Sake recommendations for Akita (restaurant recommendations also welcome)
I am going up to Hirosaki (Aomori) and Akita prefecture for GW. I have done a fair amount of research about where to buy sake up there, but I also want to visit at least two or three breweries. So far the only place I plan to stop is Kariho (sister brewery of Dewatsuru). Does anyone have other recommendations, keeping in mind I will only be on the train and will not take a car. Also, for sake recommendations in general please fire away.
Also, if anyone has been up there and can recommend any good restaurants in Hirosaki/Akita/Kakunodate/Tazawako that would be great
Yay, a Japan board thread I can actually contribute to! :-P I lived in Iwate, the prefecture next door to Akita, from 2007-2009. My husband and I visited Akita regularly.
For sake, I highly recommend Hokushika from Odate. I also like Ryozeki from Yuzawa: http://www.ryozeki.co.jp/index.html . Not sure whether either place offers tours of the breweries, since they're small.
In Akita City, I'm a big fan of the Nagahama Coffee Company in front of JR Akita Station. The coffee is really good. They serve two Western breakfast sets (eggs, toast, salad) in the mornings, and have delicious gelatos for later in the day. In the basement of the Seibu department store, Yosaku is a local (possibly prefectural) chain that serves good Inaniwa udon, the Akita specialty noodle. It's not like "regular" udon; it's much thinner and flatter, rather like linguine, and has a very slippery texture. There's another place whose name I can't recall that specializes in Inaniwa udon and is incredibly delicious. I'll try to find its name in my other Akita guidebook.
In Tazawako, Orae is a brewpub and Western food restaurant serving good beer and tasty, if somewhat expensive, pizzas and sausages. There is a small noodle shop right in front of JR Kakunodate station that served cheap, delicious Hinai jidori (delicious Akita specialty chicken) noodle soups the last time I was there, which was four years ago. Further away from the station, on the largest road of samurai houses, is a pricier but also very good noodle shop. Once again, I can't recall the name and will have to look it up.
If you like smoked things, I really recommend finding some iburigakko -- smoked pickled daikon. It has a strong flavor, and an unusual flavor for Japanese food, but holy crap is it tasty.
Do you speak Japanese? Kakunodate and Tazawako can be kind of difficult to navigate if you don't. In any event, you are headed to an incredibly beautiful part of Japan. I'm jealous!
Below is a travel report I did for Tohoku. I know some people mentioned they will head up that direction, so I thought it was best to post something. I actually wrote this in June, but was fairly appalled by how poorly I wrote the report. I wanted to rewrite the whole thing, but I just haven't had time. I guess this is better than nothing. Apologies in advance for the poor penmanship and lack of pics, which I did take lots of.
JR’s seven day all-you-can-ride pass in Akita/Aomori and return ticket to Tokyo (Y29,000) gave me the perfect excuse to explore the culinary aspects of an area of Japan, I had never been to, over Golden Week. The original plans of taking the Shinkanasen up to Akita city and then transferring to the express to Hirosaki failed, when I arrived 25 min late into Akita station and missed my connection. Eventually I got there eight hours after I left Tokyo, a bit weary and hungry.
As many of you are probably aware, the area around Hirosaki castle is well known for having a couple thousand cherry blossom trees and given the cold weather across Japan this year, my timing to see the spectacle was spot on – though the cold and wet weather persisted. I went from the train station to the park and along the way picked up a bottle of Fukunotomo (actually Akita) jumai ginjo, which showed more promise with its earthy and melon nose, than it delivered in the mouth. Still, it went well with a local specialty, steamed scallops, picked up at a food stall near the castle. After I snapped a few shots of the castle I decided it was best to think about dinner.
