It's Lunch Time

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It's Lunch Time

It shares a border with Nanmokumura, which, in contrast, is seen as an “endangered community” due to depopulation. Uenomura started depopulating in the 1950s so one of the counter-measures was to increase the number of migrants. Due to the rise in population, the houses at Uenomura are newer than the ones in Nanmokumura and are densely packed. 

We speak to a group of neighbours in Uenomura. They tell us that 20 per cent of the villagers living here are migrants. They come from all over the country, from places such as Nara, Hokkaido and Kyushu. In fact, out of the 1,230 people here, about 250 are migrants. We learn that Uenomura is popular because there are many benefits for families with children and it is seen as an ideal place to raise them. For example, nursery fees cost only about 2,000 yen per month. In addition, education until secondary school and medical fees until the age of 18 are free.  

We find out there are several two-storey houses near to the secondary school so we decide to head to this village housing area. We are unable to find our way there so decide to walk back to where we started. Along the way, we meet one of the ladies from the group we spoke to earlier. Ine Kurosawa agrees to show us her lunch so we go to her house.  

Since the only supermarket in the village is far away, Ine mostly cooks vegetables which she grows herself. One of the dishes is a hearty miso soup with radish, potatoes and onions. Uenomura’s agricultural cooperative sells miso processed from soy and barley; the miso is then fermented at home. There is also Japanese salad made with cucumber, seaweed, onions and crab sticks - the ingredients are pickled in vinegar and sugar is added. Other dishes include homemade boiled beans and homegrown Chinese cabbage which has been pickled with salt for four days. She also prepares side dishes such as pumpkin and konnyaku. 

After this, we want to speak to someone who has migrated to this village. We walk around the area and see several houses which look like cottages. These two-bedroom houses cost 55,000 yen a month to rent. We do not see anyone around so make our way to another part of the village, where there are flats instead. We ask a passer-by and are told to try our luck at the Uenomura Forest Union. There, we meet 33-year-old Mai Yamagishi, whose husband Hiroki was born in Yamanashi. He moved to the village 18 years ago to work for the Forest Union. Mai joined the company two years later and they started courting. He is 14 years older than her and they got married in July last year. 

We are interested to see their dinner so we visit their home, which is about 10 minutes away by car. Mai makes miso soup with enoki mushrooms, ginger and lots of vegetables such as Chinese cabbage. She also cooks Hiroki’s favourite scrambled egg with spinach. 

For our next journey, we will travel on Sanriku Railway, a local line which has 17 stops between Kuji Station and Miyako Station. The Sanriku area in Iwate Prefecture is known as a treasure trove of delicious seafood. At Kuji Station, we board an unusual train which runs in winter, from December to March. The Kotatsu Train started operating in 2004 and requires the seats to be booked in advance, due to its huge popularity. Its kotatsu seats cost an additional 310 yen. Underneath the sunken kotatsu is a hot air apparatus. The heated air generated by the train's engine is let out through vents under the kotatsu.

Several lunchboxes are available on board the Kotatsu Train. These include the Scallop Lunchbox, Abalone Lunchbox and Sea Urchin Bowl. There is also a unique boat-shaped lunchbox which has to be ordered beforehand. It has abalone, sea urchin, salted sea squirt, sea cucumber and sea urchin rice balls.

During the train ride, we enjoy the view of the beautiful Iwate coastline. Suddenly, in the middle of the journey, the train carriage becomes dark and two men with masks portraying “traditional demons” appear. We can hear their voices calling out to children who are “lazy” and “naughty”. This is an event called Namomi, similar to Namahage from Akita. It is part of a traditional custom to pray for the health and safety of children. The people behind the masks, two elderly men, later hand out gifts to the passengers. 

After about an hour of travelling from Kuji Station, we alight at Settai. The station is surrounded by fields and private homes. We stroll around the quiet residential area and meet a couple, Choujiro and Chieko. They are on their way to a cow shed, where they look after and breed Japanese black cows. We are keen to find out what this family of cow farmers eats so we visit their house, which is next to the cow shed. 

Their daughter-in-law, Saeko Tatezaki, is preparing dinner for the family. She uses a wood-burning stove with logs to cook the dishes. Her husband Hiroaki, who is also a farmer, has fishing rights. So she often makes dishes featuring the seafood he has caught. Today, the full-course seafood meal includes octopus boiled with salt, raw sea squirt eaten with soy sauce and grain vinegar, abalone stir-fried with butter and soy sauce; and boiled fat greenling. Bonito stock is used as an all-round condiment in many of the dishes, such as stir-fried tofu with green onions.

1)    Iwate Prefecture’s Sanriku area is known for its delicious seafood
2)    Book a ride on Sanriku Railway’s popular Kotatsu Train in winter for a unique travelling experience