A Taste Of Life In Pre-modern Japan

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As it turns out, it takes only about two hours to get to the deep north.

Despite living in Japan for more than a decade, I’d never been to the Tohoku region in the main island of Honshu because it’d always seemed so far away. Romantic, yes, with all those tales of its samurai past — but remote.

Though a bullet train will take you from the capital of Tokyo to Tohoku in just two hours, the north-east of Japan is still a world apart. The Tohoku area is 30 times the size of Tokyo, but has only half as many residents.

What this means for the visitor is that you have a lot of room; the people welcoming you seemed to be from an earlier era. They are relaxed and seemingly untainted by the pace of modern life. Even Sendai, the largest city in the region, feels decidedly laid-back.

The composure belies massive damage the region suffered during the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Home to Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi and the worst-hit Fukushima prefectures, the Tohoku region has recovered dramatically eight years on.

The city of was founded in 1601 by Date Masamune, a legendary samurai whose name is known to all Japanese. His legacy still lives on in Sendai today.

Sendai also prides itself on its miso. Fermented for longer than usual, it has the robustness of red miso but moderates the saltiness. Miso like this makes soup and rice a feast, turning basics into delicacies.

The origins of miso can be traced back to ancient times. The recipe for the “instant paste” is said to have been developed so that samurai warlords and their retainers could have easy-to-prepare meals during war.

It helps that the Tohoku region is known for its rice. Combine this with the region’s climate and water and you have the ideal conditions for brewing rice wine. Over three days of conscientious sampling, I don’t think my fellow travellers and I came across a single bad sake.

For sake lovers, winter is the best time to visit Tohoku - when shiboritate, or freshly pressed sake, hits the market.

Wine is also gaining ground in the region. Miyagi’s only winery was swept away by the tsunami triggered by the 2011 earthquake, but an architect involved in the reconstruction efforts decided to rebuild the prefecture’s wine industry, this time at a place further inland. Established in 2015, Akiu Winery won a bronze at this year’s Japan Wine Challenge for its Koshu Sur Lie 2018. Its ciders also did well at the Japan Cider Awards 2019.

The biggest surprise for me during the trip, beverage-wise, is the zunda shake. Another speciality of Sendai, zunda – a sweet, chunky paste made from young soyabeans – is traditionally enjoyed as a mochi topping but has found its way into cakes, jam and milkshakes.

Milkshake made from edamame may seem at first like something you accept out of politeness, but one sip is enough to make me a convert. Zunda shakes are sold in only a few locations in Japan – notably, Sendai Station and Sendai and Haneda airports. Sake and seafood from the region, however, are readily available in many places and you can sample a wide range at casual restaurants or izakaya joints in other parts of the country.