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Japan Hour

It's Lunch Time

This week, our spotlight is on famous rice-producing regions. First up is a trip to Niigata City in Niigata Prefecture.

This week, our spotlight is on famous rice-producing regions. First up is a trip to Niigata City in Niigata Prefecture. We meet 14th-generation grape farmer Kentaro Abe, whose family has been in the farming business for 300 years. The family had initially focused on growing rice and pears, but decided to also start harvesting grapes 20 years ago. Now, grapes have become their main product and they grow four kinds of grapes at their farm. The Abes also grow their own brand of rice, called Kenta.

Mr Abe lets us try some seedless varieties of grapes such as the popular Shine Muscat and Oriental Star, which has a slightly thicker skin. He agrees to show us his lunch so we head to his house, which was built in 1853, the year Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan. Mr Abe lives with his parents and grandparents. The family loves to eat fruits throughout the year, so when they run out of fresh fruits, they would eat those which have been preserved in syrup. Mr Abe’s mum, Yoshie, grows vegetables and uses them in various dishes. An example is Niigata’s speciality, Noppei-jiru, a soup featuring dried bonito stock, taro, carrots and konjac. Locals would have it during New Year celebrations, the Obon Festival and ceremonial occasions.

The next item also uses vegetables grown by Mr Abe’s mother. It is a cream stew with turnips, onions, carrots and pumpkin. The dish includes pork, stock cubes and milk. Other items cooked for lunch are boiled seasoned spinach and carrots, boiled and seasoned edible chrysanthemum, as well as grape and apple pancake.  

After this, we move on to the urban area to continue our “meal investigation”. We visit the Kameda St. Regional Exchange facility, where a Halloween party is being held. It is hosted by several restaurants to promote local businesses and foods. Fried rice cakes, fish-shaped pancakes and chiffon cakes are among the foods being served. We find out about a new brand of rice from Niigata, called Shinnosuke. Grainier than Koshihikari rice and not as sticky, it entered the market in recent years. However, before it was able to do so, the size of grain and taste had to be approved. The rice also had to pass various other standards.

We chat with Yuta Suzuki, a rice farmer from Ashinuma Country Farm. We later attend an after-party at his classmate’s restaurant, Yamayoshi. It specialises in Japanese cuisine and is famous for its seafood caught in the Sea of Japan. It also serves Shinnosuke fried rice, which just includes egg, green onions, soy sauce, salt and pepper. To keep the original taste of the rice, no extra ingredients are added.

Semboku City in Akita Prefecture is our next location. One can see several rice fields with fine rice stalks here. A well-known tourist spot in Semboku is Lake Tazawa, Japan's deepest lake with a depth of 423m. From the lake, we walk for five minutes towards the mountainous area. We meet Iichiro Asari, who grows burdock roots and baby corn in his fields. He is on his way home, so we request to see his dinner. He agrees to let us accompany him home, where he introduces us to his wife, Etsuko. 

She first makes rice seasoned and cooked with local vegetables. Burdock roots, maitake mushrooms, carrots, sweet potato and chicken are mixed with the rice. A seaweed soup base is added, after which the rice is cooked with water and a bit of sake.  Other dishes prepared for dinner are fried bamboo seasoned with miso; boiled seasoned richweed - a mountain vegetable - with Japanese ginger; homegrown butterburs stewed with soy sauce, sugar and sweet sake; and string beans with tofu.

The next day, we continue our journey around Semboku City. We meet Mr Saito, who comes from a family of spinach farmers. Most of the spinach in Akita Prefecture comes from Semboku. We later head to his house to see what he is having for lunch. One of the dishes is boiled and seasoned spinach dipped in raw eggs with soy sauce. There is also homegrown radish leaf stems seasoned with salt and sesame oil; maitake mushrooms cooked with butter; boiled honey fungus with soy sauce and chilli peppers; and smoked radish pickles.

1) A speciality of Noppei-jiru, a soup made with mainly vegetables
2) A well-known tourist spot in Semboku City is the beautiful Lake Tazawa


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