My Items

I'm a title. ​Click here to edit me.

Kitamaebune and Hinagashi

In the middle of the Edo period (1603–1867), kitamaebune trading ships began sailing from Osaka to Hokkaido via the Kanmon Straits (which separate Honshu and Kyushu) and along the Sea of Japan coast. In the Meiji era (1868–1912), their number rapidly increased. These ships carried goods on their outbound and return journeys, unlike the vessels that transported daily necessities from the Kansai region to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) via the Pacific coast. The holds of the Edo-bound ships were empty on their return, limiting profits. The trade route of the kitamaebune featured multiple calls along the Sea of Japan coast, including ports in Toyama, Niigata, and Yamagata Prefectures and these stops allowed merchants to maximize the income from the journey. The merchant sailors acted as kaizumisen (merchant carriers), selling anything from their hold that could turn a profit and buying anything considered a bargain, which they could then sell at the next stop. This practice of buying and selling resulted in the development of connections between ports along the kitamaebune route. In addition to goods, merchants traded aspects of their culture, which members of the boats’ crews picked up and shared with people they met in other regions on their voyages. The Aomori Prefecture folk song Tsugaru-aiya-bushi, for example, is understood to be derived from the Niigata Prefecture song Sado Okesa, which was based on a tune from Kyushu called Haiya-bushi. Another instance is the introduction of konbu (dried kelp) from Hokkaido to western Japan by kitamaebune. This basic component of dashi (basic stock) fish broth transformed cooking during the Edo period, becoming a fundamental ingredient in traditional Japanese cuisine. The northern-bound ships also brought the custom of making sweets for hinamatsuri (Dolls’ Festival to pray for the success and health of girls) to Tsuruoka. Wood block molds to form the sweets were brought from Kyoto via the merchant sailors. Hinagashi (sweets to offer at the Dolls’ Festival) are typically made to reflect the specialties of the region. They include ingredients thought to promote good health, represent success, and appeal to children. Depending on the shops, the shapes of sweets will vary, featuring ingredients such as bamboo shoots, peaches, persimmon, or sea bream. Tsuruoka's hinagashi has been influenced by Kyoto’s elegant and refined culture and use of “shinko zaiku” (figurines made of sugar and rice-flour dough) which was common during the Edo period in Edo. Tsuruoka’s unique style of hinagashi displays gratitude for good fortune and wishing for the growth and happiness of girls. It has become an indispensable part of the hinamatsuri of Tsuruoka. Tsuruoka's hinamatsuri incorporates the culture of Kyoto and Edo, and Tsuruoka's confectionery craftsmen have worked hard to develop their own hinagashi, passing down their practices. Today, hinagashi is an indispensable part of Tsuruoka’s hinamatsuri. The busiest time for producing hinagashi is from mid-February until early-April. In Tsuruoka city and its surrounding region, hinamatsuri is celebrated on March 3 or April 3, depending on each family’s wishes. Hinagashi are displayed alongside hina dolls, which also arrived in Tsuruoka via the kitamaebune, in local homes during the hinamatsuri season. Hina dolls are also exhibited at multiple sites in Tsuruoka, for events such as the Shonai Hina Kaido and Tsuruoka Hina Monogatari.

Dewa Sanzan - Shojin Ryori

The place More than 1,400 years ago, monks practicing Haguro Shugendo, a form of mountain asceticism that is a highly syncretic religion dating from 593, would make a pilgrimage of spiritual rebirth to the Dewa Sanzan (three sacred mountains of Dewa): Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, in central Yamagata Prefecture. To complete the pilgrimage, these monks, otherwise known as yamabushi (mountain wandering ascetic monks), trained and traveled in sacred spots that were often highly remote. The practice in which it is thought that while still alive you can be reborn as a new soul became popular among the public during the Edo period (1603-1868) as a way to reclaim youthful vitality, and was when the ritual called San-kan San-do (three gates, three passages) in Haguro Shugendo came to be known as a “journey of rebirth”. To subsist, the monks would forage for edible wild plants including mushrooms, bamboo shoots, grasses, roots, nuts, and flowers. They also created ways to preserve naturally occurring foods using methods such as salting, sun-drying, and pickling. With the passing of millennia, the practices of these monks came to form part of the foundation of Japanese food culture. Many of the methods of preparation and ingredients are still in use today, as they were centuries ago. The background The vegetarian cuisine typically consumed by monks at Zen temples is known as shojin ryori (ascetic cuisine). The two kanji characters that make up the word shojin literally mean “to refine” or “to focus” (sho) and “progress” (jin). The combined term, shojin, can therefore be described as “making spiritual progress” or “those who pursue or devote themselves to spiritual progress.” The second term (ryori) means cuisine, thus shojin ryori can also be expressed as “cuisine for devotees.” The shojin ryori of the Dewa Sanzan is an integration of Buddhist philosophy, the self-sufficient lifestyle of Shugendo’s yamabushi, and Kyoto’s culture brought over by kitamaebune trading ships. It is characterized by an abundance of wild mountain vegetables and mushrooms that grow in the Japanese beech tree forest of Mt. Gassan. The cuisine has evolved to become a cuisine of its own. Its existence was a major factor in the certification of Tsuruoka as s UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2014. Shojin ryori is a central component of the Dewa Sanzan pilgrimage. According to tradition, pilgrims undertake a shojin kessai (purification ritual) that involves changing into robes, putting on a shime (spiritual necklace), eating shojin ryori, and praying at the altar for safe travel before heading into the mountains. The most common dishes served are goma dofu (sesame tofu) and gassan dake (Mt. Gassan) bamboo shoot Since the past, the dishes served in Dewa Sanzan shojin ryori is named after places that are connected or have spiritual significance to the Dewa Sanzan faith. Before the pilgrims depart for the mountains, they will listen to explanations about each dish that represents the sacred places and beliefs of Dewa Sanzan while partaking shojin ryori. By eating Dewa Sanzan shojin ryori, the pilgrim is able to taste the “Spring of Life” offered by the holy mountains. Even today, there are about 30 shukubo (pilgrim’s lodgings) located in a stretch of about 1 kilometer from the foot of Mt. Haguro to the gate of Dewa Sanzan Shrine. Shojin ryori is served at these shukubo. The food As shojin ryori is connected to Zen Buddhism, it features no fish or meat. The killing of animals is believed to corrupt the spirit, which would interrupt meditation. For this reason also, strong flavors like onions or garlic are avoided in shojin ryori. Seasonings and flavorings, such as konbu (dried kelp) used in dashi (basic stock), vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, nihonshu (sake), and mirin (sweet sake) are used sparingly, just enough to bring out the natural flavors of the ingredients. A key component of Dewa Sanzan shojin ryori is sansai (wild mountain vegetables and mushrooms). The diverse collection of mountain-foraged produce includes gassan bamboo shoots, mushrooms, chestnuts, and walnuts, as well as more obscure ingredients like Japanese mugwort, bracken fern fiddleheads, butterbur, itadori (Japanese knotweed, Reynoutria japonica), ostrich fern fiddleheads, the Japanese herb shiso (Perilla, Perilla frutescens var. crispa), akamizu (Elatostema japonica), zenmai fern (Osmunda japonica) and udo (Aralia cordata). These seasonal items are combined with centuries-old techniques to create the cuisine’s eclectic mix of flavors and textures. Dishes are prepared with great care, with cooks making every effort not to waste anything. All of this care and attention is rooted in respect for the earth and the spiritual power it provides humans through food. Methods to prepare and store the ingredients are also important. Salting, drying, and pickling allow items to be stored for longer periods of time. Many sansai in their raw form are too bitter to eat, but these processes render even the toxic ones edible. The preservation methods also give the same ingredients different textures and flavors, providing variety in the meal. Many of these methods are still in use today, centuries after they were originally devised. The traditional meals provided to pilgrims in training are quite basic, usually consisting of rice, miso soup, and some pickled vegetables. The dishes of this meal are made using recipes that have been handed down for generations. Each pilgrim lodge has its own style of preparation. The most famous dish is goma dofu (sesame tofu), a sesame paste cooked with starch which hardens to the consistency of tofu when cooled. It is served with a topping of sweet-savory thick soy sauce called an. One destination to experience shojin ryori is Saikan, a former temple at the top of Mt. Haguro that provides devotees with all the requirements for their pilgrimage including an altar for prayer, lodging, and shojin ryori. Today it serves not only the devout yamabushi it has accommodated for centuries, but also tourists wishing to explore the rich history of the region.

