Refreshing shaved ice topped with strawberries, Chinese-style Nikujaga, kanburi yellowtail soup and a hotpot full of colourful vegetables are among the highlights of this week's culinary adventure.
Join us as we visit different cities to find out what the locals usually eat. Our first destination is Hokuto City in Yamanashi Prefecture. In recent years, many people have moved here from other cities. We start exploring the city and first meet a farmer harvesting “cold-resistant” turnips. Called Golden Globe, they have a pale yellow colour and become very sweet when cooked.
We pass by a bakery called Rokubungi and meet the owner’s husband. He tells us many people moved to this area after retirement. His wife and him used to work at companies in Tokyo but they retired early and moved to this town about six years ago. Both of them love mountain climbing so they decided to move to Hokuto which is rich in nature throughout the year.
He invites us to their beautiful house, which even has a fireplace and a wood stove. The bakery is attached to their house. They make homemade bread every morning, using high-quality ingredients such as flour, millet sugar and natural salt from Hokkaido. Their speciality is cream bread - fluffy and chewy bread made with natural yeast is filled with homemade cream. His wife actually started making bread as a hobby. Their son now helps out at the store too.
We are keen to see what the family usually eats and they gladly oblige. The wife shows us how she makes bread budding, using bread with walnuts and raisins inside, and leftover bread from the store. The other ingredients are eggs, millet sugar, milk and yoghurt. Mixing in yoghurt adds a tinge of tanginess. Bread is added to the batter and it is left for a while until the flavour is thoroughly absorbed. It is then baked in a full-scale industrial oven for 20 minutes, with the crust of the bread facing upwards so that it gets even more crispy in the oven. Once it is ready, the egg and yoghurt batter remaining in the bowl is poured on the bread, after which edamame beans grown in the family’s garden are sprinkled on top. The wife also makes a salad, mixing wasabi leaves and red radish bought from a vegetable market nearby. The dressing is a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper and vinegar.
After trying the baker family’s lunch, we continue walking around Hokuto City and meet Mr Takahashi. He is an ice producer who makes natural ice by freezing the water of Yatsugatake. He and his colleagues only use the forces of nature to freeze the ice, so it takes at least two weeks for the ice to form completely. He shares with us the challenges of his job. He needs to avoid the sunlight. If the ice melts and freezes multiple times, the ice will no longer be of high quality. So his team will use a kind of light-blocking net and surround the place during those periods. Furthermore, if it rains before the ice is ready, they have to start the whole process again. So their job depends on the weather and takes a lot of patience to complete.
Mr Takahashi shows us where he and his colleagues live. To make natural ice, they have to work 24 hours. So during winter, the ice makers stay together in a house. Mr Takahashi offers to make shaved ice for us using natural ice. The ice is chilled and completely hard and he has to leave it at room temperature for about 10-15 minutes. That way, the ice gets fluffy when it is shaved. The syrup for the shaved ice is made using only sugar and strawberries, so that the flavour of the ice stands out. The shaved natural ice is also topped with strawberry slices. Every summer, they sell up to 1,000 servings of shaved ice at a local roadside station.
Mr Takahashi tells us he used to own an IT company in Tokyo. He was impressed when he had shaved natural ice at a shop in Yanaka Ginza, Tokyo around six years ago. He then taught himself how to make ice but had several failed attempts at the start.
We want to see what the ice makers would normally eat on a typical day. They are happy to let us observe Ms Naka, who is in charge of cooking. The first dish she makes is Chinese-style Nikujaga. She starts by stir-frying pork and garlic with sesame oil. She adds potatoes and onions, then adds powdered chicken soup stock.
Another dish she prepares is houtou, a local speciality of Yamanashi Prefecture. She adds bonito flakes and kelp to the water of Yatsugatake to make soup stock. Then she puts in a lot of winter vegetables such as radish, burdock roots, pumpkin and taro. The main seasoning is miso. The flat and thick houtou noodles complete the dish. The final dish Ms Naka makes is grilled chicken with Shimonita leeks. She cuts local Koshu chicken into large pieces, places them on sticks with the leeks and grills them for about 15 minutes.
Our next culinary adventure takes place in Nanao City, Ishikawa Prefecture. It is known for its seafood as it faces the Sea of Japan. Kanburi yellowtail is especially popular here. We visit the fishing port and go to the wholesale market, where Japanese sea bass, Noto blowfish and filefish are being sold at an auction. We find out that kanburi yellowtail from Nanao is especially tasty as its entire body is marbled. It can be eaten raw or as shabu-shabu.
We speak to Mr Sakai, a local fisherman. He tells us Nanao City has one of the largest catches by fixed-net fishing in Japan. The fishery is located on the coast of Toyama Bay and due to the rich nutrients that flow from the mountains, it is home to a variety of fish. Kanburi yellowtail is usually sold at the market at an exceptionally high price of about 30,000-35,000 yen, depending on its size.
Mr Sakai is on his way home to make breakfast and he agrees to show us his meal. He is actually the president of a fishing company and has 13 fishermen working under him. Their workday starts in the middle of the night and ends in the morning. On this particular day, he is treating his staff to a luxurious meal, which includes raw kanburi yellowtail and fish soup. We observe him skilfully filleting a large kanburi yellowtail. The bony parts of the fish are simmered in a huge pot for quite a while, before miso is added, resulting in a soup bursting with the flavour of kanburi.
We then go to Nakanotomachi, which is next to Nanao. There are vast rice fields here and we speak to a farmer, Mr Aoki, who is harvesting turnips with his father. Mr Aoki tells us that in Ishikawa Prefecture, they are used for Kaburazushi, a local speciality where yellowtail is sandwiched between turnips and marinated in malted rice. As part of Nakanotomachi’s revitalisation, the town is promoting coloured vegetables. Thus many people grow a variety of vegetables in unusual colours. We visit a local roadside station and check out the coloured vegetable section. We see orange-coloured Chinese cabbage and purple leeks, among other things. Even at Mr Aoki’s farm, eight different kinds of coloured vegetables are grown, including blue turnips.
We are interested to find out what he is eating for dinner, so he invites us to his home nearby. Mr Aoki lives with his parents and his mum whips up a variety of dishes. There is a colourful vegetable hotpot, which includes orange Chinese cabbage from the family’s farm, regular cabbage, and chicken and pork seasoned with miso. Other dishes include a pink-coloured radish called Notomusume which is pickled in vinegar, local speciality Kaburazushi and assorted boiled coloured vegetables. It is a feast for the eyes with many vivid colours.
1) A must-try dish of Yamanashi Prefecture is houtou
2) Kaburazushi is a local speciality of Ishikawa Prefecture