According to tabelog one of the top non-French restaurants in Hirosaki, Yonshikitei (http://r.tabelog.com/aomori/A0202/A020201/2002491/), was near the castle and seemed like a good option. The drab exterior and even more drab interior certainly had me worried – this is not a place to bring a date unless they are a totally foodie. However, once I sat down at the counter and looked at the foods listings written on the wall around the room, my concerns were put at ease. I noticed a lot of Aomori specialty products, which gave me some hope. The sake was nothing special, but certainly won't disappoint. I went with a Denshu Hyakuyonju junmai ginjo, which was served in a porcelain flask and cup, the nose was fairly fruity, but lead to an unexpected nuttiness in the mouth with notes of koji. Interesting, but nothing mind blowing. The raw oysters were very average, however, the raw scallops were a home run, as was the homemade shrimp gyoza - wow!!!! It doesn't get much better. The Yama budou tempura was great. The overall quality of the food was very high, even if the atmosphere wasn’t. The menu is diverse and doesn't represent the menu of any chain izakaya- seafood bifun, hotate a million different ways, baked duck, fried jakko and suisai salad, ect. Almost nothing over 1000 yen. This is a must stop in Hirosaki.
I spent the next day trying not to get too wet, but that was difficult. Again, I relied on tabelog for my lunch stop, which I was hoping would focus on local food, but I also wanted to find a place quickly to get out of the damp. I settled for Takago (http://r.tabelog.com/aomori/A0202/A020201/2000010/), where I somehow managed to get a seat quickly, but the line-up quickly grew after me and some people were waiting an hour for a table. The soba was some of the best I’ve had and the tempura was outstanding. I definitely recommend this place for lunch, just be aware of the possible wait between 12-1pm.
For dinner, I turned to the people at the tourist office, telling them my clear objective was to find a place with good local food and sake. The women pointed me to Wajiraya (no link, but ask at the tourist office south of Hirosaki castle for info), which proved to go beyond expectations.
At Warjiya, I sat at the counter and was soon joined by friendly couples on either side. This place is all about Hirosaki, there are Neputa festival decorations everywhere and it was a lively place that crammed full of Golden Week tourists. The sake list heavily favored Hirosaki sakes - though mainly junmai. Food was all about Aomori and the fish was geared to Sea of Japan. I was greeted with a free masu of sake because I brought a brochure from the tourist office. The owner and his wife were very helpful and friendly, if not a bit slow bringing out my food – I think it was mainly to get me drinking more, something they encouraged all patrons to do. The women can be very bossy-I liked that as she got a feel for what I wanted and guided me. Others may find her a bit over the top.
The tsukune was over the top. It was very dense with lots of flavor. The Warai Suzuki sashimi was heavenly. Overall the food quality is not as good as Yonshikitei, but nevertheless, it is generally solid and the atmosphere and staff are great. Recommended.
Kenta, a min-chain izakaya, seemed to be on everyone’s lips when I asked tourist and locals for a good izakaya. I thought I would give it a go after Warajiya, if not just for some noodles and a drink. It was not bad, but lacked friendliness – likely due to the fact it is a chain. The food was decent as was the sake list, but nothing amazing. Definitely a notch up from a standard chain izakaya, but only worth a stop if you are going to be in Hirosaki a few days.
I also managed to stop by Beer-Tei, which was a beer bar I heard about a few years ago. Unfortunately Sapporo bought the place a couple years ago and despite a cozy atmosphere there isn’t much to recommend about this place. With so much good sake in Hirosaki, there is really no point to try and find good beer.
Paradise in Banality
For tourists, Akita City offers very little. Even the cab drivers told me this and wondered why I came. This city is beyond boring and should not be a stopover, if it simply wasn’t for one of the best kept secrets in Japan.
I started at Aqula brewery’s café for lunch. This is a 10 min walk from JR Akita station. Aqula beers are very good and the chance to try five fresh on draft was enjoyable, but the food at the brewery was lifeless. The café has a nice warm atmosphere, but I recommend just sticking to drinking beer and avoiding food, though I did not try the beer hall that is open for dinner.
The highlight of the trip was without question, one of the best izakaya’s in Japan. It may be a bold statement, but Syuhai (http://r.tabelog.com/akita/A0501/A050...) is virtually flawless in every respect.
Divided into several rooms, with lots of dark wood, Syuhai has a very warm feeling. The master, with his round glasses and white hair came across as an established university professor, and certainly he can educate customers in Akita sake. After all, he has been operating Syuhai since 1976.
