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Venture into the dense forest mountains of Akita (秋田) prefecture in northeast Japan, and peek under the surface of its famous winter snowscapes, behind the scenes of its fermented gastronomy. On the way, look out for monstrous deities on the Oga Peninsula, taste the alchemy of a miso brewery in Yuzawa, explore the Edo-period samurai residences of Kakunodate, and knock yourself out at Japan’s largest archive of original manga drawings in Yokote.

Akita, City of Art and Culture

The capital city of Akita prefecture is its window to the world, collecting influences from abroad and concentrating cultural traditions. With both an airport and a shinkansen train station, it’s an ideal place to start exploring the region.

Murals of Akita for all seasons

In the center of downtown Akita, the Akita Museum of Art (秋田県立美術館) is housed in an imposing concrete structure dedicated to contemporary art designed by the architect Tadao Ando (安藤忠雄). As soon as you enter the atrium, look up – the ceiling’s iconic triangular panels illuminate a dramatic spiral staircase over a granite floor. Relaying the torch from the former prefectural art museum since 2013, the new Akita Museum of Art remains faithful to its core mission of preserving the personal collection of Masakichi Hirano (平野政吉), an art collector from a wealthy merchant family in Akita city.

Triangular panels in atrium of Akita Art Museum designed by Tadao Ando

At the heart of his collection are the artworks of Tsuguharu (Léonard) Foujita (藤田嗣治), a Japanese artist who studied Western painting in Tokyo before establishing his reputation in Paris in the late 1910s. The highlight of his permanent gallery is the huge mural painting “Akita Events” (秋田の行事), specially commissioned by Hirano, which Foujita created in a rice barn in 1937. It’s a passionate tribute to the region, depicting its three great seasonal festivals and the daily lives of Akita residents in winter.

Kanto lantern parades in luminous balance

Among these great festivals, the most famous, and no doubt the most spectacular, is the Kanto festival that takes place every summer on August 3-6. It’s one of the communal events held to chase away the sleepiness of summer, dating back to the Edo period, when farmers brandished bright lanterns to welcome the spirits and pray for a good rice harvest. During four days and four nights, young men march across downtown Akita balancing magnificent masts of paper lanterns called kanto (竿燈) on their palm, forehead, shoulder or hip – joyous illuminations that augur prosperous times ahead.

The Akita Folk Performing Arts Museum (秋田市民俗芸能伝承館) displays the different sizes of kanto, including the largest (owaka), which measures 12 meters high and weighs about 50 kg. There is even a space for you to try your own hand at the delicate art of balancing a kanto on your body, if only to better appreciate the skills of the local youths. Begin with the smallest (yowaka), before building your way up with your palm – and remember to move your whole body, not just your wrist, along with the kanto!

Hinai-jidori, one of the great Japanese fowls

Hinai-jidori (比内地鶏) is one of Japan’s three premium chickens, raised since the Edo period in northern Akita prefecture. This luxury breed has a long neck and small crest, lives outdoors for at least 100 days, and its firm and flavorful meat resembles that of native pheasants and wild mountain pigeons.

The izakaya-restaurant Sot-l’y-laisse (ソリレス), whose French name refers to the gourmet “oyster” piece of the fowl, specializes in Hinai-jidori chicken prepared in a cornucopia of styles: pink and red sashimi dabbed in pink salt; tender tsukune balls covered in sweet sauce; foamy liver on toast; bright red gizzards grilled on a skewer; or choice parts crowning a fine coil of exquisite inaniwa udon.

Oga, the Beautifully Wild Peninsula

On the west coast of Akita, it’s easy to be blown away by the Oga (男鹿) peninsula’s natural wild beauty. Rendez-vous at Cape Nyudozaki (入道崎) at dusk, where raging winds swirl up gorgeous sunsets over craggy rocks under a flaming sky. Near the historical lighthouse, you can even straddle the geographic line marking 40˚ North, at the same latitude as the cities of New York and Madrid.

The Shishi Otoshi Cliffs are covered with volcanic rock that formed after an eruption some 70 million years ago. The pieces of rock that  fell into the sea and were polished by the waves became the stones used for ishiyaki cooking.

Cooking soup with volcanic rocks

Ishiyaki ryori (石焼料理) is a traditional cooking method that dates back to a time when people fishing on wooden boats off the rocky shores of Oga cooked their lunch with whatever they had on board. They dropped the day’s catch, along with seaweed, mushrooms, garlic, leeks, and others into a bucket of water, then added burning stones in order to cook all the ingredients together, mixed into a savory miso soup. Nowadays, ishiyaki cooking is more of a spectacle that delights tourists with dramatic puffs of steam, crackling sparks, and the famous volcanic rocks glowing at a temperature of 800˚C.

