaho, Akita Prefecture
This all-you-can-drink sake tasting event is held by 11 breweries in the Kan Chokai region (Yurihonjo, Nikaho, Sakata, Yuza) that wraps around Mt. Chokai.
Echigo Murakami Salted Salmon Road Early-late December Murakami, Niigata Prefecture
When you think of winter in Murakami, the first thing that comes to mind is salted salmon. Every year you can see the salted fish hanging from under the overhangs of roofs on every house, creating a “salted salmon road”.
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Iyoboya Festival Early December Murakami, Niigata Prefecture
Salted salmon and other processed sea products caught from the Murakami area of the Sea of Japan are sold for reasonable prices here. The approximately 1,000 salted salmon fish sold here draw big crowds of customers.
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Ooyama Shinshu Sake Brewery Festival Early February Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
The Ooyama district is a historical sake brewing area blessed with quality rice and water. Prospering under the shogunate in the Edo period, there are still four big name breweries (Fuji Brewing, Kato Kahachiro Brewing, Watarai Honten Co.,LTD, Haneda Brewing) that still brew sake in the area. On the brewery tours, you can tour the four breweries while trying new and reputable sake varieties to your heart’s content. There are long lines to get in every year. Events such as the “Enjoy Ooyama’s New Brew of Sake Event”, which lets you enjoy local cuisine while drinking a new brew of sake, and the “Ooyama Four Breweries Top Selection”, where you can try the top sake by each brewery, are also held.
Tsuruoka Food Culture Market FOODEVER (year round)
The Tsuruoka Food Culture Market, located in Japan’s only UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, is where you can eat the city’s local cuisine at first-rate restaurants and shop for fresh local ingredients. Cooking classes taught by top chefs from specialist shops and other seasonal events are also held both indoors and outdoors.
Tsuruoka Food Culture Market FOODEVER
Tsuruoka Creative City of Gastronomy Promotion Committee
Sweets & Sea of Japan Sushi Road
The fine quality fish here have flavor brought out by the sea and mountains that they were raised in.
You can taste the benefits of the area’s climate and history through its white meat fish.
The taste of abundant and unique ingredients that shine through artisans’ delicate techniques.
Food & Souvenirs
The Sea of Japan Kirakira Uetsu Tourism Area has a great lineup of food and souvenirs thanks to its abundant oceans, mountains, rivers, and plains! Enjoy the area’s best tasting foods, and find the perfect souvenirs to remember your trip forever!
Here at the bottom of Mt. Chokai, you can enjoy jersey cattle products, iwagaki oysters, and other mountain and ocean treats!
In Yuza, you can enjoy great tasting food made with ingredients raised near the Ushiwatari River and other springs from Mt. Chokai that run through the town.
This is the area that gave birth to the Tsuyahime and Turtle’s Tail varieties of top brand name rice, as well as other wonderful products.
The nanohana flowers that bloom throughout the town are turned into and sold as “Nanohana Flower Oil”, a popular choice for souvenirs.
This area surrounded by the Dewa Sanzan mountains is filled with a unique, castle town atmosphere. There are many artistic items and a variety of foods that can be found here.
- Picture candles
- Izumeko Dolls
- Goten Mari and more
There are many rice-based products here, such as Iwafune Koshihikari Rice, Nekochigura cat houses, and other wonderful things that can only be found in an area known for its rice.
- Iwafune Koshihikari Rice
- Nakamuraya’s Kintsuba and more
Not only can you find great seafood in Awashima, but there are also a wide variety of bamboo-based goods that can’t be missed.
Murakami’s natural environment, which includes Sasagawa-nagare, gives birth to many famous goods such as teas, rice, and beef.