Kurokawa Noh and Food Culture

Noh drama is one of the oldest major forms of theater art performed today and Kurokawa Noh is the local tradition that has been preserved for more than 500 years. Generations of parishioners of Kasuga Jinja Shrine in Kurokawa have worked to preserve this local of the art. Kurokawa Noh is similar to the contemporary five schools of noh (Kanze, Konparu, Hosho, Kongo, and Kita), but has its own traditions. Performances retain unique aspects of Shinto ceremonies. It is unclear when noh arrived in the Kurokawa area. However, there are records of tayu (troupe leaders) practicing the art at the beginning of the Edo period (1603–1867). Further evidence points to the practice of noh here at the end of the Muromachi period (1336–1573). Three extant noh costumes, woven during the latter Muromachi period, are designated National Important Cultural Properties. Kurokawa Noh itself was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1976. The parishioners of Kasuga Jinja Shrine are divided into two groups, the upper troupe (kamiza) and the lower troupe (shimoza). Together they comprise the performance troupe, which is managed mainly by the group’s chairman. There are approximately 150 performers, including adults and children, who utilize some 250 traditional noh masks and more than 500 costumes to perform 540 noh stories and 50 kyogen (comic interlude) stories. Food and performance woven together Kurokawa Noh is performed as an offering to the deities enshrined at Kasuga Jinja Shrine. During the shrine’s main festival, the Ogi Festival, which is held annually on February 1 and 2, Kurokawa Noh is performed through the night. Performers enjoy a celebratory meal (gyoji-shoku) of festive foods based on local religion and culture, the traditional vegetarian cuisine based on the ideals of Zen Buddhism. Gyoji-shoku uses ingredients that are common in local kitchens, such as vegetables from the farms and dried fruits from the garden. The dishes served during the Ogi Festival also incorporate regional seasonal ingredients, such as sansai (wild mountain vegetables and mushrooms), which have been foraged in the mountains by local residents for centuries. The dishes are intended to express the participants’ prayer for the happiness and well-being of their families. Generations ago, the dishes were presented as offerings to the deities of the shrine as a sign of gratitude for past blessings. Their preparation and presentation also involved rituals of prayer for plentiful future harvests. Today, the dishes have become symbolic foods to be eaten at the time of the festival. Preparations for the festival meal are highly labor intensive. Some of the ingredients take as long as a year to grow, harvest, and prepare. Tofu, a central component of the meal, has a particularly important spiritual meaning. In years past, villagers would prepare shimi-dofu (roasted and frozen tofu) to eat instead of animal protein during the harsh winters, and this practice was believed to demonstrate their devotion to the deities of the shrine. The Ogi Festival is known locally as the Tofu Festival due to this special tofu, which is served as part of the festive meal. Ahead of the festival, as many as 10,000 pieces of tofu are roasted over hot charcoal on a large open hearth and frozen, a process that dates from around 1500. This tofu along with boiled burdock root is the focus of two dishes served at the festival. The upper troupe (kamiza) serves the tofu hot, with a sauce that includes walnuts and sansho (Japanese pepper, Zanthoxylum piperitum) while the lower troupe (shimoza) serves the tofu cold, and pours a hot soup seasoned with sake, soy sauce, and sansho over it. Additional dishes served at the festival include kiriae (chopped red ostrich fern fiddleheads, walnuts, and green beans), which is also served differently by each troupe. The kamiza dresses the dish with locally sourced miso while the shimoza dresses the dish with soy sauce. Other dishes include pickled vegetables, dried persimmons harvested in the autumn, and boiled sansai (wild mountain vegetables and mushrooms) seasoned with soy sauce. Because the food is an integral part of the ceremonial aspects of the festival, parishioners of the shrine work with collaborators to preserve the techniques used to prepare the dishes. Similar techniques are used to prepare the regionally important shojin ryori, which relies heavily on edible wild plants.

Tsuruoka's Specialties

Tsuruoka's Specialties

No trip would be complete without bringing back memories in the form of souvenirs! Being the first Creative City of Gastronomy in Japan, Tsuruoka not only offer great food but also tasty souvenirs for visitors to bring back to share with their loved ones. These foods were carefully curated and awarded by citizens and experts in the city for their uniqueness and deliciousness. Scroll down to find out more! ↓ 1. Zao Sake Lees Pickled Cream Cheese Have you had pickled cheese before? This cream cheese is pickled using sake lees (a by-product from brewing sake) and does not have the funky cheese smell and has a slight winey taste. It goes extremely with wine as well as sake. Spread it on some saltine crackers to enjoy its creamy texture and savoury unique taste! This was awarded the Gold award under the processed food category during Tsuruoka's first specialty contest held in 2019. Note: Honma Sake Lees Pickled Cream Cheese is a dairy product so remember to keep the cheese chilled! If you visit the main shop in Oyama, the shop will provide chiller bags for purchase if required. ✖️Halal-friendly ✖️Vegan-friendly ◎Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free You can get them here! Honchou Co., Ltd [Main Shop] (株式会社本長)
1 Chome-7-7 Oyama, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-1124 Shonai Bus Terminal and Shopping Center (庄内観光物産館)
Nakadori-80-1 Nunome, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0851 Maruhon Plus S-Mall (マルホンプラス エスモール店)
2-21 Nishikimachi, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0031 2. Dadachamame Okowa (Dadacha Soybean Glutinous Rice) Okowa is a type of steamed rice dish made with glutinous rice mixed with meat or vegetables. This delicious rice dish is made using Tsuruoka's famous produce, dadacha soybean, as well as "dewa no mochi" glutinous rice. Just take it out from the packaging and nuke it in the microwave for a quick and delicious meal! ◎Halal-friendly ◎Vegan-friendly ✖️Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free You can get them here! Satoku Co., Ltd [Main Shop] (佐徳)
2 Chome-9-79 Takarada, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0011 Shonai Bus Terminal and Shopping Center (庄内観光物産館)
Nakadori-80-1 Nunome, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0851 3. Goma tofu (Sesame tofu) Goma tofu, or sesame tofu is not what you would associate with traditional tofu made from coagulated soy milk. The ingredients used to make sesame tofu are finely grounded sesame paste, water and kuzu root powder. It doesn't contain any alcohol or animal-derivatives, making it halal-friendly and vegan-friendly! This is a popular souvenir from Saikan on Mt. Haguro as it is one of the staple dishes in shojin ryori, a traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine. Have fun eating the jiggly tofu and taste the rich sesame flavour while enjoying it together with the gooey, thick sweet and savoury sauce! ◎Halal-friendly ◎Vegan-friendly ✖️Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free You can get them here! Saikan [Main Shop] (羽黒山参籠所 斎館)
Haguroyama-33 Haguromachi Touge, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0211 Shonai Bus Terminal and Shopping Center (庄内観光物産館)
Nakadori-80-1 Nunome, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0851 4. Tonosama Dadachamame 100% Kimchi Are you ready to try a new way of eating the famous dadacha soybean of Tsuruoka city? The pairing between the subtle sweetness of dadacha soybean and the heat from kimchi is delicious and goes very well paired with white rice and beer. ◎Halal-friendly ◎Vegan-friendly ✖️Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free Where to buy: Shonai Bus Terminal and Shopping Center (庄内観光物産館)
Nakadori-80-1 Nunome, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0851 5. Dadachamame Financier A local favourite to gift as a souvenir! This financier is 80% made up of dadacha soybeans utilising a new dehydration technique discovered by the Yamagata University. It is light, fluffy and moist and you can definitely taste the distinct flavour and subtle sweetness of dadacha soybean! This was awarded the Gold award under the sweets category during Tsuruoka's first specialty contest held in 2019. ◎Halal-friendly ✖️Vegan-friendly ◎Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free You can get them here! Kimuraya [Main shop] (木村屋 本店)
9-25 Sannomachi, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0028 Kimuraya [S-Mall branch] (木村屋 S-MALL店)
2-21 Nishikimachi, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0031 Shonai Bus Terminal and Shopping Center (庄内観光物産館)
Nakadori-80-1 Nunome, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0851 6. Tsuruhime Red Melon Ice Cream Tsuruoka red melon ice cream is made from local Tsuruhime red melon and the rich flavourful milk from the Anbi highlands. Taste the fruity melon & savour the smooth creaminess of the ice cream! This is the absolute treat during the sweltering summer heat! ◎Halal-friendly ✖️Vegan-friendly ◎Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free You can get them here! Shonai Bus Terminal and Shopping Center (庄内観光物産館)
Nakadori-80-1 Nunome, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0851 7. Tsuruoka Silk Macaron Ever wondered how silk would taste like? Tsuruoka silk macaron is a brand new delicious souvenir created by Chef Okuda and his team of Al Ché-cciano in 2018 to appeal to both the locals and visitors. Real silk is whipped into the meringue cookie, giving it a smooth crispy shell like silk. The buttercream is made with fermented butter sourced from Agano (Niigata), giving it a robust taste as though you are eating cheese. Sea salt from the Sea of Japan is speckled through the buttercream, cutting through the sweetness and giving the macaron a nice accent of flavour. ◎Halal-friendly ✖️Vegan-friendly ◎Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free You can get them here! Farinamore Italian Cafe and Restaurant [Main Shop] (ファリナモーレ)
〒997-0015 Yamagata, Tsuruoka, Suehiromachi, 3−1 マリカ 東館
* 2 mins walk from JR Tsuruoka station 8. Tsurun mochi Are you a fan of chewy jiggly mochi? The Tsurun mochi is a local favourite that is filled with dadacha soybean sweet bean paste and is made of Tsuyahime rice flour. You can't get enough of the QQ texture and the gentle mellow taste of dadacha soybean! ◎Halal-friendly ✖️Vegan-friendly ◎Dairy-product ◎Gluten-free You can get them here! Jyuuichiya [Main Shop] (十一屋)
1 Chome-83-1 Fujinami, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 999-7604 Happy tasting and don't forget to share this list with your friends who love Japanese food as much as you do!

