Exploring the rich veins that run through the land and culture of Akita.
By Robert Morel
Though few may realize it today, gold has long been a part of Akita’s history and culture. 1300 years ago, a millennium before full-scale mining began, the town of Kazuno in northeast Akita struck gold. In the 1800s it was home to nineteen gold mines. Although the mines have long since closed the legacy of Akita’s gold lives on in the landscape, the culture, and even the food of this northern land. Autumn light from the northern sun transforms fields of rice into a sea of gold, ripened stalks flowing heavily with the breeze. Local legends of a girl in search of everlasting beauty and a radiant god come to life in sculpture and dance. Culinary delights ranging from chrysanthemum sushi to heirloom chickens to local beer show that all that glistens is not gold, though for epicureans it may as well be. Below is just a taste of Akita’s golden heritage.
Lake Tazawa’s Shining Beauty
In the mountains of Akita sits Tazawa-ko, the deepest of all Japan’s lakes. Lake Tazawa has long been regarded with wonder and has birthed its share of legends. Just off the southwestern shore, surrounded by the lake’s crystalline waters stands a shining tribute to the most famous of these legends. Tatsuko Hime, as one common version of the tale goes, was a stunningly beautiful girl from a nearby village. Believing that the clear waters of Tazawa would grant her everlasting beauty, she gorged herself on it and incurred the wrath of the gods who then turned her into a water dragon and eternal guardian of the lake. Though sentenced to a scaly underwater existence, in 1968 Tatsuko emerged from the waters, in the form of a glittering golden statue. Against the backdrop of the deep blue lake and forested mountains, the statue radiates a wistful and lonely beauty. However, Tatsuko Hime’s wish—it seems—has been granted at last.
Dance of a Radiant God
On the second day of the New Year, thirty-five men and boys of Kazuno wake before dawn to purify themselves and prepare for their roles in a 1200-year-old ritual of the Dainichido Bugaku dance. After washing in icy water, and carefully wrapping their headband-like snow caps and tying on hand-woven thatch sandals, they are nearly ready for the dance. A single dancer is chosen to receive a gold-leaf mask, a mask so sacred that even he must handle it with a sacred cloth. This gold-masked dancer becomes, for one morning, the representation of the Dainichi-nyorai, the god of Dainichi Temple.
From eight until noon the dances continue, each telling a story of the region. A gold-maned lion head is used to appease a dragon, the mystical tengu of the mountains help an ancient lord, and at last the gold-masked god of the temple makes his appearance, fending off evil for the coming year. Registered as an Important Intangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government, the dance is open to visitors. Although learning the history of each dance can add to the experience, simply watching the dancers feels like being taken back in time, to an age where it feels that the new year really did begin with the light of a golden-faced god cutting through the winter dawn.
But even more than it does in its sights, the golden warmth of Akita shines from its cuisine. Here are a few treats to warm the stomach and heart.
Akita’s Golden Eggs
One of Japan’s three famous heirloom chickens, Akita’s Hinai-jidori are sought after by top-end restaurants for both their succulent meat and rich, flavorful eggs. Bred and raised in Akita’s central highlands, these free-range chickens feed on the area’s natural grasses and produce.
An order of Akita oyako-don is one of the best and simplest ways to sample Hinai-jidori. This steaming, combination of golden heirloom eggs and tender steamed chicken over rice is a perfect comfort food for long cold months in the north. Oyako-don may be a well-known staple nationwide, but when made from Akita’s very own Hinai-jidori it is in another class altogether.
The Taste of Bright Flowers
Chrysanthemums may be the best-known flowers in Japan. They are nearly ubiquitous at flower shops nationwide, and their golden petals even form the imperial crest. Akita, though, has turned them into a treat not only for the eyes, but for the taste buds as well. Hana-zushi, or chrysanthemum sushi, is a unique delicacy of the region. While it looks like a sushi roll, instead of seaweed, hana-zushi fills a young eggplant with sticky mochi rice and is topped with a bright golden-yellow pickled flower and sliver of hot pepper. The result is a bite-sized treat that is at once lightly sweet, sour, and with just a hint of bitterness that perfectly complements the heartier fare of Akita’s winters.
Akita’s Golden Brews
No stranger to craft brewing, Akita offers up a tasty selection of local beers to complement its various delicacies. The oldest of Akita’s breweries, Tazawako Beer serves up golden brews worthy of a toast to Tatsuko Hime. Using the famed local waters, Tazawako’s beers may not grant eternal beauty, but can certainly make one feel young again for an evening. Two of the brewery’s highlights are the Alt and Pilsner beers, both gold medal winners. Newer on the scene than Tazawako, Aqula Brewing is Akita City’s contribution to the area’s craft beer scene. While Aqula has a selection of microbrews, it is best known for its Akita Ginjo (a play on sake labeling) and Akita Bijin (Akita Beauty) beers. While you can find local Akita beer in the area’s stores, visit the onsite brewery restaurants or izakaya serving these local beers for the best tasting experience.
A Shimmering Gift from the Sea
Akita’s Shottsuru sauce makes an excellent souvenir for any home chefs wanting to take home a taste of Akita. This golden-hued sauce is made exclusively from Akita’s hatahata fish and sun-dried salt. While it takes roughly a ton of fish to make just 500 liters of sauce, the hatahata catch is carefully monitored to prevent overfishing and ensure the sustainability of the catch. Shottsuru’s careful, three-year-long fermentation process and natural ingredients result in a taste both rich and refreshing. The sauce adds a unique flavor and smoothness to dishes as varied as salad dressings, stir-fry, winter nabe, and Akita’s Shottsuru stew.
Main Image: chrissam42/Flickr