To be sure, naturally preserved foods are an integral part of the overall Japanese diet, but in Tohoku, they are the ingredients of survival, the heart of the robust dishes that make up the area’s wintertime cuisine. The next day, I visit the home of Wakako Arakawa, walking in to find her chatting with five other women who are seated on the floor. In typical rural style, all are wearing floral-print smocks and have kerchiefs covering their hair. The women, surprised to see a gaijin in such a remote area, giggle as they invite me to join them. Wakako brings over a tray with tea and snacks. “Gakko chakko,” she says with a smile. For these local residents, “tea and pickles” might be the equivalent of afternoon tea in the Scottish Highlands, a ritual to pass the time when it’s too cold, or simply too dreary, to go outside. The pickles are an Akita specialty of crunchy carrots and bright yellow daikon radishes that have been smoked over cherrywood. Wakako also serves sliced hatahata zushi, silver sandfish the size of herring, fermented with rice. The fish smells sour but tastes sweet, like pickled herring.
“In the countryside,” Keiko says, “families make their own hatahata zushi and pickles. And every family’s tastes different.”
As the women chat, I realize how much the heavy snowfalls have affected their lives. They speak in the Akita dialect, indecipherable to outsiders, a language of clipped words that, legend has it, evolved for rapid communication in the bitter cold.
I ask Wakako to show me how she makes her pickles, a request that results in another round of giggling from the group. She leads me into the storehouse behind her home. In the dim light I count 14 plastic buckets, each with a different pickle inside, whose lids are being held in place by a stone or chunks of cinder block. Wakako scoops out a handful of limp greens—wild vegetables she picked herself—that look like cooked string beans. Then she points to some sturdy buckets the size of wine barrels that are lashed tight with bamboo struts: “Homemade miso,” she says, “enough to last for five years.” Dried mushrooms and dokudami flowers, traditional herbal remedies to cure stomachaches, hang from the wall.
As I head out of Fujisato, miles of aluminum shutters, stacked four high to block the driving snow, run like silver ribbons along Akita’s mountain roads. They weave through silent country villages and cut across dense forests, where drifts pile high in stands of cedar. In the town of Kiowa, a solid globe shaped from green cedar branches hangs by the entrance of the Okuda Brewery, the traditional way of announcing that the first sake of the brewing season is ready. Shigetoku Okuda, an 18th-generation sake maker, welcomes me to his sakagura, which has been in the same family for 350 years. A sour, yeasty smell hits me as I walk into the brewery. Heavy rough-hewn beams, blackened by age, support the ceiling. Thick—packed earthen walls insulate the building from the cold outside—but barely. A worker in a cavernous room stands inside a huge bucket, five feet high and seven feet across, scooping up cooked rice with a shovel and dumping the clumps onto a screeching conveyor belt. His face glistens as steam pours from the bucket; a white towel, tied on his head like a biker’s bandanna, helps absorb the sweat. “Here, taste it,” he cries, offering a sample from the tip of his shovel. The white rice is hot, sticky, and as chewy as al dente pasta. Shigetoku then leads me to a waist-high stainless-steel tank and, after dipping a cup-size ladle into it, gives me a sip of namazake, unpasteurized sake. It has a brash, refreshing taste, the cold liquid imbued with live-yeast cultures.
Shigetoku follows age-old methods in crafting Akita sake, which is made with prized Komachi rice. “I need the cold to make my sake,” he says, and, in fact, he brews rice only in the winter months, the traditional time for sake production in Japan. Shigetoku’s mother meets us as we leave and invites me into the attached family home. The ceremonial tearoom has tatami floors and a scroll of calligraphy that is prominently displayed. Charcoal glows inside the irori. Our voices lower to a whisper as Mrs. Okuda prepares powdered green tea by frothing it with a bamboo whisk.
“I picked the scroll just for us,” she says softly, pointing to the elaborate brush strokes. “In this cold weather,” she translates, “we should enjoy the coldness and be at peace with nature.” The perfect motto, I think, for all of Tohoku.
Take the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Tazawako village, where you’ll find Tsurunoyu (011-81-187-46-2139; from $80), the place where I enjoyed my pork-rib hot pot and char-infused sake. The hotel is clustered with six other rustic lodges in the Akita mountains, and all provide day passes, so you can hop from one steaming outdoor bath to the other for ever-changing views of the snowy mountains. Farther north, in Aomori prefecture, the 38-room Aoni Onsen (011-81-172-54-8588; www.yo.rim.or.jp/aoni/; from $77) is nestled so deep in a mountain pass that a four-by-four must drive you the final five miles to the lodge. Oil lamps still provide the only illumination at the hotel. The seven-room Syohoen Ryokan (011-81-187-77-2116; syohoen.net; from $130) is a magnificent traditional Japanese inn with a 14-course dinner of Akita specialties—including a hot pot of pork, wild mountain greens, and tofu in a miso broth, all cooked in a metal pan shaped like a giant scallop shell, a tradition from when hot pots were served on actual shells. At Kameya ryokan (011-81-185-33-2049; $105 for lodging and dinner), you can sample the monkfish hot pot, grilled rockfish, cod soup, and half a dozen other local fish served as sashimi.
Mukashi Kiritanpo-ya (0186-43-4040), in Odate, specializes in Akita’s signature hot pot, kiritanpo nabe, a hearty stew of chicken, burdock root, leeks, wild hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and kiritanpo (pounded sticky rice grilled on a cedar spit). The stock in the dish is simmered for three days and made from free-range heirloom birds that are serenaded by Mozart, pumped over loudspeakers. (“I read that Mozart calms people,” the breeder told me. “Why not chickens?”) Along the coast, near Oga, the chef at six-table MinoKO (0185-38-2146) “stone-boils” another iconic Akita hot pot by plopping a red-hot stone into a cedar bucket filled with broth, sea bream, and seaweed—a gurgling dish invented by local fishermen. At Dewaya (0237-74-2323), in neighboring Yamagata prefecture, in the town of Nishikawa, the 22-course tasting menu is based solely on wild greens and fungi, both picked from the surrounding forest. Once a pilgrims’ lodge, the restaurant also serves an excellent sake and a moss that grows on the high limbs of beech trees, which can be reached only in winter when snow drifts are high enough (“seaweed of the forest,” the chef calls this delicate dish).