Atsumi Turnips – Hitokasumi

Atsumi Turnips – Hitokasumi

When talking about the pickles made in Tsuruoka, we cannot go without mentioning Atsumi turnips, which have nice crunchiness and a vivid purple color. It is one of the “indigenous crops” that have been carefully preserved by farmers since the Edo Period (1603-1868) in limited areas of Tsuruoka City. We interviewed Mr. Shigeru Sasaki, president of the Producers’ Association of Atsumi Turnips Made in Hitokasumi Area, who takes a main role in their efforts to produce process and establish the brand Atsumi turnips with the whole Hitokasumi community in the Atsumi area. Traditional Yakihata Agriculture Handed down in Hitokasumi Hitokasumi is an area in the middle of the mountains in the center of the Atsumi area, with a population of 87 in the 26 households, as of the end of March 2014. The cultivation of Atsumi turnips using the traditional technique of yakihata agriculture (literally, the agriculture of burning down the field) has more than 400 years of history. The processing plant was established in 1984, along with the infrastructure development in the Hitokasumi area to offer opportunities for a wide range of people to try the local specialty, Atsumi turnips, and to provide a workplace within the area during winter. The region focused on agriculture and forestry, and has been required to change their ways to engage in primary industry over time. The Hitokasumi area has also faced the issues of successors and preservation techniques to conserve yakihata agriculture, and the community as a whole has been striving to find solutions to such issues, according to Mr. Sasaki. Turnips Pickled in Sweetened Vinegar Currently Available as a Result of Trial and Error Pickled Atsumi turnips from Hitokasumi, available also at local food fairs held at department stores, are very popular as a taste of home, and receive orders from around the country. The current pickling method, however, was established around 20 years ago, after repeated trials and errors. In Hitokasumi, Atsumi turnips are pickled only with vinegar, sugar and salt, without any preservatives. The pickling method adopted during the first decade after the plant was established was the so called “one-time pickling,” which was already practiced by local families. Although some people like the refreshing taste produced by pickling one time, fermentation progresses faster and generates gases with this method, causing problems in shipping and preservation. Thus, the current unique method of pickling twice, resulting in a richer taste, was developed to solve such problems. Incidentally, the pickling method using sweetened vinegar has a shorter history compared to other methods of pickling Atsumi turnips. Traditionally, the common pickling method was “Aba-zuke,” with which turnips are pickled in miso (bean paste) and salt along with persimmon fruit and leaves. “Aba” originally means “mother” in a dialect spoken in the Shonai region and colloquially refers to a female peddler. Aba-zuke has a brownish color with complicated tastes that reminds us of the typical home-made cooking of the countryside. Reportedly, this pickle is not produced anywhere at this moment, but in 2015, the “Female Citizen Reporters for Promotion of Tsuruoka’s Gastronomy” called up by the City of Tsuruoka, launched a project to re-excavate the Aba-zuke culture gradually disappearing from the local culture. (For the project, Fujisawa turnips were used instead of Atsumi turnips.) Mr. Sasaki took us for a tour in the processing facility to show us the pickling processes. In the processing plant, there are many large barrels, each of which can hold turnips for 65 containers, weighing as much as 1,300 kg. On top, a 2,000 kg weight is placed and the turnips are pickled with salt by turning them upside down once. This is the first pickling process. For the second process, turnips are well pickled in the liquid made from salt, sugar and vinegar, and then, they are finally vacuum-sealed for distribution. In the past, the producers’ association tried to find an effective use of turnip leaves, because they were not used at all and the processing plant was in use only during the winter. For instance, they tried to make a dried powder from turnip leaves to be used for cooking. They even tried to make pickled cucumbers for the summer season, but it was rather costly and the cucumber flavor transferred to the pickled turnips. Thus, the association currently provides only pickled turnips for distribution. “In the past, a client of ours who purchased our pickled Atsumi turnips asked if we had products other than pickled turnips. We would like to meet their expectations but pickled turnips are quite sensitive,” says Mr. Sasaki, whose passion for turnips was felt as we interviewed him. Atsumi turnips used for pickles in Hitokasumi are exclusively produced by carefully selected farmers in the Atsumi area. “This is a good one. When cultivated on the slope, it does not develop unnecessary roots but has a single major bunch of roots running from the center, which can be used for our products. Other turnips with fine roots from the side are not used. This is how you identify good turnips for our products.” His Thorough Understanding of Turnips Based on His Long Experience They start yakihata (burned-down fields) at the end of July. The operation comprises of cutting down and taking out the cedar trees from the mountain slope to be converted into the farm field, drying the branches, and setting fire to the field by mid-August. The cedar branches must be dry enough before setting fire on them, so they aim for the season with little rain. Then, they plant the seeds of Atsumi turnips right after burning off the field, when the field is still hot. They aim to plant the seeds before the soil of ashes is depressed in the ground due to the morning dew or rain, and then there is a slight rainfall. The ashes thus work as dirt pressing the seeds in the soil. Within one month, they thin out the young seedlings. Although the frequency of thinning out may differ from producer to producer, Mr. Sasaki does this work only once because he does not want to step in the field many times. In order to restrict the number of times one steps into the field, advanced skills are required to plant seeds with appropriate intervals in the soil. Once every five years is the ideal cycle to produce a fertile soil on the slope with weeds to be converted into a yakihata field. In the past, the cycle consisted of 1) cutting down the cedar forest, 2) cultivating turnips first and then radish, buckwheat and cereals, and 3) planting cedar trees again. More recently, however, they are more focused on turnip production. We asked Mr. Sasaki if there was any difference between turnips made in the yakihata field of the forest and the ones made in the normal grassland. His answer was affirmative. “It is different, indeed. Turnips grown in the yakihata field of the cedar forest have longer roots due to the nutritious soil; and a white color is mixed with the original color, thus its less vivid color. Their Future Outlook The harvest season for Atsumi turnips runs from early October until it snows in December. The processing plants, usually run by six to seven people, become busy at that time. One of the staff members says that it is fun to work although they are very busy handling both turnip pickling and incoming orders at the same time. She is originally from the Hitokasumi area. She once moved out of the area but returned afterwards, which served her as an opportunity to work at the plant. The interview was carried out during the off-peak season, but it was impressive to see her working hard taking phone calls and vacuum packing all on her own. “Not many young people newly join this business, but we would like to try handling a variety of products, including locally unique edible mountain herbs, not just turnips.” According to Mr. Sasaki, his community also has the same concern for the lack of successors as other communities in the agriculture, forestry and fishery industries. However, he hints at a positive prospect by focusing on the use of edible wild plants, the blessings of mountains. The Hitokasumi area is a small community in the middle of the mountains with only 26 households. Every single word of Mr. Sasaki hinted at his love and gentle attitude toward the Hitokasumi area, as well as the moderate and tender transitions toward a community backed by the family-like ties characteristic to the area. “How about coming to see our field in May? Beautiful turnip flowers should bloom everywhere in the field at that time,” said Mr. Sasaki. We will definitely come back again with friends to see them.

