Drinking is a popular pastime in northern Japan. (Photo: Carol Akiyama)

A Taste of Akita in Tokyo

Dine on Japan's soul food with a northern devil

Drinking is a popular pastime in northern Japan. (Photo: Carol Akiyama)
Carol Akiyama   - 3 min read

Eating at Namahage, an Akita Prefecture specialty restaurant, not only gives you the best selection of Tohoku regional foods in Tokyo, but a taste of northern Japanese hospitality and entertainment. The entrance of the restaurant greets visitors with a visual display of colorful banners, rustic wooden rice threshing machines, bright lanterns and a huge array of Tohoku sake bottles.

Seating inside the restaurant varies from an open area accomodating large groups or small private kamakura snow huts typical of northern Japan. It is highly recommended to make a reservation for one of the huts. The restaurant is dimly lit with gas lanterns to create the atmosphere of being in the cold north.

Because of the long harsh winters, preserved dishes prevail in Akita cuisine. The grilled "hata-hata" fish comes either preserved in salt or fermented in sake grains. The assortment of pickled vegetables is another regional specialty. The "kiritanpo" is an "must order" dish. Here, the rice is pounded by hand and the thick paste is plastered onto cedar skewers, then roasted over an open hearth. It has that smokey flavor reminiscent of campfires. To down these simple dishes is an endless selection of sake and shochu. The Tohoku region is dotted with small family breweries and Namahage goes the distance to offer the spirits of the North.

The highlight of the evening though is not the food but the namahage show. The namahage is an oni devil in Akita folklore that goes from home to home and drags lazy children away into the snowy mountains if they misbehave. For good children, he provides treats. At the restaurant, this ritual is enacted twice a night. Suspense is created by the lights dimming and ominous music playing with drums beating. Just when you wonder when the action will begin, a namahage actor springs into your snow hut. It elicits genuine surprise. (I jumped in my seat and screamed.) In a thick Akita dialect muffled by the mask, the namahage will ask questions to ensure every child and adult is behaving responsibly. Knowledge of Japanese is not required. Nodding and smiling will suffice. The namahage will give everyone a lollipop before going to entertain another group. It is remarkable how polite both children and adult are when receiving a treat from a disciplinarian devil. But Namahage is highly recommended as a great place for special occasions and to bring guests to.

Carol Akiyama

Carol Akiyama @carol.akiyama