Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Golden Week

Where to begin?!

Last week was Golden Week, and I was so thrilled to be invited on a trip to Akita prefecture.

After a few days in Akita, I was whisked off to Tochigi prefecture.

There were so many thrilling experiences, such as me having the opportunity to try on a kimono, complete with a furisode, eating a LOT of good food, including fresh, wild and organic mountain vegetables and homegrown potatoes and rice, and--best of all--spending time getting to know people I otherwise would not have met in a million years.

Our first stop was Odate, Akita.

We were also lucky (I suppose) in the fact that the day we arrived, a famous Akita dog expo was being held. You might be thinking, "What's so great about a dog expo?"

I'm going to be brutally honest.

Nothing in particular.

The greatest draw in this expo is probably in the fact that it's also an unofficial gathering of yakuza from all over the country as they gather to parade their dogs. Basically, the owners draw as much attention as--if not more--their dogs.

Another huge highlight for me was getting a chance to wear a kimono.

To be honest, this was one of those secret dreams I've had as a 外人 (gaijin, foreigner), but I thought it would never come true. In Japan, girls traditionally don a kimono for their 20th birthday as a coming of age.

Imagine my delight when my host family told me they had a traditional kimono with a furisode (only worn by young unmarried women) that I could try on. We went all out, and I even was given a pair of pokkuri to complete the outfit.

After the kimono dress up party, we completely switched gears and ventured into the nearby mountains for 山菜 (sansai, mountain vegetables). The experience, besides being practical and educational, was also strangely hilarious with a bunch of women rooting around for edible plants and only one of them actually knowing what they were doing (believe me, that wasn't me).

At any rate, we picked up some yummy veggies, including Japanese Aralia shoots and wild ostrich ferns, also known as fiddleheads.

The typical way to eat these is deep fried in tempura or tossed as a salad. We had both, and needless to say, these incredibly fresh ingredients were delicious.

Akita's regional specialty include rice and, as a result is also known for its kiritanpo. I got to experience the process first hand, from the cooking of the rice to the actual grilling and devouring consumption.

Kiritanpo is basically the best of two worlds for Japanese rice lovers. It has an internal texture of an onigiri (riceball) but the delicious roasted flavor of senbei (rice crackers). I helped shape the rice around the cedar skewers and watched as they roasted. As a delicious reward, I was given a kiritanpo that had been glazed with sweet miso sauce.

Akita is also well known for its rice crop, so eating fresh kiritanpo was nothing short of carb-y goodness.

Afterwards, we visited a shiitake mushroom factory, and another long-time curiosity was finally answered.

This is how they grow the mushrooms.

We also made a quick stop in Tochigi after Akita.

While Akita is well known for its onsen (hot springs/public baths), I have to say that they were all bested by this onsen in Tochigi.

This particular onsen had a rotenburo, an outdoor bath, which is actually much rarer than you might believe in Japan. The view from the rotenburo was breath taking though, and it was overlooking the river pictured above.

Both Akita and Tochigi also had another big treat in store for me.


I didn't quite believe it when I was told that there would still be hanami in other parts of Japan. It was well after the typical blooming season in Tokyo, but it seems like the colder temperatures up north means later blooms.

While they've mostly completely disappeared in Tokyo, the prefectures up north still were graced with sakura in full bloom. Although I thoroughly enjoyed our hanami at Ueno Park, I do believe that the sakura blooms up north are much prettier.

It may be due to the fact that they aren't over planted (if that makes any sense). Up north, the sakura seem to be better contrasted with their actual setting instead of simply planting several of them in a row.

This particular photo was taken at a Shinto shrine, and the tranquility of the place probably was equally balanced with my excitement over the beautiful blossoms.

All in all, this was an incredible trip. My hosts and hostesses were wonderfully kind and generous, and, from the bottom of my heart, I'm so grateful that they welcomed me, a foreign stranger, into their homes while also feeding me and taking me on outings.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Before I leave though, I will leave you with my typical food photo dump. Enjoy and see you next time!

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