Yakihata Turnips – Yamagata University

Yakihata Turnips – Yamagata University

Slash and burn farming is known as yakihata (literally, “burning down the field”) agriculture in Japanese.Turnips grown through yakihata are called yakihata turnips.The Yakihata turnip is well known as one of the “indigenous crops” that have been carefully preserved by farmers since the Edo Period (1603-1868) in limited areas around Tsuruoka city; and there are various kinds of yakihata turnips by region. We visited the forest owned by the Field Science Center in the Faculty of Agriculture at Yamagata University. The university has attempting to deal with yakihata agriculture from new angles and has been engaged in it for 11 years in the university’s forest located in Kami-nagawa, in former Asahi-village, which is used as research field for students learning about forests and the forest industry in general. We interviewed some of the staff members to learn how they have kept their motivation for the yakihata agriculture to date. “We started yakihata as part of our research 11 years ago, but we didn’t cultivate turnips then. Instead, we cultivated Fagus crenata and Dadacha beans (a type of green soybean), following the traditional farming method; 1) cutting down the forest, 2) burning the field, and 3) planting crops. Since then, however, we were unofficially planting Atsumi turnips (one of the indigenous crops of the region) for private consumption among colleagues, the seeds of which were bought from seeds shops. It was not until our second year that we started to cultivate yakihata turnips officially for our research.” Traditional yakihata agriculture is closely related to the forest industry, and there is an academic course to learn forestry in the Faculty of Agriculture at Yamagata University. Although the University forest is mainly used for research related to forestry, yakihata turnips are also produced as a by-product of the field. Mr. Daisuke Arai, technical personnel of the Yamagata University Forest, showed us the basic processes of the yakihata agriculture. “For traditional yakihata agriculture, cedar branches cut from the trees and dropped on the slope are used. The branches are arranged properly before a fire is set so as to catch fire easily. Then, the fire is set evenly on the surface of the slope to burn down the scrub and wild herbs and to plant turnip seeds. After several years of crop farming, although the duration may differ from farmer to farmer, new cedar trees are planted on the field. In our case, turnip farming is done for no more than one year, and cedars are already planted and cultivated in the following year.” Yakihata plays an important role in site preparation for planting cedars. It is said to help in reducing the mowing workload, especially when the trees are still young, because the burnt field can inhibit the growth of weeds. Mr. Arai says yakihata was especially successful this year. It is said that the result of agriculture is influenced a lot by weather conditions. So, farmers keep an eye on weather forecasts to decide when to burn the field by considering how cedar branches can dry. Mr. Arai seems to be happy with the timing the fire this year (on August 6th), which was more or less as he intended. This year, the area of yakihata was 0.2 ha on a slope of 30 degrees with 102 year-old cedars artificially planted. The forest was cut in mid-March and about 200? of cedars were brought out of the site. Before burning off the field, they take special care to reserve enough time to dry the cedar branches after cutting. Mr. Arai says that deciding the date of burning is a point that is both fun and difficult, considering the whole schedule, because cedar branches may not sufficiently dry due to the morning dews before mid-August. Incidentally, the yield was 560 kg this year. In the past, however, the yield reached as much as 1 ton in the most fruitful year, although the produce is not normally stable. Although We Are Not Professional Yakihata Farmers, There Is a Lot We Can Do as Quasi-farmers. “Through 10 years of experience, we have learned that all the work is very hard and takes a long time. We greatly respect people specialized in yakihata agriculture because they are working only with a few people, although our team, on the other hand, consists of 40 people in total, including students belonging to the Faculty of Agriculture and three other staff members. I believe we are fortunate to have the sufficient equipment, the land and the time that the university provides us. However, there are also benefits to being an academic institution; it is easy to hold events with a lot of educational elements, like group tours, workshops and open farms, in addition to advertising.” As a Research Field It seems Yamagata University is thinking that participating in producing yakihata turnips will serve as an opportunity for their students, many of whom are from outside of Yamagata Prefecture, to understand the features of this area. Although the yield and economic benefits may be less than those of the professionals, the meaning of continuous production of yakihata turnips is not small because the university aims to run a forest not just for their research but also to be close to the local community. It is also important that turnip seeds do not mix with other kinds of seeds because the university forest is located in the area remote from the city. It is difficult to protect pure turnip seeds from those of other Brassicaceae families, like cabbage, if they are close each other because they are easily crossbred. This may be useful from the points of view of both gene conservation and their research. We asked Mr. Arai how we can obtain yakihata turnips produced in the university field. They hold an agricultural market every Thursday on the premises of the Faculty of Agriculture, Yamagata University (Wakaba-machi, Tsuruoka City) from spring (around April) to autumn (around November), and yakihata turnips are available in the markets from October when the harvest starts. The vegetable can be delivered upon request. Residents around the university often purchase yakihata turnips grown in the university field, and some of them make pickles from the turnips and bring them to the university, says Mr. Arai. This is how they expand their relationships through foods characteristic to the region. Relationships with the Local Community and the Future “I first participated in this project without much sense of ownership, but now I am much more determined to be involved continuously in yakihata agriculture. According to other yakihata areas, I believe younger generations like ours would be the ones to take over the traditional skills of yakihata by continuing it, even if the size is fairly small, because the number of successors in this industry does not seem to increase much in terms of workforce and of economic benefits. No matter what reasons there might be, it is important to continue. However, we still have a lot to learn about yakihata agriculture, and at this point, we do not have enough opportunities to learn from local professionals. Although many topics are raised around the processing methods and creation of recipes using yakihata turnips, we are too overloaded to handle them at present. We hope that more people will become interested in and be introduced to yakihata turnip and yakihata agriculture by lowering the entry points, like our university field.” From five years ago, when the yield of yakihata turnips from the university field became stable, they also have transacted with a long-established Japanese pickles shop “Honcho”. Through a process of trial and error, they have worked on yakihata with assistance from inside and outside of the region. “Not just producing lumber in the mountain, we would also like to consider ways to find multiple uses of the forest within a cycle of forestry and farming,” says Mr. Arai. Mr. Arai referred to the university as a quasi-producer in the yakihata turnip production industry. We have learned that there is more than one way to take over traditional agricultural methods and to preserve indigenous crops. The time may soon require a variety of people with various points of view to be involved in this agriculture, where some purely produce the crops and others focus on public interests or their research activities.

