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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.

City of Gastronomy Festival

Tsuruoka participated in the City of Gastronomy Festival hosted by the fellow UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy Parma. This festival used to be called "Gola Gola Festival". However, from this year onwards, the organiser, Parma city, renamed it as City of Gastronomy Festival. This two day event was held in the heart of Parma city during the first weekend of June (2-3 June 2018). Among many programs such as tasking, farmer's market and children's workshop, a cooking show was also held where chefs from all around the world participated to represent their country's unique cuisine. “Feast of Tsuruoka” inspired by Mt. Haguro’s worship A fusion of Tsuruoka’s and Parma’s cuisine Chefs from 8 different Creative Cities of Gastronomy participated in the cooking show held on the first day. Chefs would showcase their hometown's cuisine to local guests while incorporating Italian ingredients into their dishes.

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.

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.

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.

Gassandake Pt. 1

Gassandake bamboo (bamboo shoots that are harvested on Mr. Gassan) Mr. Toshikazu Sato, a representative of Sato Farm Gassandake bamboo shoots, with their soft white flesh, crunchy texture and rich flavor, are a type of bamboo shoot and blessings from the mountains that can be enjoyed during only a short period of early summer in Tsuruoka. We interviewed Mr. Toshikazu Sato, who is a representative of Sato Farm. He has been cultivating Gassandake bamboo shoots in the Toge, Haguro area for more than 20 years. The Gassandake bamboo, which is also known as Negamaridake bamboo or Chishimazasa bamboo is a type of alpine bamboo. This bamboo is mainly found in the mountainous areas near the coast of the Sea of Japan. Its range spreads from Hokkaido (the northern island of Japan), through the Tohoku region (the northeast part of Japan) and extensively in Tottori Prefecture in the west of Japan. “If you don’t take good care of Gassandake bamboos, you can’t have good ones,” said Mr. Sato. The Gassandake bamboo shoots that grow wild can be harvested in June, when the snow on Mt. Gassan starts to melt. Mr. Sato climbs up over the 9th station of Mt. Gassan to harvest them. Until then, the representative of Sato Farm works hard to ship the bamboo shoots in early May that have been cultivated in his grove at the first station of Mt. Gassan. Mr. Sato started Gassandake bamboo production more than 20 years ago, after obtaining five roots of Gassandake bamboo harvested on Mt. Gassan from then Haguro town that provided shoots to some of the farmers. But, it is just a last decade or so that Mr. Sato successfully managed to harvest the Gassandake bamboo shoots with a constant yield. It took several years for him to prepare a good soil, leave young good bamboos in the soil and spread the roots underneath his grove in order to cultivate the flavorful Gassandake bamboo shoots that grow wild, said Mr. Sato. Taking a closer look in to a grove of two- to three-meter high bamboo, one can see Gassandakebamboo shoots about to grow from a well-mowed soil covered with fallen bamboo grasses. “This mulch from the vegetation is important,” said Mr. Sato. A bamboo shoot is a bud that comes out of a joint of the bamboo root underneath the soil. Quality and moisture content of the soil, sunshine and ventilation can affect bamboo growth. This well-balanced sunshine in this grove is a result of Mr. Sato’s fine-tuned pruning. Only because of snowfall does good Gassandake bamboo grow. A joint of Chishimazasa bamboo shoots, a type of Gassandake bamboo, in fact, is closely related to snowfall. This joint is covered with snow in winter, which helps protect the new bud from cold and becoming dry. Also, the joint of Chishimazasa primarily grows at an angle from the surface. Because of its flexibility, the joint bends but does not snap short even if pressed with snow. Actually, it straightens back up to its original growth. That is, only because of the snow does the Chishimazasa bamboo grow well without dying. Indeed, perpetual snows that lie until summer on Mt. Gassan and long accumulated mulch from the vegetation can grow good Gassandake bamboo shoots. The color of the skin of Nemagaridake bamboo shoots on Mt. Gassan differs depending on where it is harvested. In addition to this reddish purple color, shoots of green, yellow-green and yellow among others can be found. According to Mr. Sato, there is an unspoken rule among mountain farmers with regard to where to harvest and where to sell bamboo shoots, which maintains an orderly cultivation on the mountains. Eating bamboo shoots with gratitude for the mountains Bamboo shoots can easily lose freshness and special care is needed when harvesting, said Mr. Sato. For natural ingredients, he goes down the mountain only after putting snow over the harvested bamboo shoots, so that an astringent taste or a scum cannot be developed inside them. Instead, the cultivated bamboo shoots are put in a cold box right after being harvested to keep freshness. We asked Mr. Sato what the best culinary method to eat the bamboo shoots is. The best method is, he answered, to make a cut first without peeling the skin and grill it with charcoal fire or in a microwave oven. Another method is to make a takenoko-jiru (miso soup with bamboo shoots and deep-fried tofu), he added. In the Toge, Haguro area, sake lees are not added in the takenoko-jiru to retain a flavor of the Gassandake bamboo shoots. Following the 10th June, Mr. Sato will go on to Mt. Gassan after a long interval and he hopes to harvest 30 to 40kg of Gassandake bamboo shoots at one time. Mt. Gassan has been deeply associated with people’s daily lives as the mountain of a religious faith. Mr. Sato invites us to appreciate the blessings from the mountains.

