Akita shop exploits prefecture’s role as major rice producer

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Just before the snow arrives, heralding the harshest time of the year in Akita Prefecture, the prefecture enjoys the rice harvest season.

“We have much natural beauty, clear water and delicious rice in Akita, even though we don’t have any fantastic local cuisine,” said Hirotaka Sato, who heads tourism and special events at the Tokyo office of the Akita Prefectural Government.

Here at Akita Furusato Kan, or the Akita Home Town Pavilion, near the Ginza shopping district, visitors can peruse local specialties featuring rice. The prefecture is one of the biggest rice-producing areas in Japan, with an annual crop of 550,000 tons.

One of the most famous dishes is “kiritampo,” a lightly steamed rice wrapped around a stick of Japanese cedar and roasted over a charcoal fire. People often incorporate kiritampo into a local specialty known as “kiritampo-nabe,” a hot pot cooked with chicken, mushrooms, leeks, burdock and Japanese parsley.

“Kiritampo sells in winter, between October and March,” said Kimiko Tateoka, a sales clerk at the store. “The first kiritampo of the year arrives here following the new rice crop in late September.”

Akita is also a leading producer of Japanese sake due to the high quality of local rice, pure water and the cold winters, Sato said.

Because Akita is famous for its heavy snowfalls, many local delicacies were originally designed to be preserved for winter.

For instance, locals claim that woodcutters and hunters created “kiritampo” with leftover rice to sustain them when they stayed in the forests.

Another popular local delicacy, “inaniwa udon,” was created 300 years ago in the district of Inaniwa in the southern part of the prefecture. It also was initially a preserved food consumed by people in mountain villages in order to survive the snowy winters.

Udon are wheat-based Japanese noodles. People boil the dried inaniwa udon for several minutes and either serve them in a hot broth or dip them in a cold one.

“Throughout the year, inaniwa udon and local sweets account for a major part of our sales,” Tateoka said.

Some local sweets were also originally kept for the winter, including dried rice cakes known as “hoshi mochi.”

Akita also stands out for its variety of pickles preserved in salt or rice bran. Some of these pickles are smoke-dried over wood from Japanese oaks or cherry trees to give them an additional taste and smell. The pickled produce ranges from radishes, carrots and eggplants to persimmons and apricots.

These specialties are all available at the 96-sq.-meter store, located on the first floor of Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan.

On the second floor, information is provided on tourism, jobs and how to go about setting up a factory or business in Akita.

The store and information center moved to the current address five years ago from the ninth floor of the Daimaru department store near JR Tokyo Station, because the current site draws much more foot traffic, Sato said.