Feast of Kurokawa Noh

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. Fried katamochi 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. Sasamaki 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.

“Haguro Men-yo,” Sheep meat

“Haguro Men-yo,” Sheep meat

Mr. Kohei Maruyama, a sheep rancher in the Haguro area When it comes to meat, most people might first think of beef, pork or chicken. The Haguro area, however, boasts of sheep as well. There stands a sheepfold of the Gassan Kogen Hanazawa Farm in the vicinity of the Haguro Branch Office of Tsuruoka City Hall. When we visited, the sheep, whose faces are black in color, were lively walking around in a small sheepfold. There was a lovely wooden terrace within the site. We sat there and listened to a story from Mr. Kohei Maruyama. It was around the mid-1970s when Mr. Maruyama started raising sheep, according to the producer. Up until then, he had raised horses and cattle. He remembers, until he turned to 20 years of age, having drawn horse reins in the paddy fields. Back in the old days, there were more houses in his neighborhood that fed horses, cattle and sheep. At present, however, there are only two farms, including the Maruyama’s Farm, that are raising sheep for meat in the Shonai region, and unless well-informed, even the locals might have fewer opportunities to eat the meat. A raising cycle of the sheep is about a year-long, and from January to May is the breeding period. Baby sheep enwombed and grown in mother sheep are born in five months when the weather is warm and the breeding environment is optimum. The sheep fed for one or two years are shipped for meat products. In Japan, there are no particular standards that are set forth according to sheep’s ages. In most cases, sheep meat is divided into four kinds in the order of the sheep’s ages: Western milk-fed lamb, lamb, hogget and mutton. At Mr. Maruyama’s Farm, the meats are generally shipped when they are in the hogget stage. People’s preference for sheep meat varies depending on what stage they are in. The hogget has a flavor of sheep meat and one can enjoy a refreshing fleshy texture. The hogget implies a stage that can satisfy various people’s taste buds. These quality sheep meats raised in the Haguro area were named “Haguro Men-yo” by local butchers and Mr. Masayuki Okuda, the chef of an Italian restaurant, with a steadfast intention to establish a brand. “We are deeply grateful that Mr. Okuda of Al-ché-cciano introduced to the public how tasty the ‘Haguro Men-yo’ is,” Mr. Maruyama told us. A person who ate the now-called “Haguro Men-yo”, served at an event, introduced the meat to Mr. Okuda, which was the first connection with the chef. Surprisingly enough, one day, the chef visited Mr. Maruyama in person. The meat raised by Mr. Maruyama is now one of Mr. Okuda’s highly recommended ingredients. At Al-ché-cciano simple but flavorful plates such as “Roasted hogget raised by Mr. Maruyama”, among others, are served and the delicate taste of the hogget can be thoroughly enjoyed. Dishes using goat milk are also served at the restaurant and the goats that were fed with Dadacha beans pods are in fact raised at Mr. Maruyama’s Farm. The sheep are raised with a consideration of high quality flesh and the animals’ health, which leads to the production of an exquisite ingredient. “The best way to eat the sheep meat is to cut it into thick pieces and grill them after sprinkling them with salt and pepper,” asserts Mr. Maruyama. If you get hold of “Haguro Men-yo,” please try to eat the meat that is simply seasoned. The sheep are raised with as little stress as possible Currently, Gassan Kogen Hanazawa Farm breeds a Suffolk sheep; 80 female for breeding, 120 for shipping. The current sheepfold was built in 1980 on a site that used to be persimmon fields before the land was cleared. First, the farm was run with about ten sheep. Now the sheepfold is situated on a low hill surrounded by trees. The place gets a good cross-breeze and it keeps the area dry, which helps the sheep grow without stress. Sheep are innately timid animals, but here they are raised in a comfortable, stress-free environment even in summer, which makes the production of good meat possible. Also, pregnant sheep are pastured in a highland of Mt. Gassan during the summer. Since the sheep are vulnerable to the heat, they are brought to the spacious pasture to run around freely. With such pasturing, they develop themselves into good sheep that can breed healthy babies. Making flavorful, quality meat with Dadacha bean pods! In addition, one of the characteristics in Mr. Maruyama’s sheep ranching, of which he boasts, is that he feeds the sheep with Dadacha beans pods. Initially, Mr. Maruyama heard some people talking about the problem of handling the food waste of Dadacha bean pods that are generated from processing the crop. Mr. Maruyama thought he could save on his feed expense if he used the waste effectively. To his joy, the sheep eat the feed well, which has eventually contributed to the improved meat quality. These sheer coincidences have admirably resulted in a good outcome. Mr. Maruyama also feeds the sheep corn, grain and dried grasses. Of all the feeds, the sheep eat voraciously when Dadacha bean pods are given to them, according to Mr. Maruyama. The Dadacha bean pods store well and can be fed to the sheep even during winter. It is said that Dadacha beans contain various nutrients in abundance, such as an amino acid as one of the umami components, a folic acid that is an essential nutrient for expectant mothers, and a GABA that reduces stress. Thanks to the Dadachabean pods, it is ensured that the sheep can grow healthier. Mr. Maruyama feeds the sheep every morning and evening, and checks their health, as well as being engaged in rice cultivation. We asked him what is good about sheep ranching. “When I feed sheep, they come to the feed and eat voraciously, which is adorable,” smiled Mr. Maruyama. “And the babies look for and suckle the mothers’ milk, standing 10 to 20 minutes after they are born, which is also adorable,” he continues. Sheep eating the feed and babies trying to stand after they were born are signs of their good health. We felt Mr. Maruyama raises his sheep with a loving look on his face. Various people engage sheep raising work Mr. Hiromitsu Maruyama, whose work at the Gassan Kogen Hanazawa Farm is in its fourth year, kindly took us around the farm and showed us a pasture grass harvest. Mr. Hiromitsu Maruyama who is in his fourth year at the farm is assigned a lot of work. When we visited, he was doing machine maintenance under the direct sun. Then, he hopped on a tractor and started gathering pasture grass at a terrific velocity. When we asked about his work, we fell into talk about sheep shearing. “Up until last year, it took 20 to 30 minutes, but this year, I am able to shear in a half of the time,” said Mr. Maruyama. Sheep shearing requires careful work and a good pace. We are assured that he will know more about the sheep as time goes by, and he will do his work more smoothly. “When I was a kid, I remember having eaten local sheep meats quite often during festivals or something,” said the Haguro-born sheep rancher. One of Mr. Kohei Maruyama’s sons has been working with him at the farm for two years. At present, the work is done by the three sheep ranchers. The “Haguro Men-yo” is nurtured with a connection of not only a parent-child relationship but also of those who want to be engaged in sheep-ranching.