Gassandake Pt. 2

Harvesting of Gassan bamboo shoots begins when the snow-capped peak of Mt. Gassan gradually starts to melt in June. On Mt. Gassan, there are particular places where only locals are allowed to harvest. We traveled together with Mr. Sato to the site and experienced a Gassan bamboo shoot harvest. “Are you sure you really want to come with me? You can’t come with such an indecisive mind,” confirmed Mr. Sato repeatedly when we asked to cover the harvesting of Gassan bamboo shoots. We departed his work house at five in the morning. Mr. Sato usually heads for the site before four o’clock. We drove up to the fourth station and rode a motorcycle from the fourth station to the eighth station, where the road is not open to the public yet. From the eighth station, we finally walk up the mountain to the harvesting site. Crossing a snowy gorge following it down the mountain to a stream, then going up again to the mountain ridge and again going down to the stream. It was a laborious repetition of going up and down the mountain. According to Mr. Sato, no one simply knows when Gassan bamboo shoots started to be affectionately called as it is today and to be used as an ingredient. It is believed that the ingredient had been most frequently used when the Three Mountains of Dewa were at the peak of prosperity during the Edo Period. The harvesting sites on Mt. Gassan, which have been inherited over the generations, are allocated for each village such as Toge, Tachiyazawa and Higashi-Horikoshi, among others. There is an unwritten rule among the harvesters that no entry into someone’s harvesting site is allowed. Also, each harvester has his own secret site, according to Mr. Sato. We reached Mr. Sato’s site after around 90-minute walk from the eighth station. In Part 1 of this account, we visited Mr. Sato’s bamboo grove. This site, on the other hand, was a bush with taller bamboos of three to four meters high. To harvest, we walk sideways up from the bottom of the slope and go up a zigzag way. We bend our body forward and maintain a low posture in order to find the tip of a bamboo shoot that just comes out of the soil. Mr. Sato instantly caught the sight of tips of bamboo shoots coming out of the ground, but it was far from easy for us. Steadily, though, we managed to find the tips. This harvesting work, in fact, is attended with the danger of concentrating too much. Once going into the bush, you can only see bamboos of two to three meters high surrounding you. Even an experienced harvester can get lost; and all of a sudden, you can find yourself disoriented. Also, since wild bears eat the Gassan bamboo shoots, you may accidently encounter them. In addition, when harvesting a bamboo shoot, you can hurt your eyes with withered bamboos. It is supposedly dangerous for a novice to go into the mountain to harvest bamboo shoots. Mr. Sato harvests approximately 20 to 40kg of the bamboo shoots at one time. To keep its freshness, he digs a hole in the nearby snowy ground and buries them once he reaches his limit. He continuously harvests the bamboo shoots moving from place to place. After he finishes, Mr. Sato tenderly puts the crop into a fabric rucksack and stuffs it full of bamboo shoots. Lastly, some lumps of snow are placed on top. Because bamboo shoots are vulnerable to drying, they are put into the fabric rucksack. Also, the snow is placed in the carrier to prevent the harvested crop from being steamed by heat from his back while walking. Taking such good care of the shoots demonstrates a great deal of thoughtfulness to retain the freshness of the bamboo shoots for customers. Once good, real bamboo shoots are enjoyed, a harvester would always ask for them. Mr. Sato reaches his harvesting site straight away disregarding thin bamboo shoots growing wild along the way. Of all the Gassan bamboo shoots, the one called “Oonuki” in particular looks remarkably good and its taste can never be forgotten once eaten. Its skin and flesh are faintly cream-colored down to the base. No scum can be tasted if eaten raw. The secret of the flavor seems likely to derive from the growing environment. A reddish color of skin is thought to be ideal, but on the contrary, the color that implies good taste differs from area to area for some reason. Indeed, whatever the color of the skin is, the ones that are cream-colored when peeled are soft and flavorful in general. On Mt. Gassan, proper snowfall that is good for bamboo shoots continues for about seven months. During that period, they are tenderly covered with snow. The bamboo shoots become dormant while taking sufficient nutrients over these months. In June when snow starts to melt, a drizzle softens the bamboo shoots, which makes them far more flavorful. When we visited the site, it was a beautiful day. Because the air was dry, the yield was less than usual, said Mr. Sato. Nevertheless, he managed to harvest nearly 20kg over two hours. On our way back, Mr. Sato walked up and down the snowy path step by step with an almost 30kg-rucksack on his back including his own stuff and returned to the eighth station. There was such a steep slope halfway along that we were out of breath. Of all the bamboo shoot eaters, how many of them would know how hard it is to harvest the Gassan bamboo shoots! “The bamboo shoots that I got with difficulty are really irreplaceable for money,” Mr. Sato told us. He says he only wants to share the crop with those who understand his toil and who he wants to eat them. Japanese hyacinths blooming at the sides of the snowy ground. Blue sky seen between the clouds and extensive greenery on the mountains. Ridgelines of the mountains. Comfort of the breeze crossing over the mountains that can be felt when paused for a deep breath. While walking and listening to the sound of melting snow, it makes us feel grateful for a blessing from the mountains. “Even though it’s hard work every time, I’m tempted to go up again,” smiled Mr. Sato. Toward the end of the conversations, he put a smile on his face and said “Well, can you go up the mountains again?” I found myself reacting positively to his call even though I knew toil and hard work would await me.