At the Seiko Grand Hotel (セイコーグランドホテル) in Oga, you can witness this live cooking show right in your private dining room and sample the resulting seafood: a tasty bowl of miso soup with well-cooked pieces of sea bream.

Namahage, the folklore behind the monstrous masks

In the remote foothills of Oga’s dense forests, villagers long ago imagined ferocious yet benevolent deities descended from the mountains. These spirits became the folklore of Namahage, symbolized by the iconic horned masks, often one red and one blue, seen throughout the Oga region. Traditionally, every year on New Year’s Eve, the Namahage (in reality young men wearing scary masks and straw costumes, carrying typical accessories) come down from the mountain and emerge from the darkness. They visit village households, stomping at the door, entering and inquiring about the well-being of various family members, making sure that elderly grandparents are properly cared for and that children are studying diligently, not being lazy – an extreme and theatrical way of teaching children good morals!

But while the Namahage may appear frightening and demonic, they are in fact mountain deities who bring each family good health and good harvests from the fields and from the sea. Families welcome them as honored guests, serving them ceremonial food and sake in gratitude for their auspicious visit.

Near the Shinzan Shrine, where a public Namahage festival is held each winter, the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum (男鹿真山伝承館) provides an authentic setting for a short play inside a traditional thatched roof house. As the audience watches from the neighboring room, two Namahage enter the house, announced by their human sakidachi escort, stomping and speaking loudly to scare away evil spirits. When the performance is over, pick up a piece of straw fallen from the Namahage, as it’s a sacred object that can protect you from evil. If you wrap the straw around your head or hang it on the door of your house, it will help you to live a healthy life.

A few steps away from the house, the Namahage Museum (なまはげ館) takes the form of a fortress built with rocks extracted from Mount Kampu. The museum exhibits more than 150 Namahage masks and costumes from about 60 communities around Oga, showcasing a wide range of styles and expressions of these spiritual folk characters.

Shottsuru yakisoba, stir-fried noodles blessed with divine fish sauce

Akita’s shottsuru sauce follows the culinary tradition of famous Asian fish sauces, including Vietnam’s nuoc mam or Thailand’s nam pla. But while all these umami sauces result from fermenting fish (sardine, anchovy, etc.) with salt, shottsuru’s uniqueness lies in the fish used to make it: hatahata (Arctoscopus japonicus) is a scaleless fish native to the Sea of Japan off the Oga Peninsula, considered to be a gift sent from heaven, as they are known to throw themselves onto the shore during violent storms with rough waves and a loud clap of thunder when winter approaches.

shottsuru yakisoba at Ogare restaurant served by robot

In the south of the peninsula, near Oga train station, the restaurant attached to the giant Ogare souvenir shop is proud to offer its specialty of shottsuru yakisoba (しょっつる焼きそば), served by a robot. This savory dish of stir-fried seafood noodles seasoned with local shottsuru sauce, much finer than the usual soy sauce, sets the tone for more wild and wonderful gourmet pleasures in Akita.

Odate, Birthplace of the Original Akita Inu

Perhaps you know the true story of Hachiko, the Akita dog who accompanied and awaited his master at Shibuya train station in Tokyo, every morning and every evening… even after the sudden death of the master in 1925, and until his own death ten years later. Today, the famous statue of Hachiko still sits facing Shibuya Station, indifferent to the neighborhood’s relentless development over the past century. If Hachiko is no doubt the most well-known Akita Inu in Japan, his breed is just as faithfully preserved in his birthplace of Odate (大館).

Odate also has its own Hachiko statue, sitting with two upright ears, facing Odate train station. Behind him, the façade of the relatively new Akita Dog Visitor Center (秋田犬の里) is modeled after the original Shibuya Station in the 1920s. Inside, numerous stuffed dogs and thematic exhibitions capitalize on the undeniably furry cuteness of Akita Inu. Live dogs can be observed behind glass in a separate room, but to learn more about this strong and charismatic breed, head to the dedicated Akita Inu Museum (秋田犬会館).

