Feast of Kurokawa Noh
Shimi-dofu (freeze-dried tofu), essential to Ogisai (a festival during which the Kurokawa Noh is performed)
The Kurokawa area boasts the Kurokawa Noh, a nationally designated significant intangible folk cultural asset that has been passed down since the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). The shimi-dofu served at the Ogisai, an annual festival held for two days on the 1st and the 2nd of February, is one of the indispensable foods in the festival. We visited Mrs. Mie Saito, who runs the farmhouse inn Gontaro in the Kurokawa area.
Tradition and History of the Kurokawa Noh
In the Kurokawa area, located in the eastern part of Tsuruoka City, the Kurokawa Noh is performed to the god of the Kasuga shrine during the Ogisai for two days annually from 1st February. This is a Shinto ritual Noh inherited by the local farmers for well over 500 years. Shrine parishioners from nearly 250 households are divided into kamiza (literally translated as upper seat) and shimoza (lower seat). The houses in which the patriarchs of the respective “seats” reside take charge of organizing the event each year. These two “seats” (called toya) welcome the Ogi of the shrine, which is an object capable of attracting spirits, and host an event serving sake and shojin ryori (vegetarian cuisine originally derived from the dietary restrictions of Buddhist monks). The kamiza and shimoza each set up a stage on which the Noh is performed. All works related to the festive event proceed with a commitment from two men and two women who are assigned by the toya. These men and women prepare the ingredients and the foods for the events including a tofu char-broiling.
A specialty in the Kurokawa area, this hard tofu is skewered and char-broiled, then frozen.
When eating shimi-dofu, there is a difference between kamiza and shimoza. In kamiza, the shimi-dofu is heated and is dipped in a sauce that contains Japanese pepper and walnuts among other ingredients. In shimoza, on the other hand, a hot soup flavored with sake and soy sauce with Japanese pepper is poured over a frozen shimi-dofu. In both kamiza and shimoza, boiled sliced burdocks garnish the shimi-dofu.
Mrs. Saito was born in the Kurokawa area. She has been engaged in rice farming full-time ever since graduating from high school. Residing in the Kurokawa area since her infancy has made her take it for granted that her life revolves around the Kurokawa Noh, according to Mrs. Saito.
Mrs. Saito is in her eighth year of running her farmhouse inn. “Because we were farmers and we couldn’t go on a trip, we thought in the reverse; that is, if we cannot go, why not welcome visitors to our place?” says Mrs. Saito, reflecting what made her start the inn. A lot of visitors come not only for Ogisai on 1st February but also for Rosoku Noh (literally translated as a candle Noh, which is performed with candles surrounding the stage at night). But after seeing the Rosoku Noh, the visitors head straight back to central Tsuruoka, which makes it impossible for her to treat the guests sufficiently. The manager of the farmhouse inn began to wonder if visitors stay overnight, she could interact with them more actively.
Because Mrs. Saito’s husband used to be a performer of Kurokawa Noh, some occasionally stayed overnight in order to learn about the performing art. “People in the Kurokawa area are quiet in general, but once they drink, they willingly talk. On some occasions, local actors stopped by the inn and joined the chat and ate with the visitors for mutual exchanges,” said Mrs. Saito.
Currently, there are four farmhouse inns in the area. The accommodation reaches the peak of the business when Noh is performed. More recently, however, the increasing number of guests are staying overnight for the local fireworks event, Mt. Haguro and fishing. Also, some people coming to visit their ancestors’ graves around here and calling on their relatives in central Tsuruoka use the inns because they can no longer ask their relatives for an overnight stay due to the fact that times have changed. Mrs. Saito remembers that on one occasion, a father traveling from Tokyo with his son stayed at her inn for a week and took the kid around to enjoy the area.
Traditional tastes enjoyed at the farmhouse inn
The meals provided by Mrs. Saito at the inn are composed mainly of seasonal dishes that have been enjoyed from a long time ago. When we paid a visit, she kindly prepared a set of dishes based on the shojin ryori that is annually served at the Ogisai. The menu includes: freeze-dried tofu, kiriae (finely-cut ostrich ferns, walnuts and green beans marinated with miso), tempura of butterbur sprout and maitake mushrooms, boiled osmund seasoned with soy sauce, chives and ego (which is made from sea alga) marinated with vinegar and miso, carrots marinated with ground tofu, sasamaki (boiled rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), a variety of tsukemono (Japanese pickles: yellow pickled radish, red turnips pickled with sugar and vinegar, Jerusalem artichokes and cucumbers pickled in sake lees), glutinous rice with wild plants, and dried mochi, made from glutinous rice with shrimp, black beans, sesame, sugar and salt.
The shimi-dofu that Mrs. Saito prepares is flavored in the kamiza style. This flavor is said to differ from family to family. The ingredients are unrefined sake, soy sauce, finely-cut sesame, laver and Japanese pepper. It is said that the sliced burdock garnished on top is to make the food digestible. “I sliced the burdocks today, but officially speaking, this ingredient has to be cut to 15 cm in length, which corresponds to the length of half-split chopsticks,” Mrs. Saito told us.
Kiriae (finely cut and marinated dish)
As for kiriae, there is also a difference between kamiza and shimoza. In kamiza, kiriae is made of red ostrich ferns, walnuts and green beans, and is marinated with miso. The miso used for kiriae is locally produced. In shimoza, on the other hand, the same ingredients are used, but the kiriae is marinated with soy sauce. Kiriae is regarded as good when cut as finely as possible. Thus, in our family, too, dried red ostrich ferns, prepared by soaking in water before cooking, are cut into the finest possible pieces.
Katamochi (dried mochi made from glutinous rice)
The katamochi is a food that has been created with a grandmothers’ wisdom, says Mrs. Saito. To prepare, it consumes a great deal of time and effort. To cook it, shrimp, black beans, sesame, sugar and salt are added to steamed rice and the rice is pounded.
Well-prepared katamochi looks good even after being fried in oil. A crispy texture and its fragrance are something more than one could ask for.
Also known as akumaki (literally translated as boiled with ashes and wrapped), sasamaki is characteristically wrapped in bamboo leaves.
I want to pass down the foods created by grandmothers.
“My generation, in fact, is not successful in passing down the culinary practices of the old times. We have just finished our work and it is high time that we took it on. Currently, we have grandmothers in their 80s teach us how to prepare dishes that have been inherited from ancient times. We want to preserve the recipes accurately rather than intuitively pass down the tastes of the grandmothers who tend to prepare dishes by rules of thumb. Foods cooked by grandmothers are really time-consuming and a lot of effort is required,” added Mrs. Saito at the end of the interview.