Hinagashi (Girls’ day confectionery)

Unbaked confectionery to be displayed for Hina Dolls Festival. The 3rd April falls on Hina Dolls Festival in central Tsuruoka. Unlike the adjacent areas of the city, the Festival in downtown is celebrated mostly based on the old calendar. Time-honored hina dolls are showcased everywhere under a title of Hinda Kaido (Hina dolls street), which is crowded with citizens and tourists alike. The essential that accompanies the hina dolls is hinagashi, the Tsuruoka’s unique, adorable, unbaked confectionery made of sweetened bean paste. We visited a confectionery artisan in town for an interview. Since there are households in the city that celebrate the festival based on either the old calendar or the Western calendar (3rd March), there are two peaks of the hinagashi making, which are the 3rd of March and the 3rd of April, according to the artisan. We visited Tsuruya, a confectionery shop on the 4th March when one the peaks of the business had passed. The owner of the shop is Mr. Nobuo Togashi, the 83-year-old devoted artisan. He has been engaged in the confectionery production since 1953. Mr Togashi who cannot drink at all loves sweets. His determination to become a confectioner is seen as an extension of his avocation, smiled the artisan with an incomparable 60-year-experience. Mr. Togashi’s long-standing, honed techniques were recognized by the city and he received an accolade of the Tsuruoka Preeminent Artisanship Award in 2012. Tsuruoka’s hinagashi – past and present Tsuruoka’s hinagashi is a traditional unbaked confectionery (namagashi) that originates from Kyoto culture which was transported by Kitamaebune (northern-bound ships for coastal trade). In past days, higashi (dry confectionery) and amezaiku (cand craft artistry) which can be preserved longer were a mainstream. In around 1952-1953, however, the unbaked confectionery that bears good taste started to be made. Following that trend ever since, Mr. Togashi has been selling the unbaked confectionery at the shop while the dry confectionery is made only for display. The main ingredients for the unbaked confectionery are a white bean paste that is used for an exterior of the confectionery and an adzuki paste that is used for an inner side of the confectionery. Mr. Togashi’s obsession with the unbaked confectionery is represented in a holistic balance of the assortment and a color of the namagashi. The lustrous confectionery assorted on the four-legged tray is somewhat humorous and they looked like colorful toys. What we need to preserve and what we need to change The hinagashi is made to reflect minaly special local products in Tsuruoka’s four seasons. Thanks to the vast plain, the mountains and the sea, Tsuruoka is blessed with bountiful local raw materials, which can be motifs of the various hinagashi. One of the highlighted motifs is heirloom crops that have been enjoyed locally since the ancient times such as small, round-shaped Minden eggplants that are prepared for tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and plump Tonojima cucumbers that have a patchy pattern of green and yellow. These vegetables are gaining popularity and are Mr. Togashi’s standard hinagashi. “Young people work during the day, so, basically, it is our job to display hina dolls, which is enjoyable. Mostly, those who put the dolls on display come to buy the hinagashi, so most of our customers are elderly,” says Mrs. Togashi who is in charge of selling at the shop. The hinagashi has long been passed down yet the motifs have been changed in line with the times such as cherries and dadachamame beans, which have been recently added to Mr. Togashi’s repertoire. This year, a slice of watermelon has been added. When he makes a new hinagashi, he examines the real thing. “I am particular about peels (of the watermelon), too,” said Mr. Togashi who gently showed us the bottom of the hinagashi that was placed nearby. The peel part of the watermelon hinagashi was a striped pattern of yellow-green and dark green. Besides, a taste of the hinagashi has been changed since last year. For instance, as for strawberries, persimmons, tangerines and apples, a bean paste that is flavored with a respective fruit’s syrup is inventively used, and as for chestnuts, a chestnut paste is used, in addition to using sea lettuce for clams. The reason behind this change is that customers like the taste of the real things that intrinsically exist in the fruits and vegetables. The hinagashi production process Mr. Togashi owns 60-year-old wooden molds that have been used since the start of his business. The wooden molds have firm but smooth touch on surface. Some of the molds are sensitively carved such scales of red sea breams. According to the ardent confectioner, there used to be some molders in Tsuruoka and he had his hinagashi utensil produced by them. In the past, because the unbaked confectionery such as red sea breams, cranes and turtles were presented to the guests as a gift in wedding receptions, a number of wooden molds were in high demand. Today, however, such a practice has disappeared and the wooden molds are used only for the hinagashi now. Some of the hinagashi such as red sea breams and slices of fish are molded, but in most cases, Mr. Togashi kneads and carves by himself, occasionally using a pair of scissors. When we interview, we found Mr. Togashi to be with a gentle atmosphere. However, the moment he entered into this workroom, his soft face switched to the one of an experienced artisan, which was impressive. Around this time of the year, Mr. Togashi enjoys his work as he is able to make various kinds of hinagashi. In particular, he likes akebi (chocolate vine or five leaf akebia) as he is fond of a color and a shape of the mountain fruit. Please enjoy the artisanal honed techniques, creators’ thoughtfulness for customers and playfulness through the hinagashi.