Magewappa, handmade boxes of bent Akita cedar

Odate cultivates the art of magewappa (曲げわっぱ), a handicraft that consists of heating and bending natural Akita cedar wood to form small recipients, traditionally used to transport food such as cooked rice. During the Edo period, the Satake Nishi family who lived in Odate Castle noticed the abundance of Akita cedars on the territory and encouraged their samurai retainers to develop the existing techniques of magewappa. They found that natural Akita cedar wood, with its rich aroma, fine grain and gentle color, luxuriously enhanced the food contained inside the handcrafted bento boxes. Furthermore, the antibacterial properties of the local wood prevent the rice from spoiling, thanks to the box’s raw finish.

Adjacent to its wonderful boutique of collector’s boxes and contemporary magewappa for sale, Shibata Yoshinobu Shoten (柴田慶信商店) offers an Odate magewappa workshop for anyone who would like to assemble their own marubentobako (round bento box). Assembly includes “sewing” with wild cherry bark, gluing and setting with a mallet and other dedicated tools, as well as the fine art of sanding, using various degrees of sandpaper to finish off your box with a soft caress.

Tori-meshi chicken rice served inside Odate magewappa round bento box

Just around the corner, stop for lunch at the restaurant of Hanazen (花善), the brand specialized in chicken rice bentos (鶏めし駅弁, tori-meshi ekiben) at Odate Station since 1947. It’s a chance to (re)discover this local comfort food reinvented as an elegant dish presented in authentic Odate magewappa bentos that have been serving customers for some 20 years. Akita cedar retains heat and absorbs extra moisture, making the steamed rice more tender. From the upstairs gallery room, you can watch factory employees filling the bentos with freshly cooked tori-meshi, and spot the giant magewappa containing steamed Akita Komachi rice.

Smile, you’re traveling across Akita by rail!

The Akita Nairiku « Smile Rail » train line crosses the prefecture from north to south over 95 kilometers and 29 stations, from Takanosu (鷹巣) to Kakunodate (角館). This little vintage leisure train travels along the satoyama between the agricultural fields and the mountain, passing many villages where the residents will welcome you with their local produce and, of course, big smiles.

In spring, enjoy wildflowers in full bloom and edible plants; in summer, don’t miss the festivals and rice paddy artwork seen from the train; in autumn, collect mushrooms admire the fiery foliage from the bridges; in winter, get ready to ski among the natural “snow monsters” (juhyo) on Mount Moriyoshi! About halfway down the line, alight at Ani-Matagi station to explore this area where the local Matagi mountain hunters once thrived. Along the way, open the window for a breath of fresh air, and drink a sparkling Smile Rail cider to toast your journey.

Semboku, Once Upon a Time in the Edo Period

In the current city of Senboku (仙北), the Edo-period castle town of Kakunodate remains virtually unchanged since it was first established by the feudal Lord Ashina Yoshikatsu in 1620. With its “tunnel” of cherry trees extending 2 kilometers along the Hinokinai river, this town surrounded by mountains on three sides was naturally protected by its geographical location for centuries, even before it was officially preserved for its cultural and architectural heritage.

Bukeyashikidori, the Samurai Millionaire’s Row

Bukeyashikidori (武家屋敷通り), or the avenue of samurai manors, stretches across the length of the town, from the merchant district in the south to the samurai district in the north, which is lined with more than 400 weeping cherry trees and centenarian pines. The direct descendants of samurai families still live in these traditional residences, of which six are open to the public.

Among these, Ishiguro House (石黒家) is the oldest and most representative of the highest-ranking samurai class under the Satake Kita clan. Often Mr. Ishiguro himself, a welcoming and friendly gentleman representing the 13th generation of his family, leads the public tour of the house, where a plaque near Yakui-mon gate commemorates its establishment in 1809. He will show you the different entrances to the house according to the rank and role of the visiting guest or resident, and introduce various characteristics of each tatami-floored room, such as turtle motifs carved into zelkova wood decorations, calligraphy displayed in the elegant tokonoma alcove, or the delicate irori hearth in the dining room. On the garden side, windows under the high ceiling let in lots of natural light, while offering a closer view of the traditional thatched roof. In the rear of the house, the exhibition room and uchigura inner storeroom display other documents and artifacts of the Edo period, including the large wooden arrow that protects the property.

Next door, Aoyagi House (青柳家) has been converted into a small museum exhibiting books, armor, swords, firearms, tools and other objects from daily life. Don’t forget to pause in the garden at the bust of Odano Naotake, the samurai painter who brought Western painting techniques back to Akita to found what has become the school of Akita Ranga. Behind him, a series of illustrations traces his artistic journey between Europe and Japan.

