A ski resort in Niigata Prefecture which draws tourists from all over the world and a shop in Tokyo's Kita ward which is well-known for its bean daifuku and jumbo ohagi are featured this week.
Our culinary journey this week first takes us to Naeba Ski Resort in Yuzawa Town, Niigata Prefecture. At the height of the bubble economy, about three million people visited the ski resort each year. In recent years, it has drawn many tourists from all over the world, with foreigners making up about 30 per cent of the visitors. With the introduction of direct international flights to Niigata Airport, the area has attracted tourists from places such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Thailand and even Russia.
One of the first few residents we speak to is Mr Hossy, who works in the medical industry in Tokyo. He is in his 50s and has worked as a ski instructor. He is also currently a YouTuber who has been posting skiing videos since 2010.
We then take the ski lift, which connects the foot of the mountain to the summit. In about 10 minutes, we climb up 1,500m. A gorgeous view of the Mikuni Mountains greets us. We then meet a 69-year-old retiree from Maebashi, Gunma. He has been skiing for more than 40 years. He tells us that during the bubble economy, it was many young couples’ dream to stay at Naeba. It was so popular that it was hard to even book rooms at the Naeba Prince Hotel.
We head back to the ski lift and start chatting with Mitsuru Kaido, who is 80 years old. He stays in a condominium here called Seibu Villa. It was developed 40 to 50 years ago next to the hotel when the ski resort was very popular. Nine buildings with more than 2,000 units were built and they were all sold out back then. Mr Kaido, who worked as a certified public accountant, got married in 1973. He has always loved skiing. He usually lives in Tokyo but would spend his days skiing in Naeba during winter. He bought the resort condominium in 1979 to spend more time with his family in winter.
We request to see his lunch and accompany him to his condominium, which is a 10-minute walk from the ski slopes. His unit is spacious and boasts a great view of the snowy landscape and the mountains. It consists of a Japanese-style room, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen. When it was built, it was considered a state-of-the-art resort condominium. We notice some trophies, one of which Mr Kaido won in a ski competition in Switzerland in 1989. He had clinched the first prize in the senior category. He has also gone on ski trips to Canada and Austria.
Mr Kaido’s wife, Reiko, is staying in Tokyo and will join him in three days. However, she has prepared food in advance for him and packed them in labelled containers for all his meals. They include sukiyaki-style stewed beef, macaroni salad, pork cutlet and rice. There are also apples, which were sent by his wife’s family in Akita Prefecture.
It is 4pm by now, so we bid farewell to Mr Kaido and head back to the town at the foot of the mountain. We see a store called Princess, which opened about seven years ago. Besides the usual souvenirs, it also sells many kinds of Japanese sake, which are very popular among the foreign tourists. They include sake from Minami Uonuma City near Naeba and sake breweries in Tsunan.
We then go to a ski rental shop which opened in 1972. Kaneroku Eleven has snowboards, skis and equipment of different lengths and sizes for people of all ages. To accommodate the increasing number of foreign tourists, the store even hired some workers from China and Mongolia in 2018. We speak to the president of the store, Fujio Morota, who owns three other rental shops. He has 16 employees in total, some of whom live in the employee dorm. We want to see his meal so he takes us to the dining room on the second floor, where he eats the same dishes as his workers.
Mrs Kato is in charge of preparing the meals but it is Mr Morota’s wife who decides the menu. On this particular day, the meal includes Aramaki salmon from Hokkaido; minced meat cutlet and chicken cheese cutlet; rice cooked with five grains; udo kinpira seasoned with sugar, soy sauce and mirin; and stir-fried Jerusalem artichoke and lotus roots. We chat with some of the employees while they are eating. Mr Abe is from the IT industry, but he has been staying in Naeba every winter for the last three years, Mr Takano works at a local pub in summer, while Mr Suzuki used to work at a major automobile company in Aichi Prefecture, but he retired in 2018 and moved to Naeba.
Our next stop is the Akabane Ichibangai shopping street in Tokyo’s Kita ward. It was established in 1946, spans about 400m and boasts nearly 100 stores. It became popular after appearing in several films and drama serials. In December 2018, it was chosen as one of the “most liveable” districts. We go to a Japanese confectionery shop called Iseya. It is famous for its bean daifuku and jumbo ohagi and often attracts long queues. It also sells dango and kusamochi.
We first try the jumbo ohagi; the sweet flavour and the sticky rice are very well-balanced. The third-generation owner, Fukutaro Honma, tells us that about 40 years ago, making anything jumbo-sized was a huge trend. The jumbo ohagi is about five times larger than the regular ohagi. Mr Honma and his father make all the confectionery together in the kitchen at the back of the store, starting their day at 5am. They use large-grained red beans called Miyabi from Tokachi, Hokkaido. For the sticky rice, they use Himenomochi from Chiba. We also taste some freshly made bean daifuku, which has a smooth, sweet red bean paste with a hint of saltiness. As for their other products, the mitarashi dango is smothered in their popular sweet soy sauce, while the red bean rice features a great texture of rice and beans. Their inari sushi has a sweet and salty flavour and is popular among office workers.
Mr Honma is going to prepare his lunch. The fridge has some leftover red rice, inari sushi and chilled tofu. He uses them to make red rice inari sushi. He also shows us some freshly made pounded rice and seasons it with sugar, soy sauce and butter. He eats this at least once a week. Mr Honma used to help out at the store when he was a kid. His great-grandmother taught him how to make the inari sushi with red rice using leftover ingredients, while his grandfather came up with the pounded rice recipe.
1) Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture attracts tourists from all over the world
2) Iseya at the Akabane Ichibangai shopping street in Tokyo is known for its bean daifuku and jumbo ohagi