Japan’s School Lunch Program: Born in Tsuruoka

Origin The provision of school lunches (gakko kyushoku), at public schools throughout Japan is believed to have originated in Tsuruoka around 1889, when a Buddhist confederation began providing meals to children from poorer families to encourage attendance at school. It is said that a Buddhist priest named Sato Reizan noticed the number of students not attending school because they could not pay school fees. He thought to offer disadvantaged and poor families who could not send their children to school a place for education and led the establishment of Chuai Elementary School on the grounds of Daitokuji Temple in Tsuruoka. The school was tailored to underprivileged children and provided everything the students needed apart from lunch. Children enrolled in the school but Reizan noticed that some of them had no lunch and became concerned that they could not study effectively while hungry and there could be discrimination among those who can afford to bring lunch and those who can’t. To raise funds for their lunches, he and other monks in the temple went door-to-door collecting donations. The result was that the students could have a nutritious lunch at school. Over time, Reizan’s efforts evolved to become modern Japan’s school lunch program. In 1932, the government began to subsidize the cost of preparing the meals. The school lunch program was expanded steadily but was suspended between 1941 and 1945 while the country was on a wartime footing. As part of Japan’s postwar recovery, the government issued a new policy on school lunches, which focused on daily nutrition. The initial school lunch program was formally re-launched thanks to the help of the Allied Forces that provided supplies. By 1947, 3 million school children in urban areas were receiving school lunches. In 1954, the School Lunch Program Act was established. In the following years, the program was updated continuously to reflect a growing understanding of nutrition and food education. By 2004, a new diet and nutrition teaching specialty was created and, in 2005, the Basic Law of Shokuiku (food and nutrition education) was established. When the school lunch program began, meals were cooked at each participating school. By 1965, however, Tsuruoka City began preparing meals in a central kitchen and distributing them to local schools. As of fall 2020, about 10,000 meals are prepared daily for school children in Tsuruoka. Menu evolution Initially, meals were quite basic and only included a couple of onigiri (rice balls), some salt-grilled fish, and a type of braised vegetable. Over the years, more options were offered due to greater availability of ingredients and the shift towards balanced nutrition. Today, bread is being served two or three times a month and meat side dishes are included. Menus focus on fresh, seasonal produce, with little reliance on processed or canned ingredients in order to maintain the nutritional value of the meal. Tsuruoka continues to develop and refine its program. More than a meal Tsuruoka’s school lunch program goes far beyond simply the consumption of a midday meal. Students learn about traditional local dishes and the ingredients used to prepare them through school lunches. For example, “Onigiri kyushoku” (Rice Ball Lunch) is served once a year to allow students to eat that simple meal and learn about the origin of school lunches. Every October and November, the children are served the “All-Tsuruoka Produced School Lunch” that uses only ingredients produced in Tsuruoka. On special occasions, seasonal festive