On the southern end of Bukeyashikidori in the merchant district, you can sleep in an authentic accommodation at Tamachi Bukeyashiki Hotel (田町武家屋敷ホテル), a former merchant house that has been converted into an elegant inn with local character. The entire building is renovated to emphasize the beauty of its wooden architecture, with exposed beams, long perspectives, and charming details in each bedroom.

Gourmet menu for fermentation fans

Fortified by the need to preserve food during long snowy winters, Akita developed its own culture of gastronomic fermentation long ago. Fermented foods are also rich in probiotic micro-organisms that contribute to people’s good intestinal health and immune systems.

In the old center of Kakunodate, Shokudo Inaho (食堂稲穂) specializes in typical Akita cuisine with a creative touch. The menu includes kiritanpo (grilled rice rolls) in a Hinai-jidori broth, shottsuru hot pot, inaniwa udon topped with multicolored vegetables… and multiple variations of the region’s famous iburi gakko. This culinary delicacy is a type of local radish that is smoked and fermented with salt and rice bran, often cut into thin slices as a garnish. It features in several squares of the restaurant’s signature Gakko kaiseki (がっこ懐石), a fermented tasting menu presented in a gourmet grid of nine appetizers: iburi gakko deep-fried as tempura, marinated in miso or paired with natto, cherry tomatoes fermented with salt, curry cauliflower, pickled pink radish, pickled and diced seasonal vegetables.

Hideyoshi, superior sake made from hybrid Akita rice

In addition to acetic fermentation with vinegar, the alcohol-based fermentation of Akita rice has produced sakes that have also evolved over the centuries, catalyzed by the Japanese ferment known as koji (aspergillus oryzae).

exterior of Suzuki Sake Brewery in Akita

Suzuki Sake Brewery ( 鈴木酒造), founded by Matsuemon Suzuki in 1689, is one of Akita’s oldest breweries. The brand name Hideyoshi (秀よし) is attributed to an exclamation by Lord Satake, who in 1848 declared this sake to be of unsurpassed excellence (« hiidete yoshi »). Through 19 generations of the Suzuki family, their local sake has been brewing in the same historical building near Kakunodate, with its hundred-year-old glass window panes overlooking a lush courtyard with a running stream. 

It’s best to come in winter, when the brewery is most active. During our December visit, we could smell the rice steaming inside a giant wooden barrel. Later, two men dropped 20kg of freshly cooked rice into a wheelbarrow and sent it off for brewing. Different varieties of rice are used, including the famous Yamada Nishiki (suited for high-quality sake) and the local Akita Komachi, in addition to new hybrid Akita varieties, such as Hyakuden or Ichihozumi.

Pausing in front of huge blue and green vats occupying a room articulated by ladders and pipes, the brewery’s jovial toji (head brewer) Shigemasa Ishizawa invites us to taste the house’s most recently bottled sakes. We relish this precious opportunity to sip these novel sakes in the original place where they were conceived, whose secrets date back to the time of the samurai.

Tazawa Lake’s legendary dragon-lady Tatsuko

According to legend, a young woman named Tatsuko repeatedly prayed for eternal youth and beauty. After she followed the goddess Daizo Kannon’s recommendation to drink source water from Mount Innaidake, she was transformed into a dragon and ruled over Tazawa Lake (田沢湖). But unlike the Loch Ness, Tazawa Lake honors its dragon with a gilded statue of a naked woman perched on a stone pedestal near its southwest shore.

Tatsuko statue at Tazawa Lake on a misty day in Semboku, Akita

As the story continues, a man who had also been transformed into a dragon living in the Hachiro Lagoon fell in love with Tatsuko and went to join her in Tazawa Lake. For this reason, the lagoon became increasingly shallow, as the lake grew deeper and deeper. Today, Tazawa Lake is the deepest lake in Japan at 423.4 meters. Come on a clear day to contemplate its surface, scintillating with infinite nuances of blue: azure, indigo, cobalt, lapis lazuli…

On the northern shore of the lake, Gozanoishi Shrine (御座石神社) honors Princess Tatsuko with another statue, this one with a coiled serpent’s tail. While the shrine is dedicated to blossoming beauty, it’s seeing the beautiful silhouette of the six-legged red torii standing in the lake that is worth the detour, in any season and in any weather.

Yokote and Yuzawa, Storehouses of Art and Alchemy

In the south of Akita prefecture, two neighboring cities situated near flowing rivers of fresh water, historical mines and restorative hot springs maintain a delicate balance between preservation, celebration and innovation.