Karakara-sembei

Karakara-sembei

Karakara-sembei – a fortune cookie-like sweet with a miniature folk toy inside – Tsuruoka’s traditional local confectionery Tsuruoka, the castle town with 400 years of history, boasts local traditional confectioneries that have been passed down from ancient times. These include okitsunehan or kitsunemen (a treat made of black sugar and shaped like the face of a fox), hinagashi (unbaked sweets with sweetened bean paste inside; shaped mainly like food from the seas, fruits or vegetables from fields and mountains) and kirisansho (a kind of sweet made from glutinous rice and powdered Japanese pepper sansho) among others. We visited Mr. Yoshikazu Umezu, a tenth-generation master of Umezu Confectionery Shop that has been making karakara-sembei longer than any other confectionery shop in Tsuruoka. The Umezu Confectionery Shop was established during the Genroku era (1688-1704) of the Edo Period (1604-1867). The production of dagashi (literally translated as cheap sweets), which includes karakara-sembei, is said to have begun during the Edo Period. As opposed to high-class confectioneries made from white sugar, which were allowed only for samurai, the dagashi made mainly from glutinous starch syrup and black sugar was made for ordinary townspeople. It bears an image as an inexpensive confectionery with a plain flavor. The basic of the sweetness of dagashi is said to correspond to the sweetness of dried persimmons. (Persimmons are a popular autumn fruit in Tsuruoka.) It is sweeter than ordinary fruits, but less sweet than white sugar. It may be due to such sweetness  behind the dagashi that we feel a sense of nostalgia or relief from it. The traditional dagashi, that was once widespread across Japan, mostly disappeared after the war. Yet, some shops in the castle towns of the Tohoku region (the northeast part of Japan), like Tsuruoka, are still making dagashi, using the old-style production techniques. The Umezu Confectionery Shop stands in obscurity along a back alley a little way down from a main street of central Tsuruoka. The cozy shop is about 1.8m2 in size and wooden-framed, glazed showcases are instantly noticeable the moment the rumbling sliding door is opened. The showcases are crammed with Japanese sweets shaped by pounding the ingredients into molds such as kitsunemen that is indispensable to Tsuruoka’s confectionery; Karakara-sembei, plain-tasting adzuki paste confectionery; bolos, a mint-flavored confectionery; and aruheito (hard candies), among others. The karakara-sembei is one of the popular dagashi in Tsuruoka that have been passed down since the Edo Period. They were sold in the past as a lucky charm during the New Year’s holidays. The initial shape of the karakara-sembei before baking was round. A confectioner thought it would be unique and different if the raw, round karakara-sembei was folded from three directions and a lead miniature soldier or a tiny wooden daikoku-sama (the god of food and wealth) was put into the confectionery before baking. This is believed to be the beginning of the karakara-sembei. Mr. Umezu, the owner of the shop, willingly showed us the valuable soldier and “Daikoku-sama.” We found these miniature toys heavier than they looked when actually put on our palm. “Since lead is harmful to our health, these are not put into the sweets now. But, we used to put these toys into the karakara-sembei at that time,” explained Mr. Umezu. The current karakara-sembei got its name after Mr. Hitoshi Saito, a food critic from Yamagata city, who came to Tsuruoka when Mr. Umezu was a child and named the confectionery karakara-sembei. Today, karakara-sembei is sold in a plastic bag throughout the year, but in the old times, when plastic bags were not available, it is said that this sweet was a seasonal treat only sold from autumn through winter. Supposedly, in the old days, children played outside making things out of dirt for fun, and with their grimy hands, they grabbed the karakara-sembei and shook it, which produced the karakara sound. Karakara is a Japanese expression of such clattering sounds that a lightweight object inside a container makes when shaken. The children delightedly tried to guess what was contained inside the karakara-sembei by shaking it to get what they really wanted. Today, as the picture shows, an embroidered miniature palace ball, ohajiki (coin-shaped colored glass) or a miniature folk bell, among others things, are found inside. Baking molds that have been valued over the generations The karakara-sembei at the Umezu Confectionery Shop is made from flour and sugar and each of the confectioneries is hand-made with the old techniques. Mr. Umezu kindly showed us the baking tools. Those are quite heavy cast metals that have been valued over the generations, and they might well be called “family treasures.” In making the karakara-sembei, the seven baking tools are set on a gas range nowadays, whereas charcoal was used in the old days. The thin doughs bake quickly, so while they are still hot and soft, a miniature toy is put inside the dough and wrapped from three directions. Finally, a small piece of Japanese paper is instantly sealed by hand to form the part that joins the dough from the three directions. Made available only at this place, a hand-made flavor that makes us feel nostalgic and relieved has been passed down over the generations. “There were 60 confectionery shops in the old days. There were some wholesale stores, too. The demand used to be so high,” said Mr. Umezu. In Tsuruoka, there is a “Tsuruoka Confectionery Cooperative Association” that has been run since the Meiji Period (1868-1912), although, at present, no new member is likely to join the association. Far from it, some members are forced to close down the shop because they have no one to take over their businesses. Despite the dwindling number of confectionery shops, Mr. Yoshihiro Umezu, a son of Yoshikazu, now works with his father as a successor at the Umezu Confectionery Shop. Yoshikazu, the tenth-generation confectioner, worked as an apprentice at another shop in town when he was young. By contrast, his son worked at an electronic business until he turned to 30 years of age. “I let my son do what he wanted to do until 30,” his father told us with a smile. In spring, they make hinagashi.  Shochugashi (unbaked sweets made from glutinous rice, shaped with molds, and a distilled spirit (shochu) mixed with sugar is put inside) is made in summer. Sagegashi, a dangling confectionery used when we dangle it at a family Buddhist altar is made during obon (a festival of souls in mid-August; a variety of foods are offered to the spirits of the ancestors). And kirisansho (sweets made from glutinous rice and powdered Japanese pepper sansho) is made in winter. In the corner of the shop, we found some wooden molds for making rakugan (dry sweets made with starch and sugar) and asked the owner to show them to us. Mr. Umezu then brought an armful of wooden molds from inside the shop. The wooden molds are the valuable properties of any confectionery shop, but those are not used so often today, according to the confectioner. Confectionery connects people We asked, “Who do you want to eat your confectionery?” The answer from Mr. Yoshikazu Umezu was following: “The customers these days are all elderly. Their parents took them to my shop when they were kids. Today, they come to our shop with a nostalgic feeling. It might be difficult for other people of different ages to come. So, once a year, we participate in the ‘Tsuruoka Confectionery Festival’ which is organized by the Tsuruoka Confectionery Cooperative Association. We want people to enjoy the flavor and tradition of local confectionery which makes them feel nostalgic and relieved. We are hoping our confectionery connects people.” From his calm tone of voice, we could not help but feel his strong determination, evident also in his gentle eyes, to succeed with a time-honored traditional taste that has been passed down through the generations.