The most exquisite otoshi I've ever had with six separate offering, including real crab meat.
The sake list leans heavily to Akita. Top names like Amado no do, Yuki no bijin rolled off the waitress tongue one after another. Two things clearly separates this place from a good sake bar 1. Half masu for all Akita sake - "as one masu is too much to sample" 2. They have five Atsukan on offering. Prices for the halfs are half a masu. About 30 sakes on offering including an ura menu. Lots of regular and seasonal offering from across the prefecture.
The atsukan was then broken further down and you could get the choices from 30 degrees to 55 degrees in 5 degree intervals, listing the names at each step. For the uninformed Atsukan is 50 degrees, nurukan at 40 is recommended by sake experts.
The food started with fugu in a ponzu geletin with junsai - an Akita vegetable. The sashimi was to die for. The chawanmushi just embarrassed the last chawanmushi anyone reading this had- a whole new level. The yaki Heian chicken melted in the mouth.
The place is clearly not a hidden gem. The sign on the front door apologized as the place was fully booked out for reservations for the evening.
Service matched the level of the food – including ensuring I had a new glass of water before my last glass was empty – to ensure I clean my palate between sakes. To drink and eat like a king/queen, expect to pay around 65% of Tokyo levels. To a certain degree the place reminded me of Seigetsu, one of my favorite izakayas in Kagurazaka, but Seigetsu tends to fall short with service and staff generally aren’t able to guide you through the sake list.
Before leaving Akita city, I stopped at Mugendou near the train station. It had a funky atmosphere somewhere between a family restaurant and a Chinese dining hall. They had GW special lunch sets- I opted for the oyakodon and hot udon with some iburiko on the side. Very nice and good chance to try several Akita foods at once. They also seemed to have a decent sake selection. Though not going to blow you away, it's a good place for lunch if you are near Akita Station.
Next stop was the historical town of Kakunodate, unfortunately all of the decent
restaurants were full, so nothing particularly worth mentioning. I did stay at the
Tazawako brewery, which has a free shuttle from Kakunodate station. The
accommodation is a bit drab, but reasonably priced. The beer was much better than previously experienced and was without a doubt the best beer on the trip.
Finally Tazawako, where there is not a lot of culinary action going on, but it is worth renting a bike and cruising around the lake (DO NOT “HIKE” around the lake, as the tourist office suggests – it would mean walking on 20KM of flat concrete). Orae brewery is fairly lifeless and only worth a stop if you a beer geek. The non-culinary highlight of the trip was a visit to Tamagawa Onsen. One of the most famous onsens in Japan for people who are very ill. Not that I have an illness, but I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I will just say it is a very interesting place, not I have not experienced before and I would highly recommend visiting that onsen or an onsen further up the mountain.
I have in the past enjoyed sakes from the following two breweries based in Akita prefecture (not sure where exactly or how easy it would be to access them by train): Ama no To and Yuki no Bousha:
Takashimizu is another relatively well known brewery from that region.
You can get some other ideas via this page on John Gauntner's website:
Would be interested to hear about any good eating/drinking experiences you have on your travels as this is a region I plan to explore on my next visit to Japan later this year. Isn't Aomori renowned for high grade scallops amongst other things?
Ama no To and Yuki no Bosha both make very good sake. I visited Ama no To last year and it was fun, but there was nothing differentiating it from any other brewery. One of the managers picked me up from the train station and drove me there, and I remember it took quite a while. He told me where to meet him, so if he wanted to save me a train change there might have been a train station closer than the one I went to, but if you have already been to other breweries I cannot say that it's worth the trip. I think we drove about twenty minutes. Unfortunately I don't remember exactly where we met him - we were coming from Tsuru no Yu onsen (if you get the chance Tsuru no Yu is magical, but reservations are hard to get). The staff is very nice and their sake is great, but the IMO brewery itself is probably not worth a trip if you don't have a car.
I've never been to Yuki no Bosha but I REALLY LOVE their sake.