Japanese food has conquered the world but there’s no better way to experience Japan’s culinary canon than savouring these dishes in their homeland. These are the best food destinations in northern Japan.
The diverse northern prefectures of Yamagata and Akita in the Tohoku region prove that there’s more to the nation’s culinary scene than sushi and ramen.
While these two areas may share the same coastline and cool climates, their approach to culinary adventure couldn’t be more different. Yin and yang, they represent the best of the nation’s food scene.
Traditional and modern, sophisticated and wild, it’s time to go beyond the city limits. It’s time to take a culinary pilgrimage through the deeper cultural facets of Japan.
Akita: The wild north, home to bear hunters, samurai and volcanic landscapes
If there were one region in a country as refined as Japan to be considered ‘untamed,’ it’s Akita. Akita is a prefecture that sits on the western coast of northern mainland Japan. It’s covered in heavy dumps of snow in winter and lush green milder summers. The area is famous for a handful of features. These include the healing hot springs of Nyuto Onsen, the samurai city of Kakunodate, and the fearless ‘Matagi’. Matagi would roam the rugged mountains hunting deer and bears, practising an indigenous culture similar to Hokkaido’s Ainu.
A journey through Akita is best opened with a soak in the baths of Kuroyu Onsen in Nyuto Onsenkyo. A popular hidden, hot spring destination long-loved by the locals, the facility features seven baths. Each are filled with water boasting different mineral qualities and thus healing properties.
You can practically read the history of this facility in the thatched-roof houses and wooden huts that house the meticulously maintained baths. Once a farmers’ retreat, Kuroyu Onsen still retains its traditional mixed gendered bathing legacy – meaning men and women bathe together, yes naked – but for the more modest amongst us, they also offer private and gender-segregated options too.
When you’re here, take the time to try ‘kiritanpo,’ a dish of pounded cylindrical grilled rice, once a meal of hunters and woodcutters because it was portable and pretty easy to make. Served in a comforting savoury soup, it’s like a big cozy hug for the tastebuds. This dish alone cements Akita as one of the best food destinations in Japan. Do note that due to snow, the facility closes from mid-November to mid-April.
Kakunodate should be the next stop on your wild adventure. Former castle town and samurai stronghold, Kakunodate is a corner of the country that’s managed to live since the early 1600s practically unchanged by modern development. Aoyagi Samurai House is the centrepiece of the town’s architectural ingenuity and is considered the most beautiful in the area. The sprawling facility once housed the powerful Aoyagi clan samurai family and protected the prefectural border from enemy clans; open to the public, it’s an immersive display of the daily lives of one of Japan’s most mythologized figures.
Japan’s most unusual restaurant experience
Staying with the mythological theme Kakunodate is also home to one of the most authentically unique restaurant experiences you might find in all of Japan. Hyakusuien (百穂苑) is a local restaurant with a 420-year history. Housed in what was once a matagi (bear hunter) chief’s residence, it’s now run by the 19th generation of the family, who serve local delicious multi-course cuisine with an ambience that’s equal parts quirky and historically rich.
Throughout the day, the restaurant is also a museum. For a ¥1,100 ($14 AUD) entry fee, guests can admire the impressive selection of painting-like carpets that adorn the walls and relics from the region’s past. The family has collected the artwork that adorns the walls over generations, much of which from global travels and deep-diving into Japanese culture. The food is a whole different experience entirely. Ultra-local cuisines, like smoked daikon (Japanese radish), and sweet pickles (Akita folk have a real sweet-tooth) offer guests a chance to ‘taste’ the culture of the city’s history.
Yamagata: Discover the refined tastes of Japan’s only UNESCO City of Gastronomy
To the south of Akita, the prefecture of Yamagata is a region that prides itself on refinement and a deep appreciation for the landscape. It’s the sophisticated sibling to Akita’s wild approach to living. Here European influences and a passion for traditional Japanese culture strikes the perfect balance making it one of the best food destinations in Japan.
Somaro Maiko Teahouse, located in the coastal city of Shonai region, is the embodiment of Yamagata’s proud traditional culture. A living piece of history, this maiko tea house is an ideal destination for those wanting an authentic experience. The house has 200 years of history and was once considered one of the finest restaurants in the region. It was a premier spot for merchants and government officials. Today it hosts daily dance performances by Sakata Maiko (trainee Geisha) and lunch performances where guests can sample the local delicacies of Yamagata in bento (boxed lunch) while watching the show.
Much of the region’s culinary evolution has deep ties to its history, there are plenty of contemporary influences on the food scene. A sustainable food system practised by local farmers who know how to grow and preserve indigenous vegetables (also known as heirloom vegetables) has awarded Tsuruoka the only UNESCO-designated “City of Gastronomy,” an influence that permeates beyond the city borders.
The Three Holy Mountains of Dewa
Tsuruoka city, the south side of Shonai region, is another piece of history that must be explored when in the area to fully appreciate the spiritual importance of the region, the Three Holy Mountains of Dewa (Dewa Sanzan). Key centres of Japan’s Shintō-Buddhist amalgamation, each of the mountains represent a key moment in humanity. Haguro-san represents birth, Gas-san represents death, and Yudono-san represents rebirth.
The most accessible of Dewa Sanzan is the 414 meter tall Mt Haguro (Hagurosan). A climb of 2,446 stone steps makes up this beautiful 1.7km walk which has attracted worshippers since the 6th century. At the top of the climb is the temple Saikan. It is a prayer spot for Yamabushi (mountain worshippers) and home to shojin ryori, vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. Saikan serves up a colourful feast of mountain vegetables, pickles, and tofu. All adhere to the Buddhist philosophy of appreciating nature.
Where to stay
Untouched, undiscovered ryokan combining new innovative ideas with traditional Japanese hospitality. The ryokan has collaborated with local university architecture students for their Hourai suite rooms. Each room showcases a different design concept and its own onsen bath.
Designed by award-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, and located within a rice paddy. Light fills this elegantly minimalistic but still incredibly warm hotel. And its multi-building setup connects in a way that feels both cozy and free.
This ‘best food destinations in Japan’ article was produced with content supplied by Tokyo Luxey and is a Signature Luxury Travel & Style digital exclusive. Be the first to see more exclusive online content by subscribing to the enewsletter.