Dadacha Soy Beans

Dadacha Soy Beans

Dadacha beans are a type of edamame (green soybean) and one of the “indigenous crops” that have been carefully preserved by farmers since the Edo Period (1603-1868) in limited areas around Tsuruoka. Its outer skin is brownish and the beans hair on its surface is brown in color. The pod is narrowly shaped. After being boiled, the beans characteristically have an aroma like sweet corn. The harvest period is such a short time from mid-August to early September, although an early-grown type of beans is out for market earlier. It is said only Dadacha beans that are grown in these limited areas can have the unique flavor they originally do. In early summer, we visited Mrs. Yuko Togashi at her residence in the Shirayama area, which is known as home to Dadacha beans. It was the end of June and it finally rained the day before following a rainless week, so everyone talked a lot about the blessing of rain that is good for farmers. First, Mrs. Togashi invited us to her Dadacha beans workroom. “Please have a seat,” said Mrs. Togashi. We sat at a bean sorting machine in place of a desk and started listening to her. As a snack to go with tea, she served us early-grown edamame beans. “These are not Dadacha beans, so they might be less flavorful. But I feel happy because these are the first edamame of the season.” Mrs. Togashi has a gentle atmosphere. With only little conversation, we felt she softened our hearts but was also steadfast. It is not so long before this Dadacha beans workroom will be going full blast. At its peak, about 15 staff members are at work. They harvest, pick, rinse, sort and pack Dadacha beans and all of this is done in the morning. The machines in the workroom have never been more ready. They looked as if they were looking forward to the forthcoming loads of Dadacha beans. During the height of the season, Mrs. Togashi’s family starts working from 3am and the staff members start their work at around six in the morning. “We normally finish a day’s work before noon and we ship in the afternoon. So, relatively, I think it’s an easy shift to work,” Mrs. Togashi told us. We asked her to tell us about her old days. “When I was a kid, I got forcibly woken up by my parents when the crops were in season despite summer holidays. My friends were all out swimming or something, but I had to help work day in, day out. So, I hated Dadacha beans. We used to feed cows and pigs. There were quite a few houses in my neighborhood that owned livestock. The pigs next to my house were so big and one of them ran away at night for water…” Mrs. Togashi is the second child of the three sisters. “Of the three sisters, surprisingly, I didn’t mind frogs and earthworms. I liked climbing, too.” She was what is now called a naturalist. Every single word speaks about her aura of gentleness and grace toward living creatures and local landscapes. Such graciousness is also devoted to Dadacha beans. Tons of Dadacha beans babies are due to grow Kindly taken to the fields, we could listen to some impressive words from her. “Because it rained, they look very good. Sort of lively, you know. It’s the best time for them to grow well.” Young plants with vigorous leaves. If we take a closer look at the plant, we can find a tiny white flower and a baby pod. Bean hair on the surface, which is one of the characteristics of Dadacha beans, is also identified as expected. “The flowers of the beans bloom from the lower part first and then from the upper part. The upper part can easily get sunshine and it soon gets ripened. I’m impressed with Mother Nature.” This year, side branches did not grow well enough as expected owing to a water shortage and strong winds in May, which is likely to be a source of anxiety for Mrs. Togashi. However, the “early-grown Shirayama” that she asserts for its good flavor, is anticipated to be harvested just during obon (mid-August) this year, judging from the flower-blooming period, she told us pleasantly. The work for Dadacha beans is not only done out in the fields. There is some work to do inside the house even in winter. The work is to sort and select good beans from seedlings that were planted for seed-picking. In around November, Dadacha bean farmers select the bigger round-shaped beans for harvesting and bigger, flatter beans with wrinkles for seeds. For harvesting, they select the ones that are easy to germinate and to make a harvesting plan. For seeds, they select the ones that can inherit innate genes, according to Mrs. Togashi. She kindly demonstrated to us how the seeds were selected using some actual seed beans. Her selection motion was so quick and she was just like a magician that handles and shuffles playing cards for shows. We realized that her hands and eyes instinctively know the motion from her long experience. The seed selection work and sowing were women’s work for years. Nowadays, however, no clear separation is made in terms of who does what. Comparatively, though, these jobs are well run by women, said Mrs. Togashi. “Generally speaking, men are suitable for the work that intensively needs power such as planting and harvesting. On the other hand, all in all, women are engaged with beans all year around. I’m not so sure, but I feel there is an area of work that women are better at taking care of niceties. Who-does-what is important.” Mrs. Togashi gently smiled. She appeared to visualize her various work scenes. Family and Dadacha beans Mrs. Togashi now lives with her son’s family, including three grandchildren. She sounds so joyous when she talks about her three naughty grandkids – all boys. “When the three boys are with me, they often help me with my work, competing each other. It helps me a lot and it’s good to see them so vigorous. When sowing seeds of Dadacha beans, I sow two or three seeds together at a time. That way, the seeds themselves compete to grow, which I think human beings and beans share as living creatures,” Mrs. Togashi smiled. “I often think home seed-raising is hard work. When I get tired, I sometimes feel I’ve had enough, which normally ends up spoiling the seeds. People tend to look for an easy way out. When I’m busy with other house chores, it makes me feel so exhausted. So, I go out once in a while and meet with different people, which is stimulating. When I listen to other hard-working farmers, it motivates me to hang in.” Mrs. Togashi’s parents like composing tanka (a traditional Japanese poem containing five lines of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables, respectively) and they self-published two combined booklets. We had a chance to read some of the tanka. Themes such as nature of the Shonai region, festivities, family and their bean work are common. Their literary pieces convey affection for their lands to readers. “I like my mother’s tanka. The landscapes described in the tanka really come into my mind.” Mrs. Togashi sounded as if she said that she understood what her mother had said and how she had felt as both women inherited the same work from their predecessors. “To me, cultivating Dadacha beans is a way to make a living, of course, but that’s not all. I think I have to pass down what has been inherited to the next generation. I want to see people say that Dadacha beans are good,” said Mrs. Togashi. She was a woman of few words. She carefully chose her words and kindly spoke to us. At Mrs. Togashi’s, when she ships Dadacha beans, she encloses the tanka booklets. The small booklets that will be Issue No. 30 when they are published next are compiled with a mind toward people who have been engaged in the Dadacha beans production and consumption. Needless to say, her parents’ tanka is also included. Continuing home seed-raising and publishing tanka booklets involve a lot of people with a lot of history. Assuming that Mrs. Togashi has a strong sense of responsibility, we observed that she would find it hard to deal with both works. The brand of Dadacha beans is now enjoying a rise in nationwide popularity. We realized that retaining quality and quantity of the Dadacha beans, and meeting the needs of customers, are deeply rooted in Mrs. Togashi’s tremendous efforts. After the interview, when we left her residence, we saw Mrs. Togashi far across the Dadacha beans fields and Mt. Takadate farther behind her. We can hardly wait for the upcoming full-blown summer and in-season Dadacha beans. We place high expectations on the Dadacha beans that are grown in these fields will be tenderly flavorful like Mrs. Togashi’s humble smiles.

