Tired of our hectic schedule, we, five friends from Tohoku University, wanted to take a break and experience the ‘true Japan’. Instead of seeking out the ultramodern cities of Japan, Imperial Palaces, mountainous national parks and thousands of shrines and temples, we decided to embark on a different kind of adventure this time. We chose to discover the countryside of Aomori Prefecture and experience cooking ‘Kakke’, a local country hot-pot dish, in none other than the beautiful town of Suwanotaira in eastern Aomori. So often it is easy to we take for granted the things that are right in front of us while we are caught-up looking for something exotic. For those who want a different Japan experience, Suwanotaira might just be the place for you, and cooking at a local farmhouse may just be the experience that you are missing in your life.
Whilst there is a huge array of traditional Japanese restaurants to choose from in bigger cities like Sendai, I believe that physically visiting the traditional origin of a particular dish is the best way to really immerse yourself in a certain culture. You will also gain first-hand knowledge of how the locals actually cook and eat the dish – you can taste the true, authentic flavors of the local region!
The plan for our trip this time was to explore some of Aomori prefecture’s famous scenery and beautiful towns before ultimately reaching our destination of Suwanotaira in Nanbu Town. We were lucky enough to have been in contact with our hosts before the trip. If you are charming, friendly and nice enough, getting free stay with a local host-family is quite easy in Japan.
Our journey begain with an early Shinkansen (Japanese Bullet Train) ride to Hachinohe at 8am! Hachinohe is located on the southeast Pacific coast of Aomori Prefecture. The journey took around 70 minutes after departing from Sendai Station. The forecast was sunny but the clouds were grey and ominous. Nonetheless, the sun decided to come out whilst we were at the Tanesashi Coast, one of the most thrilling coastlines of in the Tohoku region. Although our original plan was to explore some villages in countryside Aomori but we couldn’t help a visit to this coast. We took the Tanesashi Coast Sightseeing Bus to get there. I had no idea my breath was about to be taken away. This coast is absolutely breathtaking! It has an expansive grassy field that’s wonderful for a stroll, picnic or tossing around a ball or Frisbee. Hiking trails and a sandy beach provide even more opportunities for outdoor fun, and photography enthusiasts will find ample subjects for practicing their craft. Being short of time, we had to make our visit a quick one as our host family were already waiting for us. We decided to head to Suwanotaira. We took the local train on the Aomori Railway from Hachinohe station. The picturesque 40-minute journey was astounding. The area is much quieter than the city, and you can really appreciate the mountainous and tranquil natural scenery that stretches out before you.
Upon reaching Suwanotaira station, we took a taxi to reach the beautiful farmhouse belonging to our host family. They had already arranged the taxis for us – the entire program was so smooth!
We were warmly welcomed upon our arrival. The family was overwhelmingly happy to receive us! They showed us around their farmhouse and their small garden. However, as it was already lunch time, we decided to postpone our sightseeing and other activities and get straight into our cooking! Our host mother briefed us about the local dish we were to make. The dish features a local delicacy called ‘Kakke’ which is made from the scraps when making soba noodles (buckwheat flour) simmered in a hot-pot together with vegetables, and eaten with garlic miso paste. We also helped to prepare the firewood used for cooking and light the fire under the fireplace itself. I was so surprised to see a traditional fireplace being used in what is considered to be one of the most technologically advanced countries of the world! But the presence of the fireplace only added to the amazing ambiance.
Soon the dish was ready! It was one of the most delicious Japanese foods that we had ever eaten. We were also served homemade pickles, daikon and sweet red beans. For dessert, we were served homemade cheesecake, which was probably the most delicious cake I had ever eaten.
Once we were done with eating, we tried our hands at a farm-craft experience; straw sandal-making, basket-making, etc. I could not make the sandals but I did manage to make a basket. All the finished products were given to us as souvenirs to take home. Such a wonderful gesture from our host family.
The most exciting part the trip was experiencing wearing a kimono, a Japanese traditional dress. We were thrilled to see the wide variety of beautiful Kimonos they had, for all shapes and sizes. Even with my large shape the ladies made me feel very comfortable and found me something to wear. There were over one hundred different kimonos and over 50 different obi or belts that we could choose from. By mixing and matching various colors and styles, everyone was able to find the kimono that best suited them. It was so eye-opening to experience firsthand the intricate process of wearing traditional Japanese clothing.
Once we were done with cooking, our farm craft experience and trying on Kimono, we took a short trip out to the fields. The surrounding town was beautiful, clean and systematically managed. We thoroughly enjoyed wandering around all dressed up!
Finally, though none of us wanted to admit it, it was time to go home. It was 5pm when our taxis arrived to take us back to Suwainotaira Station. We took the JR train to Hachinohe, followed by Shinkansen back to Sendai.
The host family was very welcoming, super friendly and helpful. My friends and I had an amazing time there, they made all of us feel equally welcome. Overall, it was a fun, exciting, and action-packed day of travel. I have to say that this is the best experience I have had in Japan to date! I’m always blabbering on to my friends about why they should visit the beautiful towns of Aomori and experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle. I look forward to the day when I can revisit Suwanotaira to meet my host family again and enjoy that delicious dish and warm hospitality again (and that sweet cheese cake, of course!!).
By Asad Ali, Pakistan