A snow-covered path leads to a rustic wooden lodge deep in the mountains of northern Japan. It’s the middle of winter, and I enter a dining room where guests sit cross-legged on tatami mats, wearing thick indigo cloaks over cotton robes, the same outfit I have on. In the corner, charcoal smolders in an irori, a traditional open hearth sunk into the floor, and a dozen river char—salted, skewered lengthwise, and slowly roasting—encircle the flames. A hot pot, the essence of comfort food, simmers in the cauldron of the fire. Every community here boasts its own signature version of the dish, and the one before me, a specialty of the inn where I’m staying, gives off a nutty aroma from the ingredients stewing in the rich pork-rib stock: mountain-yam dumplings, three kinds of wild mushrooms, burdock root, and miso paste.
A server delivers more dishes, all new to me—wild ferns cooked with fresh tofu, stir-fried mountain greens, flowering rape shoots simmered with tangy Japanese mustard. I notice a man spooning hot liquid from a bowl with a roasted char floating inside. “What is that?” I ask. “Sake,” he says, offering me a cup. The floral alcohol is infused with the flavor of the fish, an odd but delicious pairing.
Since I fell in love with the food of Japan on my first visit to the country a decade ago, I have discovered, far from Tokyo and Kyoto, a culinary world at the edges, one that goes way beyond sushi, teriyaki, and tempura. And of all the places I’ve traveled, nowhere has intrigued me more profoundly than Tohoku, a deeply rural area, 350 miles north of Tokyo, that is defined as much by its bitter climate as by its forested mountains and jagged coastline. From October through April, Siberian winds sweep across the Sea of Japan, dumping piles of snow—as much as 15 feet a year—on the region. It’s not just the harsh elements, though, that set this land apart. Tohoku has long captured the Japanese imagination as a foreboding spot—a Wild West where soldiers battled indigenous tribes and disgraced samurai settled after banishment. This sense of isolation endures. When my friends in Tokyo heard I was planning a trip to Snow Country—in winter, no less—they responded with blank stares.
Driving on a long, empty highway hugging the Sea of Japan, I watch slate-colored waves crash against rocky cliffs. Snow squalls whip the frigid air. An occasional fishing village appears and quickly recedes behind me. In the distance, frosted peaks thrust into dark skies. I pull into Kitaura, a small port in Akita (yes, the birthplace of the dog), one of Tohoku’s main prefectures. In Japan, winter is the best season to fish, since the catch is particularly fatty and rich. I make my way to Kameya Ryokan (“Turtle Inn”), a three-room hotel whose restaurant, with seven long, low tables, is the one place in town to eat. The owner, Shigetaka Miura, wearing a ski jacket over a chef’s smock and white apron, is on his way to the dock. He invites me to join him while cautioning that the fishing will be only so-so because of rough seas.
We enter a brightly lit waterfront warehouse with shutters open on two sides. The day’s haul rests on ice in hundreds of white Styrofoam crates, arranged in long rows. Wholesalers in rain slickers and rubber boots inspect a staggering array: stonefish, rockfish, blowfish, flounder, horse mackerel, six-inch tiger shrimp. Other containers reveal tangles of glistening, dark-green seaweed. The gray tails of three-foot-long cod poke out from white boxes that are stacked to the ceiling. Next to them, row after row of cedar crates hold rose-colored octopuses, some weighing as much as 50 pounds, all still alive. Most fishermen sail solo in 20-foot open skiffs, in waters less than five miles from the tiny ports along Tohoku’s coast. I am amazed at what they’ve been able to catch on a “so-so” day.
Shigetaka prepares dinner at the restaurant. A couple of fishermen sit near me, unwinding at another table, drinking beer and staring at the TV mounted on the wall. Eight pairs of neatly arranged shoes and boots—the village firemen are eating in the back room—wait at the entrance.
“My favorite hot pot,” the chef says, setting a large earthenware crock on the heating plate in front of me. The dish bubbles with snow-white monkfish and crisp leeks in a fragrant broth of monkfish liver and miso. The fish is incredibly tender and flavorful. “Caught a few hours ago,” the chef reminds me. He returns a little later to strain the leftovers, adding two raw eggs, rice, and scallions to the broth. “Neko manma,” he says—”cat food,” in Japanese slang, the best of the hot pot, which indeed resembles cat food but is at once comforting and delicious.
The farmers market in Fujisato, a mountain town at the edge of a primeval beech forest, also sells a remarkable variety of fish—mackerel, herring, flounder—all displayed on a folding table under a plastic tarp. But here, a two-hour drive from Kitaura and the sea, they’re all salted or cured.
I meet Taido Niikawa, the town’s Buddhist priest, and Keiko Kodama, a retired English teacher in her sixties with a pageboy haircut. “We have a modern supermarket now,” she says, pointing to a store across the street, “but this is where we shopped before.” Centuries ago, fresh fish, the basis of Japanese cooking, could never have survived the journey this far inland during the winter, she explains, when traveling was an arduous affair. “People here adapted to the tough conditions. They hunted deer and bear in the forests. They pickled, smoked, salted, and dried vegetables to last through the long, cold months. They foraged the mountains for wild greens and mushrooms, and cured them, too, all before the snows arrived,” she says.
At dinner that night, with Taido Niikawa’s family and friends, in the 370-year old temple, we eat a meal of pickled vegetables, river fish, smoked chicken, and soy-sauce-flavored horsemeat stew, the latter a delicacy here. Taido’s mother brings out plastic bottles filled with a milky liquid and pours a glass for everyone. Pickles aren’t the only thing that’s homemade: Doburoku—sake, brewed at home by a neighbor—is harsh, fizzy, sweet, and dangerously easy to drink.