Uchigura, the secret inner storehouses of Masuda

In Yokote (横手), the famously snowy town of Masuda (増田) was once home to a community of wealthy merchant families. During the Edo period, some merchants from Mito who followed the Satake feudal lords emigrated as mining engineers, but much of the wealth of Masuda merchants who moved from the Kanto and Kansai regions came from trading in raw silk, leaf tobacco, lumber, and rice. Masuda’s townscape as we know it today was formed after the Meiji period up until the 1950s. Masuda’s oldest existing gutters were built in 1868; the newer ones date back to 1935. Merchants built “inner storehouses” called uchigura (内蔵) within their expansive residences to protect them from snow and rain, based on the earthen storehouses that survived multiple fires during the Edo period.

Invisible from the street, often unknown even to their neighbors, uchigura were only accessible to the core family members. Today, about 50 of these uchigura covered in black plaster are still inhabited by Masuda residents, and a few are open to the public. These intimate spaces, usually a tatami room with an alcove hidden behind a meeting room, let us imagine another aspect of daily merchant family life from a nostalgic era.

A manga museum for mangakas

The Yokote Masuda Manga Museum (横手市増田まんが美術館) offers both a glorious tribute to this popular art form and a serious archive where the original drawings of mangaka artists are documented and preserved. Inside, manga mania covers almost every surface: stained glass above the entrance, original drawings surrounding the central spiral staircase, a towering montage of extra-large manga images rising up to the ceiling, a café where illustrations decorate the walls and frame the tables, physical blocks of black katakana spelling out “WOW”.

The museum archives contain the largest collection of original drawings in Japan, with more than 450,000 original drawings by 183 mangakas from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia. Among them, 11 living Japanese artists with varying styles have donated all of their artworks to the museum for conservation. The museum’s permanent collection also includes 45,000 drawings by the local mangaka Takao Yaguchi (矢口高雄), who became the museum’s first honorary director when it opened in 1995, and whose photo portrait still watches over the corner dedicated to Akita artists.

exterior of Yokote Masuda Manga Museum across snowy ground

For serious manga fans and budding mangaka, the truly invaluable resource of this bigger-than-life manga library is the Manga Kura “storehouse” room, where anyone can search, enlarge and examine digitalized original drawings in high resolution on a giant touch screen. In an age where young mangakas increasingly draw directly in digital formats, it’s a rare opportunity to appreciate each pen stroke and notes to assistants penciled on the original paper canvas.

Yamamo brewery’s gastronomic alchemy

Just south of Yokote in the city of Yuzawa, Yamamo Miso and Soy Sauce Brewery (ヤマモみそしょうゆ醸造元) practices the art of fermentation in the name of culinary research and gastronomic innovation. Originally founded in 1867, since 2006 the brewery is directed by Yasushi Takahashi (高橋泰), the charismatic 7th generation heir of the family business. With his worldly experience and background in architecture, the young brewer infuses the space with an intriguing blend of new age cuisine and theatrical storytelling. His progressive vision of culinary microbiology is best understood through his personal guided brewery tour, which stages experimental fermented dishes in the various industrial rooms of this historical building.

In a small, older room, where elementary flavors are mixed to create new ones, Takahashi introduces us to Viamver: a yeast liquid discovered by Yamamo and patented in 2022. If Viamver added to a vegetable soup with ground crickets recalls an umami bisque, the raw liquid evokes the bitter-sweet taste of mirin. In the moromi room, where the rice koji ferments harmoniously with soya beans, wheat, pure water and Viamver yeast, we eat thick slices of wild bear meat fermented with Viamver liquid, paired with a fruity sweet 2020 orange wine – totally new, as the wine was fermented with the same house yeast as the miso. 

Viamver pairs particularly well with the milky texture of doburoku non-refined sake, and Yamamo uses it to adjust the taste of all the dishes served in its café: exquisite puree made from fermented tofu and ayu sweetfish liver steamed in the hot spring water of Oyasukyo Onsen; deliciously tender lamb meat fermented for two weeks; sublime crème brûlée made with 20-year-old miso topped with a sour raspberry sauce… An entire gastronomic fermentation palette that reveals subtle tastes in surprising combinations.

Hopefully this whirlwind trip through Akita will whet your appetite to explore more cultural and culinary adventures around this lesser-known region of Japan. Bon voyage and bon appétit!

Sponsored by: Akita.

Cherise Fong

Cherise Fong

Originally from San Francisco, currently living in Tokyo, preferably traveling by bicycle. Always seeking out invisible ecosystems, untold stories and new perspectives to connect Japan's cultural and physical landscapes.

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