dishes such as moso bamboo shoot soup and imoni (stewed taro and meat soup) are prepared for traditional holidays. In December, a traditional festival called Daikokusama no Otoshiya is celebrated in Tsuruoka, where the locals prepare food to give thanks to Daikokusama (the deity of wealth and guardian of farmers) for a good harvest. During this day, kyushoku will serve dishes that are commonly offered to Daikokusama. They include rice with beans and hatahata (Japanese sandfish). Before beginning the meal, students read fun, interesting facts about the dishes and their ingredients. To further deepen their appreciation for the connection between food and the region, local farmers are invited into the classroom on days when the menu features dishes made with ingredients they have provided. Students and their parents also participate in field trips to local farms, giving them a first-hand look at where their food comes from. Children have the opportunity to try farming tasks such as harvesting cabbage that will be used in the following week’s soup or salad. In addition to providing an education on nutrition, the school lunch program teaches students a wide range of social skills. These include motor skills (for younger children) and table manners like starting their meal together, eating politely, not talking with their mouths full of food, as well as life skills such as teamwork, communication, portioning, and sharing. After eating lunch, there is a scheduled time for students to brush their teeth and clean up their classrooms, teaching them good personal hygiene and cleanliness. Local produce As the focus on nutrition increased, Tsuruoka began to use locally obtainable produce in its school lunches. In 2000, about 13 varieties of locally produced vegetables were used. As of the summer of 2020, the number of locally sourced vegetables has grown to more than 50. According to the school lunch center, nearly 60 percent of the ingredients are sourced locally, depending on the season. Tsuruoka also takes advantage of the rich variety of unique seasonal produce only available locally. One example is the moso bamboo shoot soup made using a variety of bamboo shoots available in the local area only in spring. The pride of Tsuruoka’s contribution to the modern school lunch is celebrated twice each year, in October and November, when menus feature dishes created completely from Tsuruoka-sourced ingredients. After more than 100 years of school lunch tradition in Tsuruoka, with hundreds of dishes on the menus, a survey of residents over the years reveals similar favorite meals. The students, as well as their parents and grandparents, all chose curry as their top choice. All three generations also agreed on their ideal summer menu item: a special chilled ramen dish, commonly called ryanpanmen. Global recognition In 2014, Tsuruoka was designated the first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in Japan. Part of this designation includes the city’s commitment to the preservation and passing down of its unique regional cuisine. The school lunch program serves distinctive meals designed to highlight the local cuisine, backed up by cooking experience programs offered to further promote food education and children’s healthy growth. In addition, children learn about the 60 indigenous heirloom crops in the region, which are designated important under the UNESCO Creative Cities Network program.


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.

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.

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.