Minden Eggplant

Minden Eggplant

Minden eggplants adored by Basho Matsuo Arrived in Dewa Province after traveling in the mountains for days, how lovely the color of early eggplants―These lines were written by Basho Matsuo (1644-1694), a revered Haiku* poet who visited Tsuruoka following a pilgrimage to the Three Mountains of Dewa. The “early eggplants” in this Haiku are believed to refer to Minden eggplants. We visited Mr. Seizo Hasegawa, who cultivates the Minden eggplants, in the Tochiya area. *Haiku is a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world. The Minden eggplant is one of Tsuruoka’s long-standing indigenous crops. This eggplant is round-shaped, early-grown type with hard skin, but with a resilient texture owing to a well-filled flesh, and is used as an ingredient for Japanese pickles. It is supposedly said that carpenters from Kyoto specializing in shrines and temples brought the eggplant seeds to the Minden area when they constructed the main building of the Hachiman Shrine during the Edo Period (1603-1868). On 26th July, 1687, Basho Matsuo visited Tsuruoka following a visit to the Three Mountains of Dewa. The lines that were written at the gathering of Haiku poets are “Arrived in Dewa Province after traveling in the mountains for days, how lovely the color of early eggplants.” The “early eggplants” in these lines are believed to be the Minden eggplants that were served to Basho Matsuo at the Nagayama’s residence. An eggplant this size can fit in the palm of yourhand. Eggplants that are 8g to 15g are the most delicious, according to Mr. Hasegawa. With a closer look at the eggplant, one can see the top part of the eggplant covered with calyx is white in color. This white part indicates the crop’s growth for the day. Mr. Seizo Hasegawa is a 7th-generation farmer. Apart from the Minden eggplants, he mainly cultivates rice as along with edamame and soya beans. He also cultivates cucumbers and stocks in plastic greenhouses. As for the Minden eggplant, Mr. Hasegawa started cultivation about 20 years ago. A motive for cultivating one of Tsuruoka’s indigenous crops was a recommendation from a well-established “Honcho pickles shop” located in the Oyama area, which suggested the Minden eggplant as an ingredient for pickles. Before the recommendation, Mr. Hasegawa had been cultivating ordinary long eggplants called “choja-nasu.” Up until a few years ago, he was growing as many as 1,000 to 1,200 Minden eggplant plants. The cultivation work had been done by himself and his partner, but because of the labour becoming too hard for the aged man and help from his partner is no longer available, Mr. Hasegawa sowed only about 600 plants this year. The Minden eggplant is three to four centimeters long and weighs only about 15g. The first two eggplants from right in the photo are regarded as nonstandard. The Minden eggplant basks in strong summer sunshine, but becomes bigger and bigger if the most appropriate harvest time is missed by just one day. In general, when harvesting eggplants, the part just above the calyx is cut off with scissors. The Minden eggplant, however, is harvested piece by piece by hand and without scissors. If you place your fingers just above the calyx and swiftly twist and snap it off, you can pick one. The harvest begins in mid-June and runs through October at the latest. Every morning, two to three hours are required for the work. When the eggplants are growing faster, harvesting is needed both in the morning and evening. Maybe because of this, eggplant farmers are decreasing in number, said Mr. Hasegawa. Due to damage by continuous cropping, even with grafting, a section of the eggplant field is left uncultivated once every five years. The Minden eggplants years ago would grow about one meter high at the highest, but these days, the crops grow about 1.5 meters high. There was no reduction of rice acreage in the past and cropping fields are smaller in area than they are today. Therefore, seedlings were densely planted. Today, however, there are a lot of cropping fields available and the seedlings are planted sparsely in order to protect the crops from injury by continuous cropping and to increase the yield. “Since old days, I grow the Minden eggplant to this bigger size to gather seeds. Each household carefully inherits the seeds. I suppose this act will help preserve the indigenous crops,” said Mr. Hasegawa. “Take a closer look. If you look at the length of pistils surrounded by yellow stamens, you can tell if nutrients are sufficient or not,” Mr. Hasegawa told us. According to him, if the pistils are not long enough, this means the nutrients are not sufficient. Lightly pickled Minden eggplants prepared by Mr. Hasegawa’s partner. Only Minden eggplants could produce this beautiful color. Resilient texture when eaten and well-filled flesh are characteristics of the Minden eggplants. Currently, most of the Minden eggplants that Mr. Hasegawa harvests are pickles produced by the Japanese pickles shop “Honcho.” “Honcho” is in partnership with dozens of Minden eggplant producers, including Mr. Hasegawa. The harvest time of theMinden eggplants is four months and farmers have to harvest the crop every day. Because of this hard work, farmers are decreasing in number year after year. Mr. Hasegawa wants to cultivate eggplants as long as possible.

Moso Bamboo Shoot

Moso Bamboo Shoot

The people of Tsuruoka love moso (pronounced as “mowsow”). Some Tsuruokans use moso for miso broth with sake lees, and for moso-jiru (miso-based soup with moso). Some edacious residents eat them almost everyday when moso is in season. Here, moso is one of the beloved ingredients to every inhabitant. Yutagawa Onsen is home to moso production. We interviewed one avid moso farmer who plays a major role during the busiest season when the area is flooded with tourists. On 18th May, when we could finally enjoy the warm, fine weather, we paid a visit to Yutagawa Onsen. It was the golden period of moso according to an annual crop calendar. Mr. Ooi, who inherited his bamboo groves from his grandfather, has been engaged in moso production for well over 50 years. Normally, according to Mr. Ooi, moso is in season in mid-May and farmers in the hot springs vicinity have hectic days harvesting the bamboo at its best, but this year, it was the worst harvest that he had ever experienced. The reason that he could come up with at once was the recent colder weeks than in a typical May. “When the buds of moso were the size of our thumb earlier, they didn’t grow enough because of the boiling hot weather last September.” Mr. Ooi told us. “I suppose the summer heat affected them a lot. It’s got warmer these days, so we could expect to have bigger moso, but I still think it is unlikely, unfortunately. We could only expect this size of moso even if the weather warmed up,” said Mr. Ooi, showing his hand to demonstrate the size of moso he was expecting for the year. To grow moso, the amount of snowfall (moisture), the warmth in early spring and the proper summer heat in the previous year are key and they are all interrelated. The amount of snowfall this year was abundant. The weather during the last couple of days was good. In spite of such good conditions, moso didn’t grow. The reason for this, according to the assumption of Mr. Ooi, is related to a summer heat wave in the previous year. “It is usually when we have just started harvesting moso in season that we exchange words among moso farmers like ‘My moso are still hand-sized ones,’ ‘So are mine.’ But this year, we still find hand-sized moso although it’s already in-season.” This year’s yield is only an eighth of the regular season, according to Mr. Ooi. How to Grow Bamboo Groves About 18 years ago, Mr. Ooi transplanted six bamboo shoots to transform his persimmon fields into bamboo groves; five out of the six bamboo shoots died. In other words, he made just one bamboo shoot grow into the extensive bamboo groves. It took 15 years for the roots of bamboo shoots to spread underneath the site and to be successfully harvested as good moso, and Mr. Ooi still works hard to develop the groves by leaving moso with deep roots in larger diameters in the groves and letting them grow as parent bamboo shoots. "I want to listen to customers’ voices" Mr. Ooi quit commercializing moso when he took over the bamboo production from his father. Instead, he now shares moso he harvests with the customers of his construction business. Mr. Ooi feels happy when he can listen to customers’ voices directly, saying that unlike the moso harvested outside of Yamagata Prefecture, the ones harvested in the local area in the morning (moso harvested within six hours in the morning) tastes fresher and better. Nevertheless, some of his customers mention that Mr. Ooi’s moso are too soft. To meet such demands of his customers, he carefully checks moso and gives it out without removing the base’s hard part. How to Sort and Preserve Good Moso A moso of which the tip does not come well out from the ground has a pinkish skin when dug out. This type of moso is rare and of a high-quality that cannot be found so often in Yutagawa Onsen. Also, a moso of which the skin is brown with no darkening is stark white in its cross section and its freshness and softness are guaranteed. If the base of the moso is green in color, it is likely to have already been hard. The first thing to be done to enjoy the good taste of fresh moso is to boil it as soon as possible. Mr. Ooi normally boils the fresh moso within 30 minutes after the harvest. Moso, which can lose its freshness more easily than fish, needs to be peeled and boiled as soon as you get it, then, soaked in water and put it in the refrigerator, so that it can be preserved for about a week. A key point is not to change the water. Once the moso is placed in water, just leave it in the same water. Changing the water can change the temperature of the moso, which can have unfavorable effect on its quality. "I Want to Enhance the Visibility of Yutagawa" Mr. Ooi who presides at the Yutagawa Shinto Music and Dances (Kagura) Preservation Association and also plays as an accompanist for the Association kindly extended an invitation to us, saying “Just come see the Kagura.” Mr. Ooi, a passionate enthusiast of both moso and the traditional Kagura dance continues; “My mission is to preserve the moso groves given by my ancestors. If no care is taken, the moso groves will become out of my control. I was born in Yutagawa. I know I was born in a blessed land. I can enjoy four distinctive seasons, you know. When spring comes, I can enjoy the pleasure of letting people eat good moso. I offer them, ‘please, enjoy our family’s moso.’ This makes me feel grateful for my ancestors. They found a good place to live in, didn’t they?” In Tsuruoka, moso is often sold right out of the groves after being harvested in the morning. It is eaten without precooking, including removing the scum or astringent taste with rice bran. It can be eaten just after being peeled and boiled. Recommended Dishes Mr. Ooi’s recommendation is moso-jiru (miso-based soup with moso), as it is others’ recommendation. According to him, a key point is to add broth made from dried shiitake mushrooms and sake lees.